When I meet Byron Messia at his label’s offices in London, he’s bouncing around the room trying to find an aux cord. It’s the Friday before Notting Hill Carnival, and dancehall’s newest star is catching up with a Haitian DJ in town to play the Bank Holiday festivities. “Wah gwarn” says Messia as he greets me in a warm St Kitts accent, his characteristic cheeky grin adorning his face. “Ah you a guh do the interview?” he cracks before he starts pacing the room once more, aux cord now in hand, continuing his search for a device he can use to play some unreleased music.
Our encounter starts with Messia sat next to a speaker set to full blast, reeling off unreleased track after unreleased track. Today’s first offering boasts an incredible traditional dancehall bassline, as well as an infectious medley of swirling organic instrumentation emulative of a classic ’90s Caribbean sound. It’s a far-cry from the Afrobeat underpinnings of his breakout single “Talibans”, but the track we’re listening to today sounds completely of the future. As I sit back and soak it all in, it strikes me that the 22-year-old’s eagerness to discern the nuances of other cultures is one of the unseen driving forces behind his whirlwind success. Messia’s covered so much ground, it’s easy to forget that it was only in March of this year that his breakout single topped the charts in thirteen Caribbean countries simultaneously. Some would laud his achievements as the biggest moment for Caribbean music since Jamaica’s Skillibeng caused a storm with his breakout single “Crocodile Teeth” in 2021.
As a laid-back listening session ensues, Messia turns to me and signals the start of our interview, telling me with a braggadocious confidence “write this down.” He’s got his eyes locked on me making sure I’m listening attentively. “Make sure you get this,” he asserts: “I have 800 unreleased tracks I’m sittin’ on right now. There’s a lot in the vault”. And with that, our candid conversation begins. We traverse his breakout success, how he’s settling into his newfound whirlwind of a lifestyle, and talk about his upcoming debut project, rumoured to be titled Sad and Famous.
You’ve been jet-setting these past few months.
I’ve been jet-lagging!
Is there anywhere in the world you’ve been of late that you never thought you’d get to visit pre-signing and ‘Talibans’ success?
The UK actually! Also, the Dominican Republic, Belize, French Guyana and California as well…LA, Hollywood.
How are you finding the speed that your career is going at right now? It must feel like a whirlwind.
It’s going, yeah! I mean, I don’t have anything else to do in life so might as well just go and let it be.
And the jetlag. You don’t mind that so much?
No! I love jets. I like to stay on the go, it reminds me that I'm alive.
I know when you’re here you always spend your nights in the studio. You must only get to sleep on planes at this point. Have you found any go-to spots in the world that you love recording in, and feel at home in?
I went to this studio in the Bahamas called Sanctuary - I like it there. I also like West Lake Studios in California. It’s where Michael Jackson used to record.
You’re a real global guy; you’re from St Kitts, you’ve lived in Trinidad, Jamaica and now Miami. Artists often pay homage to the places they come from in their music. Is there one place in the world that you feel broke you as an artist in the earlier stages of your career?
I’d say the whole of the Caribbean helped me to cut through because back in March, when ‘Talibans’ blew, I went No.1 in 13 Caribbean countries all at the same time. It was the combination of all the Carribean islands tuning in together that sent me global. I felt it first in St Kitts though, I was always island famous. I blew in St Kitts first, then Trinidad secondly. Cah’ you know St Kitts is pretty small, it has a population of 47,000 people, so, that’s why I say Trinidad too in the early early stages because the population is 2 million - so it caught hold there and kept growing.
I want to talk about ‘Talibans II’. ‘Talibans' became the song of the summer so organically; I know that by the time you were thinking of remixing it there were loads of artists from all over the world who were eager to jump on it. Why did you decide to go with Burna Boy?
I decided to go with Burna Boy because “Talibans” suits his style - it is his style, and the objective was to become visible to a wider audience. I felt like only one side of the world was tapped into ‘Talibans’ at that point before the UK started to catch on to it. So, we wanted to explore into Africa - Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana. It worked because it’s charting right now in every African country, you know? It’s a wider audience. I wasn’t just doing it to better myself as an artist, or even to say I got a hit song with Burna Boy because he’s a big artist. It was just a brotherly love still, like family why we even do that…
It sounds like that!
You know? All the time before “Talibans” dropped, when we had it sitting down, Kelz and I used to always be like, “you know, this would sound bad if Burna Boy was on it.”
You guys filmed a BBC Live Lounge yesterday. I know the radio has been adamant that you refer to the song as ‘Tali’ on-air and has made sure that you censor the performance to make it palatable to their wider audience. Of course, if you listen to ‘Talibans’, part of the magic of the song is that you’re using your own local slang to translate your real-life experiences. Do you think the mainstream censorship of the song hinders the message at all?
Well, I mean, it’s what they believe in. I believe in what I believe in at this point you know. So, if they say that I’ve got to do something to make them feel comfortable, I know that I don’t necessarily have to do it, but I do it just of respect still. I’m a respectable young man so I’m just going with the flow. I will say this though, my message is, if there’s something wrong with music and it must be censored, along with the content of music, then there’s something wrong with life. This is the reality that we see daily, you know? We don’t just get up and sing a song. My grandmother used to always say if you are creative, people always get an idea from somewhere, it doesn't just fall off a tree.
Art imitates life.
Of course, you want the song to reach as many ears as possible! However, I find that often the essence of a lot of Caribbean music, and dancehall, is that it is explicit - it’s raw, it’s real and it’s relatable. Have you reflected on that with ‘Talibans’? Do you think that there’s an aspect of the experience of having that global hit song censored at radio that might influence the way you make music going forward at all?
It's not even just dancehall music, that is the music of today. That is how we as young people even speak to our peers today, you know? That’s how we speak to our friends. Our generation grew up mannerless. In terms of whether it might influence the way I make music…hell no! I’m going to always stay true to myself, I’ll always be the real me, I’ll always say how it is and how I think it is, because I know how it is.
Post-’Talibans’ and ‘Talibans II’, you’ve released a slew of insane singles, ‘90’z’, ‘I Hate Byron’ and more recently ‘Miss Tight Hole’ featuring IQ. Do you ever feel like you're working to surpass your break-out single? Is that a motivation at all? I can imagine you don’t want to be known for that moment alone as you look towards building your legacy further.
No, hear what, I’m going to tell you why. ‘Talibans’ was like any of my other songs or records that I have, it’s the same music that we've been doing for years. So, we just doing what we been doing all the time, which is making good music, that’s it. We aren’t working hard to surpass anything.
I got you; the talent speaks for itself. Going back to building your legacy, earlier this year you revealed that your debut album will be titled ‘Sad and Famous’. How's that coming along?
It’s in the finishing process! Yeah, the fans will be getting that in November. We don’t have an official date as of yet but stay tuned.
Have you encountered any setbacks or breakthroughs whilst working on your debut?
Nah, never. It just flows. I love every song that I’ve ever made.
I want to know more about ZTekk Records! You and your manager, Kelz, are always rocking your ZTekk chains with pride. Talk about your relationship with Prince Swanny, and the part you're playing in building the record label out of Trinidad and towards a global audience.
ZTekk Records is a label that gives every yout’ an opportunity to dream big and do it big - like myself. I’m an artist signed to the label, I’ve been signed to the label about a year and a half now. Prince Swanny, I used to look up to him as a big artist, as one of the artists that inspired me to start making music, but now I look up to him as a bigger brother. Of course, by being ourselves and doing what we do, we’re taking the movement worldwide. We’re not forcing anything; we’re just letting the music flow.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Have you had any time to think about the future lately, and what you want all of this success to evolve into?
In five years, hmmm. I’m going to be in California, in my condo right next to Lola [Geffen Records’ Head of Marketing, Lola Plaku] - I’ll be her neighbour! I’ll have a Grammy on my shelf, platinum records and a No.1 album. I expect to be a great artist by then you know. A bigger artist by then because I’m working on myself right now, working on my craft.
Byron's new single “Mad Dawgs” is out now. Watch the video here.