Back in April in Brooklyn at the music venue Baby’s All Right, the main showroom was crowded with people excitedly talking in accents ranging from Nigerian to American and beyond. The performer we had come to see made her entrance, garnished with a collection of balloons precariously suspended by a ribbon wrapped around her neck. Jojo Abot looked out on the audience, her mouth appearing to be dripping with blue paint, burning a smudge stick, swathed in floor-length lace. As the electronic beats rose to greet her, she smiled and began to sing…
Jojo Abot is a Ghanaian singer, artist, creator, and an individual who does not fit into conventional labels–and that’s just the way she likes it. Jojo has been on Afropop’s radar for some time now, mixing reggae, electronic and Afrobeat to create her own “Afro-hypno-sonic” sound. The Baby’s All Right show was characteristic of the magic she creates in her work, which has led others like New Inc, an art incubator started by the New Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and even Lauryn Hill to collaborate with her.
Jojo crooned us through her latest tracks accompanied by two musicians with drums, keyboard and even a saxophone. The upbeat bass-heavy track “To Li” shifted seamlessly into the bluesy “Pi Lo Lo.” Jojo slowed down her tracks at various points, allowing the audience to catch the electro-fusion beats embedded in her songs that gives the spark to her versatile sound. The crowd was called upon at various points throughout the performance, in call and response, on stage dancing, and even a surprise rap contribution from an audience member. The emotions of the set ranged from somber to ecstatic and, as always, experimental. Jojo took over on lead guitar, a new component in her set.
Following the show, I sipped water, trying to cool down from the literal heat her set created, as bodies moved, danced and sang along with her, each committed to the other for the whole set. As I drank the cold water I suddenly tasted sage, a smokiness of the smudge stick Jojo had first lit. Even though she had left the room, Jojo was in the air.
Prior to the show, Jojo came by Afropop Worldwide’s office to discuss what she is doing in the upcoming months, some of her past projects such as a 50-participant artist residency in Nairobi on a train, and lots of collaborations and ventures into other mediums such as textiles. The video interview can be found below along with the transcript.
Filmed by Sebastian Bouknight and Akornefa Akyea, edited by Sophia Philip
Jojo Abot is about to start her African tour at the end of the month and will be bringing some exciting new projects back to North America later this summer. For updates and to find out the date for the official release of her upcoming EP Fyfya Woto, check here!
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Sophia Philip: Welcome, Jojo Abot. How are you doing today? What brings you here to New York to Afropop?
Jojo Abot: What am I doing in New York? I’ve been here for the last month going on to two months to get…to catch up on my work at the New Museum. I’m part of their incubator program called New Inc so I’ve been developing a lot of visual content there…to expand on my work for my Fyfya Woto project. So that’s what I’m doing and then I go back on the road in May.
So you mentioned a little something, the Fyfy- project?
Can you talk more about that?
Yeah for sure, I think when I initially stumbled upon it, well it’s a rewrite of my grandmother’s name, but it started out as inspiration for the narrative that pretty much drives the first EP.
Fyfya Woto falls in love with a slavemaster’s son in the time of slavery in Ghana. She’s an Ewe woman, he’s Caucasian, they’re found and “To Li” begins that narrative when they’re caught and then they’re brought before the traditional tribunal. And there are actually about three main characters in “To Li” plus the townspeople who are going “To li, to li, to li” …but that’s their first judgment and then it goes into “Pi Lo Lo,” “Lom Vava,” “Le Le Le,” where the story pretty much ends in Fyfya Woto being sold into slavery. So that started the narrative and then as it went along it became more of a character in my mind, a real energy and essence, then it also became more defined, it became also more like a philosophy or way of being. Then eventually….it became the statement it is now which is more of an energy, you know, that I’m sort of allowing it to be what it wants to be which is also exciting…It means new birth, new discovery so that gives a lot of room for it to sort of evolve but acknowledging a need for an openness to constant evolution and that process of not being committed to who we are today but allowing ourselves to grow and evolve.
Fyfya Woto means “fyfya,” “in the moment” or “just now” or “now” or “finally”…Germinated, germinated….So then in thinking about that, because I like to play around with the language or explore what things could mean. So if something is now germinating it must have existed in the ground in some form and then it germinated. But when it germinated still in that form it existed before it was discovered and affirmed to have germinated. But take away the power and everything else, this process is happening either way… I think that’s then the conversation of energy being transformed, that plant will grow, it will shed leaves and it will go through different stages, and it might produce seeds that then grow elsewhere. All of that is happening in the forest whether we see it or not. So new discoveries, rebirth is happening constantly and I find that that’s the same with us in our world, that it’s happening whether we acknowledge it or not.
So then you talked about it a little bit earlier, so feeding into that evolution, you had some pretty dope stuff go down this year, there’s the New Year’s Eve celebration.
And there’s Lauryn Hill and…
There was also being recognized as one of the 100 most-influential African women.
You, and then also a little like props to Afropunk and that announcement that just came out.
‘Cause it’s so good. So going off of that awesome squeal, that is so legit.
How was all that? How was Lauryn? Lauryn. I can’t even imagine just to drop like, “Hey Lauryn,” How has the year been, what did you think of your New Year’s performance?
I think you know six, seven years ago I was on a very different path in life to becoming something completely different than what I am right now. And to look back on that now and then even to look as recent as a year ago or two years ago. I have to say that it’s definitely been that Fyfya Woto process that has brought me here that allows me to continue to do all the things that I’m doing. It’s been a very exciting year. I’m in disbelief as much as I sort of manifest and I work toward these things, I’m in disbelief because sometimes you manifest and you get your dream and then it happens, and then you’re like, “Oh sh** it happened.” And that process has been more, I guess, intense than knowing that it’s gonna happen. I think there’s faith of course, but then when it manifests fully you’re just like, “Oh God, I’m playing God, I have the audacity of God to manifest in.”
New York, the States, in particular, has been very open to me. I think Times Square Alliance deciding and voting on an artist like myself to start that program with New Year’s Eve was a huge statement. I think they were being provocative and very forward thinking and I applaud them for that. I think that all of the institutions and organizations that have supported, they’ve brought me in very intentionally and it’s been to be provocative because I’m not vague with my work or my aesthetic. So it’s really nice have that support, it’s really nice to sort of see that, you know, these institutions and these spaces are open, you know, to provoking their audience, and are open to challenging their audience, and open to bring something new to the mix that may not be what people are necessarily used to. So it’s been to find people like that to partner with and collaborate with.
I’m really curious about how it’s been like because you, throughout these last few years you’ve been in Denmark, you’ve been in New York you’ve done a lot of work in Africa in different countries, how in being in those different music markets, let’s say Europe, or if it even manifests as Europe versus North America versus Africa, have you noticed the markets’ similarities or difference that you find surprising? Kind of going off of that stem, of like you saying, recently North America’s been incredibly welcoming so have you found that it’s necessary in your evolution to go to different geographical areas or stay and continue to foster those relationships with your audiences?
To be honest, I’ve been eager to live beyond my sort of inherited identity. A lot of my work is about challenging the notion of identity and you know sort of forcing it to be this ever evolving thing, right. In an effort, obnoxiously, to live beyond my race and my ethnicity. I sort of challenged myself to find homes in different space and to build a life for myself in different spaces and to connect in different spaces and cultures. For the last four years I would say, especially I’ve been very intentional about building networks, building support systems in different places, these three continents to be specific. The markets are different, there are similarities, but largely quite different. I’ve felt that America would be my toughest market, actually not even, I felt America would be my toughest market. I was told it would be my toughest market and yet I’ve found that it’s been the most supportive. I think that you know at home in Ghana or in Nairobi for example there is a need for us to build infrastructure and to build that network right. Which is also very exciting on the other hand. So I enjoy you know being present in these spaces and I guess I would attribute it to my need to be omnipresent.
You know and that’s been rather intentional in my work.
And at one point I think the genre of Afro-hypno-sonic came up.
And I was wondering if you could expand upon it especially for folks who maybe aren’t familiar with your work or whether it’s from maybe a past evolution.
No, that’s still, that’s still there I think. For a long time people asked, “What is your style of music blah blah blah” and I had only had four songs barely out. And again that EP’s not released, it’s been made available but it’s not released, we’re releasing in the next couple of months. So technically I have no really officially released music. But people would always ask, “What’s the genre of music that you make?” It’s jazz, it’s electronic, it’s Afrobeat,” not with an “S,” let’s get that clear. It’s you know, it’s this, it’s that, people just felt a need to know. People always do just gotta know.
Even though we discard that knowledge within two minutes of acquiring it, right. So but we gotta know, we just gotta satisfy that need to know. So Afro-hypno-sonic. Afro inspired, hypnotic, sonically unique. Afro-hypno-sonic.
So it was just a way to sort of have something that described the feeling rather than sort of like it’s reggae, or it’s this or it’s that, it’s anything and everything. So it’s Afro inspired for sure, it’s hypnotic, and the sonic resonance will be unique. Or trigger something specific in you. That’s all it is.
I had seen, I love, what was the name of it? The East African Soul Train.
Yes, the East African Soul Train.
I can only get a taste of like the Instagram videos, that was all I was privy to. But I would love to hear what went down, how did you get, because you were the artistic director.
Let’s speak to that, that’s huge. Yeah, so how did you become a part of it, how, what happened, what did the train, do you like trains at the end of this?
We like trains. Yeah, trains are good. Nairobi has been a place that I’m very excited about. I think Nairobi, yeah, I went into Nairobi at a time when it was ripe for a rebirth. You know and for a long time I had been wondering ways in which I could be useful in the continent. Beyond just being an artist myself, and trying to push my music, which honestly in Kenya hasn’t been really been a priority for me. So last year, no two years ago at the end of the year I went over to play Blankets & Wine, the festival African Nouveau went out there for that. Fell in love with one particular artist who’s forming a group called EA Wave, Jinku, we met the rest of the team and I was connected but there’s something about Jinku, this understated incredibly talented individual who you know, was just, when I say understated, he’s like so low key.
Barely said a word. And something about him just drew me in. And I said, “I’m gonna come back here and do something with you guys,” and so about three months later I said to my now ex-boyfriend this, “We have to go to Nairobi. I don’t know why we have to go to Nairobi and I want to start this residency program. I want to go there for three months and da da da.” And he’s looking at me like, O.K. And yeah, it wasn’t that I even knew what I was doing or necessarily. Or that I felt that I had learned so much and I had that much to offer but I wanted to be surrounded by artists who are innovative and can work with little and achieve great things, right. So I wanted to put myself in that position and inspire others to be in the position as well so I went back to Nairobi, ran this residency for three months with Usake, EA Wave, Prisca … so it was a multimedia residency and as a result of that work with artists like Cosmic Homies, Blinky Bill, Mayonde, Muthoni Drummer Queen. These are the people that are leading the underground. It helped expand this network, this collaborative network, and then a year later you’re finding that other things have sort of happened since then. And so East African Soul Train started that year, so I went for the first edition just sort of like an observer. They said, “Hey will you come just to sort of experience” and I went on and had some ideas as far as where they could take it and they asked would you come on to art direct, draw up the programming, come up with the theme and all that stuff and really just design this year’s project and it was really exciting. We had 50 artists from the East African region.
Which is dope, different disciplines, 100 people total, 50 passengers from all over, the States, Germany whatever. So it was a really large team of people, it was intense, it was the most intense five days, the first one was about two to three, three days. So this time they extended it to five days. We had two days of workshops and then we were on the train and it was super intense, create, create, create.
It really reaffirmed this truth that we are only limited by, I guess this, a lack of understanding of our might, if you will and what we’re capable of. And you’re crippled in not understanding that the power comes from us and we’re the genesis of our creation. And so that you know bringing people into that space of understanding that all they need is the self and then others and between them and within that network they can make anything possible. Right. So I think that’s really my, the idea that I really want to foster, you know, in Africa. I think that’s you know you don’t mean so much you can do a lot. “Mega Kpenu Nao” as a track we did using FruityLoops
in a tiny windowless studio with EA Wave and the video was iPhone only done in my backyard so you know it’s like you can actually do dope shit with very little… you know taking away those limitations, stripping them away and making…
And making the creative your starting point of the conversation of creativity in that you’re creating magnificent work and this idea of excellence. Right, I think Western excellence is in some ways different from African excellence and I think we need to establish what that is for ourselves…I’m feeling full with conversation.
Well Jojo, thank you for coming to Sunset Park.
Thank you very much.