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sylo nozra's sultry r&b celebrates self-care and diversity

The debut music video for ‘Divine,’ premiering today on i-D, shows the Korean-Canadian artist’s softer side.

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Sep 12 2018, 4:29pm

Photography Anthony Galatianos

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There’s a noticeable lack of R&B artists of Asian descent that gain visibility, but Sylo Nozra may be one to change that. The Korean-Canadian artist and producer has been growing a following for his sultry, smooth songs since his 2016 single “Losing Myself” started racking up millions of plays online. Having released a new EP every year since 2015, it’s clear he’s not in it for the short haul. In fact, he’s determined to help change the face of R&B.

On the phone from his home in Toronto, Sylo says growing up with limited portrayals of people who looked like him had an effect. “That’s something I’ve definitely always noticed, growing up in North America, the way Asians are portrayed in the media. It’s always been very culturally appropriative and stereotyped. I want to be on the forefront of breaking that barrier.”

With the release of his debut album mud mask, Sylo is gently breaking down those walls. Over eight finely crafted songs, his dreamy, weightless voice floats over tropical beats and gently pulsating synths and guitars. After a childhood listening to classical music and an adolescence playing in rock bands, he’s developed a nuanced sense of harmony and melody that he’s channeled into his own brand of modern, silky R&B.

Sylo certainly delivers R&B’s hallmark heart-on-sleeve romance and raunch, but his slightly mumbled delivery shrouds it in a layer of mystique. It’s an intriguing addition, but Sylo’s not just changing what R&B is expected to sound like – he’s also broadening its perspective. “I definitely want to take pride in being in the American music industry, because there aren’t that many artists like me out here, who are Asian and making R&B music.” He adds, “I want to break those barriers of what people associate with in terms of certain sounds, styles, and looks. Completely change that up.”

Sylo has faced a few challenges while carving out space for himself in Toronto and claiming his identity. In a previous interview he mentioned that people have told him they thought he was black when they heard his music. “I’ve been hit up by rappers in the past, before they saw my face and only heard my music and they assume that, and they’ve seen me and been completely shocked,” he says. “It’s always funny.” He says that back then his sound was more “neo soul”, and that his vocal style was heavily influenced by D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. “I listened to a lot of gospel at that point as well, so that definitely affected [my sound], but I’m not sure anymore. I know I do R&B but I’m steering more toward a pop style.”

After today there’ll be little doubt who’s behind the music. In his debut video, for “Divine”, which premieres on i-D, Sylo steps in front of the camera for the first time. The clip, directed by Martin Klapperbein, shows Sylo falling for a girl, played by the joyful Yazmin Harris, as they dance around the historic Great Hall in Toronto. “I’m a little shy ‘cause it’s my first music video, but we’ll see if I look natural or not!” he laughs. “I was definitely shaken up for a large portion of the shoot.”

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Until recently, Sylo has been accustomed to working, as his name suggests, in a silo. But after making three EPs basically all by himself, he’s been enjoying working more collaboratively. And it’s making his work even stronger – arguably his best song, “je t’adore” features Toronto rapper Ty Senoj, and their vocal interplay is intoxicating. Over a syrupy beat and crisp guitar, they effortlessly trade off lines until the climax of Ty’s yearning verse.

The album also features Toronto hip-hop producer Goldchain, Parisian producer Art of Shades, and hip-hop producer Michael Lantz, who’s best known for crafting the “cinematic trap” sound of Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier’s acclaimed debut. That lush sound is evident across mud mask.

Despite being made collaboratively, mud mask is a deeply personal album. Sylo’s lyrics explore various phases in relationships, from budding romance to the decay of attraction, and what we learn about ourselves along the way. Sylo says that making the album has made him a better person. “I’m definitely more inclined to care about how I proceed towards future relationships, and how I proceed with my relationship with myself.”

Initially he chose the album’s title for its phonetic quality. “I just really liked how playful it sounds – mud mask,” he says. But the name takes on a whole new layer of meaning when you consider mud masks are an important part of Korean beauty routines – and Sylo’s heritage.

“I have an older sister and she’s all about the Korean beauty care regimens, and growing up being exposed to that I definitely have that ingrained,” he laughs. “So yeah, I use a lot of Korean skin products. Self-care!” He’s so committed that he’s even considering adding some masks to the merch he’ll be taking on tour in Europe later this month.

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For Sylo, taking pride in his identity is more than just skin-deep. “To me, mud masks are the embodiment of self-care, getting glowed up and, if you want to go deeper, cultivating real, true self-love.”

"mud mask" is out today on all streaming services.

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