“People say to me, ‘You’re still talking about politics?’ and I say, ‘C’mon, life is politics’”, Afro-fusion singer-songwriter Wunmi told Green Left Weekly while she was in Sydney as part of the Big Day Out (BDO) music festival.
“We live in an environment where things are constantly happening, how can you not talk about it?”
Wunmi has a big name (it’s Ibiwunmi Omotayo Olufunke Felicity Olaiya), big hair, and a big voice — and she was this year’s BDO’s best kept secret.
Playing an afternoon set on the Lilyworld stage in Sydney on January 27, Wunmi had the pleasure of a lively crowd, yet to lose energy and coherence from too long in the sun or too many at the bar.
London born, Wunmi spent much of her childhood in Nigeria before returning to London as a teen. Growing up in London, Wunmi loved dance and fashion, and before entering the music industry, she studied fashion at the London College of Fashion (LCF).
“I had to please my father,” she said of her time at LCF. “Give him something so he wouldn’t be like: you’ve just done nothing with your life!”
Wunmi now has a fashion label (Wow Wow by Wunmi) and she creates pieces in her down-time.
“When I come back [from touring], I’ll go on my machine, and cut my pattern and I’ll make a few things,” she said.
However, Wunmi’s focus is on her music, which she describes as afro-fusion. “It’s not really in one genre ... you can’t take the African out of it.”
Wunmi said she was hesitant about stepping out as a solo artist. She was told by a record company that her music was “great but [was] going to be a hard sell”, as her lyrics explored such themes as commercialism, cultural identity, political corruption and the role of women in society.
“I was a dancer initially so I wasn’t necessarily trying to become a singer. I really saw music as something that had to have a meaning behind it, that had to have a purpose.”
Her confidence was buoyed following a year of working with a man she describes as an idol and mentor, acclaimed US jazz, soul and funk musician, Roy Ayers.
“He had worked with [Nigerian afro-beat pioneer and political activist] Fela Kuti, so he kind of understood me before I understood where I was coming from,” she said.
“I toured with [Roy Ayers] and then I started going to jam sessions where I’d hang out with other musicians and I would pick up the mic and restyle one of my songs that I wrote over whatever was being played and word got around and I started gigging all over New York.
“All of a sudden the doors were open.”
In 2007, Wunmi released her debut solo album, A.L.A (Africans Living Abroad).
One of the tracks is “Greedy Body”, which Wunmi wrote about the way greed afflicts African politics.
“When you have to pick one thing that is destroying that country, it’s greed,” she said.
“In the song it says ‘greed is a disease and it’s running rife’ ... the song wasn’t as intense as I thought it needed to be ... but everyone understands when you say something is a disease.”
For Wunmi, writing music is a “state of mind”.
“I don’t set out to find a topic to write about, for instance, the current album I’m working on, I went to record it in Ghana,” she said. “And I thought ‘Oh no, I’m going to do a thing full of so much frustration and anger and concern’.
“Writing is like that, you’re in it ... you can’t run away from the lyrics.”
Talking about the importance of creating music with a message, Wunmi says: “It’s not small talk, I’ve got to say what I have to say.
“I think that’s the beauty about music, it’s like writing a poem and expressing something in such a way that people actually listen.
“That’s where my admiration for Fela or Bob Marley comes from, they use music as a way of inspiring and having people open up their minds.”
Describing a song from her forthcoming album, Wunmi said she revisits a theme from the A.L.A. track “Women Child”: “Although my mother couldn’t raise me, I have had other mothers and women. We need to be there for each other, that’s the only way we can grow, we need to support each other.
“If we all share our story we could be so much stronger.
“On this new album, there is a song, which is not quite a ballad but has the energy of that and it’s called Little Girl and that speaks to me about the whole issue of being a woman, and being a girl.
“We give birth to the future: that is powerful in itself, it’s far more powerful than anything else that happens on this earth. But when you look at it, it is almost rendered to a second class position.”
The second album will also examine human interconnectedness and desensitisation to the world around us.
“There is another song that I wrote with Jeremy [Mage, musician and one of the album’s co-producers] and that song is called ‘Don’t Look Away’ and that’s about seeing all the things that happen around us and becoming numb.”
Wunmi recalled her dismay at witnessing people ignore a man being mugged by a group in London.
“I was walking towards it, I noticed that people were walking past, everyone turns away. And I just thought that could be me, that could be anyone — you can’t walk away.
“There is no one else who can cover for us. If I look away and you look away, we are done. If we all look away, if we all walk away, who are we leaving it for?”
In her songs, Wunmi sets out to start conversations by using her lyrics as a platform to share her experiences. “To me that is the power of music, you can use it to open up others who really are closed, who have had so much pain and so much sorrow, the music can help them open up.
“There’s no more powerful tool than music.”
[Visit www.wunmi.com for more information.]
Wunmi performs her song “Talk, talk, talk”.