“Instead of asking ‘Why?’, we should be saying: ‘Why not?’ That’s always been my attitude, from when I was a small kid. I don’t recognise those so-called boundaries. In music, you can do anything you want.”
As those remarks suggest, Tokio Myers isn’t a person who is terribly bothered by convention. The multi-talented pianist, composer and producer, who stormed to victory on Britain’s Got Talent in 2017, is a man on a mission. Fusing the classical music he fell in love with as a young child with the beats and textures of the dance music he immersed himself in in his teens, Tokio is a compelling example of what can happen when you throw away the rulebook. An hour in his company is an inspiring and revitalising experience. Tokio talks about his upbringing, his musical journey and core beliefs, with infectious zeal and unapologetic passion. The days when you needed to seek permission to go against the grain as an artist are gone, he argues.
“I really do feel that the structural rigidity we grew up with is slowly melting away. Young people today are much more open-minded about music, and its infinite possibilities. People my age, we’ve had to un-condition ourselves, if you like. Kids now, though, they’re approaching life, everything, in a completely different way.”
Growing up in a household full of warmth and nurture, Tokio absorbed his parents’ Jamaican heritage through his dad’s extensive record collection, and the importance placed on perseverance, tolerance and looking out for others. Yet his childhood was also marked by the gang violence that dogged the north London streets he grew up among, and which at times threatened to lure him down the wrong path. He witnessed the fatal stabbing of Philip Lawrence, head teacher of the secondary school he attended, and was rushed to safety by his music teacher, who Tokio credits, alongside his parents (he cites his dad buying him a second-hand keyboard when he was nine as another crucial moment), with keeping him on the straight and narrow, and leading him away from temptation.
“Mr Morgan was more than a teacher; he was a man who went the extra mile to get to know the parents, get to know the families. Looking back on it, I can see the magic. I got such a vibe from him, as someone who looked out for everyone, and that had such a strong effect on the school. Everybody knew he was a gem. He played such a huge part in keeping me on the right track, and making sure I had all the time I needed to use the music facilities, whenever I wanted to. He steered me in the right direction, when I could so easily have gone in the wrong one.”
The sense of community, of responsibility towards others, inculcated in Tokio by his parents and Mr Morgan found expression this summer when Tokio co-produced and performed on Bridge Over Troubled Water, the single recorded by a host of stars in aid of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. “It’s not a question of being a do-gooder,” Tokio says. “It’s doing the right thing. Simple as that. Why would you turn away?”
This clarity of thought, this ability to see beyond imaginary or self-imposed barriers, has characterised Tokio’s whole ethos ever since he first encountered the music that would transform his life. “I had piano lessons at school, and that system tends to naturally set you up to go towards classical music. So I went through all the books, for years, and then you get to this stage where you go: ‘Oh my God, I can play classical music!’ There’s no easy answer as to why I went in that direction, no one said: ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ It was never my goal. It was an accident – it ambushed me, I guess. The best accident of my life.
“I was fascinated by it. At each point, you’re tackling a new level of skill, and you realise: ‘I can do this.’ And that kept happening. I guess it helped that I’m quite focused as a person. I’m an only child, and that means you can just be you, with all the time in the world. There is something endless fascinating about classical music, from the skill point, to the harmonics, the dynamic range. It was like no other music I’d encountered. I kept thinking: ‘This is so magical.’ And to be able to experience that magic, over and over, seemed amazing.”
A huge part of Tokio’s mission since winning BGT is to turn others on to that magic. He has plans to found a music school for children from troubled and deprived backgrounds, an ambition inspired by his own experiences as a child. The responses he has received since appearing on the show have strengthened his determination to give something back.
“Music kept me out of a lot of trouble when I was growing up. I didn’t know it at the time, but doing my own thing, practising the piano, with all this other stuff going on around me – looking back at it now, something was definitely protecting me. Now, I can go to the piano when other things are happening in my life and it’s a release. But when I was a kid, I wasn’t aware of that; I just did it. I didn’t intuitively understand what was happening, but there was this sense, all the time, that something was guiding me: to use music to free my mind, to free my soul.”
“Now, it’s more complex, and about far more than just me. I’ve got a job to do. I’ve had tons and tons of messages from people with real problems in their lives, really big stuff, and they’ve said things like, ‘Your music has changed my life.’ I get sent all these videos by parents, where you see these tiny kids with these mini keyboards, and my video’s on in the background, and they’re banging pans, hitting the keys. How cool is that? I never expected anything like that – it’s truly humbling. And it makes you think: I need to make music that really touches people, that makes them feel alive, or what’s the point?
“Music can change lives; there has to be more of it in schools than there is, because it releases people’s emotions, it breaks down inhibitions. Lose that and you’re only increasing the chances of mental ill-health, of people sinking into drugs or drink or crime. The current set-up is geared to creating these miniature workers in their little blazers, preparing for a life of 9-5. Well, what if that’s not for you? What about creativity, spontaneity, opportunity? Music is slowly being taken out of schools, and I think that’s partly out of fear: they know that creativity is a powerful tool. My mission is to turn those lights back on, one by one. You can’t stifle people’s creativity. You can try, but you won’t succeed. I’m willing to fight to the end on this one.”
Tokio has mixed feelings about the years he spent studying piano at the Royal College of Music. Through sheer hard work Tokio was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship and he is grateful for the opportunity it gave him to take his playing to the next level, and the performance values it taught him. But he was, he says, less enamoured of the overly conventional approach adopted by many of the RCM’s tutors. “So many of those places are filled with a way of thinking that comes from an older generation, which is all about sternness and discipline. I was sort of on the cusp. So I certainly saw that old-school thing, but there were newer attitudes, too. The problem with the old ways is that, if you’re not strong, they will break you, they will chew you up and spit you out. I definitely encountered that, but I stayed strong.”
A chance encounter during his final year at college was another example of the almost karmic spirit that seems to have hovered over Tokio’s life. Doing some session work in a central London studio one day, he found himself eavesdropping on the music being made by a band in the studio next door, and liked what he heard. “It was this really cool stuff,” says Tokio. “I remember peeping through the glass and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ And I went in and asked if I could join in, which they were totally cool about. So I laid down some piano, and then two weeks later, I got a call from the main guy, who said: ‘We’re about to go off on tour, do you want to come along?’ And that was Mr Hudson. And that opened up a whole new world for me, touring with artists such as Amy Winehouse, Kanye, Erykah Badu, Sting, learning about technology, live performance, working with guitarists and drummers – which all fed into what I’m doing now. Talk about serendipity.”
Watching, studying, learning, Tokio took in the genius and artistry of the musicians he suddenly found himself working with, and resolved to emulate their example. “Amy and Kanye, in particular, inspired me hugely; there’s that sense of ‘If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to surrender to it completely.’ You’ve got to learn from their mistakes, too, but in terms of the artistry, the commitment, it’s so inspiring. They’ve taught me that you have to be open, be free, be true, to get the best out of it.”
Tokio’s debut album ‘ Our Generation’ reached number 4 in the album chart . The songs communicated both joy and pain, light and darkness, hope and despair. Breaking down barriers, and in doing so, finding a new, and higher, ground.
Tokio’s much awaited second album, is due for release end of 2019 and he has planned six intimate shows around the UK in November to give fans a flavour of the new music.
“I’ve been working really hard to create an evolved piece of art for the world to enjoy” he says “ and I gained a lot of inspiration from being on tour and seeing people’s reactions. It’s my first time performing in more intimate spaces and I’m so excited to share and experience the energy we create together!”
“With my music I’ve really tried to knock down walls,” says Tokio, “and bring classical and contemporary elements together. I’ve been hugely influenced by the 90s dance scene, by bands such as Faithless and Massive Attack. There was a magic to that era, and I wanted to capture that and bring it up to date for our times. You don’t need permission – in music, but in life, too. In that respect, I do think it’s an incredible time to be alive. We are all responsible for making changes. This is so much more than me just making an album. I want to make music where you’re taken on a journey, on this incredible experience – in other words, life!”