Since making waves with their debut self-titled album in 2015, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, better known as the musical duo Ibeyi, have been busy growing up. More specifically, they toured the world, racked up millions of views on early hits like "River," and even landed a highly coveted cameo in Beyoncé's Lemonade. All things considered, it's a fitting way for the pair of twenty-two year olds to come of age, considering their transnational upbringing; Lisa and Naomi were raised between Paris and Cuba, the cultures of which are both reflected heavily in their work. They sing a mixture of English, French, Spanish, and Yoruba, the Nigerian language originally spoken by their ancestors before being brought to Cuba by the Spaniards in the 18th century ("Ibeyi" means "twins" in Yoruba). Still, world tour or not, growing up is never without its pratfalls. Here, they open up about what they learned along the way, and how it shaped their triumphant sophomore album Ash.
WILLIAM DEFEBAUGH Walk me through the last few years since you first released your first album in 2015.
NAOMI DIAZ We traveled the world. It was amazing.
LISA-KAINDE DIAZ We learned so much. The stage makes you grow up. It makes you understand a lot more about yourself and about the world and about people that are coming to see your show. And touring the world allowed us to meet incredible people and learn about how people live and how people are feeling about the world today. It’s been the adventure of our lives.
WD How did [touring] impact the creation of your new album, Ash?
LKD It changed everything. It changed our way to create because suddenly we were in contact with people. The first album was created in my room. It started as 14 year-olds in my room, with my piano, but suddenly we were in contact with people and we were on stage and we realized what kind of album we wanted to make—what kind of energy we wanted to give people, and what kind of energy we wanted to receive from people. We realized that we wanted to make a second album that would make people move and be even more visceral and that will make people sing more. We wanted more emotion. And so when we started writing, we realized that we could hear people singing in our heads. It was part of the process.
WD What did you want to say with the record? Are there overall themes that you wanted to touch on?
ND Women empowerment, racism, hope—
LKD And transmission. We realized that during those two years of touring we became hopeless and powerless and felt like there was nothing we could do about the world. About the fact that everything is falling apart and that we are ashes, we are all ashes and that everything is burning around ourselves. And then we realized that actually doing something, even if it’s as small as an album, it may not change the world, but it made us hopeful again. We gained power again writing the songs like “Deathless.” Making people sing “we are deathless" every night is so powerful. And it makes us hopeful. It makes us stronger. I think that’s the main theme of the album. But really it’s just an album of two young women looking at the world that they are living in today. Our first album was a lot more about ourselves and our background and our family. We wanted to make an homage for our father and our sister. In this one we got to talk about the world today and how we see it. The first day of studio, we made “Ash” and “Away Away.” So we realized pretty early on that this was the energy of that album and that we wanted it to be like a punch. A punch with joy. That’s what I always say to people. It talks about really hard subjects, but we always want to be hopeful and joyful because we feel that that music is there.
WD And it’s so important to find that balance right? Because there are so many difficult things happening in the world right now and you can’t ignore them. You can’t not talk about these heavy issues but at the same time you don’t want to just be contributing to the negativity.
LKD Yes. People are overloaded with negativity in the news. When they want to go out, when they want to come to like a show, they want to forget a little bit. For three minutes, they want to forget they’re in such a deep, awful world. There’s some incredible things about the world, but then there’s those awful issues happening. But at the same time, your role as artist and musician is to talk about what touches you so you can’t ignore that either. When it’s truthful and when it comes from a deep place, people embrace it. We don’t say we have the truth, but we are like everybody else trying to figure it out.
WD We are all trying to figure out how to exist in this world. In some ways that’s sort of growing up.
LKD I had a whole conversation this morning about the fact that we are born knowing. Almost feel like when you put children together and they are really small, they are born knowing what’s right and wrong, and then somewhere in the middle of the world we lose that. Lose our truth. It’s education—it always is. The way we educate our girls, the way we educate our boys. The way they interact with each other. I like this idea that we are born knowing. Actually, in the Yaruba mythology, before you are born you are like a soul and they put you in your body and they wash you. And just before washing you, you say a sentence which is “I’m going on Earth to do this.” And then they wash you, but because they made your body with flaws, they wash you and you forget. And the whole point of your life then is to find that sentence, what you were born to do. What is your purpose? What is it that you wanted to do on Earth. Again, it’s the same idea—you’re born knowing and then there’s something that happens and you forget. For example, our song, “No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms”—we were raised by strong, incredible, independent women that had a voice. So it feels like we always knew that we were enough without a man. We can go wherever we want, we are enough. Yet, it’s so easy to forget your own power. It’s so easy to tell yourself because we are taught to doubt ourselves. So singing that song every night is good because it makes you remember it.
ND It’s like a mantra.
WD That reminds me of something a teacher of mine once told me: “We’re not human beings having a divine experience, we’re divine beings having a human experience.” The work is to remember that.
LKD “Deathless” is about that. You know “Deathless” about the fact that I got arrested in Paris because I had an afro and the guy, the policeman thought I was dealing some drugs. I was 16. But actually, “Deathless” is not that much about him; it’s about everybody else there that didn’t move when it happened to me. And I was one of those people someday. We’ve all seen things but we didn’t move, because we've all felt like we’re not strong enough, because we were scared, because we were frozen or whatever the excuse we had at that moment was. But those people went back to their house and felt so powerless and I’m sure I felt that way one day. And you just feel like shit. And I think that’s why “Deathless” is important—to realize that we have power. You know when there’s a women’s march, when there’s a black lives march and suddenly you realize that alone you couldn’t do it but if everybody alone comes together—you have power! That’s what “Deathless” is about. It’s about us realizing how powerful we are and that we’re beyond what we think we are.
WD You mentioned the women who raised you. How did your upbringing influence your work?
ND We grew up with a mom and a grandma. Our dad left when we were 11 years old, but our grandma and our mom are really strong. They were always like, “You can do whatever you want.” Lisa said to my grandma when she was really young, “Grandma, I want to be the next president of France.” And she said, “You have my vote.” She didn’t say, “You know it’s hard for women” or “It’s gonna be complicated,” she said, “You have my vote.” That the way we were raised.
ND We grew up between Paris and Havana. But most of our time in Paris.
LKD That also influenced us a lot. Because it’s two cultures that are totally different. Two backgrounds that are totally different.
ND Because Cuba and France are really different.
WD Did you ever struggle with that duality?
LKD I probably struggled one year. I remember one year where I was struggling but I was struggling with everything. I was struggling with myself more that. It was not about Cuba or France or anywhere, it was more me. And then I met the good people and surrounded myself and was like “I’m good!”
ND People always want you to chose and we never chose. And but here in America I feel like you have to chose, it’s terrible.
LKD Yeah, it’s almost like if you have to abandon what you were in order to be what you are. In order to be an American, when actually there are a lot of different ways to be an American. But it’s important not to forget that.
WD I think that it’s a very recent thing too in American where to some degree it has to do with labels. Here people are so obsessed with identifying with a certain thing. Everything has to be in categories and boxes and I think part of what we want to work on breaking down is getting rid of some of those categories.
LKD It’s even worse than that. It almost feels like, you can’t survive if you’re not in a community. Which means that community really stays separated instead of joining forces because you’ve been told that there’s no way you can survive without that. But I think, things can change. Then you have some crazy things like black people not wanting to march for gay rights or gay people not wanting to march for transgender rights.
ND And if minorities don't help each other—
LKD It’s never going to work. It’s something that quite bothers me. But it happens at every level. You can seen that for example with women. There’s loads of women with power that would not help other women, that would shame other women because they’ve been told that if they got there they were lucky and they were the one and they could not survive with another one coming. And there’s going to be competition. And this is the mold we need to break, as communities, as human beings. And this is what is interesting for us as musicians: What links people? What unifies people? That is what we are interested in and that is what we see every night at our shows. We see people of every shape and color and every age for an hour and a half singing the same thing.
ND And believing in it.
LKD And they are making just one voice. And then you wonder at the end of the show, why can’t this exist outside? It must. Because it works here. So not why outside?
WD And in some ways that is the answer to the question we were talking about in the beginning of this conversation: As a creative person, how can I possibly make a difference? That is something art can do that so many things can’t: It can unify.
LKD Yeah, art does. And what I love about art is that it touches you and it touches others, but it doesn’t ask you where you’re from to do it.
LKD I think what scares me, about America especially, is that we tend to not learn from our past mistakes and I see the same things happening again. When you see footage from segregation, and then you see the same footage today, you’re like, what happened? How is this still here? But we are hopeful. We feel that hopefully the next generation will get it right. It’s again the same thing. It comes down to education. We need to educate our kids to make sure they understand and they know their history.
WD And how do your spiritual beliefs impact your work?
LKD We don’t sit at the piano and say, I’m going to write a spiritual song. That would not make any sense. Spirituality means being here and in the moment and being in the word you’re going to say. I think, art is that. Performing a song is that. You’re not ahead or looking backwards. You’re really in the moment and it’s like meditation.
WD What is your creative process like with the two of you? Is it often that you’re on the same page?
LKD I think it’s the opposite.
ND She starts and I finish.
LKD We confront each other. But it’s always really peacefully. But we confront ideas and we confront our words. It’s like, it has to have a confrontation in order to find the middle.
ND And it’s more about music and rhythm for me and I don’t write. But, sometimes if I don’t like what she writes we don’t do the song.
LKD We both need to be happy. If not, it’s not Ibeyi. And if we were doing albums separately, they would be really really different from what we are doing. We feed each other. I think this relationship would still work while we are both growing separately and feeding each other.
WD Tell me about the album artwork for Ash.
ND J R. First of all, we love his work. He’s one of the beautiful people I know on this Earth in my family because he really helps everybody. He just does things, you don’t even know what he does. He’s just helping everybody. He’s creating hope and art for everybody. We love his work. We love the human. He’s one of our really really good friends. We didn’t want to ask him and one day he was in the studio and said, “Well let’s work together.” It was a collaborative work and we found the idea and we shot it in the studio. It’s not photoshopped. It was glued to our faces. He did our picture in black and white and he cut it and we glued it. Lisa’s is part of mine and mine part of hers.
Banner image photography Luca Repola