Interviewed by Belinda Otas
With her earnest lyrics, a haunting and soothing sound and a raspy, seductive and magnetic voice, AYO has won adoring fans across Europe, North America and Africa, for her openness which many can relate to. In her own words, AYO on music as her therapy and why identity is important to her.
Belinda: What inspires you as an individual and an artist?
Ayo: As an artist and as an individual, I’m inspired by life itself. My life, the life of others, my surroundings and daily influences, that’s what I’m inspired by the most and my music. My music is rather personal than anything else. To me, it’s more of a therapy. Music has always been therapeutic and healing to me.
Belinda: When you are writing and as you sing these songs, what is it that you want to examine, expose and explore through your music?
Ayo: The way it happens is a very natural process. Sometimes I cannot even explain what I write. Other times, when I take the guitar, there are things the guitar can take out of me. It’s a communication between me and my guitar and the way to get rid of some weight and things that are bothering me and things that have touched me a lot or made me sad or made me happy. So, it’s really like, I write music, it sounds horrible but the first thing is that I really do it for myself and then when I feel good about it and I’m happy, I know that I can make other people feel good too and maybe people will be able to find themselves in it. Maybe there are people that don’t have a voice and don’t feel courageous enough to talk about these things. So maybe when they hear it from my song, they can relate to it as if it was their own story because I believe that we share more than we actually think.
Belinda: How would you describe the sound we are going to hear on your third album?
Ayo: On the third record, you will definitely hear more of a rock influence. In the last two records, my dad was coming out a lot in me but now, I guess it’s probably more like my mum because my mum used to listen to a lot of rock music and everything I grew up with really influenced me. It’s very wide, it’s like my interpretation of rock, reggae and soul and it’s still very much a mix of different sounds but with the cosmopolitan style.
Belinda: You have never shied away from talking about your background, what would you say you took from the Nigerian part of your heritage and your mum’s Romanian side?
Ayo: The Nigerian part of me is probably the strongest because I grew up with my dad way more than I did with my mum and my dad gave me a lot. My mum too but I believe my dad influenced all of us a lot. My dad is very much Nigerian but at the same time, he is very modern. I was born and raised in Germany, I was always like the outcast because everybody is white with the blue eyes and green eyes, and the blonde hair and though I was born in Germany, you have to picture that Germany is quite different from the UK. So in the 80s, they were more Africans in the UK than in Germany and in the school that I went to, I was the only black child. I have been insulted about the colour of my skin but it was okay because it didn’t do a lot of damage. But at one point, you do decide and you take a side. I would look in the mirror and see that I’m different and I would relate to my father and whenever I was around my father, I was really proud. I was proud to be different and I really related to the Nigerian side more than anything else and when people would ask me, where are you from? I would always say Nigeria. The fact that I was different and looked different made me grow closer to the Nigerian part of me and of course, my name, I didn’t have a typical German name. My name is more Nigerian than anything.
Belinda: How do you feel about being compared to other artists like Sade, Tracy Chapmen and Colin Bailey Rae?
Ayo: I have to say these are all great artists and I guess I feel honoured. At the same time, people always need comparisons and I don’t think any of these artists, I mean the only thing that we all have in common is the skin colour and the hair if we don’t treat it. I believe that is the only thing we have in common but we all have different universes and different views…
Belinda: In what ways have both sides of your heritage and childhood experiences influenced your music and what was it about the Nigerian part of you that you wanted to put into your music as it formed the core elements of your first two albums?
Ayo: It’s funny because I don’t even think about it. I just remember for example, when I wrote Life Is Real, the way I played the song on the guitar, it naturally happened to be more, I don’t know if it is because of the kind and style of guitar but it made me think more of Afrobeat. So, it really happened naturally and suddenly when you write on the guitar, it’s so rhythmical because my style of playing is very rhythmical and it’s like when you listen to Keziah Jones, who is from Nigeria and a very big artist in France, his approach is way more rhythmical as well and his music has nothing to do with Afrobeat but then again, it has something to do with Afroabeat.
Belinda: Your third album has been described as one of growth. How would you describe your evolvement which signifies your growth as an artist?
Ayo: On my first record, I was much younger. A lot of people say the first record is the most important because that is the first impression you leave behind. That’s your introduction. It was a very innocent record maybe and way more innocent. By the second record, I was very sure of myself and what I wanted to say and bring across because it was me that I wanted to bring across. So, I just did what I had to do naturally. By the second record, I was more courageous and all of a sudden, things became rhythmical. I don’t know but I believe there was more power and more energy in the second record. And probably as well because I grew as a mother and as a woman and I looked at my experiences as well and had lived different things after the first record. A lot of people sometimes have more expectations with the second record but I really didn’t feel any pressure, I just did what I had to do for myself again like I did on the first record. The third record, maybe, it is the record where I will say, I wrote different, I started writing in a different way. The second record, I wrote in the same way as the first record but the third record is a different because I did some changes in the way I was writing the music because I really thought about changing my music and that was the first time that I thought of that.
Belinda: Was that because you felt you needed to add some more to it?
Ayo: It was because I lived something else. What I lived in my pregnancy and during my pregnancy and I had the need to write more music as I went through some difficulties in my relationship. And I believe, maybe I had the baby blues, out of that emotion that I wrote more music.
Belinda: The song, One Million pieces talks about broken promises among others, what are the social, cultural, political themes among other areas of life that you have explored in on the new album?
Ayo: To believe. When you look at the title of the record, Billie-Eve, like my daughter. To me, it is more than that. My daughter’s name is Billie-Eve and everything that I have been through in life leads me to one point and puts me into one mood and that is, everything that I have lived and am going to live, at the end of the day, I believe the most important thing is to believe because that is what drives you. That is what makes you want to move on and makes life worth living and that is what gives you power and energy and inspires you. I have refused to believe in destructive things and I want to believe in constructive and positive things. I believe that if we all believe in something great, it brings people together and I’m not talking about religion, I am really talking about life, life itself.
Belinda: Identity featured a lot in your previous albums and runs through your new project, why is identity important to you as an artist?
Ayo: Identity is very important to me. When I talk about identity, it has nothing to do with nationality. Identity to me has more to do with what you stand for as a person, your message and what you believe in and that for me is what identity is and then how to bring that across. I look at Bob Marley for example, to me that is one of the artists that had one of the strongest identities, the way he lived and obviously we cannot say he had the perfect life, but he brought his message across no matter what and he was very loyal and true to himself. I believe that is the most important thing, to be true to who you are.
Belinda: There is as track called How Many People and I wonder if that’s your definition of identity?
Ayo: That is absolutely my definition of identity and I do have to say that I include myself in the song because at the end of the day, it is impossible to always be strong and always resist such things like, imperialism and all those things that I speak about. A stupid example maybe, but sometimes, I can buy a bunch of things and I continue buying stuff and I know that it’s not really good and it’s not going to take me. I start to feel guilty because I know that I could be doing other things. And its like why do I buy things, I don’t need and on the other hand, I’m looking down on it and judge people that and go and waste money on things that are not meaningful in life but at the same time, I do it. You can stand for something but that does not mean that you are always, going to practice what you preach. But that does not tale away from your identity as long as you know you are not perfect, you make mistakes and accept the fact that even you, the message that you have and want to bring across, you can fail and make mistakes.
Belinda: What are your expectations for the third album?
Ayo: I believe that my grandfather used to say that it’s good to have no expectations in life because when you have expectations, you will always be disappointed. You are a human being and you have the tendency to think big and when you have all these expectations, it’s going to be a lot and you are going to expect a lot. I’m like that. I expect a lot but at the same time, I can expect nothing because for me, its like my expectations, everything is already fulfilled because when I sit back and listen to my records, I go through it, the first, second and now the third, I am already happy because no matter what is going to be, I am happy because I have the chance to do what I love to do. I can live the life of a musician and to me that is the greatest thing that could have happened to me. Everything else after is a bonus and I can be grateful and joyful to be able to live like this because after all, that is what success sis to me. Success is to be able to do what you love to do. That is success, to have a family that is success. To have a family is what makes me successful not the records I sell, so I’m very humble when it comes to that because really, I don’t think we should take anything in life for granted and I am very grateful for every moment I live.
Belinda: You refused to be boxed up in the early days when record labels wanted to turn you into a black Britney Spears, how important was it for you as an artist to take that stand and stick with the core of what music means to you?
Ayo: When I was 14/15 and started going to the studio, my mum saw that I was not really the happiest and because she had a lot of problems in her life, drug problems and it’s thanks to her that I’m staying away from drugs because now I know it is not a good thing to take. I’m not taking anything that is drugs related and maybe its too extreme sometimes but I am very careful with whatever I do when it comes to that. But my mum said to me, despite everything and what she had to go through in her life and that was, ‘maybe you don’t know what makes you happy because you are young but when you do know what makes you sad, get rid of it the moment that you feel it’s wrong and it makes you unhappy and that is what I did. So, whenever something felt wrong to me, I knew it wasn’t the right thing, so I moved on, even though I didn’t know where I was going to go to or what it was that I really wanted and when I found it, it felt right and I knew that this was it. This is what I wanted to do.
Belinda: You describe music as your therapy, does this album have that same effect on you, third time around?
Ayo: That is exactly what it is and it was my way out of realty. It allowed me to dream but in a realistic way because when I started to play music and write about my life, I would write about my truth and that allowed me to feel much lighter and not to hide any longer because in my reality and the life that I used to live, I was always surrounded by a lot of lies about everything and lies to try to protect my mother, father and family but its wrong and when I understand it was wrong, trying to protect whatever with lies and hide behind lies and that eventually it was going to break me, because it was horrible and didn’t feel right. Music to me was definitely a way out of all of that and it was also a way out of Germany because it was through my music that I decided to leave. Music helped me to face myself and fears and to heal. I really believe music has healing powers.
Belinda: The song, Who Are They? deals with the issue of movement and immigration, what was it about that topic that you wanted to deal with and from which point of view did you want to address it?
Ayo: The story is actually about a young African man and woman trying to cross the ocean on a boat because I remember there was a time, whenever I watched the news, there was always news about immigrants trying to cross the ocean on a tiny boat and there was one accident where I think 40 Nigerians died and I was like, this is crazy. People get on the boat to cross the ocean without really knowing what is on the other side and what they should expect. It’s crazy because first of all, I believe it’s wrong that there are such things or a thing called border. I mean its 2011 and I think it is ridiculous, who are they to say, you cannot enter the country or you cannot exit the country. To me, that is sick and I don’t understand. And on the other hand, they are talking about how God made all of us. I don’t get it because basically what they are doing,…for example, when Nicholas Sarkozy came to France, the issue of immigration was really bad, I remember one day, I drove by the city hall, where immigrants go to get permission to work and there was a queue of so many people, mothers, children, fathers, young men and women and I was so sad to see that and it was horrible to see that because to me that is like, there was no dignity in that and when I wrote the song, it was really because of that because I don’t understand. At the same time, I think it is sad for example, when you go to Nigeria and you have some people, who believe life is so much easier in America or in Europe. They have the wrong idea and it is a misinformation as well and it’s what’s on TV in Africa, is like life is so much easier over here and they don’t understand that you have the same problems in a different way. It’s a different struggle and for me, that’s what I want to say that somebody might tell you the grass is greener on the other side but that’s not true.
Belinda: Is there a particular message you want people to take from the third album or do you want them to come to the table with an open mind?
Ayo: No matter what you live, go through, will go through, no matter what life brings you, you should always believe in life and the good things because life as it is, is a beautiful thing with its ups and downs, that is what makes you feel alive. Don’t look at it like it’s the end of the world today because you are going through a hard moment. When you believe, life will always continue.
Belinda Otas is a versatile journalist, writer, editor, cultural critic, and an independent blogger. She has a passionate interest in Africa: politics, social development, arts and culture, gender issues and the African diaspora. Currently working as a freelance journalist with various publications aimed at the international community – she has contributed to: CNN, BBC News Online, BBC Focus on Africa, The Africa Report, Think Africa Press, New African and New African Woman magazines, Divascribe and Zam magazine based in Holland, GuinGuinBali.com, The Atlanta Post, among others. For these various publications, she covers politics, social development, gender, health and education stories, fashion and the arts and culture.
Her website is belindaotas.com