Ibeyi’s Deathless Love and Energy
In 2015, French-Cuban twin sisters Naomi and Lisa released an album as IBEYI that shook up the world. Their unshakable bond, appreciation of their heritage and passion to celebrate their life, their family and their father shone through, and saw the pair acquire a huge fanbase across the world – including none other than BEYONCE. Fast forward two years, and the pair are on the precipice of sharing another album, but this time with a much heavier, deeper message.
While their debut focused on the past, their new record, Ash, focuses firmly on the present. Deeply rooted in Afro-Cuban culture, it’s a potent political statement, and judging from the first few singles, it’s going to shake things up once more. When I hear IBEYI’s new song, ‘Deathless’ featuring Kamasi Washington, I hear power and strength. I hear resilience in the chorus and I get goosebumps during the hook. Sometimes a message strengthens itself with the power of repetition, and every time I replay the song, my belief in the strength of humanity grows stronger too.
There is sanctity in solidarity, and we should all look out for the visceral and raw energy that IBEYI channel into their music. Their energy is contagious, youthful and vibrant, and yet there is a maturity that comes from the wisdom of experience and the influence of their deep cultural roots. Though none of us are physically immortal, IBEYI have written their music to remind us that our spirits are deathless and live through history. We are seeds, and we will keep growing – together.
I talked to French-Cuban twin sisters Naomi and Lisa, together known as Ibeyi, about police brutality and racism occurring all around the world, their rich cultural background, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, and the sheer power of feeling deathless, together.
I was listening to the podcast that you guys did with The Song Exploder about the making of the song ‘Deathless’ featuring Kamasi Washington, and I was so impressed. Through listening, I came to learn that the song came from a racist experience that you had with a police officer, is that right?
Lisa: It started to be about the racist experience but it became something else. We were in the studio with the producer Mitchell Russell and we started talking about a huge trial in France about a racist. And then he asked us if we had ever been arrested by the police. I told him I had, once when I was sixteen. This policeman arrested me and asked me if I was smoking or taking drugs or drinking and I said no. I was sixteen years old and I knew something was very wrong, but I didn’t even realise what it really was about. This happened in Paris. It happened so fast and I didn’t connect the dots.
I went back home and told my mother about what had happened and she turned red, and was really angry. She told me that it was not normal, and today I look at it and think, the worst that happened was not that it happened to me but the fact that the people around me didn’t do anything.
It happens to loads of people every day and people around them don’t do anything. And then they go back to their houses and feel utterly powerless. The song ‘Deathless’ is for EVERYBODY to feel powerful and large, and to realise that we are deathless.
There’s a sentence I read online that says, “They buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” I love that quote, and that’s what ‘Deathless’ is about.
That’s a really beautiful quote. How did you feel putting this experience and feeling into song, or into an art form, and how important do you think it is to get it out of your system in the way you knew how to?
Lisa: I hesitated before writing the song, because I thought that there’s so many awful things happening today because of racism. Like the march of the Ku Kux Klan happening in America and Charlottesville, or young black people getting shot by policemen just because the police are scared. I thought my story was not as serious or bad as all of this.
Naomi: But then I told her that what she had lived was enough. And that we should talk about it because we don’t have to fucking kill someone to talk about it. What she lived through was enough, and too much.
I guess we are always hearing about it happening in America, but we hardly hear about it happening in other places in the world. Racism exists everywhere, so what is it really like in Paris?
Lisa: We hear less about it in Paris, but it happens especially in the suburbs. But the policemen in Paris also do not have guns, so there is not as much death. Being wrongly arrested, I believe, happens a lot. It’s different in America with the guns.
That’s really heavy and people still need to know that it’s occurring all around the world. I’m noticing that with this second album, you’re starting to touch on way heavier topics. What went into your decision to touch on these themes?
Lisa: We never forced ourselves to talk about these matters. First of all, it’s only our second album and in our first album we needed to talk about our father and family and celebrate them with music. It came really naturally this time. We didn’t want to force those things because it felt complicated, you don’t want to offend anybody. If you’re not ready to talk about these subjects it’s probably better to not mention them. It came into the album and we were ready, it was the right time.
Naomi: We have our own parts in the making, Lisa creates the songs and lyrics. And I come up with the rhythm. Since the first one, I wanted the second one to be more upbeat. I was joking and saying that I want people to be able to twerk to this one.
Oh, I definitely twerked when listening to the album.
Naomi: To which song? The Spanish one right!?
Lisa: Yes! You’ve really made Naomi’s day!
[Laughs] There’s a lot of music that’s very deep and talks about a lot of serious subjects, but you also find yourself moving and dancing along. Like Kendrick Lamar, he’ll talk about really intense and sad things but you’ll be dancing along at the same time, fully conscious of the weight of his music.
Lisa: We loooove Kendrick Lamar. Actually, some of the best dance songs are usually really sad. They talk about really serious subjects and you can dance along and there’s this huge beat. Other times you can just listen to the songs and the lyrics and I think that’s quite healthy.
Who are the other figures within the music industry that you look up to who also talk about serious topics like him?
Lisa: Not only musicians inspire us. “No Man Is Big Enough from Home” is a song that’s derived from a quote from a book called Widow Basqiat. Frida Kahlo inspires us. A feeling can inspire us.
Naomi: Musician-wise we can say Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Nina Simone, Bon Iver, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Yoruba music, our father’s music, even trap music! I love Cardi B, for example.
I LOOOOVE CARDI B! Please try to meet her while you’re in New York, she’s from the Bronx so anything can happen.
Lisa: We wish that could happen but we don’t think it will! She’s amazing.
Naomi: We listen to a lot of genres, and we love a lot of different music. When you’re a musician or an artist, you have to listen to a lot of genres and music from everywhere.
I can definitely hear the mix of every genre that inspires you in your songs. You’re twin sisters and you both have very mixed identities regarding your heritage, how has your background contributed to the way you use music?
Lisa: A lot. Everything our family transmitted to us, everything from music to values to shows they took us to, everything has influenced us and I always say one of the best gifts you can give to someone is the discovery of an amazing musician or book. We’re so lucky to be half Cuban and half French, and growing up between two different cultures.
I think now is such an important time to talk about these important themes that are going on within society, and I think people really respond to this music in a very immediate way.
Lisa: I think it’s important but I don’t want to tell people that they have to do it. But doing it, or doing a song like ‘Deathless’ or ‘Ash’, made us feel like we were at least doing something. It’s not much, and we’re totally conscious of that and we’re not preaching either. But it made us feel like we’re doing something, even though it seems little. We think it’s going to be totally magical to hear people sing ‘Deathless’ or ‘Ash’ or ‘Transmission’ together.
I would absolutely love to see that live. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
Lisa: We definitely want to come to Australia and we loved it when we came last year! We wrote most of these songs knowing how much we’re going to love performing on stage. This album has been written for the stage, and after two years of touring, we wrote songs that we knew we wanted to play on stage. We hope it will bring joy and we hope people will hear that it’s made with the heart and it’s visceral and we cannot wait to hear everybody sing.
Ibeyi‘s Ash is available Friday 29 September via XL Recordings / Remote Control.
Words by Michelle Zhu