R&B is slowly, but surely, rising back to its once top-tier caliber and with artists like Sebastian Mikael, the evidence becomes more concrete that fans’ demands and artists’ actions are on one accord. Born in Gothenburg, Sweden, Mikael moved to Los Angeles, alone, at age 17, before becoming a Boston transplant for nine years. He made his debut at 22 with the viral hit “Beautiful Life” and followed up with his breathtaking debut bearing a befitting title, Speechless. The biracial soul-funk crooner has traces of Miguel’s effortless sexual aura, Prince’s ambiguous aesthetic and innate flair, as well as a light air of mystery with a hearty foundation of musicianship like the budding phenom H.E.R.. His debut 10-track LP garnered some buzz and featured the prominent likes of Wale, Rick Ross, and Teyana Taylor, but the Boston-bred singer yearned for more, both musically and personally.
With this in mind, Sebastian took a step back to hone in who he wants to be as an artist, particularly at the root. His Ethiopian mother and Swedish father––who are not only visual artists themselves, but eclectic music lovers––introduced him to the genius of singers like Marvin Gaye and Erykah Badu with infusions of rock and reggae.This all molded Mikael into the multi-faceted musician he is today.
According to Mikael, R&B is a genre that once was free-flowing and authentic, but has become a premeditated, auto-tuned cliche. With his return, he wants to take aim at the cookie-cutter framework that’s formulated in his absence to put the soul back into R&B.
With his newest project, I C U U C ME, Part I, which he considers to be the soundtrack to his past four years and a “reintroduction” of sorts, Mikael divulged with BET Digital about the story behind his EP, his musical roots, his thoughts on present-day R&B versus his fundamental old-school vibe, and why he’ll always choose quality over quantity.
Who is Sebastian Mikael?
I’m still learning myself. Ha. I’m really an artist who makes soul-funk music. I kinda look at it as futuristic soul. It’s not a official name for what I do, but I feel like I have an old soul [who’s] still influenced by music that comes out today. Different elements of today, but the core of it is is an old soul, for sure.
Being Swedish and Ethiopian, how do those two rich cultures help to shape your art? Does it add to the reason for the constant change in aesthetic?
No. The aesthetic that I’m on right now, I’ve always dreamt of doing. I just wasn’t musically developed yet to actually execute it. That’s why I let other producers and writers take the lead for my first album, Speechless and I also look at that as like where I started. The start of the journey for me to actually become the artist I always saw myself being and having an Ethiopian mother and a Swedish father, I don't know. I never thought about how it kinda affected me musically. The music my mother was listening to is pretty much the music I’m doing today. She actually introduced me to artists like Marvin Gaye, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Lenny Kravitz, Sade so that really became the music that influenced me, [along with] gospel music. My father was playing everything from rock to reggae. Both of my parents were music lovers [as well as] visual artists. They’re really the reason why I chose the aesthetic that I have now.
How do you feel you’ve grown since your debut, Speechless?
Tremendously. I feel like my goal was always to make the music I’m doing today. At first, I didn’t have a sense of who I was as an artist yet and it was more of— not my direction to do the type of music that I did. It was just for me to get a start and figure my sound out. I think these last four years, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing— honing in on what is it that I wanna do musically, who I am as an artist and really taking my time doing that. That’s why I was away from music for at least two years. Might’ve been more. This project is really a reintroduction of who Sebastian Mikael is.
You came into the game with heavy collabs— Wale and Teyana Taylor— who do you see yourself working with in the future?
I see myself working with a wide-range of people like Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Steve Lacy, The Internet and also Flying Lotus, people like that.
Who are your musical influences?
Marvin Gaye, along with the others I mentioned. They made me actually want to sing and create music. At first, I just wanted to know how they made it. I wanted to figure out how they made it sound the way it sounded and how they were able to stack vocals and write that way. I just intrigued by it. [When I started,] I was actually making beats. I wasn’t tryna be an artist. I was making beats and I played guitar [and] keys. I was more into the musicality of it and me being an artist didn’t really hit until I moved to Boston. I attended the Berkeley College of Music for two years and that’s when I really wanted to become an artist. I knew I could kinda sing but it wasn't anything that I believed I was really good at it at first. A lot of times, we have a dream of doing something, but we just feel like it’s overachieving. [However,] I was like that’s my number one dream. I can't shy away from that because I’m not gonna be fully happy and fully satisfied with making music if I don’t go hard as an artist and work on my artistry. I started writing songs and dropped out to focus on my music. I feel I had learned enough.
What’s the story behind I C U U C ME?
The name I C U U C ME was a clothing brand that I had together with one of my close friends. He was also my partner in music. He passed away last year and I decided to take that name and make it the title of my album. [There’s] a lot of the inspirations behind it. It’s about him and also about a relationship I was in that was really toxic and things we go through in life— from the ups to the downs, depression, dealing with certain addictions, things like that— but really just life.
How different will Part II be from Part I?
Part one and part two started off as one body of work and then we decided to split it up. When part two comes, it’s one crazy story.
The R&B game is enjoying a really beautiful renaissance right now; a ton of dope new artists are bringing fresh faces and sounds to the genre. What is Sebastian Mikael adding to the pot?
I’m coming in with soul. I miss soul music. I miss music that made you feel something instead of being so premeditated and thought through. That’s why I listen to so much 70s music. Back then, music was way more artistic. It wasn't so much about creating a hit song. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having a hit song is incredible. I never had one, but it looks like it would be amazing. I just feel we lost a sense of individuality in the music. People would always wanna dive into what other people are doing if they see it working and they think it’s gonna work for them as well, but a lot of the time we gotta just figure out who we are as artists and what we can bring to the table. I’ve realized my whole aesthetic is very much from the old school and that’s what I wanna bring into today’s music. I always saw my music being a mixture of beats that are hitting right now and the types of things we can do musically that people couldn’t do back then, then the core, the vocals of it, the feeling of it is more soulful, more old school. That’s what I’m bringing to the table: the soul that we need.
Who is your R&B Mount Rushmore?
Marvin Gaye… top tier. It’s hard for me to choose, but Marvin is the one who influenced me the most out of anybody. I listen to ‘70s music the most. Parliament, Funkadelic, Sly Stone, music like that.
Speaking of legends, Jacquees stated he’s the king of R&B. Many weighed in like Chris Brown, Tank, Tyrese, Pleasure P, J. Holiday. What are your thoughts on the debate? Who would name as the true king of R&B?
Wow, I don't know. I have no idea. You can’t have one king. If you wanna look at who had the most successful, yeah you can crown whoever. To me, it’s a realm of R&B music where not everybody can be in [or even] tryna be in, but it’s such a broad thing. It’s so many different sub-genres within R&B and soul music, so it’s hard to crown just one person.
With Jorja Smith, H.E.R., Ella Mai being so new and yet all nominated in big categories, what are your thoughts on R&B and the Grammys?
I think R&B is in a great place right now. I think we’re seeing a lot of new artists that are coming out that are actually focused on doing the same thing I’m trying to do. Bringing in a more soulful authentic feel to it. I’m sick of hearing autotune on R&B records. There’s so many singers that can actually sing really well and I feel like people care more about the quantity than being quality to it. It’s more about how many songs can I record within a week and that’s one thing that I see changing. I see more artists coming out not using autotune. Autotune is such a cliche thing to say, but it makes a big difference.
I feel like it’s a cop-out.
It’s all about taking your time with it and bringing the quality back to music.
Check out the visual to his latest single, “Mission” above. I C U U C ME, Part I is available on all streaming platforms.
(Photo: Elizabeth Wirija)