Name: Yao Bobby
Occupation: Rapper, political activist
Current Release: Yao Bobby teams up with Swiss sound artist Simon Grab for WUM, out now via LAVALAVA.
Recommendations: Just two???? Of so many art forms … Well, I'll take three if you don't mind ... Any piece of Fela Kuti is essential but if I want to stay consistent with this interview, I'd say "Music is the Weapon".
Important texts for me are those of Gill Scott-Heron, and for the artwork I would quote Basquiat and if I have to choose one it would be "King of the Zulus", I’ll let you imagine why.
If you enjoyed this interview with Yao Bobby and would like to know more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what were your first passions and influences? What attracted you to music and/or sound?
I've always written lyrics, for a very long time. But I started rapping in 1990. At the time, MC Solaar was my star, but I also listened to a lot of African rap: Positive Black Soul, the rappers from Abidjan, RAS and MAM. Little by little I started to make my own prods.
What attracted me to music was really the need to express the ills of society, to get a message across in an artistic way. My parents have always listened to music, it was a time of celebration, conviviality, but the lyrics were also very present in the music we listened to (reggae, Fela's Afrobeat, the Sassamasso orchestra from Togo).
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you listen and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
When I listen to music I travel, I dream, I want to dance. All my senses are awakened and this gives me ideas and the desire to create.
I am also a visual artist and I always create with music. My sounds are influenced by my works and vice versa.
How would you describe your evolution as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, the search for a personal voice, and breakthroughs?
Today I am where I dreamed of being when I started music. I have 2 albums with my former group, I also have 2 solo albums, one of which was co-released by RFI, I have done many collaborations with great artists, and I am currently releasing a completely crazy album with Simon Grab.
I have always been very ambitious. I've taken on many challenges, like producing my own sounds, getting interested in different musical sources, playing with artists who are very far from my universe. I left my continent, I produced my albums, I travelled in Europe and on the African continent and performed in the biggest festivals. Today I am also responsible for my own festival.
I think all these experiences have made me more open-minded, more curious but also much stronger.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I am African, Togolese, it is my base, my roots, my strength, my essence. Of course when I listen to African artists it speaks to me, it makes me vibrate, we have common experiences, stories, stigmas. On the continent we are all brothers. The history of my continent, the stories of our ancestors, the voodoo traditions, the rhythms ... all this influences my ear, my listening and my writing and my artworks.
My music and my artworks are colourful, they reflect everyday life, they tell the stories of my country.
What do you think are the key ideas underlying your approach to music and art?
Commitment, transmission, the idea that everything is possible if you give yourself the means, pride, humility too. I like the idea that my art speaks to everyone and that it can be accessible.
How would you describe your point of view on subjects such as originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a "music of the future" or in the "continuation of a tradition"?
I'm in a good position to talk about originality, I'm an African rapper who does concerts with a Swiss producer who works on machines. I rap on sounds without beats. Music is a living thing, of course you have to innovate, experiment, take the risk of discovering something new!
Why choose between tradition and the future, each is at the service of the other. I take tradition, what built me, my roots, to develop branches stretched towards the future and create the new, the unexpected. A wheat sound can be sublimated by an electro bass, a talking drum can give a soul to a synthesizer. Today there are so many machines and possibilities to bring tradition into the future.
In your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I'm not a musician, but I'm surrounded by instruments to make music, which I divert in my own way. And then there is the computer, sound software plays an important role in my creation. I also have a pad that I use to rework traditional instruments. I also work a lot with instruments created from recycled objects, calabashes, tubes, pipes, saucepans, everyday objects combined with modern technology.
It's the same for my paintings. I work a lot with wood. I don't carve it, I work on it, I transform it. And I tell snippets of life using materials that I find or that children in the neighbourhood bring me: broken shoes, stools, forks, everything. From this I create a story.
Tell us about a day in your life, from a possible morning routine to your work, please.
It's difficult, my days follow each other but don't look very similar.
I get up early, around 4/5am. And then it's just one thing after another, depending on what I feel like doing. In general I meet my team (the one from the Centre), we discuss what to do during the day, we have a few laughs together. When I'm inspired by the music, I lock myself in the studio, listen and record. I can sometimes do 4 songs in a day. Around 6pm I leave the studio, I drink a beer in front of the centre, I chat with friends, family, passers-by …
I like to spend time outside, watching life, that's what inspires me too. When I feel like creating works, I stay in front of the centre, I take out the material, I sort, I lay, I sand, I paint, I cut, I make shapes, then I undo them. These are convivial moments because there are many of us working, there are young people who pass by and stop to offer a hand.
I train a lot of people in artistic practices. Sometimes I take breaks, I go into the studio. Sometimes I also create works in the studio so I can do both at the same time.
Could you describe your creative process based on a song, a live performance or an album that is particularly close to your heart?
I can talk about the album I'm currently making. It's really rooted in traditional music and rhythms that I'm reworking into electro.
I listen to a lot of music, of all styles, I catch sounds, rhythms, ways of posing. I also like to research, I'm always exploring my software to find ways of doing things that no one has ever exploited. From there, I make my prods and I put my voice. Sometimes I add instruments directly, sometimes not. After that I listen on headphones, in the car, loudly, very loudly. This allows me to imagine the song, to live it.
Sometimes I can come up with ideas very quickly and put them into shape immediately. When that happens, I go straight to the premix. Other times I need time to let the track mature, I have to distance myself from it, move on, come back to it.
On this album, meetings and visits also play a big role.
Listening can be both a solitary and communal activity. Similarly, music making can be private or collaborative. Can you tell us about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence the creative outcomes?
I'm a solitary social being … For listening to music, it's more of a solitary practice. I need to be inside, I listen to it on headphones a lot. To create, I'm often alone too, but as I said earlier, meetings and exchanges are very important in my creative process.
In the course of my career, I have done a lot of collaborations and collective projects and this has allowed me to evolve and grow in my practice. In my studio, there is a lot of traffic, I make people listen to my sounds, people give me feedback, some of them play on already existing snippets, others record their voices or their instruments.
I have an experience with Simon and Edgar Sekloka as part of the 1+1 project. It was 7 years ago in Lomé. We recorded 5 tracks and 1 video in 1 week. Originally, only one track was planned! We created everything together, the musicians, Edgar, Simon and me. We worked nonstop and it was great!
How does your work and creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
My work, my pieces, my works tell the world. It is at the heart of everyday life and shows people's lives.
For me, music has multiple roles. It allows us to travel, to explore faraway places. It is a real vehicle for sharing values and it often carries messages.
Music must be committed, committed to life, to the future.
Art can be a means of addressing the great issues of life: life, loss, death, love, pain, and many others. In what ways and on what occasions has music - yours or others - contributed to your understanding of these issues?
When I was younger, listening to music made me feel very reflective and melancholy. I can't say that music or art has helped me to understand these issues better, but it has helped me, accompanied me in the sometimes - hard moments of life.
Music is always with me, it relieves me, encourages me. And creating is an outlet, a space that allows me to express all my feelings and emotions.
How do you see the link between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
What I know is that science allows music to evolve. Experimental research brings a lot to music both in terms of creating new machines and in terms of the effects that sounds, silence … have on people.
As for the influence of music on science ... I am sure that the greatest researchers listen to music!
Creativity can touch many aspects of our lives. Do you feel that writing or performing a piece of music is fundamentally different from something like making a good cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you could not or would not want to express in more "mundane" tasks?
When I make a cup of coffee, I don't think. There aren't 36,000 ways to do it. It's just a question of dosage. Once I've found the right one, the gesture becomes mechanical. But if I make a coffee for a guest, another person, that's different, I try to do my best, to give them pleasure.
Finally, are there any banal tasks? When I lived in France, I worked in a dry cleaners. Ironing people's clothes became a bit of a chore. Even ironing people's clothes becomes a passionate act when you think of the people who are going to wear them, of their pleasure in seeing a perfect fold. No, writing and interpreting are not fundamentally different from our daily actions as long as the intention is turned towards the other.
On the other hand, creativity does allow me to speak out, to denounce, to defend ideas, to get a message across … which a cup of coffee does not do.
Music is a vibration in the air, picked up by our eardrums. From your point of view as a creator and a listener, can you explain how it is able to convey such diverse and potentially profound messages?
This vibration is not just picked up by our eardrums, deaf people can feel the music.
Music is inspired and created from our lives, it reproduces the beating of our hearts, the circulation of our blood, it transmits the sound and vibration of the pestle being struck in the mortar, it sounds the chills.
Music is sensation even more than vibration, and in this it speaks to us intimately.