Rising From the Ashes: Ibeyi interview

French-Cuban sister duo Ibeyi tell us about taking on the world with new album Ash, and the importance of sharing their stories as women of colour

Feature by Nadia Younes | 24 Oct 2017

The Díaz sisters have a lot to get off their chests. With their debut album, 2015’s self-titled Ibeyi, they mourned the loss of their father, Buena Vista Social Club percussionist, Anga Díaz and their older sister Yanira. Now, they’re looking outward and are ready to take on the world.

The French-Cuban duo’s second album Ash draws from personal and external experiences to firmly position the listener into the life and mindset of a woman of colour in the world today. “It’s still really personal but it’s a little bit more opened up to the world,” says one half of the duo, Lisa-Kaindé Díaz. “Perhaps it’s because we did two years of touring in-between the two albums and while we were touring, we met loads of people. We heard people’s stories and we played on stage so we realised what kind of album we wanted to give to people and what kind of album we wanted to sing and perform.”

Where Ibeyi focused more on the twins’ own personal grief, Ash explores grief in a much wider context. There’s a sense of grieving for humanity and society and they express an anger towards the way we treat each other while ultimately trying to remain hopeful for the future. The duo say these themes and ideas have been bubbling inside them for a long time, even preceding the making of their debut.

“We had a lot to say before this album and I guess we had to present ourselves first before talking about the world we live in,” says Lisa-Kaindé's sister Naomi. “That’s why we didn’t have the chance to talk about the subjects that were anchored in ourselves for a long time, but now that we got to do our first album and make the homage we wanted to for our family, we could,” adds Lisa.

On Ash's features and the making of the album

The album is awash with high-profile features: renowned saxophonist Kamasi Washington features on Deathless, Chilly Gonzales plays piano on When Will I Learn and, one of the duo’s favourite artists of all time, Meshell Ndegeocello plays bass on Transmission/Michaelion. “We couldn’t even really believe it and the fact that she’s on that song called Transmission, when we feel like she transmitted so much to us through her albums, we were absolutely delighted,” says Lisa. “The songs were asking for the musicians,” adds Naomi.

On their debut, the duo sang in both English and Yoruba, but they’ve thrown another language into the mix on Ash. Me Voy is sung entirely in Spanish and features Latin Grammy award-winning hip-hop artist Mala Rodríguez. “We never really impose a language. It just comes with the chords and the feeling that I have at that moment,” says Lisa. “But I do believe that Me Voy couldn’t be in English for example, Me Voy needed to be in Spanish, so it’s funny how I would write differently if I’m in a Spanish mood or an English mood.”

Much like Beyonce’s Lemonade (whose visuals featured the duo), and Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Ash deals with themes of womanhood, racism and empowerment. It was written around the time of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States, which unsurprisingly left them with a yearning to tell their own stories. “I think it’s because of those hard times we are in that it’s a natural reaction almost, where it just comes out and we have to talk about it,” says Lisa.

Like Solange did on F.U.B.U., Lisa details her own experience of racial profiling on Deathless. ‘He said, he said / You’re not clean / You might deal / All the same with that skin,’ she sings, recalling being stopped and searched by a policeman on the Paris Metro when she was 16-years-old. The track opens with an ominous siren-like sound before pounding drums kick in, building up to the chanting chorus of ‘We are deathless.’

After blocking the incident from her memory for years, it resurfaced during a conversation about police brutality with Richard Russell, head of their label XL Recordings and producer of both their albums, who encouraged Lisa to write a song about her experience. "I felt like I couldn’t write a song about it because compared to what I would hear on the news and what I would see in videos that people are filming, my story was not as brutal or disturbing," she says. "Then Naomi said something incredible, she said, 'You don’t have to be raped or killed or pushed in order to say something, what happened to you is already wrong and enough.'"

Naomi refers to their relationship with Russell as “like a lover,” which gives you a sense of their closeness and trust in one another. “And the amazing thing also is that we are all growing individually that it’s exciting to continue working together. It’s exciting going back to the studio and showing the others what we have in our heads, in our hearts and in our bellies,” adds Lisa. “That’s why we love working together because it’s not only music. It’s also living together for a month or two, it’s all our discussions, the movies we see together, the music we listen to together, the books we hand to each other, the culture we’re giving to each other. All of this is so important and changes the sound and feeling of an album.”

"We’re like everybody else trying to find the solution"

A highly-notable attribute of Ash is its use of external works to further the album’s message. No Man is Big Enough for My Arms' title is taken from an excerpt in Jennifer Clement’s biography Widow Basquiat: A Memoir, which documents the relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and his lover Suzanne Mallouk. The book was given to Lisa by Russell during the making of Ash and in it, Mallouk remembers telling an older man, “No man is big enough for my arms” when she was seven-years-old. “When you’re making an album, reading is really important,” says Lisa. “People have the misconception that you should just listen to music but reading is an incredible way to make your imagination grow.” 

The track merges clips from Michelle Obama’s infamous New Hampshire speech in October last year, calling out Donald Trump and his treatment of women. It begins and ends with a clip of Obama saying, “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls,” and sees the duo splicing in their own lyrics and verses between other quotes from Obama’s speech. Halfway through, the tempo slows and the sound softens, as Obama’s poignant words “Your story is my story,” are repeated several times. “It was a powerful speech because it was not politics anymore. It was a woman talking to other women,” says Naomi. 

This concept of women simply talking to other women about their shared experiences is a theme which is prevalent throughout Ash. The duo may be telling their own stories here but they are universal and everyone else will have their own versions. “We’re not preaching. We don’t say that we have the solution. We’re like everybody else trying to find the solution,” says Lisa. “The crazy thing was we didn’t even realise it was that important for us to say it publicly, we only realised it when the album was done.”

Ash is a powerful, in-depth exploration of the struggles faced by women of colour in the world today, challenging all kinds of perceptions, behaviours and ideals. By sharing their stories and experiences through their music, the Díaz sisters open doors for others to share theirs too and give resonance to Michelle Obama’s words because, as she said, “Your story is my story.”