Welcome to ON A LEVEL, a new interview series brought to you by Complex UK, which sees our Editor-In-Chief, Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson, get real with some of the greatest talents of now.
In our debut episode, JP sits down with Jamaica-born, St. Kitts-raised newcomer Byron Messia to discuss his global hit, “Talibans”, working with Burna Boy and Chris Brown, being co-signed by Drake and Cardi B, and flying the flag for the West Indies at large. Hitting the Universal Music HQ in London after a heavy night out on the town, we got to know one of the most exciting new artists out right now that little bit better. The transcript, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
“I do it for the Caribbean people. I do it for the culture.”
Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson: Byron, good to meet you.
Byron Messia: Yes, sir.
Thank you for coming on the show. You’re actually the first person that I’m interviewing for my new series, so big respect for coming through. How is London and the UK treating you so far?
Have you been out to all the UK clubs yet?
Yeah, definitely. I was invited to a couple parties by a couple friends out here.
Have you connected with any UK artists, been in the studio with anyone?
Me and Fredo were chilling yesterday, and me and a couple producers linked before: JAE5, [The] FaNaTiX...
Dope. Now, obviously, the UK’s a long way away from your home in St. Kitts. And I’ll be real: you’re probably the biggest export that I know from St. Kitts, but how does it feel to carry the country on your back on that level? Any pressure?
It’s a bit of overthinking situations sometimes, you know? You don’t wanna make the wrong move. But at the end of the day, we’re all human, so we’re just doing what we love to do—which is all about music.
100%. So, talk about how you got into music. Talk a bit about your journey to music.
Since I was a baby, my mother and sister used to always tell me, I would take my bottle and pretend like I was singing. But it wasn’t until Grade 5 where I used to freestyle a lot for my class. [I started taking it seriously] in high school, Grade 9, with my friends around me.
In terms of rap, who would you say you were inspired by?
Back then, them times, it’s Drake, Chief Keef we were listening to… I used to listen to a lot of Sosa.
He’s influenced a lot of people around the world.
You were actually born in Jamaica—do you feel like you rep both St. Kitts and Jamaica? The people back in yard, do they…
—yeah, man. I feel like I rep both countries. Not just both countries, but the whole Caribbean. You know? I do it for the Caribbean people. I do it for the culture, for all ethnicities.
The world has been showing you a lot of love recently off the back of your hit single, “Talibans”, but especially in the UK, it’s still charting. It’s sold nearly 200,000 copies, which is a big look for you, but you’ve obviously been releasing music for a little while. Why do you think “Talibans” was the one that took you to new heights?
I mean, it’s a different sound…
—are you surprised by its reaction?
Yeah. I’m quite surprised, still. It’s a real moment. We give thanks every day, give thanks to the Almighty God. Without God, you are nothing. So it’s just giving thanks daily and doing what we have been doing.
There have been some debates online about whether “Talibans” is a dancehall track or an Afrobeats track. Like, to me, it’s just like a baby of the diaspora…
—it’s a perfect song! That’s what it is [laughs]. It’s the sound of now; it’s a bit there, a bit here. A bit of that, a bit of this.
Obviously, you’ve got the remix with the African Giant himself, Burna Boy—how did that come about? That was a genius move. He probably saw the stuff online, people talking about the African influence and stuff.
Well, you know, when the track was on the edge of being so major, Burna Boy was one of the people that I saw was actually showing it love on the internet... Even before “Talibans” dropped, me and management were like, “Yo! It would be dope if Burna Boy was on it.” Believe it or not.
You spoke into existence.
For real! And we had this show back home, a music festival. I performed as well. We weren’t performing on the same night, but [were on] the same bill and we connected. It was just energy from there. They’ve also got a billboard at home for me, as you come [into] the airport in St. Kitts. It’s saying “Talibans” 26 million plus… I don’t if that inspired him a bit too [laughs]. But no, it was just more of a brotherly love, still. It wasn’t even an artist to artist thing, like, “Oh, that’s an artist I wanna do a song with.” It was a different energy and vibe.
“I would call myself a great artist. A man of many sounds.”
You just mentioned the billboard in St. Kitts—how is it back home for you now? Are you a celebrity now? How do you move around the country?
You know, home hasn’t seen me in a while. I’m just trying to put my mind [to what I’m doing and focus].
You’ve labeled your sound as “dance-soul.” Explain that a little bit more, where that came from.
It’s just an influence of the dancehall sound of now, and the rap sound of now.
Would you call yourself a rapper or a singer?
I would call myself a great artist. I’m a man of many sounds.
You’ve been co-signed by everyone from Drake and Cardi B to Popcaan and Dave—were you surprised by any of them?
Of course! These are artists who we always looked up to, you know? Even before we even got the chance to even be in rooms with some of them, to even say what’s up to them, these were artists I’ve always rated. So to see that they’re showing love now is an amazing and proud moment.
Have you got any collabs coming with, I dunno, Drake or anyone? [Laughs]
[Laughs] I mean, I fly out to Jamaica tomorrow—me and Chris Brown’s going to shoot a video for one of his upcoming songs.
Congrats, man. You’re on the superstar thing now! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Hmm, mmm.
There’s been a bit of backlash online as well, when it comes to the lyrics of “Talibans”. But the tune is just you talking about what happens in the ghettos across the Caribbean, across the world. It’s what it’s like back in St. Kitts for young people. Is the government doing anything to help the young people in your country better themselves, get into work and off the streets?
I don’t really like to touch on them kinds of topics, but as you said there’s a bit of backlash, right? But I just want to say: well, if there’s something wrong with the song—and not just the song; if there’s something wrong with any music of today that encourages that type of lifestyle, that portrays that kind of lifestyle, then there’s something wrong in life. We only sing about what we see and what we know. My grandmother used to always say, “A person can’t make a movie if they don’t get the idea from somewhere.”
That’s it right there.
On your latest album, No Love, you’ve got a track called “California” where you say that you don’t like humans because they crucified the Lord and all that…
—yeah, they sold-out the one that saved their lives! That’s crazy.
So, double question: are you a believer, and would you say you’re more of an introvert? Do you like being around people? You’re about to be a big artist…
Before I was an artist, I never used to like being around people. I just feel like it’s safer when you stick to yourself. As a believer—I mean, of course I believe in God. As I said earlier, without God, you are nothing.
Agreed. So what’s next for you, man? What’s in the pipeline? I heard you’ve got a new mixtape coming soon.
I’ve got a track with Fridayy entitled “Mercy” on his new album. Everyone already knows about the “Talibans” bonus track on Burna Boy’s album. We’ve got a new album coming out in November, Sad And Famous. We’re working! We’ve also got the biggest record for 2024 summer already, so yeah [laughs]. We’ll get a good run until 2035 at this point.