Meet Ayoni, the Singer Creating Space for Black Creatives to Be Weird

“I’m always ‘R&B.’ That’s the first thing people will say and I’m like, ‘Is that it? Is that all you feel from the music?’”
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Ayoni, 2019

Ayoni has a grandiosity to her. The 20-year-old, Barbadian-born and LA-based singer hits notes in an otherworldly register. Her range would make even the most experienced singers quake. Ayoni’s debut album, Iridescent, out today, is a no-holds-barred story of her first year in LA. All the tumult, heartbreak, Othering, and redefining of boundaries that comes with being a young Black woman operating in the whitewashed space of pop music permeates the work. 

“Santa Monica” takes flight while opener “Wife You Up” undulates as only a pop-nB song can. “September” casts gorgeous freedom over the album, while the climbing guitar of “Malibu” briefly takes us into the emotive stratosphere. Meanwhile, our “sins are purified” on the blooming “Rap Songs.”

At every turn, Ayoni makes Iridescent a heartfelt and becoming affair. These are not the sophomoric meditations of a green artist. The emphatic and hyper-specific “September” is proof Ayoni dips her pen in a rich ink. The songwriting on Iridescent is the byproduct of a wizened soul, hurt by the industry and by her former lover. As she chants, “So my need for you is gone,” we receive a well-crafted blow to the chest. And a revival. This is Ayoni’s magic.

Ayoni’s magic also lies in her ability to create space for other Black creatives. She resists the R&B tag—press play, and you’ll hear glorious pop textures and indie-folk songwriting. Live with the music, and you’ll realize Ayoni has as much in common with Lorde as she does SZA

“I’m always ‘R&B,’” she tells me. “That’s the first thing people will say, and I’m like, ‘Is that it? Is that all you feel from the music?’ I want there to be space for the Black singer who has this indie-folk sound and is still giving us pop.”

Not only does Ayoni say “it,” but she has it, too. Song over song, her vocals and writing reach new heights. Iridescent is one of the most impressive debuts of 2019, from an artist worthy of your ear and deserving of a label broader than those at her disposal. Ayoni is a star-in-the-making, genre be damned.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

Ayoni, 2019

DJBooth: When did you first realize you had a passion for writing?

Ayoni: As a child, I loved, loved, loved, reading. I was shy and reserved and felt like books—and still do feel this way—can transport you to another world. I love the fact that humans created it. From a young age, writing was a passion of mine, but it wasn’t always in the musical sense. It was creative writing: stories and writing essays. As I got older, I learned to play the piano and guitar, and I realized I was interested in learning different instruments as a means of creating music for myself. Writing musically started around the time I was 10, but [it became serious] in high school.

When did singing come into play?

Singing was always a play for me. I don’t think I realized how much potential I had until recently. When I was younger, I sang in the church choir. The church, in general, is where I fell in love with the act of singing. Music, singing, and leading worship, it’s so powerful. You’re able to change people’s states through music. Growing up, my dad was on the worship team, and I used to be obsessed with that entire concept. Once I got older, I did choir, and I started to compete when I was in middle school. That’s when I realized I wanted not only to sing but also create music. Since I came to USC, I took vocal lessons for the first time and came into my instrument when I was ready to work at it.

How did you settle on your current sound?

It was gradual. When I was in high school, I was still inspired by folk music and the indie sound. My writing was coming from that sound. Once I graduated from high school, I discovered production and realized how different the approach to songwriting was, compared to always writing songs on instruments. The summer before University, CTRL [by SZA] and Lorde’s record [Melodrama] came out, and I was so obsessed! That was my departure from indie and acoustic music.

When I was in high school, for the last two-and-a-half years, I moved to Jakarta. A lot of our youth there was spent in clubs that played a lot of electronic music. I gained an appreciation for the electronic side of creation, while still holding dear this acoustic idea of the song standing on its own. [Iridescent] came together when I wanted these two ideas to mesh strongly.

What’s been your biggest struggle getting your career off the ground?

A lot of the field is so male-dominated. Coming into myself in a field where not only am I a woman but a Black woman, [is challenging]. I don’t always get to see a lot of Black women or interact with a community that understands how I feel. I’ve felt like an outsider in a lot of processes. But towards the end, I’ve been able to step into my power and claim ownership over this music.

The industry has whitewashed pop music. How has that impacted your career?

It’s been interesting to navigate because I’m always “R&B.” That’s the first thing people will say, and I’m like, “Is that it? Is that all you feel from the music?” As an underdog who’s just starting and no one knows I exist, sounding different and unique is an edge that will be of interest. I’ve held on to the icons we had, but I want there to be space for the Black singer who has this indie-folk sound and is still giving us pop. There’s not as much space as I want for Black creatives to be weird and be different, and not be forced into these molds we’re only allowed to exist in. The whitewashed aspect of pop today excites me because I have something to say, and the way I’m gonna say it, you can’t.

Calling you just an R&B artist would be reductive.

Yeah! And it feels that way sometimes. I don’t think it’s always malicious, but I want people to start thinking about why we are so eager to label everything. Music is so much more complex than the categories we restrict certain people and demographics to. There’s an opportunity to change something. I get to be free, and in the process of that, make room for the people that come next.

What I find so incredible about Iridescent is the way you own yourself. How did you come to a place where you realized you were the master of your domain?

I’ve always been in pursuit of truth and honesty in my life. I’ve had a lot of experiences, and just living through the process; there was so much emotion running through me. It was hard to know myself and my stability. Being on my own for the first time and having so many new experiences, my context for life was constantly changing. When I was writing songs like “September” and “Santa Monica,” I knew who I was. To the core, that’s what Iridescent is about: In the midst of all these changes, I shine. That comes from a place of being tired of giving a fuck! 

I love the freedom of “September.” Talk to me about where you were when you wrote such an effective breakup song.

I was on the metro! I was on the way to a Tinder date. I knew it was gonna be wack, I just felt it. I remember thinking, “This is all so messed up!” The guy that started this whole project, he had a car. I experienced LA for the first time with him. And all of a sudden, I’m on the metro, I’m alone! Things did not go the way I felt they [should’ve been] going. I was sad. I was like, “What is this all for?” But at the time, I knew and felt I was gonna be fine.

The project is your journey of healing.

You got it! You really feel it! That’s the project for me. There’s a line in “September”: “October’s real pretty, if you wanted to know.” Two years later, the project is dropping, and I feel the most like myself I’ve ever felt. It’s powerful. I’m excited and happy to be here, and to have arrived at—even if for a brief moment—peace.

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