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Features / Film

Brothers Gaika and Kibwe Tavares talk youth, grief and their boundless work ethic

Words:

Bryony Stone

Photography:

Laura McCluskey

Gaika and Kibwe Tavares are brothers but the wider world hasn’t put two and two together — yet.

Leading his subjects deep into a dystopian labyrinth marches Gaika, a Warp-signed vocalist, producer, visual artist, filmmaker, songwriter and political provocateur (Dazed recently appointed him their first political editor-at-large). He’s prolific: this summer alone, the artist has produced music for Wayne McGregor and Random International’s triumphant Roundhouse show +/-Human, travelled to Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy and Australia on tour, played Hackney Carnival, joined queer rapper Mykki Blanco in conversation for Boiler Room, launched clothing label Armour In Heaven and soundtracked his brother’s film Robot & Scarecrow.

Kibwe is an architect turned Sundance prize-winning director and animator. To date, he’s released a tryptic of short films which have won him a string of awards and even a TED fellowship: Robots of Brixton, Jonah, and most recently Robot & Scarecrow, which premiered earlier this summer. Kibwe’s commercial reel bristles with equal ambition and includes Alive Inside, a Cannes Lions-shortlisted advert for Guinness which won him film craft silver at New York International Advertising awards and Together #WePlayStrong, a TV spot for UEFA which has been viewed by 200 million people.

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“We’re Irish twins,” Kibwe says by way of introduction when I visit the pair at Gaika’s cavernous, tumbledown studio overlooking Regent’s Canal at the place where north London flows into east. “I’m older, I just look younger,” Gaika interrupts. Youthful looks may suggest otherwise, but in every other respect, Gaika is clearly the older brother. Where Gaika seizes the conversation and runs off with it, Kibwe seems happy to listen until he runs out of steam. When Gaika spits out caustic opinions, Kibwe inhales them, rolling each idea around his brain in pursuit of whatever sticks.

Dividing the duo are “buckets of cash”: Kibwe’s films command hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment and, as his fistfuls of advertising awards demonstrate, it’s money well spent. The experimental nature of Gaika’s musical projects may earn him press inches by the metre, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to financial payoff.

The differences track back to Gaika and Kibwe’s formative years growing up in London and the city’s satellite towns. “Brixton’s kinda the only place that is constant to us, in terms of going there and being around there. We always lived in the places around south London,” Gaika explains. “Streatham, Stockwell, Brixton, West Norwood, South Norwood, moving between six houses or something like that,” Kibwe adds. “We lived in a place for a certain amount of time and the landlord would want it back or whatever then we got another place — it was kind of a cycle.” Gaika and Kibwe reacted to their ever-shifting surroundings in contradictory ways. “I think we had slightly different experiences,” Gaika reasons. Where Kibwe clutched onto stability by sticking close to the same circle of friends, Gaika struck out at the world around him. “I used to like getting into fights. I was angry.”

As the boys grew into teenagers, the gulf between them stretched wider. “I got into putting on raves really young and so I was a bit more exposed to certain things just by being the first one out,” Gaika says. “We moved from south — Brixton, Streatham way — out to South Norwood, but my heart and my eyes were still towards the city. In Croydon, where I went to school, I always felt like a fish out of water. I went for about a year attempting to go out in Croydon town centre and thought, What the fuck am I doing? This has nothing to do with me.”

“I never really felt I had that local experience: where Kibwe would go out with a group of school friends, I got really caught up from like 15 being a promoter and being around pirate radio and all of that shit as opposed to necessarily having a suburban experience.”

Despite the lure of London, by the end of his teenage years, university presented an escape route for Gaika; a rope ladder to climb free of the gun-toting violence erupting in the city’s nightlife scene at that time. “It was summer of garage music where there was a lot of nonsense going on”.

“London did hold a certain amount of harrowing stuff for me,” Gaika remembers. “I still don’t really love it that much. I think growing up for me there were certain experiences that I still think about now, and they’re inexplicably linked to the London experience — like some bloke trying to hit me in the head with a hammer while I’m running down the street with a bat.”

Gaika applied to study engineering of Manchester university on the basis that the campus seemed less “posh” than Bath, Warwick and Bristol, while Kibwe went to Leeds where he studied architecture. “I didn’t wanna go Manchester because Gaika was there. I wanted to visit,” he reasons.

While Gaika tried to simultaneously shrug off London’s grasp and reimagine the city’s buzz by setting up a new club community in Manchester with Grey collective, Kibwe, by then studying at UCL’s architecture school The Bartlett, searched for inspiration in the same streets he’d known forever. “I wanted to do a project in Brixton, and as it developed I decided that I’d look at Brixton — community is changing and people are changing – and robots became a way of a metaphor.” The project became Kibwe’s final thesis, a short film which blends live action and CGI titled Robots of Brixton.

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Animation was familiar territory for Kibwe. “I was always into animation a lot when we were younger,” he explains. “My Dad got us a bit of software, a first computer, and I was quite into games… So then I went into architecture because I could use some of the the things I learnt. I was always into making these little animations and then I went to The Bartlett and they said you could make these weird films with architecture and it came back round to what I was doing before. It went in a full circle.”

Gaika and Kibwe’s father Charlton Phillip Tavares was a material scientist. “He filled the house with his things, and that included computers,” Gaika says. “We had computers before anyone, we thought it was super common to have those things around. We had Atari STs way back into the 80s, so we were always computer literate.” Playing with computer programme with the same enthusiasm other kids might save for games, each found something which reasonared. While Kibwe discovered animation, Gaika fell in love with visual design and photoshop, and their younger brother Zenna got into computer programming, teaching himself skills which eventually led to a Fulbright scholarship and PhD in Artificial Intelligence at MIT.

“The scientist” had built his own formula for success in science’s steadfast logic, leaving little time for his children’s growing appetite for creativity. “In our house, art was easy,” Gaika says. “You did science; you did something hard for the betterment of black people.”

“He would stand in the hallway and watch the TV — like he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he enjoyed it,” Gaika remembers. “Somehow Hollywood became synonymous with American imperialism and therefore it was evil. He might have been kissing his teeth and cursing about it, but he was still watching it! You would catch him slyly on an afternoon watching some black and white gangster movie. It was like he couldn’t in general let himself enjoy certain things.” When it came to music, their father was more forgiving. “Music was the one common ground I had with him,” Gaika says. “Up until I became a musician, everything I was doing was just not right, whereas the music thing he was not so anti at all because he himself had been involved with music at some point and he saw its value.”

Try as they might have to follow the path their father had etched out for them, Gaika and Kibwe’s innate creativity tugged them in unplanned directions. As each brother manifested his own trajectory, Charlton Phillip relapsed with cancer. “I went numb,” Gaika recalls. “I lost feeling in my hand. Everyone expected me to be really emotional but I went the other way making work about it. It was just about confronting this thing: death and loss.”

Out of that time tumbled Security, a mixtape which, as Gaika explained in a press release at the time, symbolised “exploration of our pervasive fear of death… which ultimately provokes insecurity, driving our desire for romantic love and material goods.”

Dig between the snare-packed lines of _Security_’s limb-shifting melodies and you’ll hit on despair and loss. “The clock was ticking and it was going to happen and without being able to talk about it, I guess making Security was one way of dealing with it,” Gaika explains. “My work tends to be about distinct and abstract rather than being about what happened; the coping strategy and what life means. I don’t think you can divorce the subject or the point of interest from the context. I feel like often people are afraid of dealing with something like what we’re dealing with. So you kind of make this comfort in your space which is fundamentally futile. You can have all the money in the world, you can have all the ‘security’ in the world, but you’re still going to die and you’ve got no control over how that happens.”

At the same time, Kibwe was in the middle of making Robot and Scarecrow. Outwardly, the short film is a love story set at a festival, where a hapless scarecrow falls for a robot performer. The pair break free from the robot’s controlling security team to spend a day and night wandering in disguise among the unsuspecting crowd. As dawn breaks, the robot runs out of battery, falling in the scarecrows arms. “My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, But I shall go on living.” text reads, quoting Pablo Neruda’s poem The Dead Woman, “For Dad.”

“I started that film ages ago and he was sick then, but he was in and out of hospital,” Kibwe remembers. “There was always this idea in my head that it was going to go away and that it was going to be alright. I think the film expands, there’s a pause in the middle, of making it expand from up to the point of him getting really sick. I think when I started it there were tools to use to tell a dramatic story, but I think by the end of that I understood.”

Like their creators, Robot and Scarecrow and Security peer out at the world from different vantage points. One tells a futuristic love story, the other takes you by the hand and leads you on a drug-fuelled venture into Soho’s violent underworld. Beneath, they’re meditations on survival in a world too self-absorbed to care. “I can’t undo the clock,” Gaika tells me plainly. ‘I can’t bring back things, and I can’t bring back people, so I’m just going to do precisely what I want.”

The future is hard to imagine when the restless, boundless ambition of the Tavares brothers confounds prediction. Sit back and watch them rise.

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