In the spirit of Nina Simone, Ayo—the Nigerian-German singer—is determined to have her music reflect the times. “I think music should always speak to the people,” she tells ESSENCE. “It should always have a purpose.” For nearly a decade, the 34-year-old self-taught guitarist has been giving us a sweet mélange of jazz, soul, reggae and afrobeat tunes to groove to. Music aside, Ayo is also an actress—she recently starred in Raoul Peck’s Murder in Pacot—a film about a privileged couple dealing with life after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Ahead of her Blue Note Jazz Festival performance this Sunday, Ayo spoke to ESSENCE about her musical influences, her dream collaboration with J.Cole, and growing up Black in Germany.
Ayo’s name means ‘joy’ in Yoruba
“My full name is Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin. Joy means “Ayo” in Yoruba. When I released my first record my dad said ‘you cannot say Joy, you have to use the name Ayo.’ So I became Ayo. He said he wants the world to know that this is a Nigerian girl.”
She's a world traveler
“I’m a traveler, I can’t even tell you the amount of times I moved. I left Germany when I was 20 to go to London. At 22, I moved to Paris, where I signed a record deal. I came to New York that same year to do trials with producers and then Interscope picked me up. I always had to travel back and forth from Europe to New York. I’m a very restless person, I guess it’s because I always moved around a lot since my childhood. I think when you don’t know anything but moving around all the time it becomes a part of you.”
She believes all music should have a purpose
“Music can be a weapon or medication, not just a way to party, even though I love to dance. I believe music isn’t something that I chose. It’s a gift that had been given to me. I believe it had to happen to me, because I had difficulties. My mom became a heroin addict when I was five and my family had to split up. I went to foster care, my mom went to jail; all these kinds of things, so I became a singer because I believe that if it wasn’t for music, my life would have been quite different. It was a healing tool; a way to overcome and a way to speak about things that I wasn’t allowed to speak about because my dad never wanted me to talk about what was going on at home. He wanted to be very discreet about it because he felt ashamed.”
Brooklyn has won her over
“When I first came to America, I really liked it. I first moved to Manhattan in the West Village with my son. I loved it, but I felt like when I left Manhattan to move to Brooklyn, that’s when I really started enjoying America because I found so much culture in Brooklyn. I loved what I saw. I always wore my hair natural in an afro. When I came to Brooklyn, I liked that I saw a lot of beautiful Black people with a lot of pride and culture; people that didn’t necessarily try to blend in.”
She was routinely called the N-word growing up in Germany
“I always had to run because people chased me because of my skin color. I’ve been called the N-word, teased about my hair. I’ve been pushed off the bus, and sometimes the bus driver wouldn’t even pick my brother and I up. My son lived in Germany for one year with his grandmother and went to school there because I was traveling so much. He was called the N-word everyday at his private school. My son asked me, ‘why do Black people call each other the N-word?’ and I say ‘I think they’re trying to empower the word, because when they say it to each other it’s not the same as if a white person calls a Black person the N-word.’ But still I believe its wrong because you should not call someone something that you do not want someone to call you.”
She was a rapper before she was a singer
“Before I was a singer, I was rapping. In Germany, hip-hop was everywhere. People often question why I don’t sing in German. I say because German just wasn’t the reference for me because my dad didn’t play German music at home. My dad was a DJ in the 70s and the music he played was the best music that you could think of, like Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, a lot of reggae music, because you know in Africa, you do have a big reggae crowd there. My dad really loved soul music—Nina Simone, Donnie Hathaway, Gladys Knight, Minnie Riperton, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross. But he also played a lot of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. My favorite rapper has always been Nas. I really like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and KRS One.”
She wants to collaborate with J. Cole
“I love the way he writes. It’s very profound and I would love to hear him more over acoustics. I think it’s a great mixture to rap over guitar and have a more organic kind of beat.”
Catch Ayo at the Blue Note Jazz Festival, produced by Jill Newman Productions, this Sunday, June 28, at the Blue Note. Click here for more info.