360°Sound spoke with Toronto-based queer Ethiopian/Eritrean singer-songwriter Ayo Leilani, better known as Witch Prophet. Her music fuses hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. The music video for the song “Tesfay” is in SXSW’s Music Video Competition.
Witch Prophet’s second and most recent album, 2020’s DNA Activation, which she co-produced with her wife Sun Sun, made the shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize, an award given every year to the best Canadian album. Witch Prophet and Sun Sun founded the record label Heart Lake Records, which focuses on supporting and promoting queer, non-binary, and gender non-conforming artists.
360°: Please start by giving us an introduction to Witch Prophet and telling us a little about your background and music.
Witch Prophet: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and came to Canada when I was 4. I’ve been here ever since. My parents are Eritrean and Ethiopian. Ethiopia has over 80 different ethnic groups as well as Eritrea has nine, I believe. I’m four out of the 80 and three out of the nine in Eritrea. My family is quite mixed.
I make music with my partner and wife, Sun Sun. We co-produced my latest album, DNA Activation, which is an Ethio-jazz, R&B, hip-hop fusion album focusing on the names of my family members – my two groups of grandparents, my mother and my father, my son, and myself, as well as tapping into historical stories and biblical myths and beliefs. It’s in English, Amharic, and Tigrinya.
As a child of the Diaspora, I really assimilated to North American culture. I really didn’t know who I was or understood my culture until I was older. That’s why this album is so focused on my family. It’s a way of me connecting back to it.
Your music video for “Tesfay” is in the SXSW Music Video Competition. I saw that “Tesfay” is Tigrinya for “My hope.” Tell us about what you wanted to capture with the video.
The song and video are dedicated to my late grandfather. He started off as a sheepherder in northern Ethiopia in the Tigray region and then became a politician, worked his way up, and raised five daughters as a single father after the death of my grandmother. He really raised them to believe that education is No. 1 before anything else. It was taboo being a single father raising women during the 1960s in Ethiopia and raising them to focus on themselves and bettering themselves rather than focusing on the life of being a wife was really something different. I decided to show him in the way that my memory was growing up, which was someone who was always dressed to the nines in three-piece suits, always looking fly, extremely proud of who he was, putting his best foot forward.
When I spoke to Leah Vlemmiks, who was the director of the film, I told her what I wanted to do in terms of focusing on the positive aspects of Black fatherhood and showing those images and showing these dancers. Having a documentary/music video where we talked to young girls sort of emulating my mother and her sisters and talk to them about their father and also have the dancing. Josh Taylor was the choreographer and Olivia was the little girl who was dancing. They did such a great job showcasing what I had explained to Leah. I just want to show family joy and the joy between a father and a daughter and the pride that grows and how it affects later generations.
You have a brand new single out, “Shine.” You said it’s about overcoming hardships. Tell us a little about the inspiration for that song.
“Shine” was also produced by my wife Sun Sun. I actually wrote the lyrics to that song maybe 13 years ago, an entirely different melody, and I kind of forgot about it. Everything that has been going on in the world with the pandemic, the uncertainly of it all, after a year of seeing that we’re still here and we’re resilient and have faith, I felt it was important to release a song that shows that aspect.
I believe we’re coming to the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, things will get better, and these vaccines work, and our lives get back to normal. The song “Shine” is really about the release and the relief in knowing that even when there are hard times, there will always come a time of good, and have faith and not let go of that.
Stay tuned to 360°Sound for more SXSW Online 2021 coverage.