Interview: The Unapologetic Jojo Abot

In a culture rife with artists appropriating African musicality even as the social contributions of Black people are continually denied, the recognition of African artists’ work beyond the “global fusion” label is vital.

Up-and-coming coming musician, playwright, and multimedia artist Jojo Abot was a featured artist at the 2016 Vancouver Folk Music Festival last weekend at Jericho beach. Her dynamic “AFRO-HYPNO-SONIC” stood out amongst the more typical bluegrass and folk offerings.

Hailing from Ghana and based in New York, the songstress spends her time travelling the world, all for the pursuit of artistic connection and collaboration. She is always writing and releasing music, and unlike most artists, often uploading her demos to Soundcloud as soon as they’re recorded. Her straightforward process is mirrored in her intuitive and spontaneous performance style, no bullshit style, and subject matter of her music.

Abot drew inspiration from her grandmother while creating her debut EP Fyfya Woto, an impressive and entrancing collection that pairs experimental vocals with danceable rhythms.

The EP is sung both in Abot’s native Ewe and in English, sometimes switching languages in the middle of a song. We met up with her at the Folk Fest where she was rocking a bright blue bob talked with her about music and the message that comes along with it:

“It means new birth, new discovery. If something is discovered, it must mean it already existed in another form, that’s what I believe. So nothing is new. Energy is being transported, renewed. Fyfya Woto as an EP addresses a woman’s experience. She’s caught with a white lover, she’s in trouble, her father is the chief of the town, “how dare you embarrass us. His punishment is death, her’s is being sold into slavery. The second [upcoming] EP goes into when she gets to the Western world.”

Abot says she will continue to develop this narrative past the EPs in different forms. When she’s not creating music, she puts her storytelling abilities into playwriting, and is currently working on a play based on the story of FyFya Foto.  

Her set at Folk Fest featured music primarily from her EP, as well as the debut of “Hotter, Harder”, which focusses on the exhaustion that comes with living in such a dire political and social climate. This piece was so evocative that at first, her band members questioned its appropriateness for the festival set. However Abot’s art is evocative and strives to challenge people’s paradigms:

If it’s getting too heavy for you, take a break and come back. But I don’t have the same luxury as most artists, like how good is the crowd feeling? And then I realize that’s not my job. I want you to feel good but I want you to feel retrospective. Don’t take you feeling good for granted. You can do that on your own.”

Jojo 2 tall- Jana LOTUSLANDThis is what makes Jojo Abot so special. Not only is she an incredibly innovative artist who can combine futuristic sounds with traditional African rhythms, but she communicates messages that desperately need to be heard. It is often difficult to translate one’s struggles (and especially one’s frustrations) into music, yet Abot’s work, equipped with her energy, originality and power, has the ability to force listeners to empathize with both relatable and unfamiliar experiences and feelings, ultimately building the sonic framework convincing enough to mend a divided society. She does this by unapologetically making us uncomfortable.

“Our discomforts aren’t reserved to us because of our gender, class, or race. I think on the surface it feels like it, but when you look deeper, you’re like, ‘no. It’s a people thing.’ How can I allow people relate and not be hindered [by] like, ‘ok she’s black and I’m white.’ Some people often times are like, ‘how dare I pretend to be black or to understand what you’re going though.’ And I’m not asking you to do that. And in the same way, I’ve had crowds of completely white people and they’re like, ‘oh no I feel guilty,’ and I’m like no, I’m trying to make you feel uncomfortable enough to do something. I don’t want your apologies, fuck your apologies. I want you to remember this discomfort every day of your life.”

Jojo 3 wide - Jana LOTUSLANDAbot is also the founder of a multimedia collective AFRI-NA-LADI based in Nairobi, Kenya, with the goal of creating a community of young underground and alternative African artists to encourage collaboration in a very competitive scene. The multimedia residency builds a framework of support for artists that may not receive familial encouragement. Abot emphasized the importance of having safe spaces designated for artists, especially within such an ambitious, fierce creative environment, where honest feedback and support are essential, in order to relate to each other without competing:

“The goal is to eventually make a global community of artists that vibe with each other. Who create self sustaining systems among themselves. First chapter happened in Nairobi, and I just honestly got to the point that I hated conversations. I HATE having intellectual conversations. And again, a lot of people have a hard time with that..because they didn’t pay for their college tuitions for nothing. Honestly, it’s just, I got to the point where I got tired of hearing that African artists didn’t collaborate, tired of hearing to a certain degree that was very true. Because it’s a very competitive space. And I felt even though I’m an artist that hasn’t made it at all yet, I should put my money where my mouth is. I saved up to stay in Nairobi for three months and I did it.”

As music journalists, it is important to be weary of how we can overly simplify and categorize music, especially of musicians from non-Western origins. A recent example of this is in the mislabelling of Rihanna‘s recent hit single “work”. We mentioned the constant effort by journalists to squeeze Abot’s music into a genre:

“Let’s be real– if I wasn’t a black person singing this music, it wouldn’t be called ‘global fusion.’ And let’s just say people will be more confused when my new album comes out. A lot of reviews coming out say I’ve been genre hopping, genre fluid, genre bending, and I probably think that’s the best I’ve gotten so far. Because it’s less about the genre and more about the music. And as a producer, I just go with the feeling. I’m ignorant in the creation of my music, and that’s the best gift I’ve had. “

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Photos by Jana Ghimire

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