The Classic Brit Awards return this month after a five-year rest. Tokio Myers, the winner of last year’s Britain’s Got Talent, leads the field alongside Dame Vera Lynn and film and TV composer Hans Zimmer. This diverse bunch are each up for awards; it has already been announced that Myers will be named Breakthrough Artist of the Year.
“Bloody hell, it’s up there with the best of the best,” Myers says of his competition. The classically trained pianist stormed through the BGT process with his musical mash-ups that mixed Debussy with Sheeran and Beethoven with Adele. A record deal was part of the prize. “For me it’s more interesting the fact my album isn’t a classical album.”
Looking at the list of nominations, it’s bizarre to think they could fall under one banner. Myers’ Our Generation is up against releases from gameshow favourites Alexander Armstrong and Bradley Walsh, Ball & Boe, Vera Lynn and Roy Orbison. The nominees in the Male Artist of the Year category are at least all still alive: Myers, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, composer Max Richter, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist who was the toast of the royal wedding, and again, the Pointless Alexander Armstrong.
“Classical music is one of the broadest genres,” Myers explains. “It always has been. You had Baroque, Renaissance, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin – classical music was always a broad genre anyway, so here we are in the 21st century adding to the broadness.”
The Official Charts Company reports that classical music streams rose 52 per cent in the first two months of 2018 alone, surpassing 10 million streams every week except one. Why the resurgence? Perhaps in part its down to the massive exposure Myers had, his music acting as a gateway drug to classical compositions.
“It seems to have gone down that route, unexpectedly and unintentionally,” he says. “I was oblivious, I thought everybody listened to classical music at some point but it’s only since being on the show and afterwards that I’ve realised that’s not the case.
“I think there is an element of educating people a little bit. You can put strings and brass together with a big heavy distorted beat and you can dance and rave and have a good time. Then we can go straight into a piece which is just stripped down piano and have people’s attention. It feels like now is the time to be doing that kind of stuff.”
He seems proudest of the fact that his sold-out UK tour was attended by all types of people of all ages. And the affect his music has on them is profound. People cry as they dance.
“There will be big moments when the drums are there and they’ll be singing the lyrics that are quite sad and quite reflective, and I’ve seen grown women, holding their partners literally dancing and crying at the same time – and it’s beautiful.
“It did throw me off at first but I’m starting to get used to it. That’s the power of music.”
Myers believes the rediscovery of classical music by a younger generation is thanks to people’s different listening habits today.
“Back in the day, most kids would be like they have one style of music they listen to because you’d go to your particular area in HMV and you’d stick there. You wouldn’t go into rock or pop or jazz or classical.
“The one in Oxford Circus, which I used to go to, every other genre was on the ground floor, except classical music which has its own floor. You had to get an escalator to go up but no one ever would because you wouldn’t want to be seen to be that kid.
“Now, with streaming sites, people hit play and let the internet dictate where they travel to.”
It’s a cliché to say acts on Britain’s Got Talent have to turn up with a sob story, but Myers’ background didn’t need any exploitative TV treatment. He grew up on the 16th floor of a council tower block and was practicing piano after hours at St George’s School in Maida Vale when his head teacher, Philip Lawrence, was stabbed outside the gates.
Ahead of his BGT audition, Myers said: “Music was a way of releasing any kind of negative energy and putting it into something positive. Playing piano kept me out of a lot of trouble.”
He believes cutting funding to arts will have damaging consequences. “Creative arts are a form of expression and freedom, and I feel human beings are put onto Earth to do just that. Unfortunately society puts us in these little suits to go to school to set you up for a nine-to-five job. They want us all to be in factories, do the rat race. We’re not here for that, we’re here to create in all forms, whatever it is. To take that away from anyone is cruel. You can see the outcome.”
As a teenager, Myers won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, but even though its focus prioritised the arts, he has mixed feelings towards his experiences.
“If I’m honest with you, I genuinely didn’t enjoy my time there,” he says. “At the time I was the only one of colour in that institute – it isn’t like that anymore, I know it’s very diverse now. But I didn’t come from a rich background and most of the kids were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. No fault of theirs, but I felt I was looked down upon a little bit.
“But those things drive me, so I kept my head down and kept doing what I was doing. I grew a big afro and dressed like hippie. That wasn’t really the vibe, everyone dressed in shoes and trousers and shirt. I wasn’t down for that.”
Today, despite the success and who knows how many awards, the only ambition Myers has is to stay happy and keep doing what he loves.
“What is that stuff? I can’t take that stuff away with me. In the western world we get so caught up in this fake fantasy world that we build up around ourselves, that’s not life. Life is about being happy”
“You have to choose something to feed your family. I’ve chosen this as my route, but essentially [the success] isn’t me, that doesn’t sum me up. You’ve got to do something in this life to make your mark and do something good, rather than focussing on yourself the rest of your life. Sorry to sound like dad.”
Our Generation is out now. Tokio Myers will perform at the Classic Brits, held at the Royal Albert Hall on 13 June classicbrits.co.uk
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