Photos by Ebru Yildiz.
“The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” – Michelle Obama
October 13 2017 will mark the first anniversary of Michelle Obama’s now-famous address to a Democrat rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. Millions streamed the speech live online, and millions more have since heard – and been moved by – the former-First Lady’s frank and powerful discussion of sexual harassment, misogyny and inequality in the context of the US election.
Cuban-French duo Ibeyi revisit Obama’s words on their second album, Ash, liberally sampling snippets of the speech throughout the rousing spiritual ‘No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms’. “When we heard [the speech] we felt something,” Naomi Diaz recalls, speaking over Skype from the back of a Paris taxi, squashed against her twin sister. “It was not only powerful but poetic too,” Lisa-Kainde interjects, “And she was talking to women and young girls.”
And yet, as affecting as Obama’s messages undoubtedly were at the time, they feel especially poignant now, given that Americans are living with the aftermath of an election result that essentially undermined the whole speech. “I mean, the only thing I can say is it’s fucked up,” agrees Lisa, eyes wide, brow furrowed. “But you know, there are loads of other places that are fucked up. Let’s talk about France and Marine Le Pen, let’s talk about Brexit, let’s talk about the refugee crisis, and the way countries are not helping… Everything is really hard. These are difficult times.”
Ibeyi are no strangers to tumult. On their self-titled debut of 2015, they drew heavily on the most earth-shattering of human experiences: the deaths of some of the people closest to them. ‘Yanira’ is named for their older sister, who died suddenly in 2013, and ‘Think Of You’ pays tribute to their father, the legendary percussionist and Buena Vista Social Club-collaborator Miguel “Anga” Diaz, who passed away when the twins were just 11. Now 22, Lisa and Naomi are shifting their lyrical focus onto society and the world surrounding them.
“I think we had to talk about ourselves before talking about others,” says Naomi of their introspective approach. “And we had so much to talk about then that we never thought of talking about the world we were living in. But after presenting ourselves, [on the second album] we had to talk about what was in our minds.” Lisa adds, “Also, after touring for three years around the whole world, and seeing how everything is, it was quite natural.”
Alongside the aforementioned, ‘No Man Is Big Enough For The Arms’, the Kamasi Washington-starring ‘Deathless’ is one of the strongest examples of Ibeyi’s new lyrical agenda. The verses find Lisa drawing on her painful experience of being racially profiled in Paris, aged 16. By the chorus, however, that fear and humiliation is transfigured into an expression of defiance, with a choir delivering the rallying cry of solidarity, “Whatever happens, whatever happened, we are deathless.” Lisa explains, “‘Deathless’ became a way for us to write an anthem, to feel immortal, to feel light for three minutes.”
As per its predecessor, Ash is a deeply spiritual record, but it possesses an optimism and hope that was less obvious on their debut. Stunning album centrepiece and devotional ‘Transmission/Michaelion’ is integral to the album’s message of communication, tolerance and a love. “We think transmission is one of the most important things in the world,” Lisa says. “We feel blessed that we got to have so much culture given to us, and transmitted to us, and I feel like transmission is maybe what will help the world.”
The song also includes extracts from Frida Kahlo’s diaries and portions of Claudia Rankine’s discussion on race, ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’. In its intertextuality, and its celebration of both heritage and women of colour, Ash feels very much in the lineage of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album, Lemonade, which Ibeyi starred in. When I press them for details of the experience, Naomi tactfully explains that they’ve signed an NDA but will say, “We are honoured that she thought about us, and to have worked with her. We are grateful.”
Songs remain flecked with Yoruba, the faith and language beloved of their father, which was originally brought to Cuba from West Africa. Indeed, the positive reaction that Ibeyi received for embracing their heritage on their debut actually encouraged them to continue. “A week before releasing [our debut], we started being really worried, because we realised there was so much Yoruba on it and we wanted to make sure people would get it,” Lisa remembers. “Because those chants are so important to us, and when we sing them we feel them deeply, and it’s not just like ‘Let’s put a little Yoruba here’… But actually we’ve never had any problems, and every Babalawo [priest] that comes to see if we’re respectful, blesses us when they leave.”
“Let’s talk about France and Marine Le Pen, let’s talk about Brexit, let’s talk about the refugee crisis…”
Another continued source of inspiration for Ibeyi is their creative relationship with their producer and mentor, XL Recordings-boss Richard Russell. Ash was recorded at his studio, The Copper House, in November 2016, and both Lisa and Naomi gush about his influence on their output. “It’s collaborative work,” Naomi explains. “We are the three of us and we play everything, so he just guides us and we talk about everything.” “We just adore him,” Lisa interjects, and Naomi continues, “It’s a deep collaboration, a deep bond. It’s funny, because sometimes I hear my musician friends’ experiences with their producers and it’s not at all what we have. We’ve connected really strongly since day one.” They talk of feeling equally close to the collaborators on this album, describing Kamasi, Chilly Gonzales, Meshell Ndegeocello and Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez as “family.”
Lisa remains responsible for melody and lyrics, and Naomi for percussion, and when they took their compositions to the studio they were “raw”: just piano, batá and voices. In collaboration with Russell, Naomi’s rhythms were then bolstered with drum machines, and the melodies fleshed out with electronics. As Lisa explains, for this second album, the emphasis was on “upbeat” rhythms, “After touring for two years, you know what you want to play on stage… We want people to dance.” Listening to the likes of ‘Away Away’ and ‘Ash’ it’s impossible to remain still.
Naomi credits the latter track for having “opened the doors for all the energy of the album. It’s electric – I feel it like zzzzz,” she laughs, imitating an electric shock, while Lisa takes over. “And I feel like that’s what we all are: we are ashes. Ashes fertilise. It’s a way to say to everybody and ourselves that we need to wake up, and it’s still possible to have a better world…” She concludes, “These are scary times and that’s why we wanted to write an album that was loud and unapologetic, and at the same time with loads of positive energy.”