Cero Ismael is ready to open up

His debut release Blue Man is a creative masterpiece from a young man slowly learning to show the world who he is.

Video: YouTube/Cero Ismael

It’s a rare beautiful sunny day when I interview Cero Ismael, not that it’s relevant since I’m in my bedroom speaking to him via video call. Months spent in lockdown have given people the world over time to reflect on their lives pre-Covid and his debut project Blue Man is a project that definitely had me reflecting on past relationships. Romantic and otherwise. Immediately smiling and friendly Cero’s demeanour does plenty to put me at ease even though he’s the one about to be interviewed. We exchange pleasantries and have a friendly pre-interview chat to find we have a fair bit in common despite the ocean between us. He compliments my Daily Paper shirt as he used to work there and has a keen fashion sense as evidenced by the clean fits in the scarce photos on his Instagram. 

The path to Blue Man began age 12 when Cero Ismael began making music and by 15 he was confident it was the path he wanted to follow. Interestingly I always think of musicians as conveying their feelings through music, which would imply the feeling comes first. On the contrary Cero reflects that it was actually looking back over his lyrics that made him aware of his feelings. He’s cited music making as a form of escapism from early on and says “I was writing about other topics where people of my age that were making music weren’t really writing about and then I felt like…yeah this is really coming out of my soul. I really started telling a story at an early age” going on to say “As I got older I just saw like….okay….this is really what’s happening. I’m kind of escaping….” then in line with his positive outlook reconsiders his use of the world escaping to say “well maybe not escaping but kind of like really approaching and appreciating all of the stuff I’m writing about”. 

Approaching and appreciating your feelings about your surroundings certainly resonates with me. Born and raised in Holland, Cero’s mother is Surinamese and his father is Indonesian and Dutch. Suriname borders Guyana where my grandfather is from and we’re bound by having fractured ties to places that aren’t necessarily home spatially, whilst living in predominantly white spaces that don’t always make you feel at home either. Something I haven’t experienced is the challenge of being mixed-race which Cero says can give a feeling of being “too black for the white kids and too white for the black” but if there’s an upside to multiple heritages it’s definitely his sound which is truly experimental and genre transcending, whilst still managing to be cohesive and structured across the Blue Man project.

It’s perhaps this plethora of thoughts and feelings that informed the decision to make Blue Man a one man project with no features. Dancer is perhaps the best justification for this choice. His blending of rapping, singing and pitched vocals (which could pass for female) give a comprehensive retrospective of his mental state since the age of 12. Sonically the song oozes multiplicity but the lyrics are introspective such that anyone else’s input would feel like an intrusion. Despite enjoying the task to “compete with himself” he shares plans to collaborate more in the future.

Cero explains that music making is like therapy and a process of “peeling back the layers and Blue Man was the first start”. It’s honestly hard to imagine how much more earnest someone could be on a record. On my personal favourite track Intense he utilises his full vocal range starting off using his natural singing voice he croons “I search for grip, but somehow I just end up always losing it” almost teasing a falsetto. That’s when a pitched version of his voice (reminiscent of the hook on Kanye West’s All Mine) enters the fray to add a sense of mania to the track, which any of us who have dealt with the panic of post relationship reality setting in can attest to. The closing verse then descends in to a deep pitched woozy rap. As the beat gets murky his slurred delivery drawled over it is evocative of the chopped and screwed style synonymous with southern rap in the states. You might think that switching tempos, cadences and styles all within 2:21 would create a sonic Frankenstein’s monster of sorts. On the contrary, the harmony of these differing elements and my inability to define it by genre, reflects how complex Cero Ismael and all of us are as human beings.

There’s a poignant similarity between genre and race which we go on to discuss. Both are tools to label, categorise and often come from outsiders. As I reflect on my father being born in Cameroon and not specifically thinking of himself as Black before coming to England and being labelled, Cero says he’d never thought about what his genre was before others asked him. Cero also talks about how normalised alienation was to him in his hometown. It was only when he graduated to a more diverse high-school he was able to open up about his heritage. Similarly I have never felt at peace in my hometown of Derby but moving to Birmingham and not having people cross the road whenever we crossed paths was noticeable. Cero tells me conversations with his younger brothers and mother have revealed these issues are generational in Holland just like the U.K. and as we talk about the similarities between ours and our parents experiences I’m reminded of the closing track from Blue Man Discontent. The airy ballad like track serves as something of a surrender to turmoil. Exhausted exhales of “Every word and tear we meant, still we’re fighting discontent” reminds me that whilst it’s healthy to acknowledge the issues that bother you, it doesn’t necessarily fix them right away. 

Considering how transparent Cero is committed to being in his music it’s surprising to me he sees the value in giving an even deeper account of himself in an interview this personal. I ask him about this and his response is that he thinks it is important to let people know that they can speak about stuff like this. “It got so normal for people to not be vulnerable or not speak about their problems” and he’d like to encourage people to move past that. Frankly his attitude is refreshing and makes me root for him even more, although the fantastic music would be reason enough.  It’s satisfying that between a Black-British photographer and a Surinamese, Indonesian and Dutch musician there are so many points to connect on. Like in the rich tapestry of music that is Blue Man, life is most complete when we acknowledge that unity and diversity aren’t antonyms. When Frank Ocean wrote Channel Orange or Adele wrote 21 they weren’t generational albums because the concept of heartbreak is revolutionary. Van Gogh’s Undergrowth with Two Figures isn’t famous because no one’s seen a painted flower before. On the contrary it’s the ability to conjure the everyday human experience in to the otherworldly that makes art magic. The more open to expressing our true selves we are, the more possibilities there are. Cero Ismael has done that on Blue Man and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Article written by Martyn Ewoma

Photography by  Jasmijn van Buytene 

Stream Blue Man on Spotify

Keep up with Cero Ismael on Instagram and Twitter


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