Otura Mun is the main creative force behind the group Ìfé, which releases a second album on Nov. 5. Building on the groundwork of the first record, Mun’s calling as a priest of orisha worship, his move from Puerto Rico to New Orleans, and addressing the world around him, the record is both vast and approachable. He melds the spiritual with the political, traditional Yoruba religious rhythms with contemporary dancehall production, harsh subject matter with pop hooks. The album features a guest list that includes Bill Summers, who worked with Herbie Hancock, on percussion; Yoruban-American guitarist Saint Ezekiel; and the young New Orleans singer Lex, whose voice is a revelation.
Afropop’s Ben Richmond eagerly called up Mun to talk about 0000+0000, the new record, its subject matter, Mun’s goals for the project, and what its name means. Their interview was edited down for clarity and length.
Ben Richmond: Are you familiar with Afropop? You've appeared here a couple times and spoken to—I think it was Sebastian—a few years back.
Otura Mun: I am. I'm a fan of the show and I discovered I think from a Ned Sublette interview with someone. It was a show about abakua in Cuba. It was really, really interesting. I loved the interview and I passed it on to a bunch of folks. So I had some people that are sort of around what I do that were in the piece as well. It was nice to hear about them as well.
Yeah, that's actually a nice segue into the interview—For those who don't know you, who are you? And what is it that you do?
So yeah, I'm an African-American musician. I live here in New Orleans. I guess I spent the last 21 years living in Puerto Rico and playing music there, producing for artists there and eventually producing my own music and traveling as Ìfé.
I've been holed up in two different studios for the last three years working on my new album, and I'm finally, launching it here Nov. 5. The album's called 0000+0000 (Yay-koon May-yee). It's a group of 11 songs that I've sort of been putting together or stringing together or thinking about maybe the last three or four years.
Yeah. Let's talk about the new album. It's coming out Friday. Is it self-released or are you on a label?
So I have my own label called Discos Ifá. I'm releasing it on that label in North and South America and Japan. And then, I'm partnered with British label called Mais Um. They're basically running Europe, and the rest of the world.
And let's talk about the name, because I think if the typical Afropop reader read it, if they would call it zero zero zero, zero zero plus zero—but why don't you explain it a bit?
So I'm a babalawo and that's basically a priest of a cult called Ifá. It's part of a sort of religious system is colloquially known as santeria in the west. But its roots are basically in Yoruban, traditional religion.
As priests of Ifá, we are the diviners-in-chief of the religion and we divine using a 256 sign set. And each sign is thought to be a divine destiny that the orisha, the deity or rumula has already lived. It would be sort of like if I divined your zodiac sign for you on the spot or something, like you didn't know what it was and I rolled the cosmic dice and I told you "Oh you're a Taurus"—we kind of know what Tauruses are like because there have been other Tauruses and so we can put it into perspective. This is something similar but instead of 12 signs, there are 256 signs. And again, each sign is sort of understood at the Divine Destiny that's already happened so we know a lot about it.
The first sign is called "Edgy-Og-Bay." The sign sets are binary. So that sign is always written vertically, but if you write it horizontally—which you are sort of breaking the rules by doing that—you would write it like 1111+1111. In actuality, it's written vertically with a cross at the top and then descending ones on the right side and descending ones on the left.
The second sign is its polar opposite. In that sign is the "yay-koon may-yee" and that one would be written horizontally again 0000+0000.
The first one would be like saying 1111+1111 all open and the second one, 0000+0000, is all closed. And together you get yin and yang. So this record is literally the yang to the first record, which was 1111+1111. So in the first record—and if you were to look at the first sign when that sign comes out in divination—it's open roads, pure light, the beginnings of things. It's a masculine energy.
The second sign which is the story arc of this record, 0000+0000, the night is born. Death is born. If this sign comes out in divination and you're out of sync with the sign, you could say that death is at your doorstep. If you're in sync with the energy of the sign, we would say that your ancestors are strongly supporting you. So this is a record that is dealing with the birth of night. It's dealing with night as "the magic hour." So if the high noon when the sun is highest in the sky is the most potent of the visible world and the tangible world, then midnight is the most potent of the magical time when the ancestors, the orishas, the deities are also out. If the sign comes out of divination, again, you would say that you need to fearlessly embrace death as a natural part of the life cycle. This record has a bit of a darker tone. It's a record that talks a lot about the ancestors and their role in our everyday lives. So we start the record off with a song called "Fireflies," basically saluting the night and saluting all the deities that walk with us in the night.
I think it's almost as if you try to sum up bebop with two characters, maybe, and maybe like Dizzy would be the daytime and maybe Coltrane would be the night. But they're part of the same story. This record is part of the same story as the first one but it's dealing with different aspects of life.
All these songs are new from the time that first one was released, this is a completely different body of work? Or are there some holdovers from when you were working on the last record?
There aren't holdovers, but I definitely thought about this record in terms of how it would complement the first one, thinking, yeah you could actually shuffle all these if you put them into a playlist or whatever.
I tried to make a record that touched on themes that were perhaps more difficult to touch on. Like one would be a song on here called "Wednesday's Child." People in English, if you say that you were born on a Wednesday, it's an unlucky day to be born on. Or if you were born feet-first, people say that people born feet first are cursed. So the idea is, "what do you do if you feel like you were born bad?" Or that you were born with a curse on your shoulders already?
One aspect of it that I'm very familiar with is the idea of generational trauma. I was adopted because my parents abandoned me. And the people that adopted me, my father was raised by his grandparents because his parents abandoned him. We're both African-American. We come from a tradition of people that are often raised by their grandparents because one or both parents decide not to raise their children for whatever reason. And so it's something that, even in my adopted family, has now hit four different generations. My brother committed suicide after he had a one-year-old child. So he effectively abandoned his son. So there's at least three generations there that we could speak of that are dealing with generational trauma. Now, you may not pop out of the womb being like, "Oh I'm cursed," but you definitely have a sense that you're born into something that has begun and will continue on with you, that has a weight that you also have to carry and how do you deal with that? Part of that is the subject matter of "Wednesday's Child," but the other day I was walking up the street and I was thinking it goes even deeper than that. Like what about those people that feel like "should I even be here in the first place?" And people that are suicidal have those sorts of thoughts? Like, like "should I even be here?"
"Wednesday's Child" is a song that basically says that any negative can be turned into a positive. There is no hopeless scenario at least the way I understand it as coming from a priest of Ifa, because my job is to take energy that is negative and turn it into a positive. And there's ways that we can do that through prayer, through offering through song, through devotion, through cleansing and literally one of the tenets of Ifa is there is nothing, there's no negative that cannot be turned into a positive. And I think that for me was a very hopeful message and it's something that I believe in and I live on a daily basis. So I tried to take it back, themes that can go just as dark, so dark that the question is a literal question—"Should I even be here?" Well, if you're asking that question, then, yeah, you got some things to work through.
I’m trying to make a music that can be of service to people, that is what I tried to do on the first record when I was basically trying to make a music that expressed love and expansion. I'm still doing that here. But I'm tackling themes that are a bit more difficult to grasp or to struggle with sometimes.
And some of them may seem political. I'm a politically active person but some of them, even though they're painted as political, are actually human issues. For example the idea that perhaps the West is falling and that as it falls, it's going to struggle to maintain hegemony or something. It's gonna struggle to maintain power at the expense of everything that it's running no matter what. And that's the climate catastrophe, right? So everyone knows that we need to keep under 1.5 [degrees]. If you survey the world, everyone knows, you know, but we're not, we're not capable of stopping fossil fuel companies from buying up our politicians. Whatever is happening right now, we're not going to get the kind of deal is going to get us to 1.5, even though the people in a majority want that. it's like the people in the majority of the United States wants Medicare for all, but we've been sold out by politics and industry to not have it, even though we wanted it. That's the sort of the truth of the matter, but the truth of the matter is also that people just want, mostly, to see other people be happy, be successful, be fed, be all of these things. Those are painted as political issues in order to divide us so that someone can have what they want all the time.
But the issue is really a human issue. I think the same thing about almost all the stuff that typically divides us. To me, love and expansion is still the core of the record. And love means loving people above politics and' above all of those sorts of things. That's why on a tune like "Fake Blood," I'm asking humanity a question: "why do we love fiction so much?"As opposed to like the reality of some of these situations, why do we keep nudging ourselves there?
I guess the last one would be a "Heart Full of Love." It was kind of a reaction to when the George Floyd killing happened. I had to do a live presentation for some festival and I decided to cover J. Dilla's "Fuck the Police," as one of the tunes. It just felt like the right song to sing at the moment. Now I’m an old school, hip-hop kid. And so I sang the NWA one and the J Dilla when it came out, I've always been "fuck the police.” I'm in that camp, period. But it's partly because of my experience with the police and partly because I know that the police really just come from old-school, slave patrols and people that were private security for protecting oligarchs. And so that's what the police are. And their role has not really changed a lot. Anyway, in the comment section of the video—and I try and stay away from comment sections—but maybe four months later someone asked like, "where's that group that was always so positive about this and that? Here they're saying, 'fuck the police.' I don't understand it." I thought about that for a bit but I also feel that having the message "fuck the police" is a human message. The police, what they're doing is anti-human, at least in the U.S. and the way they're applied to Black people—and to white people as well. It's sort of a private security force for the rich. To a certain extent, it's a control element and it's been militarized. It's anti-people. If you love people, if you have love in your heart, you can't sit there while people are being brutalized. So I think that the message isn't at odds with love, even though there are actual police and we have compassion for the actual police people, but the system that they're being sucked into is inhumane. You can have compassion for prison guards, but the prison industrial complex is inhumane, and we have to be against it.
The message on both records is the same, but I think it's about the nuance of the conversation as well.
There's looking at things that come up as political, but you've kind of transcended that and brought it back to the spiritual, which I think makes sense, given who you are, and what you do. But you've done a good job of pinning it to the "topical," maybe is the word for it. There are more recognizable references on this record, to things that have happened over the last year, to "Black Lives Matter," to capitalism. Was that something you were conscious of as you were writing the record?
Yeah, I think, it certainly was after the pandemic. I had the record probably 85 percent done when March 14, 2020 hit. I was about 85 percent done writing and I stepped out of the studio when the pandemic happened. And I didn't jump back into the album until maybe November 2020, when I thought I was in a position where I could go back and make some things that would reflect what happens during the spring and summer of 2020.
Curiously enough the record was already a pretty political record anyway, but it gave me the chance to inject some things that I thought would be helpful to round out the context of the record. So "Heart Full of Love," for example, I felt that it needed that energy, and I might not have gotten there if I hadn't a bit nudged around by the events of the day. As I was making the record, as I sewed it up and put the last pieces on it, I wanted to make it resonate with people that have lived these last couple of years. It has been an intense time.
I did put out an EP before this that wasMusic for the Dead and that was on purpose. By November 2020, we had already lost at that point, maybe 250,000 people in the United States from COVID.
I don't know, I just think that there's definitely been some political and some sociological things that have happened in the last couple of years that I wanted to address. They're certainly baked into the record, but, and this is essentially what I think I'm doing, you're stepping back and re-looking at the world that you live in and trying to understand it in ways that aren't perhaps the way that the Western world would immediately try to understand itself or try to understand the world and human beings. That's what I'm doing in "House of Love," for example or, from the first record, on "Bangah," where I'm thinking about liberty, and I'm thinking about freedom, and what it takes to achieve that on a personal level, on a political level and beyond. Here again I'm thinking about other aspects of human life and how do I see them from the vantage point that I am now at after initiating into Ifa, after living through a political struggle in Puerto Rico, after moving to the back United States during this moment in time. It's just taking a look at my life and what I think about life on Earth, but through that lens. And you're going to get the gamut of of emotions, but I did try and think about what orishas speak inside of the sign 0000+0000, and what are the energies that go there and write on those a bit, in the same way I tried to do it with 1111+1111.
What's your overall goal for this musical project?
I produced hip-hop and indie rock for folks in Puerto Rico for years before I made this project. And the music that I made before I made Ife was pretty dark and moody and very introspective in a way that's very self-centered. When I decided to make Ife I wanted to shift the energy of the music that I was making and see if I can make something that would be of service to people in a positive way.
It took me a while as a young musician to decide whether I should be playing music for people at all. I like the rigor of learning an instrument, mastering something and playing it. Like I play rumba for me. That actual genre was sitting down playing in the schoolroom, it was like playing chess or something. It is for me, I'm having so much fun. Do you need an audience? Does it need to reach anyone other than you? And that was my question as a young musician and I think the answer is yes. As an artist, I can only be making music that would be of service of people at this point. I can play my little rumba game all I want to and I'll have fun with that. But if I have a chance to make a statement artistically, I feel that it needs to somehow contribute to the good of the human experience. It needs to be of service. And that's why I feel that the music that I'm making now inherently needs to be political because that's how I can contribute. And it also needs to help people bring some happiness into this world.
People would write to me from all over the world, from let's say from Italy, "Hey, you know, I'm Italian I found your record on whatever and I'm going through chemotherapy right now. I have stage three cancer and when I listen to your music, I feel good. Thanks for making this, it has been helping me right now." That one email that I got from this person from Italy was worth everything that I sacrificed to make the music because that's been of service in a positive way.
And I want to continue to do that, while trying to grow as an artist and an individual. Ife is love and expansion and I'm trying to embody that artistically for, as long as it will take me. If I can make music that does that and is of service to people for the rest of my life—or I'll just make two records. I've got two in the tank now. My worst fear, as I was two years into this, was that I would die and no one would hear what I did. But I did make one record and his is another one. I think the best that I've ever done as an artist and I want people to hear it. I think it's important. Hopefully it will bring something positive to people. And that's what I wanted to get.
So I'm super relieved that it's already in the ether, and on Nov. 5, Spotify's gonna kick it out and it'll be there. And after that I'll go on and do whatever I want to do with my life and hopefully, I'll be playing music or whatever. But yeah, that's, that's what it was for and hopefully it will bring something good to people. That's it. That's really it.