How are you, April?
“I am fuckin’ thrilled! Bass Player magazine is talking to me now. It feels incredible.“
Well, if you go on social media playing bass to thousands of people, these things happen.
“Apparently. It’s wild.“
How much time do you spend playing bass, as opposed to all the other stuff that you do?
“Well, three years ago, my band IMANIGOLD – which is fronted by my sister Nikki and me – put out a single, and we did a big fundraiser to raise money to build a home studio. When we did that, I neglected to realize that it meant that I would have to learn to produce.
“That’s been a three-year process, where I’ve been basically teaching myself to produce. Throughout that, I’ve gotten to do a lot of bass, and like any musician, I love to play as much as I can.“
Your bass videos are really popular.
“I’m trying to do two of those videos a week. I really enjoy creating them because it’s a chance to study a range of different genres and contribute to the conversation around music in a way that’s genuinely me.
“I have a deep love for the bass, and because I’m also a model and influencer, I have flexibility in my schedule to set aside a few days a week to dedicate to music. The solitary part of the process is just as fun as the public part.“
How important is the number of followers on your social media?
“I can’t say I don’t care about followers, because of course I care about my followers, but I like to think I’m self-aware enough to know that the numbers are also somewhat meaningless.
“What does mean something is to see people be inspired, especially people who don’t look like those we often see on bass. It goes back to how I got into the instrument in the first place.
“I was around 12 at the time, in sixth grade. I began playing upright bass in the school orchestra, and the other bass players were all six foot tall-plus white guys. I’m five four, so the school actually had to order a special bass in my size.“
You’re a musician, model, influencer, and activist. Which came first?
“Music was always first, for sure. We weren’t rich by any means, but growing up in Austin, Texas it seemed like there were guitars lying around everywhere, including a few old ones in my mom’s apartment. So, when I was about 10 years old, I started learning songs from the radio on guitar.
“I loved music so much that when I was 17 – I went to a super-small hippie private school that doesn’t exist anymore, on scholarship – I created an advanced jazz theory programme for myself. It was a kind of independent study curriculum that I wrote.“
When did you become politically active?
“It all goes back to my upbringing. Austin was such a free, hippie town back then that I was able to easily explore and go to shows, and I started getting involved in social justice work, which was a big part of the community. I became a teenager during the George W. Bush era, and was very political, and I still am: Very anti-war and anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia.
“When I was 13, I started combining the two – music and community organizing. I pretty much became the benefit concert girl of Austin! My friends and I would work together and organize various events. For example, I did a huge battle of the bands, and I had a friend who did a fashion show, and I helped her with that.“
Which causes benefited from these events?
“These were for all sorts of different causes. Some of it was around youth media, and some was anti-war. We raised money for the genocide in Darfur, benefiting refugees, and for people affected by Hurricane Katrina, because a lot of people came to Austin from Louisiana. That’s really when creativity and activism came together for me, and ever since then, those two things have been the heartbeat of who I am.
“As for the modeling and influencer strand, my sister and I were cute kids, so our mom got us with a small modelling agency in Austin, and booked a few jobs here and there. That was great, because I learned how to be in front of a camera. Now that I’m more in the spotlight for my music, I’m realizing how super-advantageous that is.“
What music influenced you?
“I was always into rock and pop music. My mom’s a music teacher and an incredible singer, and my dad was always in bands doing lots of different things, which I thought was so cool, even when I was little. Even at age 12 I knew I wanted to play bass.
“One day, I was supposed to go to the music room at my elementary school and choose an instrument to play in band or orchestra the following year. They had all the instruments laid out, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna play upright bass.’ The music teacher said, ‘No, your hands are too small’ and signed me up for tuba.
“Now, I’m realizing, looking back, that it was actually some thinly veiled racism, because it was the orchestra, right? There was no upright bass in band. And then sexism, because the hands thing has never been an issue. There’s some Jaco songs I have to modify, like Portrait of Tracy, because there’s one note that I can’t play the way he does, but other than that, the size of my hands has never been an issue.
“Anyway, when I got to middle school, I was able to do jazz band and orchestra, so I played classical as well as jazz. I didn’t really like classical because it felt too restrictive, but it was good for my technique and it was fun to hang out with other upright bass players.“
When you switched to bass guitar, did you benefit from having studied the upright bass?
“Massively. I think they’re really similar. I don’t understand people who say they’re not. I will say that I’m still coming to terms with how important intonation is on bass guitar, because it’s not automatic. You don’t just put your finger on a fret and it’s perfectly in tune. Playing online with people watching me has made me very aware of that.“
You have a lot of online followers watching you play bass. Do you ever make errors?
“Yes, but I guess the thing to do is just own it. Sometimes my performances aren’t perfect, but that’s part of it, too. I think it’s sometimes cool to be a little out of tune. It can work with the song. Bass is a real instrument, so those little fret buzzes and weird harmonics are part of what I love about it. I’ve never been about being perfect or a ‘highlight reel’ on social media, and bass is no exception.“
What bass gear do you use?
“I just got endorsed by Fender – they sent me an American-made Jazz, it’s really nice and fun to play. I was joking with my dad about it yesterday. I was like, ‘I’m in this position now, but I’m not a gearhead.’ I also have a Mexican P-Bass that my dad and I paid for, and a [Universal Audio] Apollo Twin, and that’s pretty much how we rock.
“The Precision is the bass you see me playing on social media. I’m pretty picky about my tone, but for me, that’s mostly about the amps, so I can do a lot in post if I’m looking for a different tone. What I want is to make it sound the same on people’s phones as it does when I’m recording, so I usually don’t do a lot to it. I like a pure sound when it works with the song.“
When did you first attract large numbers of followers?
“Before I went viral, I had about 80,000 followers, and I got there through a ton of hard work posting, creating images, and having real conversations about social justice and inclusivity – almost daily, over five years.
“This February, my band was getting ready to release our new single, and I had the idea to do covers on bass on Instagram as a way to introduce my community to me as a musician. I decided to play bass rather than sing or play guitar, because it’s the instrument I feel the most connected to.“
Your videos became popular very quickly.
“The first video that I posted that went viral got almost, I think, 1.5 million views. It was a cover of Up, the Cardi B song, which I wanted to do partially because I’m in Harlem, a stone’s throw from the Bronx where she’s from, and because she’s a woman of color and she’s changing the game.
“But it’s funny, I thought the bassline I improvised was kinda corny. I didn’t think it was that cool. Next thing I know, people are like, ‘Wow, you sound so funky!’ I’m just like, ‘I was just playing something that sounded cute’... so now I’m thinking about things differently. Bringing my bass playing to social media has challenged me, and I feel like I’m growing.“
“I like to master things, and I feel like after studying bass consistently for all these years, I could play in most bands and get away with it. I couldn’t go in and be like Primus, with a wild slapping line, but other than that, I can hang. I could be in any space with a bunch of musicians who weren’t bass players and they would think my technique was top-tier. But social media exposes me to a whole different set of challenges and opportunities.
“I don’t regret waiting this long to bring my music to social media because I am benefiting so much now from everything I’ve learned over the years. That said, whenever I hear a musician frustrated that their career isn’t moving forward, I always suggest they invest more time in social media, specifically TikTok and Instagram Reels.
“There is so much energy there, and it’s so beneficial to both my career and my musicianship to be part of it. What is the best part of what you do? It’s been so cool to see so many messages that say, ‘You make me want to play bass again’ or ‘I bought a bass because of you.’ It’s the biggest reward, honestly.“
What did you do before your career took off?
“I went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a super-unique school for the liberal arts. André St James, who was Esperanza Spalding’s bass teacher back in the day, was there: He was a staple in the Portland, Oregon area, and also a black guy when there’s just not a lot of black folks out there.
“I went to Reed because its uniqueness appealed to me, but I didn’t know what I was doing there, so I dropped out and went to Philly, and spent a year volunteering full-time at a high school as a teaching assistant and mentor. After that, I returned to Reed to study economics and that’s what I got my undergraduate degree in.
“I did that because I realized that money really does make the world go round, and as an Austin hippie musician who didn’t grow up with a ton of it, I didn’t have much of an understanding of how money works. Studying economics is a good way to see what matters in America, where we don’t really have a healthcare system, for example.“
“Now, I have a better understanding of why. It breaks my heart: we kill our citizens with this terrible system when there are so many viable alternatives. And like most things in this country, poor people and people of color bear the brunt of it. If there’s anything that’s true about this country, it’s that it was founded on the genocide of Indigenous people and the exploitation of black people.
“There are more black men incarcerated now than were enslaved at the height of slavery. So, there’s no denying that the United States as we know it is synonymous with exploiting and killing marginalized people.
“It bothers me so much when I hear ‘racism is un-American’ because it’s actually extremely American. And we have to acknowledge that to move forward in a meaningful way. But all this is why I studied economics, so I could try to understand it. I knew learning about money would be powerful. And it is.“
Are you optimistic that things will eventually start to improve?
“That depends on what things you mean, but yes, I think so. Across the world, infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates are going down. We have eradicated all of these illnesses, we’re living longer, there are those indisputable things.
“I like to be hopeful, and I think hope is crucial, but at the same time, the maternal mortality rate in the United States is higher for black women, even controlling for every variable under the sun, including income and education. It hasn’t really been falling alongside some of these other rates.
“I’ve read a lot of research on this, and from what I understand, the main reason is the unconscious belief that black women are inherently stronger, which is a legacy from slavery. But it’s so important to appreciate the tangible wins. The fact that I can play bass and get this recognition as a musician makes me feel a personal sense of freedom. That’s a sign of progress.“
I’m assuming that this struggle informs everything you do, musically.
“Yeah, exactly. I understand my position and the possibilities that I have, and I’m so connected to this legacy. There’s a line that Maya Angelou says: “I am the hope and the dream of the slave.” Every time I say it, I get shivers. Our band IMANIGOLD is also an art and social justice collective, and we have a digital publication that discusses a range of social justice issues.
“One dimension of ethical practice that is often minimized is being ethical in business. I pretty much always pay musicians and other artists more than they ask, because I want to celebrate them. It’s really about conducting my business in a way that sets an example and shows artists they deserve to be treated well.
“I truly believe that, as artists, we don’t have to be in a constant state of struggle and exhaustion. And hopefully, one day, our work will grow to the point where we’re an example for business owners and C-suite executives, too. Who knows? Maybe we already are.“
What is the best thing about being widely known on social media?
“It’s a community, which is integral to everything. All the social and political issues I talk about are not individual issues – they’re community issues. We have to be social in order to make change happen. Like Toni Cade Bambara said, 'The role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.'
“I’m not actually a super-social person – I’m pretty introverted – but I have to be connected with people and talk to people every day in all the work I do. I have a built-in community at my job, which I’m so grateful for, because I’m not the ‘party all night’ type. For a long time, I thought that meant I couldn’t reach as many people as I’d like with my work, because I’ve always preferred to stay inside and kick it with music and close friends, and
“I’m becoming more accepting of that part of myself. IMANIGOLD has some shows coming up this summer that we’re thrilled about. I’ve missed seeing people respond to our music in person, but playing from my bedroom is completely different yet equally engaging. I can experience solitude, and still enjoy connecting with others and performing for the online community.“
- For more from April Kae, head over to Instagram.