Being in the presence of a powerful ancestor-channelling can be overwhelming for most people in a spiritually blank digital world. At the Sayers Club, I discreetly positioned myself in the back of the room, trying to discern whether Niambi Sala and Thandiwe—the two young NYU students that make up OSHUN—are the real deal. Opening up for eclectic wild child Raury as part of Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in LA curated showcase, OSHUN wove mystical threads throughout the room and seemed to seize the hearts and minds of an otherwise stiff Hollywood audience—connecting the vibe of the room with Afrocentric themes evident in all of their music.
Intertwining R&B and hip-hop effortlessly, I felt I was truly witnessing Africa at work—itself a theme at the foreground of their art—while the sound of their voices felt hypnotic. OSHUN represents one of the finest examples of an Afro-futurism reawakening, happening within the creative legacy of young black artists from previous generations, such as Basquiat and the Jonzun Crew, all working together in an existing continuum.
OSHUN draws from the ancient Yoruba traditions of West Africa that provided them with the opportunity of personhood (we’ll get into that later) as well as influences from the Neo-Soul movement of the ’90s and later J Dilla-driven Soulaquarians of the early ’00s that were their childhood lullabies. With the release of strong projects like last year’s ASASE YAA, as well as a critically-acclaimed performance at this summer’s Afropunk in New York, OSHUN has been building considerable steam behind themselves. We had the good fortune of sitting down with the duo to talk to them about what it’s like to be a black woman creating in 2015, the etymology behind the name, and their initiation into their current journey of consciousness. Below, we also premiere an arguably generation-defining visual presentation in their newest video, “stay woke,” directed, shot, and edited by Chelsea Odufu.
OSHUN right after their Red Bull Sound Select set. Photo by Graham Walzer.
SENAY KENFE: So it’s perfect timing for you guys to have your West Coast adventure. If I could speak on your performance, it felt like a spiritual environment. I felt like a lot of people were connecting and in tune with you guys, more so than just the music. The out of body experience. What you guys do with the energy in the room, with the opportunity to be in front of 50-100 people? What you try to do with that?
Thandiwe: I think that the opportunity in itself is the fact that we got flown out to LA. We got started in our dorm room 2 years ago, and obviously, we had a mission and we knew what we were doing and we knew where we wanted to go. It’s just the fact that we are literally here, doing it now. Such an honor. It’s beyond being excited or saying how we feel, it’s more so—like you said—being spiritual. There are forces opening a way for us and we have to know that that’s for a reason. We have to know that we’ve been chosen to do something and have this much love and support so quickly for a reason. And take heed to the things that the universe is giving us.
So why music?
Thandiwe: Because music is vibrations, music is energy, music is literal, literal wave lengths in the cosmos. So they resonate with our bodies and our spirits, it’s not just our spirit or our body, but it’s the two at the same time and it stimulates. All forms of art are important and expressive and they show us who we are; they’re our reflections. But music itself is our heartbeat. In Africa, original people of the earth connected with the divine force with drums. That’s vibrations. So it’s just a very strong portal, a very strong connector.
“IT’S NOT EASY, PERIOD, TO BE OUTWARD ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AND JUST BE SO BOLD IN YOUR TRUTH. THE ONLY WAY TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT IS TO HAVE A STRONG FOUNDATION AND HAVE A COMMUNITY OF PEOPLE THAT CAN SUPPORT YOU AND THE WAY YOU WALK.”
I think, not just in your visual presentation as artists, but also within your music, you guys make it very clear that you are very much in connection with Africa and African spirituality. Pan-Africanism as a whole is a very important theme to you guys. Why was it so important for that to be present as OSHUN?
Thandiwe: OSHUN is an orisha, which is a deity in the Yoruba pantheon—Yoruba being a cultural group based out of Nigeria. And she is the great mother of love, the great mother of sweetness, the great mother of the river, great mother of healing and fertility, the great mother of abundance. We have a very strong connection with her. We’re growing with it. But she’s basically an ancestor essentially—a divine ancestor. And a manifestation of The Creator. So again, music is sound waves, music is connection with the cosmos—it’s a literal connection with the universe in a way that us as spiritual vessels exist in these physical bodies.
Niambi Sala: Connecting with the earth. Because she’s also part of earth, a divine ancestor, but also a manifestation of nature—literally the river and what the river represents and how it moves and how it exists and how it carries things inside of it. Literally, these traits are translatable. So it exists on all planes in all forms.
Do you feel like in performance—both as artists but also as black women within this creative scene—you are channeling the ancestors? And if so, why is that important in 2015?
Niambi Sala: Well, to the first part, absolutely yes. We are vessels for our ancestors, and that’s not even just in our music, that’s in how we live every day. That’s because we include their spirits in our lives at all times, we engage them in our lives, and feed them. Because they’re here. It’s just about do you interact with them or not. Because you can very well work with them because they’re here for you. Essentially, those are your guardian angels because that’s what kindred spirits do.
PREMIERE: OSHUN’s newest video “stay woke.”
The kindred feeling you have with those that have already been here before.
Thandiwe: It’s like when you think about—just from a genetic standpoint, from a biological standpoint—we are literally our ancestors just like you are literally half of your mom and half of your dad. You can see it in your face. We’re literally composed of all the beings just through straight up love connection. So there’s absolutely no way that we can’t exist through our ancestors because they are the genetic make up of us. Our faces, the way we look now—since the beginning of time, that’s been worked and shaped by our ancestors. So every time a child is born, they’re just “Human.20.” “Human.5000.” You keep making humans like technology. So we’re just composed of our ancestors.
Sometimes people don’t realize—there’s a lot of people that live life completely and don’t recognize that and feed into that, which is fine, because that’s why our heart beats without us having to sit and think. That’s why we can move our fingers just by thinking and also talking at the same time—because that’s how it works. When you channel that and you recognize that and you connect with that, now your spirit is in control and now you can manifest anything. Now you can manifest truth, you can manifest healing, you can manifest life, and that’s what OSHUN is about: healing, divine sweetness, divine love.
“WHEN WE CAN GENUINELY CONNECT WITH PEOPLE, WE’RE EXCHANGING ENERGIES, SO WHEN THEY VIBRATE ON A HIGHER LEVEL—WHEN THEY ELEVATE, WE’RE ELEVATING AS WELL.”
You said within your last song, “Preeech,” you guys are about liberation. Do you feel themes like that are not as touched upon within your generation in music as it was previously?
Niambi Sala: I think that in a label setting, there’s usually a pressure to sell. I feel like we didn’t really have the chance to be as vocal as we wanted to be. And not even necessarily us, but just people, generations before us. In terms of content, it wasn’t really easy. It’s not easy, period, to be outward about who you are and just be so bold in your truth. The only way to be able to do that is to have a strong foundation and have a community of people that can support you and the way that you walk.
So I feel like we haven’t always had that unity in our community to allow someone to speak or to support someone. Because I’m sure that there’s all these people that are walking in truth and who get it. But there hasn’t been this support in the community to raise them to a level where they can speak to everybody and share their message to everyone.
Have you two ever felt, as creatives, that you’ve ever been alienated for your connection with African spirituality? Not just in music, but outside of music in your own personal lives or at school?
Thandiwe: It’s crazy, people that are part of our family. Not literally our blood, but fellow black people who walk in a path of righteousness or what seems to be righteousness and come at us. Then that is painful to deal with that with our own people, people we’re trying to uplift and heal…
What do you draw on when those moments happen? What reminds you: “You know what? I’m on the path that I should be on and this is what I’m here for”?
Niambi Sala: You check in with yourself. It’s definitely good to have your community and your community is your foundation on a social and interactive level. But on a pure existence level, we are our own foundations, our own bodies, our own vessels. So we feel like we’re out of whack with the things outside of us and around us, we have to check in with ourselves and listen to our own minds and the voices with us and figure out what we are telling ourselves.
How did you two meet?
Niambi Sala: Well, we were at NYU and we were seniors in high school and we were in this group activity game—icebreaker thing where we all were in a circle [with] maybe 50 people or something. And we had to toss around a ball. Every time you got the ball, you said something about yourself. I think Thandiwe got the ball and was like, “I’m from DC.” Then I was like, “Oh, bitch, I’m from DC!” Then we were the only two black girls. This was a scholar’s program. Then we ate pizza after I think.
So we were the only two black girls. Well, not the only two, we were of maybe 4 in a big group of people and we were across the circle. We linked up after and we were just like, “Oh my gosh! We’re so black.” “Oh my gosh, I want this tattoo,” and she was like, “What? I have the same picture on my phone because I want this tattoo too.” “Oh my gosh, I’m from Maryland,” and she was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m from Maryland.” And we were just really excited little girls about it. Well, not like little girls, but high school seniors… my bestie.
We were there for the weekend and just hung out the whole weekend. Then we were best friends.
Inside, you guys were talking about listening to J Dilla breaks on YouTube and stuff. But at what point did you guys come together and say, “Let’s start creating together.”
Thandiwe: So Niambi is still in the Clive Davis program, she was making music a little bit, just here and there for class and working with our homie Proda.
Who does a lot of the engineering.
Thandiwe: Yeah, and the visual stuff. So I made beats and I still make beats, but my machine isn’t working. We used to make beats together and Niambi would write songs, the one weekend, Niambi went back to DC and I made a song and I wrote to it and sang. I showed Niambi and she was like, “Ohhh, hold up. Let’s just collab real quick.” I was like, “Alright!”
And I knew that that was going to happen because when I met her, that scholar’s weekend when we were seniors, when I came back to DC I was like, “We gotta be a duo.” We did a talent show together at the weekend and she sang the song and I did the beat. I was like [makes drumming noises], and she was like [sings falsetto] and we won. Then I did my own act and I just freestyle rapped.
Niambi Sala: And then you won.
Thandiwe: Then I won, we both won. So I got home and was like, “Yeah, we about to take over.”
How do you guys feel about the reception you got with your last release and how has it been motivating you to work on new music?
Niambi Sala: Well, there’s definitely new music coming, we have ideas. So we spend a lot of time indoors, just creating. But the reception has been good; it’s been supportive. It’s literally been two years at this point, and I feel like sometimes it can feel like we’re not moving as fast as we’re supposed to be in terms of however we measure our success as artists. Just as people and the responsibilities that we have. But I think that when we really sit and think, we’ve gotten a lot of real support. I feel like we always have at least one person who is like, “Yo, I get it. I’m here with you.” So I’d rather genuinely connect with three people than have a fake connection with 300.
When we can genuinely connect with people, we’re exchanging energies, so when they vibrate on a higher level—when they elevate, we’re elevating as well. So it’s not just like a giving, giving, giving, or a taking, taking—it’s reciprocated. So that alone, I feel, drives us to want to continue to be in that kind of continuous, infinite relationship with the things and the spirit around us.
Photos by Graham Walzer.