The Dubai-based artist talks to us about his unorthodox hip-hop career
Rapper Zenden Lavon brings his soulful sound to Sole DXB
A hip-hop artist’s career trajectory often follows the established principle of taking over your home city before going global.
That local kudos is meant to be a springboard for international success, where foreign crowds attend gigs based on the curiosity of hearing the king or queen of their respective countries.
American rapper Zenden Lavon turned that notion on its head. His UAE profile may be low, but the 18-year-old Dubai resident is set to open for rap royalty, Nas, when he closes the music and street culture festival Sole DXB on Saturday. Lavon will step on to the stage at the Dubai Design District, after having completed a series of shows in both Sweden and Japan.
While he agrees that it’s now time for UAE audiences to know what he is about, he states his acclaim abroad was part of well-laid career plan. “The thing about the UAE in general is that it’s really hard to build a fan base because a lot of people don’t live here for extended periods of time, so that sense of true fan loyalty is very minimal,” he says. “So I have used the fact that Dubai is such a central area to branch out into other markets all over the world. What I am trying to do is build a repertoire by going overseas and coming back here saying: ‘Yeah, we performed there, we’ve done this, we built our fan base over there to get people to notice when we start to really dig into Dubai.”
The benefits of such an approach is that Lavon will have a lot of armoury when he performs on Saturday courtesy of two solid albums. His latest record, Be Volume 1, is a fine collection of jazzy and G Funk centred hip-hop. Lavon’s assured and introspective flow belies the fact that he studied the mic styles of Andre 3000, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar.
Levon, who has lived in the UAE for seven years, is now in his final year at the American School of Dubai. He says examining the work of rap masters is as much a mystery as it is mentally rigorous. “What I am trying to understand is why I like these artists and then figure out how they did it and then implement that into my own style of what I like to do,” he says. Those influences are there to hear, particularly in the standout track The Movement.
The lead single of Be Vol.1 is a superb amalgam of funk and soul that has Lavon rapping and crooning over swirling keyboards and delicious bass-lines. The lusciousness of the track, and indeed the whole album, means that it was a relatively expensive and painstaking ordeal to create. With most of the instrumentals recorded live in the United States, and Lavon not musically trained, he explains how it took him a while to communicate his vision to the session players through online exchanges.
“That was the main frustration in that the style of music that resonates with me just so happens to be the style that I can’t actually make myself because I can’t play any instruments,” he says. “So to get that jazz and the organic sound, I had to find people that know how to play that style. So I had to talk to a lot of people online and the general turnaround time is really annoying because of time differences.”
But that international experience has paid off. That professionalism, coupled with streaming services, resulted in Lavon’s music earning a fan base with hip-hop and jazz-loving communities of Stockholm and Japan, which he followed up with tours earlier this year.
As for the reception from the local crowd, he is just excited to showcase what he has to offer. Whatever happens, he says, the fact that he can hit such a monumental stage is a reminder he is on the right track. “I have only been doing this for a few years, and to play at such a festival with people like Nas is surreal and motivating. It makes me want to jump back into the studio and make more music.”
Zenden Lavon performs at Sole Dxb, Dubai Design District, on Saturday. Doors open at 12pm until 10pm. For details, go to www.soledxb.com