We spoke with Ayo about imagining herself as a refugee, avoiding regret through brutal honesty, rejecting hate in a hateful world and connecting with her surroundings rather than social media.
The world is becoming very dark, but hey! There’s a filter for that. There’s a filter for everything! Put a filter on it.
I understand that your parents were Romani and Nigerian, and that you moved from Germany to London in your twenties. Having roots in all these varying places, do you ever deal with a sense of displacement as an adult? Or are you most comfortable while on the move?
I’m a very restless person. I think it has to do with my mama’s DNA and my DNA. My mama’s a gypsy, so maybe that explains why I like to move around a lot. I think it’s a very natural thing. That’s what we used to do. If you go back in history, we didn’t used to settle down, stay in one place and stay in one place our whole lives. That’s something I find amazing about New York. When you look at New York, people are from everywhere.
Listening to some of your work, I’ve been really moved by your determination to speak about your own internal and external experiences in your music. It’s a rare attribute in an era while music is often trying to be a mindless diversion, a distraction. Can you name a few specific pieces of music that have helped you or provided something useful in your life?
There are many. I think “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan is an amazing, very powerful song that inspired me in many ways. It’s so honest. It talks about the actual state of the world, not only America. Bob Marley… so many songs of Bob Marley! Probably everything he has ever done. “Redemption Song” is such a beautiful song. Rickie Lee Jones’ “We Belong Together,” too. Joni Mitchell. Blue is a classic. Joni in her prime.
Specifically, Joni Mitchell’s music helped me not be ashamed of who I am, where I’m from and what my story is. She was so open with her life. She was a real storyteller, but she was talking about her own life. Not making up stories, you know? It helped me to know what I’m doing isn’t so wrong, that it’s good to be myself and talk about things that are difficult in my childhood, things that I had a hard time dealing with.
You’ve stated in the press that you’ve dealt with a lot of loss and separation early on in regard to your parents. What advice would you give somebody who is grappling with losing someone close to them?
I do have to say thank God my mother and father are still alive. My loss was more of a separation, having to go to foster care and be in foster families. But I think there’s nothing you can possibly tell somebody because we go through it in our very own way. That’s the hardest part when there are so many things that you’ve experienced, that I’ve experienced, but maybe we both dealt with it in a different way. I think there are so many different ways to deal with things, but when it comes to loss, it’s very difficult to tell somebody what to do.
I’d like to think about the concept of separation and division. Not only on a global scale, but becoming alienated from others and the world around us via social media and technology. What tactics do you use to stay mindful and engaged with the world on a daily basis?
When I leave my apartment and step outside, I see people who don’t even like looking at each other. Everything is so cold and sterile and people are afraid! On the subway, they’re scared to touch you! When I push my six-month-old son in his stroller, I have to watch people closely because there are too many people like this [mimics staring at device] on their phone! They’re not looking around at what what’s going on and they’ve almost bumped into me so many times. Zombies walking around on their phones!
Life is not happening in the real world anymore. Everything is becoming virtual. When they talk about reality TV, there’s nothing real about it! Why is it called reality TV? We all know that on Instagram we can post a picture, like “I woke up like this!” with the filter, but we all know! Who really wakes up like that? Nobody does! You know the thing on Snapchat where the color changes and all of a sudden you look all fresh and great? That’s what the world is becoming. It’s very dark, but hey! There’s a filter for that. There’s a filter for everything! Put a filter on it.
It’s just sad. So sad.
The concept of “self-care” has kind of been bandied around over the last couple of years, tactics to stay comfortable during harsh experiences. While I agree that it’s important to stabilize your personal space, I think it misses the point of working hard to fix your own personal flaws and foibles. What do you think is the most honest route to self-improvement?
You know what I think? The most honest way to self-improvement would start with acknowledging simple things. Saying “sorry.” Not always blaming others. We all have our flaws, nobody’s perfect. And I think it’s okay to not be perfect. We’re very dramatic, you know? We overdramatize. Everything is a big problem. But at the end of the day, it’s not a problem at all because problems are a part of life! It’s up and down and up and down. Until it’s like this [makes flatline gesture] then you’re dead.
I’d rather have 99 problems, like Jay-Z would say, than not have any problems. I’d rather be alive. I don’t want to be dead. There are going to be some moments in your life where you’re a little on-the-edge or say something you don’t mean. We’re human beings. Nobody’s always nice or always sad or always happy.
I’m a very positive person, but as positive and happy as I can be, I can be just as bad. I can be very miserable. Sometimes I just want to be miserable, you know? I think we all like that. Sometimes you just want to be sad and have somebody tell you “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine!” We’re just like children, at the end of the day. When I look at my children, they can be so happy and then they’re sullen or crying all of a sudden. And when I ask what happened, they don’t understand. Something shifted in their brain. I think we’re exactly like that.
It’s always “I hate this,” or “I hate that.” But when can we say “I love the President” or “I love the system?” “I love what they did in Afghanistan!”
I can only think of one concept, and that’d be love. To truly love and to know what love truly is. I’m not a fan of politics at all because it’s promises, promises. “I promise you this!” and “I promise you that!” And then they become President and then… nothing ever happens. It’s just a game. They’re playing games. But it’s even sadder than that, because they’re playing with our emotions, too. There are people in very, very, very bad situations in their lives and they depend on a better system.
We are so lucky to be able to function, no matter how bad the system is. We have a roof over our heads and something to eat, but there are people who are so close to losing even that. To me, a promised land is respect and love. Those are two things that you don’t find any more in this world.
And nobody’s humble anymore! It’s the opposite. Look at the President, he’s so in love with himself. And the way he talks – I’ve never seen a President of anywhere in the world talk about an NFL team and call them “sons of bitches.” Sometimes I sit there and I cannot believe it’s real. I can’t believe it! Imagine if President Obama had used such language! They would be like “You know this is how these black people talk in the ghetto.” But if Trump says it, nobody cares.
Yesterday, I was on my way to Whole Foods and traffic was really slow. And I was calling an Uber and the app didn’t work. Everything was kind of weird! I was like “What’s going on today?” I wasn’t aware of the fact that Trump was in town. It has never been that way, because he attracts so much hate. Because he’s so full of hate.
And that’s what I’m talking about with “the promised land,” because what you give is what you get. If you’re a President who stands for love, that’s what’s going to happen. It’s contagious. But so is hate. Ever since Trump became President, everyone’s been so full of hate. It’s becoming a normal thing, like that’s the way it is and people accept it. “We hate Donald Trump,” or “I hate this system,” or “I hate this,” or “I hate that.” But when can we say “I love the President” or “I love the system?” “I love what they did in Afghanistan!”
We’re in a very, very dark period of time and it’s hard to remain light. Optimistic. Happy. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We don’t really know. What is it that we’re looking forward to? It seems like people don’t really understand what’s going on. Every day I wake up and look at my stupid iPhone, yeah? I have all these apps on my phone and every day I wake up and it says “Donald Trump” and it’s a scandal again. Every day! Ever since this man has been President, there hasn’t been a day since something went horribly wrong. How many people have been fired in the White House or are under investigation?
This is like a reality show! The White House. That would be a cool sitcom idea. Dave Chappelle should do it.
There’s only one key to avoiding regret, which is brutal honesty. If you manage to be 100% honest with yourself in any kind of situation, you will be just fine.
BORN TO SING
We asked Ayo to give us some insight on each song from her new, self-titled record.
“Nothing” is a very important song on the record. It talks about what I went through during my career and my life, when I had my first success and all that. I was in a relationship with the father of my two kids, who I met when we were both 19. Today we’re best friends, which makes it easy to talk about, but he cheated on me. I looked for my mistake, and thought something was wrong with me.
I’ve never drank, I’ve never smoked, I’ve never been drunk in my entire life, but I became addicted to buying. I was a shopaholic because I was trying to shop the pain away, making myself feel better. To feel like I was worth it. But what you are worth is not the things you buy. It’s not the Chanel bag that is going to make you into a whole person. But so many women go through this, you know? Consumerism. Men go through it too. It can kill you.
At the end of the day, these material things are nothing. I felt I had it all, but I had nothing. Nothing can be everything, and everything can be nothing.
It’s just a love song. I wrote it when I was on cloud nine. Just a very simple, honest love song.
It’s a slang word for Paris. Gypsies in France call Paris “Paname,” and this is a love letter to the city I love so much. Everything kind of began there for me. When I went there for the first time, it was a crazy kind of lifestyle. I had no money, but I had friends. It’s kind of like couch surfing, when you sleep here and there and go everywhere. Paris gave me so much. It has an incredible energy. It’s so inspiring, just like New York is so inspiring.
You know what’s crazy about city life? It’s like an addiction. You become addicted to the city. I’ve talked to so many people who are like “I’ve got to get out of here.” It almost sounds like you’re hooked on heroin or something. “I’ve got to quit!” We literally are like addicts, where we do it but we don’t know why. You don’t know why you’re still here!
I wrote this song because I wanted to dedicate it to all the mothers who have lost their sons due to police brutality. Of course, with police brutality comes racism as well, unfortunately. When I wrote this song, Mike Brown had just died in Ferguson. I wasn’t signed and I wanted to release the song then and there, because I think music should be something that happens in the very moment. With all the platforms we have today, it should be so easy to just put out something and spread it so people can get the message.
The saddest part is that ever since I wrote the song, there have been so many, many more victims. So much has happened ever since. It’s so sad.
On almost every one of my records, I have this moment where I have a big fallout with my dad and we don’t speak for a while because we’re both stubborn. So, during one of these times, I wrote the song “Why” because I felt sad. I imagined something happening to me or to him, and I thought “Why can’t we just swallow our pride?”
It’s about what I said before in the very beginning about love. I think what we need most is love. I’m saying if love is a killer, I’d be a murderer because I love to love. I’m full of love. Even though the world is like this, I refuse to hate.
It’s a love song as well, but it’s even more than that. The one place in a city where you can have your peace and quiet while still being in a city is when you have that one person that you know knows you in and out. Someone you can rely on. With that kind of a person, the city becomes like a forest.
I definitely am a sugar junkie. I love cupcakes and I love candies. Everything that I sing in the song is the stuff that I really, really like. Which is pretty bad, but what I’m saying is what I love more than all the sugar in the world is the kiss of my children. There’s nothing sweeter than that.
“Let it Rain” is like a prayer to me. I wrote it when I was kind of down. It’s a prayer for help.
I wrote this around the same time as “Let it Rain,” I was facing changes, like breaking up with my manager. It was really unclear where I was going. It was really just me trying to connect, but not connect to my Instagram account or my Facebook account! Connect to God, you know?
This is a song that was inspired by my son. When he was nine or ten, he came home from school and told me that he had this weird feeling in his belly whenever he would see this girl. I’m not going to mention her name because I don’t want him to embarrass him, he’s going to kill me one day! He didn’t know what it was, that feeling. I told him “You’re in love,” but it’s funny because a child doesn’t know when it happens for the first time. It’s like “I don’t know what’s going on! I have to smile every time I see her!”
I wrote this song because of what he told me, and because it made me think about myself. All of a sudden, I was reminded of how I felt when I fell in love for the first time. I remember not liking that feeling at one point, because when you become older, you go through it again and again and again in different kinds of ways. It can be so stressful! You hate to eat in front of that person, because you’re self-conscious, like “Is there something between my teeth?” The butterflies can become a stomachache!
A lot of people would think it’s about a man, but it’s more about God to me. When you’ve been hurt many times, you tell yourself that you’re never going to love again, but you mean you’re not going to love someone like that again. But then, you still go and open up fully again. You do it all over again.
When you know you love, it’s eternal. If you say you love someone forever and beyond, people would laugh and think that’s naïve. Good one, yeah, sure! But when you really love, it is forever and beyond. What’s sad about it is when people reach a certain age and they find themselves lonely. They have regrets. It seems like we’ll never be satisfied.
I think there’s only one key to avoiding regret, which is brutal honesty. If you manage to be 100% honest with yourself in any kind of situation, you will be just fine. Plus, you don’t have to hurt anybody, because hurt comes from betrayal, making excuses and not being clear. Honesty is the key to all of it.
I was really inspired by the situation with all the refugees. There was a time when every country had to deal with refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. In Germany, the chancellor Angela Merkel said “Our borders are open, you’re all welcome,” and I thought it was so amazing for her to say that. I was imagining what I would do if I was trapped in a country where I saw people dying left, right and center. I would want to be reunited with my children, because that’s what people do, they send them to have a better life with an auntie or uncle. It’s terrible how some people call them “health costies” or “anchor babies.”
If you lived in a country where you woke up and hear gunshots and grenades, of course you wouldn’t want this for your child or yourself. You’d take the risk of dying just to leave the country. It makes me cry thinking about how a mother would sit on a tiny little boat with her baby who cannot swim. She might not even be able to swim herself. They sit on a boat and they try to cross the ocean, when they know how many people die every year trying to do that.
Sometimes I feel like we’re monsters. How can we sit here and watch this and let this happen? How is this possible?
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: In-person conversation
Published: October 9, 2017
Total questions: 6 + 14
Word count: 3161
Reading time: Eleven minutes
Parisian slang: Paname
Cellphones: Dawn of the Dead
Promised land: Love
addiction, Angela Merkel, auntie, Ayo, blue, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, butterflies, cellphone, Chanel, consumerism, eternal, filter, Germany, God, honesty, humility, iPhone, Jay-Z, Joni Mitchell, kill, London, love, miserable, NFL, Nigeria, President, rain, reality TV, Rickie Lee Jones, Romania, scandal, self-care, separation, shopaholic, smile, stomachache, system, Uber, uncle, Whole Foods, zombies
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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