Interview October 20, 2017
Ayo Awosika’s New Sound and Love Song to Nigeria

On first listen, Ayo’s new single, “You’re the One,” sounds like an upbeat love song to a romantic partner–the kind of partner who has always been there, patiently waiting for the moment of awakening and recognition. Then on subsequent listens you hear the sounds of talking drums, the chorus sung in Yoruba, the infectious Afrobeats groove that has become synonymous with Nigerian popular music. Indeed, this is a love song to Nigeria spurred by a magnificent homegoing Ayo experienced in 2014.

Listen to “You’re the One” below.

Ayo Awosika is a new voice to Afropop Worldwide but has been making musical waves for several years. She has shared stages with international artists like Coldplay and Seun Kuti, and made TV appearances on the Today Show and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Her 2015 debut album, We Best Not Wait,boasts her ability to embrace many different genres from jazz to folk, her honest and raw songwriting, and a well-trained voice that shines with personality. Not to be confused with the German-Nigerian singer-songwriter Ayo, Ayo Awosika also inhabits a space of dual identities with an African-American mother and Nigerian father. Her identity informs her music in a fresh and modern way. During her quick visit to New York, I spoke to the Los Angeles-based musician on the phone about her identity, career, new music, recent visits to Nigeria, and how she gives back.

Akornefa Akyea: To start with the obvious, you have a very good voice. 

Ayo Awosika: Thank you!

We should talk about your debut album We Best Not Wait. I was listening to it the other day and I loved “Is That Too Much to Ask.” I wanted to ask what your songwriting process is like?

I play keys and guitar on that album and I have additional musicians too, but when I’m writing I like to just start the song myself unless I’m doing an official co-write with someone. Sometimes it starts with lyrics. I’ll just be on the train or in an Uber and come up with some sort of idea and I’ll scribble it down in my notebook or on my phone. I have hundreds of voice notes on my iPhone with little melodic ideas or something that comes to me. Sometimes it’s just lyrics and I’ll sit down with my piano or guitar and try to figure out what the sonic mood is and come up with a chord progression. And other times it starts with the music and I’ll sort of complete the structure of the song. Then I decide what the song is about and I’ll get into the lyrics. But the special ones like “Is That Too Much to Ask”–this was like a divine download to me because you sit down and the song just kind of comes out as a whole. To me, it’s like the song was already written and it was just gifted to me. That song was like that so it’s cool that you mention it.

Your father is Nigerian, Yoruba, and your mom is African-American? 

Yes.

My parents are from Ghana originally and I know a little bit about what it means to go into the arts, especially having an African parent. Did you get any pushback from your family? 

My parents were always super supportive of me wanting to do music. As long as I could remember, I always liked singing, playing piano and going to lessons and doing talent shows. My parents always really supported that from the beginning. I always said, even when I was young, I’m going to be a singer, I’m going to perform. My parents took me and my sister to Michael Jackson when I was 7, and I would run around with this little Janet Jackson shirt on all day. I just loved her. That was always my aspiration and they supported it. I think maybe they thought I would grow out of it or change my mind because there were other things I was really good at. I was good at computers and programming and stuff like that but I just knew I was going to go to music school. I knew I wanted to go to Berklee College of Music and I picked it out long before I needed to and had my sights set on that.

There was a period of time when I got out of college and I was trying to figure out what I was doing. It was hard because I was an independent artist and I didn’t have anyone to help me. I was trying to figure out how to make money and sustain myself and that was kind of the time when I had some conversations with my dad where he was like, “O.K., are you sure that you want to be doing this? There are other things that you are good at. You can have a normal job and make money and do music on the side.’ And I was like, no. I’ve had normal nine-to-five jobs here and there and that’s fine, but it’s just not for me. I just kept pushing forward and it’s really cool now because things are escalating and popping off in my career. Also I’ll share with you later, I was able to go to Nigeria with my dad and he actually saw me perform in all of these different places and configurations. That was sort of the moment where he was like, O.K., I get it. I’m 100 percent on board. Now he’s the one who’s saying O.K., you gotta do this and this and this. So it’s really cool to see that evolution. My parents are amazing and they’ve always been super supportive and big fans of what I’m up to so I’m lucky.

That’s lovely. Your new single, “You’re the One,” sounds great! Identity seems to be a theme in the song. How do you see yourself and where are you in terms of being comfortable with your identity?

That’s a great question. I was studying a lot of jazz in school and had this idea that I was going to be a jazz singer. I think I had a certain idea about what that meant and what came along with that label, so I went that route and was making a certain type of music. I love the music that I made then for my very first EP but I think that I’m realizing now that I was sort of holding myself back in some ways. I was trying to fit myself into an idea that I thought existed of what I needed to be in order to fit this “jazzy artist” or whatever. Then with my debut full-length album, that was a departure from what I had been doing and had more soul and some pop/folk elements. I love that album too and I feel like all the music I’ve made is true to me regardless of what type of style it is. I’m realizing even now–because I recorded that album in 2012, (which is kind of crazy)— that even then I was still worried about how people would perceive the music and how people would perceive me. I think in some ways I was kind of coddling it or trying to make it something that would be this package that people would accept.

I feel like in the past couple of years in my transition out of New York and into L.A. and with a lot of inner personal work that I have done, I am really getting to the place where it’s like, you know what, this is me. I have evolved through all of these different stages and I’m proud of all of them. I might make some music that sounds like this or I might make some music that sounds like this over here and it’s all fine. It doesn’t have to be that I have to box myself in and only make one type of music. There are times I sit down and write like an electronic-sounding, rocky-pop thing or I sit down with my guitar and it’s more of a folksy Joni Mitchell thing and they’re all great and all me.

I’ve really come to a place of acceptance with who I am and who I am as an artist, but also excitement in knowing that I’m always evolving. That’s sort of the point and that’s what I want. I never want to stop evolving. So with this song, it was really birthed out of my returning to Nigeria with my father and really discovering where I’m from and falling in love with that place. I feel like it’s really encouraged me to just write what I want- to write and put music out that I love and know that people who appreciate me and who love me as an artist are going to dig it. If they don’t, that’s O.K.

You mentioned your trip to Nigeria in 2014. I’ve read that the last time you went was when you were 1. Is that correct?

[Laughs] When you say that it sounds so crazy!

That’s a very unique experience of hearing about a place that’s very different from here and then going when you’re a mature adult and you’re able to take it in in a very unique way. So when you were in Nigeria, what did you see, what did you hear and how did that–if it did–change your trajectory as an artist?

Gosh, it was huge. It’s hard to explain. I’ll just back up a little bit. I came to a realization that there’s a huge part of me that I don’t really know anything about first hand. Yes, I’ve grown up with all the culture, tradition, food, music and all of that just being with my Nigerian family in the U.S. But I haven’t stood on the land. I haven’t smelled the air. I haven’t physically been in that place and I finally got to a place as an adult where I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, I need that! So my dad had just been waiting for me to ask because he wanted my sister and I to go many years before of course, and I was always like, no. I finally asked him and of course he said yes. And I experienced getting off the plane, being in that crazy airport, going to my father’s old house, meeting my uncle (who’s my father’s closest brother) for the first time, meeting my cousins who I’ve heard about my entire life and vice versa. It was so surreal and so intense, but it was also really special because it was sort of familiar, like I had been there. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I just really felt like I knew this place.

It did feel like a returning to me, and that first trip was very much me spending time with my family and going around to see where my dad went to school and where he grew up…. It was amazing. We went to Ondo, which is the town where my family is actually from, and went to my grandfather’s house where my dad grew up – which is still intact—this is making me like, emotional—from when he lived there. He was a photographer and I got to go to his photo shop, which still exists. It was just so impactful for me and also really powerful and healing for me and my dad. I felt like I really started to understand him in a completely new and different way because I was able to be with him in this place where I know he feels so at home and that he misses. That completely changed everything across the board in my life and in my music. I’d always listened to all sorts of different artists and juju music and highlife and all these things, but it never really seeped into my music at all even though I loved it and I knew it well. But there was something about going there. And I played my first show there which was crazily successful.

When was that? 

That was also 2014 and it was sort of like my intro as an artist there. We found a space at the Intercontinental Hotel and I played a solo show with me, my keyboard and electric guitar. It was so cool and we filled the lounge. But the really amazing thing was that it was such a quick turn around and all of these artists who are huge there and are now friends came. I went to college with Tiwa Savage, so she and I are like old friends.

Oh, cool!

Yeah, we went to Berklee together so we were friends there in Boston. But she came, and Praiz came and all of these amazing artists showed up. It was so cool to have their support and for them to come check it out. So all that to say, it was a pivotal point for me and I started getting really interested in going back there. Which is why I’ve been going back there a lot more and playing more shows and getting more involved in community. I also started this organization which I want to tell you about.

That’s incredible to have a debut show there with all that support from those artists coming. Good for you!

It was a life changer. Thank you.

Tell me about the foundation you started. 

Totally. There’s another Nigerian artist in New York named Mary Akpa.

Is this the Native Series?

Yes, so the Native Series was part of that. She and I had tons of mutual friends who kept saying”you’ve got to meet, you’ve got to meet. You guys are going to be like buds.” So we did via phone. We started chatting and talking about all these different things and we realized we were really aligning on a lot of interests. We both wanted to go back to Nigeria not only to be involved in the art community but to really work with the youth, specifically young girls. We started throwing around these different ideas and decided to create this organization that at base is to support young Nigerian women in their self expression and in finding their voice. We want to provide long term resources to aid them in reaching their goals and dreams. It’s still in its baby stages, but we did some workshops at one international school and just worked with girls from different age groups for three or four days. We sat with them and listened. That was a big thing. We decided to just listen and figure out what the needs are, and what do they need support around. What are their questions. It was so cool. I can’t even describe to you. We spent time with girls from age 9 to 20 and they had so much to say.

Their stories are incredible and their struggles were really hard. They were very honest and candid with us. I think it has a lot of potential to grow and to have many different offshoots. It’s called Naija Girl Tribe. We are working hard on it, and there will be much more to share soon!

In your new single “You’re the One” I wanted to explore the aspects of the music that are reminiscent of your 2014 trip to Nigeria. First would you be able to translate the meaning of the chorus that’s sung in Yoruba?

I don’t speak Yoruba and it’s something that I’ve been working on learning because I never learned as a kid. I really felt like the song needed a Yoruba chorus. I started this song in Nigeria with some producers and then worked on the lyrics with another Nigerian artist in New York called Soye. He speaks Yoruba so he was helping me with translating the idea of what I wanted, which was to say “you’re the one I want, you’re the one that I love, you’re the one I need.” And I got my dad to help too. That’s basically what the chorus means: “you’re the one that I love.”

Were there any other sounds from Nigeria that you tried to capture in the track?

Well, working with some Nigerian producers really helped because they have a certain ear for the sounds that were needed. I worked with a producer named V-Stix there who is just an incredible drummer and is able to translate his live drumming into programmed drums. So he did some of that on the track. And then also in the session we had a guitar player who was there who was just playing around and just laid down this incredible guitar line randomly and we kept it! That element of guitar is in there from him. Then I came back and worked with an American producer, Jeremy Lawrence, who is the one who kind of brought that edgy kind of American pop element to it. But he was in Nigeria with me at the time so he understands the Afropop, Afrobeat element and we wanted to bring some of that in. Obviously Drake is really popular and we wanted to have a little bit of those undertones. But honestly aside from those things, the talking drum piece was huge—to have an actual talking drum player come in. He used three different drums. That was a really big part of what we wanted the foundation of the track to be also.

Having all of this context, how would you describe your sound now? Or is that even something you like to do? 

Good question. I always cringe at that question but I think it’s also good. Now I sort of have to label it since it’s being released, so I think of it existing as Afropop/world music. That’s kind of how I’m describing this particular piece. My music overall, because it’s so eclectic, continues to evolve. I just think it is soul music. I think it’s music that has soul and if I can make people feel things and make people feel moved or feel like they can relate to something that I’m saying, then I’ve done my job. I’m always trying to make music that has soul and that’s honest and true although now moving forward I’m really, really interested in continuing to put in these African elements in my music. I’m really loving it and love having the experience of actually playing with a huge highlife-style band which I was able to do in Nigeria. I just love that. You have horns and these incredible musicians and background singers and it’s such a big vibrant sound and also earthy.

Very cool! I like that idea of soul music and think that makes a lot of sense. So this single will be part of an EP, right? 

Yeah, I think it probably will. I’m not married to it being a part of an EP but I could see that happening.

So exciting!

Thank you! This was so fun!

Buy the single on iTunes or stream it on Spotify