The night before I got in touch with Ibeyi, thousands of Tiki torches burned bright in the southern US city of Charlottesville. What could have made for a stunning visual instead conveyed something rotten and festering in the American psyche; an aggressive display of racial hatred. “It scares us,” the French-Cuban twin sisters type in response, via a shaky email connection. Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz are in Havana, Cuba, and internet access is scarce. “We don’t understand how such hate and ignorance can still exist,” they say. “How education has failed to the point that the new generation are still trapped in old race supremacy illusions. We’re in 2017. Any of those Nazis should do a DNA test and realise they might be 30% African…”
It’s no surprise contacting Ibeyi is tough: since 2014 the Cuban government has opened little more than 200 Wi-Fi hotspots, which cost $2 per hour and attract long queues. It’s not a whole lot of access for a country of 11 million. The government blames the country’s poor internet access on the recently eased US trade embargo, saying it’s obstructed the introduction of new technologies. For Lisa and Naomi, though, their home on the island is perfect. “Our favourite place is our street because we only have to walk one minute to see our loved ones. It’s in front of the sea, we can swim every day and watch amazing sunsets.”
To ask the sisters to go online, I’ve been texting Maya, who turns out to be their mum and manager (or “momager”, to coin Kris Jenner’s epithet). Ibeyi really is a family affair. The French-Venezuelan goes beyond mother and manager duties to feature on their latest album, reading an excerpt from The Diary of Frida Kahlo: “Pies para qué los quiero/Si tengo alas pa’volar,” (“Feet, what do I need them for/If I have wings to fly?”).
(LEFT) Naomi wears jumpsuit CHANEL, jacket PRADA, bracelet CARTIER, all other jewellery NAOMI’S OWN and shoes CLARKS ORIGINALS. Lisa wears jumpsuit CHANEL, coat DSQUARED2, jewellery LISA’S OWN and shoes CLARKS ORIGINALS
(RIGHT) Naomi wears all clothing MOSCHINO, bracelet CARTIER and all other jewellery NAOMI’S OWN. Lisa wears all clothing MOSCHINO and all jewellery LISA’S OWN
The girls’ late father was world-renowned Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, but Ibeyi’s musical influences extend even further back to their Yoruba heritage (“Ibeji” is Yoruba for ‘twins’). Naomi is the more percussive of the two, having mastered the Peruvian cajón which you play by slapping — she picked up her father’s to learn on the day he died — as well as the Yoruba Batá drum. Though the twins share many of the same soft facial features, musically they’re distinct; Lisa’s domain is the piano, electronics and lead vocals.
This combination has earned Ibeyi fans in the form of Beyoncé (they made a cameo in the Lemonade video) and XL Recordings, who quickly added them to their eclectic roster. The twins’ self-titled 2015 debut was a deeply personal record, laced with the ghosts of their father and their deceased older sister. Second LP Ash, meanwhile, is more overtly political. “We recorded our new songs during a very electric moment worldwide with Trump’s election, the French elections, war in Syria and the refugee crisis,” they explain. “We were influenced by all this tension.”
“No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms” samples Michelle Obama at a Hillary Clinton rally, announcing: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”. “Our amazing producer Richard Russell has a sixth sense,” they explain of the XL label boss, their now-friend who produced the record at his studio. “He knows when a song needs a sample. At the time, that speech was in everybody’s ears and minds. We listened to it and realised we needed to sample almost everything she was saying, as the words she used were so right, truthful, even poetic… ‘Your story is my story’.”
Naomi wears shirt GUCCI, trousers LOUIS VUITTON and jewellery NAOMI’S OWN. Lisa wears all clothing MIU MIU
Despite grappling with such important subject matter, Ash often feels light and joyous — the breezy pop of “I Wanna Be Like You”, for instance, or the Chilly Gonzales-featuring “When Will I Learn”. Ibeyi’s outlook is far from negative. “Every night at our shows when we see people of every age, every colour, every background singing together, giving so much energy to us and to each other, we feel [like] this could be possible outside a concert hall too. The world is not spinning right, that’s for sure, but we need to believe we can change that. If we all do something, even small, if we unite in positive actions and thoughts, we could change things.”
Even the word “ash” is used to suggest hope, rather than the traditional connotations of death and disintegration. Ibeyi point out that ashes are used for fertilisation, and that something positive can grow out of destruction. “Our songs are a way of standing up against humiliation,” the sisters urge. “We know it’s small and we know it won’t change the world but it is something. When horrific things happen like in Charlottesville, we will sing even louder.” They quote their Kamasi Washington-featuring track, “Deathless”: “Whatever happens, whatever happened, we are deathless!”
At a time when torches are being burned, and white nationalists empowered, Ash is a much-needed call to arms; a celebration of womanhood and the strength needed to fight intolerance. Ibeyi sign off the email with the message they’d like girls to take away from the album: “You are strong, be fearless, be ambitious, be you, and shine as bright as you can because we know there is nothing you can’t be!”
Taken from the Autumn 17 Issue of Wonderland; out now and available to buy here.