Photo: David Uzochukwu
Ibeyi Talk Career Beginnings, Working With Beyonce, Chilling With J Balvin & More
Ibeyi are magic. Only the Cuban-French twin sister duo could get a crowd who had been through rain, heat and overall moody weather, to shout "we are deathless" in perfect unison during their Sunday set at Pitchfork Fest 2019.
The mesmerizing live chant was a recreation of a verse that appears on "Deathless" feat. Kamasi Washington off Ibeyi's 2017 album Ash and has become a staple in all of their live shows. "They did really good," Lisa says of the crowd's participation after their set.
In their signature blue and gold jumpsuits, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, daughters of the late, great Anga Diaz from Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club, energetically dazzled the crowd with their echanting mix of Afro-Cuban roots music, soul, hip-hop, synth beats and Yoruba, English and Spanish.
"People here are hungry and they demand that you feed them. That's kind of the feeling that you [get from the crowds in the U.S.]. They are the ones who shape the show, because they are the ones that send the energy," she adds.
The festival is Ibeyi's last date on a brief U.S. tour, but even miles away from their home in Paris, the two feel right at home. "We're so happy to be able to tour around the world and that people can listen to our music. We especially love Chicago," Lisa says.
Though it's been a few years since their second album Ash was released, they have not stopped creating. The group wrote a song, "Cleo Who Takes Care Of You," for the Oscar-winning Mexican film Roma, which follows an indigenous Mexican woman as a caretaker in '70s Mexico City. And it likely won't be long before they release a new album. "It's been two-and-a-half years [since Ash], and we love it. But now we feel like we're ready to shed that skin and let the new skin shine," Lisa says.
For now, continuing to grab the attention of pop culture icons (J Balvin is one of the latest celebs to pose with them on Instagram) isn't so bad. Following their Pitchfork set, the Recording Academy spoke to the duo about their dynamic making music, popping up in Beyoncé's Lemonade short film, new music and much more.
You're one of the international acts on the 2019 Pitchfork lineup. How does it feel to play in the U.S.?
Naomi: We feel like it's kind of weird. We feel like we're kind of at home. 'Cause you know, every time we play in the States, it's like that, we're just so happy to be able to tour around the world. And that people can listen to our music. We especially love Chicago. And we love Atlanta, Philly. They have the same vibe. It's fiery. We love that.
Lisa: Well, I feel like people here are hungry, and they demand that you feed them. Does that make any sense? That's kind of the feeling that you get. They are the ones that shape the show, 'cause they are the ones that send the energy and we react to that energy, which is fantastic. And I think, the fact that we are an international band was on our heads, always obvious. And then at one point, we realized that there's not a lot of French bands that tour the world, and we're like, "Oh." In our heads it was always normal to go to like China, and then next week you're in Australia and the next week you're in America, whether it's Latin America or America, and...
Lisa: Or Australia. Yeah. Or Canada. I mean, for us it was always. Or Europe. It was always so...
Lisa: Obvious, 'cause we wanted that. We always wanted to connect with everybody. And to be there in like, make them feel "Deathless."
Naomi: No. We were in classical music schools. I mean conservatory. I don't know if you say that in English. Conservatoire are like music schools. So we did more than 10 years of classical music. I think it was that. And then us making music together. We were 11. It was terrible.
Lisa: I mean, it lasted two hours. We have a footage of it actually 'cause our grandma filmed us.
Naomi: And we were like—
Lisa: Never again.
Naomi: Never again.
Lisa: And at 14, I started writing songs, and then at around 15 someone told me, “Okay. Do you want to do?” I was 16, “Do you want to do an EP?” And Naomi said, “You're not doing this EP without me.” And I said, "No, never without you." And we started like that.
Naomi: I don't know. Well, first of all, I was like, "My sister's not gonna tour the world without me." It was a bit of pride, I think, at first. And then I was not really prepared. I mean, she was ready before me. And then I was ready and I was like, "Let's try," and actually we didn't think we would be touring the world, and do an album and a second. I think it was really us having fun and then everything happened.
Lisa: We kind of fell into it. We never thought, "We're gonna be musicians." But at the same time, it was happening and we were like, “Oh okay. Let's go with the flow." And then it happened really fast. We literally did our first headline show ever in Paris. And it was in front of like what, 50 people? Excel was there and two weeks after we went to see Richard at his studio and months after, we were recording our album.
Lisa: I was still in uni and I was literally working and passing my exams at the same time. And then the next day I came back and I was like, “I have that many dates I can't attend uni," and they were like, "Okay. Well, bye bye." 'Cause if you don't want to attend school—
Naomi: I was in uni for being a teacher. A music teacher. And it's like, she was doing too much for them for her to attend school. And it's like, you're teaching music but at the same time we can't tour because it's too much for you. I didn't really understand that.
Lisa: Yeah. Anyways I would—
Naomi: I think it was rude.
Lisa: I think at one point it would've become unsustainable anyways because we toured for two years. And then we had a month off, did the second album after that month off, and then started touring again.
Naomi, what do you mean by saying that she was ready before you?
Naomi: I think I was a little bit maybe lazy. And so was like, “Yeah, do it." Do it and we'll see, and [Lisa] really worked for me to like the songs. She really wrote some songs that I was really interested in. And since the day I was interested, I was full on in the project. She worked hard to please me.
So it's one thing to work in a group with another music creator. It's another thing to work with a sibling. You are twins. How is it? How do you do it so both your ideas make it in your music?
Naomi: Well, we're really different. We're twins but really opposites. So, it's not really hard. I think Lisa's is the melody and the rhythm. I'm a huge fan of hip-hop, danco.
Lisa: You like production and I kind of create the song without—I create the skeleton and she puts the skin and the meat on top of it. We always find the middle ground. I think it's bias and trust because there is a bit of ground between her and me. Sometimes it's more towards me, and sometimes it's more towards her. The more we are growing, the more it's growing towards Naomi, which has been also a natural course.
Like a balance?
Lisa: Yeah. Exactly, the next step. But if I let her go, then it's going to be a two-hour song. So I need to control a little bit too. It's never like a cat fight. But that confrontation, positive confrontation is what makes Ibeyi.
How do you decide what song is in English and what song is in Spanish?
Naomi: We don't.
Lisa: It comes naturally.
Naomi: We don't decide anything.
Lisa: I think the song decides. You know what I mean?
Tell me more.
Lisa: It's sometimes the chords. Sometimes the way the chords are going defines the type of song you want to make and the kind of the lyrics that go out of your mouth, that being Spanish or English or Yoruba.
Naomi: It's really intuitive.
Lisa: Exactly. It's really intuitive. Also sometimes it's just a desire. I'm like, "Oh, I want to write a song in Spanish." And then suddenly, I sit and when I try to write in Spanish, but I think, yeah, it's a lot more intuitive than what people think. Of course, it's a lot of work after that. 'Cause once you kind of feel that, "Okay, that's how I feel. Oh there's some Spanish words or English words or French words that are coming out of my mouth," that you really need to work on them, and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. But I think the start of it is always really intuitive.
In the U.S., for some of us it's a little bit new seeing Afro-Latino artists in pop culture, or at least knowing they are mixed. Cardi B is one artist that is out there that is Latina and mixed.
Naomi: I love her.
How does it feel to be able to open to people's eyes to a different side of Latinidad in the U.S.?
Naomi: I think the weird thing is that I don't think they see us.
Lisa: I think what is really nice is that people claim us for their own. So Latinos see us as Latinas. Black people see us as Black people.
Naomi: They don't see us as...Caucasian.
Lisa: I know they know we're not. They don't see us as Caucasian here. But I think—
Naomi: Neither in France.
Lisa: No, but I think in Cuba, they know we're French. Each country chooses how they see us and how they kind of connect with us, and that is something I actually love and I think it's important. And embracing every part of you. Every part of your culture, of your roots. Every part of what defines you.
I think there's also a thing with America where people have to choose. I'm not Latina, I'm American. You know, and then start slowly, “Okay, I'm Latina,” And then slowly, “I'm actually American-Latina, but I'm Puerto Rican. Oh, I'm Cuban." And you know slightly in America it starts getting clearer and bigger and you can be both. And you can be everything. Exactly the same with Afro-Americans. Before they're, “I'm Afro-American. Oh, I'm just American.” Then, “I'm Afro-American." Then, “Oh my family is from Nigeria." People are slowly starting to go back to their roots and that doesn't make them less of an American.
Naomi: We weren't raised like, we didn't had to choose.
Lisa: Our parents were clever.
Naomi: Yeah. So, our family was really cool with each other and there was never a [a feeling that] you had to choose, are you Cuban or are you French. And in France also, you don't choose.
Lisa: I think that we're really smart, but also I think it's something that you have to...you kind of have to learn. Also they were really smart in not making us choose and then slowly by slowly. Also journeying the world seeing how people would define us and finally how we want to define ourselves. It's really interesting.
So, your last album was in 2017. When can we expect another one?
Lisa: Not now.
Naomi: We're gonna stop for a little bit.
Lisa: We haven't stopped working.
Naomi: We haven't stopped working. So we have some [music]. But we're like, it's the first time since the beginning that we're gonna take some time. People want to work with us. We want to work with other people. We're gonna search things. Try things. And we're gonna make the third one when we're ready. We weren't ready for the two first ones. But right now we feel like we have to gather our thoughts.
Lisa: It's gonna be lit. Let me tell you, we have a fire inside. It's been two-and-a-half years of this album, and we love it. But now we feel like we're ready to shed that skin and let the new skin shine. We've already written some of those ideas.
You've been hanging out with J. Balvin?
Are we gonna see something with him?
Naomi: Maybe. Maybe. We don't know.
Lisa: I mean, why not.
You appeared on Beyoncé's short film for Lemonade. How was it being a part of that project?
Lisa: Oh, we were so out.
Naomi: And humbled by the fact that she called us to be in this video and for this album.
Lisa: Iconic album. Yeah.
Naomi: For this iconic album because I think was like something very different from what she does.
Lisa: For me it's the album of her career. I mean, until now. Really, it's like the album that embodies everything she represents and how important she is for America. For black women. For women in the world. And then we saw her at Coachella, and then she came to see a piece of our set at Coachella. She was on the side of the stage. So it feels like, there's always little hint that she's following still where we're going.
My favorite song on your current album is "Deathless." And I heard your episode on Song Exploder, so I know the story behind it, so I know it's about a racist experience you had in France. It's a choice for you to be able to bring your experiences into the world. Do you think that's important?
Naomi: I think it's important if you're ready to talk about those things. I think it's important if you're ready to explain why you did it, because there are important subjects. So if you're not ready to really explain, then, you're not a journalist or even your family, don't do it.
Lisa: It's not something you can force.
Naomi: Yeah. You don't need to. But if you want to do it, then do it. But do it well.
Lisa: It was so important for us, because we were ready. We had done it previously on our first album that was about our family. That was to celebrate our family and the ones that are gone. We wrote that first album between 14 years old and 18 or 19. So that was our whole life, and then we started touring and discovering the world and discovering the problems of the world and everything that was happening, and hearing fans and their stories. Signing every night and seeing how the world is at that moment.
Lisa: And then the American election happened the first day we recorded the first song. The first day Trump got elected, we recorded Ash and "Away Away." That same day. 'Cause we were at the studio and it was our first day off studio and he got elected, and we were like, “Well now we have no choice.” We have no choice but to reflect how we felt and that's what we felt, but it was so, I always say, “Those songs were made for us,” we needed them. We needed to feel "Deathless," we needed "No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms," we needed "Away Away." We needed that chance, we needed that strength and that power.
Naomi: And we needed "Me Voy."
Lisa: We needed also to then celebrate. We needed all of those songs and so then when we realized that "Deathless" was becoming a little anthem for a lot of people, it was incredibly beautiful. And then we were like, “We want to make them sing that song,” and so now every night, we make people scream, "We are deathless." Today they were really loud, so that was nice.