Barbados-born and Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Ayoni moved often as a child, from Barbados to Singapore to Indonesia. From moving regularly, Ayoni learned detachment. At the same time, she learned how to live fearlessly and embrace change as opposed to fearing it. She wrote her first song the first time she moved. And though she’s lived in various corners of the world, you cannot put her or her music into one.
In June 2020, Ayoni released “Unmoved (A Black Woman’s Truth),” a song she had held onto privately since early 2019 because she felt the world wasn’t ready to embrace it yet. With systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement coming to the forefront of conversations, Ayoni felt compelled to finally release it. Ones To Watch said “This could easily be one of the most powerful songs that has come across our desk in 2020.” Earmilk described the song as “a message that stands in solidarity with Black women everywhere who continually face discrimination.” All proceeds for “Unmoved (A Black Woman’s Truth)” are being donated to Black and Pink, a US prison abolitionist organization supporting LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive prisoners.
You’ve lived all over the world: Barbados, America, Indonesia, Singapore. What led you to living in so many different areas of the world? How have your many homes influenced your perspective in life?
I did move around a lot growing up. My dad works in the oil and gas industry and that contributed to us moving a lot. I think moving has influenced my perspectives in so many ways. I had to learn detachment. But at the same time, I also had to learn fearless. I learned from a young age that I could have a community of people that I really loved and connected to, that maybe tomorrow I wouldn’t be with. Once I was able to get over the sadness of that and realize the joy in it, it really influenced me jumping into situations. I was able to live life to the fullest fearlessly and not be afraid of change. Not be afraid of rejection. Not be afraid of isolation. Because those are things that I had to overcome to appreciate the beauty in moving and meeting new people and communities.
That influenced my life perspective a lot because it reminded me that beyond the country that I might be living in at the time, there’s a world beyond me that matters. There’s other experiences of other people that matter. It helped me to be grounded as well, and to realize that it’s a privilege for me to have an education and to be able to pick up and move places and experience different cultures. Not everyone had the same upbringing as I did. Those were different ways that molded and shaped me into the person that I am today.
First off, everyone needs to see your cover of “Too Good” because it’s one of the best Rihanna covers I’ve ever heard. Similar to Rihanna, you’re originally from Barbados. Can you give us a glimpse into Barbadian culture? How does it influence you and your music?
I don’t feel like an expert on Bajan culture because I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up there. But I am Bajan and was raised by Bajan parents, so I’m super inspired and molded by the island. I think Barbadian culture is quite joyous. We really love to laugh and we’re really funny [laughs]. There’s also much more of a collectivist experience. We think about our communities a lot more and we think about the ways that our actions might affect our families. That does change the way that people move a little more than people in the west, which is more individualist. So that influenced me. I was raised by parents with really strong morals and values — that’s something that I definitely see reflected in Barbadian culture.
“Music for me has always felt so much bigger than enjoyment. It’s story-telling, it’s history, it’s our beats, our roots. It’s a very human thing.”
In a lot of ways just my groundedness, my learned humility, my appreciation for life, nature, community and being gathered with my family when I’m there. Those things have really reminded me, in a different way to moving, that I am a small piece of a moving puzzle: a moving organism. And that teaches responsibility because life on the island varies for people, but at the end of the day we have overcome a lot. It was a nation that was, at the time of slavery, home to many enslaved peoples who were a part of the triangular trade. And then it was previously colonized by the UK. So I think overall, we’ve had to fight for our liberation. And we are really appreciative of it. And appreciative of education, and such, help us to be freed.
I’d say that influences my music because we love to have a good time [laughs]. Soca and calypso, for example. In August we have Crop Over, which is when enslaved peoples would celebrate the sugar harvest coming to a close and the crops being finished. In my music there’s a joyousness to life that I want to celebrate. There’s a lush musical landscape. It’s the perfect mixture between African and British music, with a sense of indigenous elements to our music. It’s very spiritual to me. Growing up in Barbados, there’s an appreciation for church and gathering in religious senses. Music for me has always felt so much bigger than enjoyment. It’s story-telling, it’s history, it’s our beats, our roots. It’s a very human thing. And I think that translates very much so to the Caribbean and to Barbados specifically our love of music.
When did you first start performing and writing music?
I think the first time I moved I wrote my first song. It was when I moved to Singapore, I was probably seven or eight years old. Since then I’ve been just writing, but I didn’t start performing until I was in middle school. And that’s when things changed a little bit for me.
You released your debut album Iridescent last fall. One line I love from the album is in “Wife You Up”: “I’m Iridescent can’t you see? / Did you think you’d be the death of me?” Can you walk us through the making and inspiration behind this album? What connected you to the theme of iridescence?
Yes! So the making and inspiration behind this project was my entire lived experience: Moving to L.A for college and being away from home and learning independence and adulthood, love, loneliness, lust. I was really connected to the theme of iridescence throughout because I felt as if I had so much to overcome. I had so much to work through. There was so much trauma, that we all experience no matter how great our lives might feel. There’s so much pain in the world and so much unlearning we have to do when we’re on our own.
“Throughout my life I will forever come back to this record and be humbled by what it took to put it out.”
I really felt like, being alone for the first time and not having the comfort of my family or friends, there was a lot of learning and overcoming. And Iridescent became the comeback project — the finding myself. It became so much more than just a fun soundtrack to a moment of my life. It really became a grounding of “this is what you overcame to put this work of music out and these are the things you will have to overcome in life.” So it’s as much of a meditation and a message to me as hopefully it is to everyone. Throughout my life I will forever come back to this record and be humbled by what it took to put it out.
With that specific line you mentioned, “I’m Iridescent can’t you see? / Did you think you’d be the death of me?” it’s like how I felt throughout the process of making this record and finding my power as a woman and as a producer. There was a lot that I had to overcome. There was a lot of imposter syndrome and internalized feelings of inferiority that I had to fight through and prove to myself that I could do this on my own two feet. I’m very grateful for the amazing people that lifted me up throughout the process and gave me the power to speak my truth.
Something I’m blown away by is your musicality and ability to fill space so powerfully with just vocal harmonies, like in “September” and “Unmoved (A Black Woman’s Truth).” What’s your process for writing and arranging your songs?
What always starts first for me is writing and then production. Sometimes those things can coincide, but most of the time, specifically with my last record Iridescent, a lot of the songs started with writing first. But, writing could be anything from the instrumental arrangement to the lyrics. I don’t have a set process for each song that I write. They all come about a bit differently.
“Unmoved” started on guitar and I was writing right as I was figuring out the changes that I wanted to occur harmonically. And that all figured itself out. For a long time with both “Unmoved” and “September,” the harmonies weren’t integrated into the initial writing experience. I see background vocals as added instrumentation. So when I’m approaching an arrangement for a song, I first need to understand the melody and what each line means. And then as I’m approaching an arrangement I decide how I want to intensify or multiply the effects of motions. So those are just the ways that I try to approach vocal arrangements. I don’t necessarily approach vocal arrangements as just “let me slap two lines on there and call it a day,” but more as chorals and a form of ancient gathering of voices, and the way that voices intensifies and resonates with us on a human level. That’s something I really try to play on.
Your song “Unmoved (A Black Woman Truth)” has struck a chord with many people. I imagine that it was an emotional toll to not only write this song, but to also release it into the world. When did you first start writing “Unmoved” and how did the full song (including the beautiful lyric video by Quadio) come to fruition?
I started writing “Unmoved” in January of 2019. I pretty much wrote it then, in just a couple days. And at the time, I was dealing with and processing the fact that Black women don’t matter to people. In the professional world that I was in at the time, it was the way that people spoke to Black women musicians, and the way a lot of white people, white men and women… we just didn’t seem to have many allies present. It didn’t seem to bother other people that there was a clear differentiation between the way that Black women are approached and everyone else.
So that song came from a very, very intimate and painful place. And I was really depressed at the time. I think it’s a really hard pill to swallow and understand that despite what people say when the moment comes, it takes an incredible amount for people to sympathize with Black women.
“I thought, when I feel and see a shift in the general consciousness I will put out the song because then they will be ready to receive it.”
I sat on the song for a year. I didn’t feel like the world was ready for it. I thought, when I feel and see a shift in the general consciousness I will put out the song because then they will be ready to receive it. It was incredibly painful for me to put it out. I was extremely anxious and scared. But I worked on it in the beginning of June at the desk in my room where I recorded, mixed, and produced everything. I’m glad to see people have received it with love. I was super fortunate to work with Quadio, this incredible team and organization for youth musicians. They helped me put together this beautiful lyric video that really spoke to my experience as a Black woman. It really highlighted the points I was trying to make just by beautiful visual representation. That was super exciting — I’ve never done a lyric video before and I hope to do more!
The Black Lives Matter movement is now the “largest movement in U.S history.” What change do you want to see within the music industry specifically?
Within the music industry specifically I hope to see more gatekeepers reflecting who they’re letting through the gates. I feel just as qualified as some of my peers, and yet I feel as a Black woman it’s so much harder for me to have the same opportunities and to be considered in the same lights. I can feel that changing right now which is incredible. But when I first started out with Iridescent in the Fall, I was really aware of the way that Black artists struggle to get the same uplifting on Black platforms. Whether that be R&B playlists or anything else, it’s like even in the corners we’ve been pushed to we still struggle to be uplifted.
I find that artists that are non-Black have an easier time selling our music than we do because I think everyone appreciates Black music more when it doesn’t come out of Black mouths. And that’s something that historically has been an issue from this industry. Whether we’re talking about The Beatles or Elvis Presley, there is a historical record of Black artists not being supported in their times when they deserve to be.
Right now what I want to see from the industry is reparations, to be frank. We are owed many-a-dollar and we will continue to make many-a-dollar, so I think now is the time for doors to be opened to us. But it’s also important to acknowledge that with or without the industry, more than ever we are aware of our power. We continue to pioneer and push music forward because the groundwork that we lay continues to inspire others. With or without the industry, we will continue to create our own tables at this point. We’ll continue to change and innovate what’s possible.
You are donating all proceeds from “Unmoved” to Black and Pink, a US prison abolitionist organization supporting LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive prisoners. Why is Black and Pink’s mission important to you?
Black and Pink’s mission is really important to me because I think prison abolition is crucial. They work with LGBTQ+ communities members and HIV positive prisoners to help them work towards prison abolition. I think prison abolition is something that will completely change the landscape of this country and it’s not as radical as people continue to make it seem. It is radical for the dismantling of the system that it requires. But having grown up, I’ve intimately seen the way that prison affects lives. Prison does not rehabilitate and it does not contribute to the eradication of crime. It makes it clear to me that there needs to be a more human and empathetic approach towards crime, errors, drug addiction, homelessness — towards everything!
This country is extremely militaristic in their approaches to things and I think now it’s time for there to be a change. I want all the proceeds for my song to go towards this organization because I want to continually force people to consider a world without prison, violence, and these “state” approaches towards human issues that we should be empathetically approaching.
Are there any other organizations, charities, or mutual funds you want to bring attention to?
Another organization I would love to take a quick moment to focus on is for people in LA. There’s this beautiful organization called NOlympics LA and they work towards fighting against the accelerated displacement and militarization that comes as a result of the Olympics. Specifically, the displacement and militarization towards the poor and the houseless people. They bring attention to the way that our law enforcement is extremely violent towards these vulnerable communities. Some of the things they do are services not sweeps rallies, where they raise awareness for Black unhoused lives, or for all unhoused lives, in all areas of LA whose lives are upended and completely changed through brutal and violent sweeps — as opposed to being housed, fed, supported and being given opportunities.
Another organization I would of course like to encourage everyone to get acquainted with is the Black Lives Matter organization in your city. Check out the work that they do. Also learn more about the ways you can radicalize and support behind trans lives as well.
Do you have any other music releases coming up? Any projects currently in the works?
Yes! I have some new releases coming up really soon, which is a lot about isolation and introspection. I have a release coming out in early August.
What song or artist have you been listening to on repeat lately?
“Are You Even Real?” by James Blake has been living in my head rent-free.