It’s not typical for an artist to self-title their fifth album. That’s normally meant for debut records. But, while Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Ayo has four records under her belt, it’s actually quite fitting that she chose the eponymous title. The 14-track record, which exquisitely blends folk reggae and pop with soul influences and a dash of hip-hop, marks many firsts for the artist and serves as her musical rebirth.
“This is the first record where I did nearly everything myself — wrote, programmed beats, and produced. In some of the songs I collaborated with musicians. There was an immense sense of freedom. My previous records were me, but this record is all of me. It’s a like a new beginning where I can truly be myself for the first time without having to explain my mission, or myself” she says.
That musical mission is crystal clear on Ayo: make beautiful music seeped in positivity, love, and light and that makes people feel something. “This is not a record for people who like to sit down and think and analyze. This is a record for people who want to feel… just feel and simply be,” she says.
It is no wonder the songs “Nothing” and the hidden final track sung in French, “Tout” (which means “all” or “everything”) bookend the album. The singer says that’s exactly what the record is about: “It’s about nothing and everything.” But, really it is about something: emotions. “To me, music is emotions and that’s how we connect with the world no matter what race, religion, or color you are,” she says.
Written over the past three to four years during a sea of personal and career changes, the 14-track album takes the listener on an emotional ride from the self-reflection of “Nothing” to despair and desperation in “I Pray” to the innocent hopefulness of young love in the first single, “I’m a Fool.”
“I was really alone for the first time, and acceptance and faith in myself were my best friends. I’ve gone through personal challenges and with moving from Paris to Brooklyn, I didn’t know what was ahead. But, I wasn’t scared. The unknown was exciting. I could do everything or do nothing. I could be who I want to be and there is no fear in that,” she says.
The first single, “‘I’m a Fool,” came about after her son told her he was in love for the first time. “The way he spoke about it was so innocent and beautiful, and it brought me back to those butterflies I had the first time I fell in love. Everyone has that love that makes you feel like a fool,” she explains.
Love is also the theme for the track “Paname” (which is the surname for Paris), which is a love letter of sorts to the City of Lights that will forever be in her heart after having lived there on and off for 10 years.
“I got my musical wings in Paris,” says Ayo, who sings the chorus in French. “It was the first time I could sit down with my guitar and people would be quiet and really listen to me. It was the beginning for everything. It’s about my Paris – not the Champs-Élysées part that is very rich. My Paris is when you know what its like to jump the fence at the Metro. My Paris is rich in African and Jamaican culture. My favorite part, musically, is the accordion sound I played on it.”
Every song tells Ayo’s truth in one way or another. “I don’t make up stories. I feel compelled to share my experiences, my life, and what moves me because we all go through the same thing – love and sadness and fear and hope. We, as a culture, don’t spend enough time talking about real things,” she says.
The artist gets quite real on “Boom Boom,” a reggae song inspired by her outrage over the Mike Brown police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and the ongoing issue of police brutality and social injustice.
The song kicks off with children speaking a rhythm she wrote: “1 and 1, 2 and 2, put your hands up or he will shoot you, 3 and 3, 4 and 4, better get your ass down to the floor 5 and 5, 6 and 6, always watch out for the Pigs, 7, 8, 9 and 10, Send this message out to all your friends.”
“This is dedicated to the mothers of those victims,” says Ayo. “As a mother, I can’t image what they went through. Music should have a message. I believe music should be used to touch people and inspire people to do the right thing.”
On the piano-driven “I Pray,” she begs for help in a tricky business situation. The song was written on her vintage Steinway baby grand piano at her Paris atelier. “I went through a very scary moment in my career. I thought I would lose everything. I prayed for help. This song is about believing in a higher power and surviving. It was very cathartic,” she says.
She takes on her personal demons on the reggae-infused “Nothing.” “I wrote ‘Nothing’ years ago when I was going through a period where I was looking for things to make me feel better about myself. When people think of addiction, they think of drugs. I always thought I was lucky — my mom was a heroin addict, but I’ve always stayed away from drugs and never been drunk. But, I would buy things to make me feel better only to realize that that high is temporary,” she explains.
Ayo works out her issues with her father on the stripped-down, heartfelt track “Why.” “I get my stubbornness from my father,” she admits. “We hadn’t spoke for a while. I wrote the song because many times we hold onto things and don’t say what we really feel. And I was thinking, what if tomorrow everything is over? How would I feel then? We need to not take anything or anyone for granted.”
“Why” was written on the kalimba (a wooden board with staggered metal tines), marking the artist’s first time using the African instrument. It’s just one of many multi-cultural moments sprinkled throughout the album. Along with the aforementioned reggae-infused songs, there’s “Cupcakes & Candy,” which features African percussion sounds and African backing vocals, while her love of hip-hop shows up as she shows off her rapping skills on “Forever & Beyond” and “All I Want.”
Born Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin in Cologne, Germany to a Nigerian father and Romani gypsy mother, Ayo (which means “joy” in her father’s Yoruba language) has sold 1.5 million records in 40 countries with her four previous releases on Polydor, Universal France, and Interscope Records. Her debut album, Joyful, hit Top 10 in four countries, while Essence magazine compared her to the great Nina Simone. She’s performed with Babyface, won prestigious European music awards, has appeared stateside on Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and even fortunate enough to open for the funkiest man on the planet, James Brown on one of his last big shows.
“I’ve gone through a lot, but somehow I’ve always known that I’m here for a reason, a higher purpose. And that is to share with others to help them to connect with the world through music,” adds Ayo.