Occupation: Singer, rapper, songwriter
Current Release: Awori & Twani's Ranavalona is out now on Galant.
Recommendations: "Who Fears Death", a sci-fi book by Nnedi Okorafor; MC Yallah, a Kenyan-Ugandan Hip Hop artist
If you enjoyed this interview with Awori, check out her facebook page for current updates. Or use the Awori linktr.ee as a point of departure into all corners of her world.
When did you start writing your own music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing songs when I was 8 years old.
Going to school in Uganda meant that we learned the basics of traditional music and dances. I used to write songs & perform them every week at my school’s weekly assemblies as well as perform in our dance and theater shows.
In addition to that, my late grandfather, may his soul rest in peace, was a music enthusiast. He played a lot of instruments, especially the piano, and he also had a big vinyl collection. It’s thanks to him that I developed the love for music that I have today.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
The first artists I ever listened to were Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Miriam Makeba, Monique Seka, Angélique Kidjo, Koffi Olomide, Lucky Dube. That's the music my parents listened to, so naturally those were my first sources of inspiration.
When I was old enough to develop my own musical taste, I was drawn to Erykah Badu, TLC, Aaliyah, SWV and all the R&B boy & girl bands of the 90s and Hip Hop of course. To me, TLC is still one of the most innovative bands of all time. I admired Left Eye a lot because she could switch from singing to rapping in the blink of an eye and I loved her style, her swag, her originality. I’ve always been drawn to artists who dared to be unique, not a version of what the industry wanted them to be.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
As I mentioned before, it’s linked to the environment I grew up in. That environment very much shaped not only the artist, but the person I am today.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The music industry, like most industries, is dominated by men who want to dictate women’s careers, from the way they sound to the way they look, even down to what they say in interviews. Our creative control is constantly being challenged. So, as women artists, we have to stand up for ourselves & question the options that we’re being presented with as single solutions - there’s nothing wrong with asking questions.
In the beginning, a lot of men wanted to manage my career, because they thought they were better suited than me to navigate the industry, not because they had any experience as managers. Of course, I also worked with some great people, Albert Mbombo Nsapi is one of them, but a lot of the people who made promises fell short. Over time, I’ve definitely learnt to trust and value my musical instinct. As a vocalist, people still dismiss my creative input because I’m not making beats but I know what I bring to the table & at the end of the day that’s all that matters.
My advice to all female artists out there is to make sure you earn what you’re supposed to earn: declare your music so you get those royalties, value your knowledge & experience, read every contract, don’t be afraid to ask questions and negotiate the terms before you sign.
When starting out, many artists want to "change the world" with their work. What was this like for you? What were some of your early ambitions and in which way were you able to realise them?
When I was a teenager, I realised that I wanted my songs to reflect the world around me, so I started writing about it. I don’t think I started out wanting to change the world per se, I just wanted to share my perspective and see if other people could relate to it. Soon enough I realised that I could include messages with a scope which went beyond me as an individual, first as a girl, then as a woman, specifically as an African woman who’s familiar with the diasporic experience, its difficulties, but also what it allows for in terms of meeting other communities. It’s always heartwarming to hear someone tell me they relate to something I wrote or that it helped them get through a difficult time. That’s the biggest compliment I can receive as a songwriter.
As a Hip Hop artist in this day & age, I’m still committed to the soul of Hip Hop which is shedding light on social & economic inequities through music and using my art and imagination to fight for more equitable worlds for us all.
In which way do you feel as though music can bring about change and lead to tangible improvements?
One of the riches of Afro movements is precisely having heavily theorized the links between art and liberation struggles. There are very beautiful things that Cabral or Fanon have said on this subject.
Beyond the artist’s intentions, art can have a political function. I think that it is important to distinguish between an artist explicitly taking a political stance, and art playing a political role in ways which sometimes exceed the artists’ expectations. When you make art, in this case music, and share it publicly, in a sense it doesn't belong to you anymore. You can write a song about a societal issue like economic inequity, and then the song’s released at the same time as a huge scandal which involves corrupt elites who enjoy lavish lifestyles while their people struggle. Beyond what the artist initially intended, that song can become an anthem for popular anger.
At other times, music can accompany liberation struggles because the artists are explicitly committed to the cause, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone or Gil Scott Heron are examples of artists who’ve done this. Music can also be educational, entertaining or it can serve as a way of transmitting memory, like some of the songs my mother used to sing to me when I was a child, which are all folk tales being told musically. One can also see a form of politicisation in that.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
All of the above! It really depends on the context in which we meet. We could meet at a jam session or at the studio while working on something and connect. Sometimes other people introduce us to each other because they know we have stuff in common musically. With the musicians I’ve known for a few years, we’re only a file share away from a collab’ because we’re familiar with each other’s work and most of all, we trust each other.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’m an early bird so I wake up around 6 or 7am, drink a big glass of water and usually move my body through either a workout or yoga. Then I shower and have breakfast while listening to a spiritual podcast which I find helps to ground me for the rest of the day. After all that, I get into e-mails and then warm up my voice.
The rest of my day will depend on what I’m working on: if I’m doing promo for the Ranavalona album I might have radio or TV interviews lined up, if I’m working on new music, then I would do some writing and record some demos and if I’m preparing for a show then I set aside a few hours to rehearse. Regardless of what my plans are, I always make time to cook my own meals, take a walk, read a book and I consciously end my day at 7pm so I can have a social life, whether it’s dinner with my husband or meeting up with friends.
Depending on whether it’s the full moon or not, I might also stay up late writing lyrics or editing a video, but only after a good, long break!