Music

Beka Steps Into the Spotlight: 'Filipinos are the Warmest People I've Ever Met'

After supporting English duo Honne, the singer-songwriter is coming into her own with her debut EP.
IMAGE MATT MILLER
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Filipino fans of Honne may have been screaming and applauding the British electronic music duo during their shows here in Manila, but surely some of that adulation was directed toward the young lady supporting the boys as their backing vocal. Beka is a singer and songwriter in her own right, and with the release of her debut EP, she’s proven that she’s more than ready to step up to the spotlight. 

After her debut single, “I’ll Be There,” Beka delivers another emotional and soulful track called “You Got,’ which is being released today, July 2. The artist says the song was inspired by American Vice President Kamala Harris’ history-making win as the first female, African-American and Asian-American Vice President in U.S. history.

We caught up with the British talent to talk about her friendship with Honne, working on her own music, and her best memories of performing right here in Manila. Excerpts:

Esquire Philippines: You're very well-known to Filipino audiences for your work with Honne. How long have you known each other? What's the most fun gig you guys have done together?

Beka: Ahhh HONNE are my very dear friends! We met at University about 11 years ago through a lovely friend of ours and I remember them being kind, eccentric, lovely boys! We used to have a lot of fun together, laugh a lot and they even played at my wedding.

Getting to tour the world playing their beautiful songs has been such a treat and they really create such a family atmosphere for our working environment, so all the shows tend to be so much fun, but some of the absolute best times have been in The Philippines. I loved getting to play Wanderland Festival and hear the crowd sing the whole of Crying Over You was a completely spine-tingly moment!

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Tell us about your earliest memories of music. When did you first realize you could sing? And do you remember the first time you performed in front of an audience?

Beka: I used to spend a lot of time as a child in my living room, with the door closed and Michael Jackson’s Thriller album playing on our tape player. I wanted to be a choreographer and would come up with dance routines and then pretend I wasn't doing anything when family would come in! My uncle was a producer and so when he'd come to visit us from the Caribbean, he'd have his afternoon naps (from jetlag) and I remember playing Whitney Houston and singing really loud, in the hope to hear he ‘wants to sign me’ (huge crying laughing face emoji moment).  

The house always had jazz or Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder or Chaka Khan playing and I loved to dance and sing and get lost in my imagination, so as I got older, I'd just enjoyed getting to perform and pretend to be a Spice Girl. Then as a teenager, I took it a little more seriously. My earliest memory was dancing in a theatre at about  seven years old and then playing the role of a quirky cleaning in a Primary School show and having to sing on my own...It's so funny the things we remember.

Did you consider any other career before music? What do you think you'd be doing now if you weren't singing?

What a fun question! After seeing the The Lion King on Broadway, I always had a secret dream of becoming a director, where you could dream the vision, the dance, the stage design, the emotion and the story and pull it together and cast fabulous people to play emotive roles! My mum is a life coach, my dad is a business coach and my brother (my bestie) is a personal trainer, so I guess we were raised to enjoy that feeling of wanting to work with someone and bring out a bit of their inner magic and their story. I think even now, there's probably a big part of me that gets excited about bringing stories to life visually and casting diverse and dynamic people to do it.

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Photo by Matt Miller.

When did you first realize you wanted to work on your own music? Was there a specific event that pushed you to finally take the plunge and release solo material? What were your hesitations (if there are any) about releasing music as a solo artist?

One evening in Los Angeles on the American Leg of the HONNE tour, I was with the guys having a chat about music and my career and they asked why I wouldn't ‘just go for it on my own.’ At that time I was still collaborating with someone else and the idea of starting from scratch felt really overwhelming, because the main reason I do music, aside from it being such an integral part of me, is that I love what it does in culture. Music facilitates us talking about the stuff we find hard, it moves it, it helps us deal with emotions we can't usually get to, it's such a powerful mysterious thing.

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The guys were so kind and encouraged me to get over my fears and sense of impostor syndrome and go for it. I think that evening, I let myself, for the first time, be honest about what I've always wanted and really lift the roof off my thinking, realize I can work with friends and the experience can be safe and completely exciting. 

I'm quite a visual person and tend to feel quite a strong sense of direction, so musically, after spending some time with my brother who also produces and working out where the sound would sit and what I naturally gravitate towards, I felt much less hesitation about entering into the writing process because I could hear where I wanted the sound to go. Feeling not quite good enough and a bit of a fraud were definitely the battles to begin with but this whole EP process has really helped face that. 

Tell us about writing music for your EP. What was the process like? 

The EP came from one of the most vulnerable times of my life and was almost a journal of the highs and lows of what it is to be human. I wrote the first song on a normal day, in my dressing gown drinking tea and eating toast and reflecting on the recent time where I'd been watching my husband battle with mental health. I was definitely in my feels and started to sing and that's where “I'll Be There” was written and I think that song coming first set a precedent for how the rest of the songs were developed too.

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The stories in the EP have been about acknowledging the complex realities of what it is to be human. To experience pain and brokenness, but also to have moments of hope too; the decision to pick ourselves up for another day, alongside those we love.

The EP started with a collaboration with my dear friends HONNE, who have been such a safe space for me to explore a lot of the things that were coming up in my life and gave me courage to write about those areas of real vulnerability; they really helped set the tone for the other collaborations, too.

I have always gravitated towards music that speaks honestly about the rawness in life, whilst also trying to instill hope and a sense of liberation; songs that help set us free from the sticky prisons we often build in our minds, songs that we could send to someone we know is struggling, songs that make us want to dance like nobody's watching. I hope the EP can do a little of that. 

Were there any specific artists that you drew from or that inspired you while working on your EP?

Sonically, the EP definitely draws from my idol Quincy Jones and his influences on so much music from the ‘80s, be it the anthemic tom hits, or hope filled synth lines with also a splattering of some MJ inspired guitar riffs and syncopated vocal melodies.

I've always found Lauryn Hill's writing ability to sing about what she sees has inspired my writing and the anthemic melodies of Alicia Keys really engaged me, too.  

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What's your definition of success?

I think success for me looks like creating space for empathy and conversation. Getting to understand different experiences and perspectives gives us more empathy and kindness and helps me feel a little more understanding and I think that’s the infinite power of music, so if my life can create space for that, then that is success.

What are some of your best memories about performing here in the Philippines with Honne?

Getting to do the mall tour in the Philippines was pretty magical! You are THE WARMEST people I have ever met and so getting to travel around so many of your malls and meet you on a normal day, getting to see your faces singing and dancing all around us felt like such a precious moment. I really cannot wait to be back with my own songs and you all again and also…to try some more of your amazing food! 

Besides music, what else have you been up to during the lockdown period? What keeps you busy? 

I have a little series called a Cuppa & A Natter where I interview artists and people I admire and respect and ask them about some of the topics we can find more uncomfortable to answer and their experiences of them... and we do it over a cuppa tea!

I've always been curious about people and wanted to ask the things that are a little sticky and being in the pandemic has meant people have had time at home to reflect and feel comfortable with being honest. I've managed to chat with so many incredible people about life, mental health, race, confidence, love, and a whole bunch of other things that we all go through, so I’d say being a little curious and drinking tea has been my main hobby outside of music this past year!

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Paul John Caña
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