Tolulope Oke had an extensive conversation with Iyanu Adebiyi that revolves around the preoccupations of her debut spoken word album, Wonder.
Tolulope Oke: Iyanu, thanks for having this conversation with me, and again, congratulations on your debut album. It really is a riveting rhythm of redemption, love, and hope. So much has happened in the past few months, so much that the thrusts of the album are becoming increasingly relevant. What inspired the album and what was the process like?
Iyanu Adebiyi: I’m so grateful for your interest in the album. While making it, I didn’t think it would mean so much to people. I am glad it does. I was inspired to make the album because I wanted to have a body of work and step into a new level with my art.
When I decided on making an album, I started thinking about all those things that inspired me to start in the first place. I wanted it to be an introduction to my art, which is why the album started with a prayer. My major inspiration is in prayer which inspires people to live their purpose and to believe. I was also inspired by a lot of what is going on in the world, and because 2020 was one of the hardest years of my life.
The process was grueling and tough. I had to let go of some control and allow those featured on the album to express their creativity. I was particular about the sound texture, music, etc., which added to the depth of the messages in the album. The planning took months, but the decision to feature artistes who were already conversant with my work saved me the stress of overexplaining myself. It was a lot, but I really enjoyed every moment of it.
Tolulope: That sounds tedious but also thoughtful. Let us talk about the overall aesthetics of the album, especially how the collaborations, sound/visual effects and songs contribute to the beautiful manifestation of the album. How did you decide on what type of feature to have with each performance?
Iyanu: I wanted to tell a story with everything, not just with my poems, so I considered the artist’s body of work, voice texture, originality, and the overarching message of their work. I believe that collaborations should be done with a purpose and the first purpose should always be that there is a connection between both artistes.
Therefore, I sought artistes whose work made my soul spin, whose voices inspired and evoked such emotional responses that would in turn contribute to my art, while my own work contributed to their art. For me, it had to be people who already felt strongly about my work, whose work complemented my work and mine complemented theirs in return, in order for there to be a balance, because if there is not, these things show. People can tell if there is discord in a duet. Every collaboration needs some form of unity of spirit, so I searched for artistes I could harmonize with.
I also looked for exceptional and excellent artistes. I was looking for distinctiveness and originality. That was non-negotiable for me. That was how I decided on who I was bringing on the project.
Tolulope: That makes sense, and little wonder the various elements are seamlessly knitted. Because of the deeply provocative nature of your art, Iyanu, how much of yourself is blended into your art; are your poems (mostly) a reflection of your firsthand experiences?
Iyanu: Yes. I do not know how to write from other people’s experiences without first pouring the substance of who I am and mixing it with what I am creating on the page.
More so, I tend to internalize the pain, joy or whatever it is I am writing about, even if it is a commissioned poem about something I have never experienced before. I always research stories of people who have experienced it and then interrogate my own feelings about it. I’d dig deep until it became clearer what things in my life I can use as a metaphor to emote and ensure I am speaking the truth.
Truth telling has always been a powerful part of my poetry. It does not mean that I am always writing about myself, it just means that whatever I write always has pieces of me in it.
Sometimes, I am writing a prophecy or an exhortation. For instance, “This Love” was a declaration of the kind of love I could imagine myself having in the nearest future, hinged tightly to my experiences of the most genuine loves I had ever experienced. At some point, it was a description of my mother’s love, my friend’s love, my father’s love, my sisters’ love, and a declaration of future loves I was yet to experience.
Tolulope: Indeed. “Consecration” is a prayer where you offered your “heart as a burnt offering,” a confession, a salutation, a collective invocation of the Divine (“Most High,” “O Sweet Ghost,” “Father”), a solemn chant of repentance, a call for help in a “world burning” where “people are weeping mountains.” In this solemn piece, there is a pulsating feeling of dejection and helplessness. You mentioned spirituality, how relevant is this to our collective survival?
Iyanu: I once wrote an essay for SprinNG, titled, “Rewriting the Gbolohun: Why I write.” There, I mention how I am always writing from death to life, from life to death and back. If you ever see me writing about joy, it is from pain I started. If you ever see me writing about grace, it is from shame I started. Most of my writing begins from a place and end somewhere else.
In the creation story when God created light, there was darkness first. I do not think that light could have been created if there was no darkness. So, in writing about purpose, I start from a place of helplessness. A dearly beloved author once said, when we do not know where to go, that is when we have truly begun the journey of our lives. Most of the poems were fashioned in the thick of emotional darkness. It is not a sad thing; it is a purposeful thing.
Spirituality is a part of me that I cannot hide. Because I always pour myself into my work, so much of what I write comes from my spirit. It is what saves me. It is what heals me, and I believe that when people can connect with, not just their spirituality, but the divine that so gallantly resides within them, they will find salvation.
Tolulope: Yes. The Divine invocation in “Consecration” isn’t only about the expression of dejection, there is a righteous quest for redemption in those lines you said, “come subdue my pride/ come purge me of shame/ come purge of fear”. But you also added “train my hands for the highest goods” and “revive my dying role,” what do you mean by these?
Iyanu: Before I answer that, I first need to establish that Wonder is my debut album and “Consecration” is only a declaration of my utter dedication to purpose and the journey of producing many more works of art in the future.
In the line “train my hands for the highest good,” I am asking Divinity for help and guidance on this path. I am asking for power to reach the zenith of my creativity and the ability to produce excellent work.
Likewise, “revive my dying roar,” speaks directly to how I was feeling at the time I wrote the poem. Lions are known to be fierce and courageous animals, but to see a lion without its roar is a paradox. I am seeking divinity to revive my voice and boost it, regardless of the fear and pain that may be trying to kill it.
Tolulope: No one would miss you as an advocate of hope. In fact, that’d be the most recurring motif of your works. Somewhere, I write that your album is a collective of motivation with hope and possibilities pulsing through it. What’s your personal narrative with/of hope?
Iyanu: My personal narrative with hope is that it saved my life and continues to do so. It is as simple as that.
Tolulope: “Keep Moving,” “Up Nepa,” and “Positive” are some of your older works crafted around hope. But on a more collective level, “Las Las” interrogates hope against the confronting sociocultural and economic realities of Nigerians who “chuckle through their griefs” and “carve humor out of horror, tell a joke for every yoke.” Do you suppose there is a way forward within the parameters of hope that we are in, after all, you added that we are “mad with faith”?
Iyanu: In “Las Las,” I was honestly not trying to teach Nigerians anything or hold them to any impossible standard of hope. I believe that the nationals have displayed and continue to display more hope than any group of people I have ever witnessed. I wrote the poem trying to grapple with the resilience of the people. I tried to rationalize it, but it didn’t make any sense. I carried this wonder in my mind for months until I was able to make peace with the popular Nigerian saying, “Las las, we go dey alright.”
The poem does not exhort or teach anything, it just tells a story, while eulogizing the Nigerian spirit that is so unbreakable. It is not just about hope, it is also about bravery, resilience, strength and most importantly, belief – that quiet knowing that no matter the turmoil, we will survive this. That is what I am extolling.
I used to think that hopefulness determines outcomes, but I don’t think so anymore. For years, black people were tortured, maltreated, beaten, and killed for nothing other than the color of their skin. Do I think hope bought them freedom? Not at all. It was the result of the activities of abolitionists, activists, and black people themselves standing up to fight for their freedom.
Hope is nothing but a posture of the heart. It is what empowers the action towards success, it is not success itself. The fact that you have hope does not mean that you will have everything you want. It just means you will keep going. You will defy fear. You will maintain a sense of curiosity for the future, saying, “I won’t give up. Even when all I see is darkness, I’ll keep going to see if there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” It is a mindset that honors the possibility of something new and different happening despite all the negative proof you have now. It is belief beyond belief and hope against hope. This is what Nigerians possess.
I know that there are times when fear masks itself as hope – false hope, I am not talking about that type. I am talking about the kind that forces you to keep looking for a way out of the dungeon, not sit down and resign to ‘fate’. There is a way forward, but Nigerians haven’t found it yet. It is hope that will keep us searching and not give up until we find it.
Tolulope: For proper contextualization, in “Up Nepa,” you highlighted the flaws of religiosity, the hypocrisy and irony therein, “seeking fake powers, fake lights” but promising what they themselves seek, and bearing in mind the idea of hope as it’s largely postulated and embraced in present day Nigeria is a propagation of Pentecostalism. In retrospect, don’t you think hope has been futile and counterproductive?
Iyanu: Earlier, I spoke about false hope, which is fear masked as hope. It is this type of hope that is counterproductive. The type that is an excuse to be lazy, to pursue crime, avoid confronting the demons and getting comfortable with pain. Hope inspires you to act. Many of us believe in Divinity, but I think it is only a faithless person who will fold hands, waiting for the salvation of God. A person who truly has hope will believe that Divinity’s outstretched arm can be found in the work that they choose to do.
In the Nigerian context, there is a lot of propaganda to keep people poor, so that they can stay manipulatable. Some of these religious leaders are not so spiritually intelligent to differentiate between false faith and true faith. They just preach faith. I think that if more people will be hopeful, in the real sense of the word, then hope will be more productive. But, like I said earlier, hope is nothing but a posture of the heart. It is not the victory itself. It is what spurs you on to create the victory. Faith is a resource. It is meant to be used. And if hopeful people are not being productive, then that hope is not doing its work and when you take a critical look at it, you will realize that that hope is a fake hope.
Tolulope: While people are choosing sides between the long-debated Israel and Philistine clash(es), I’m befuddled by the level of destruction those innovations we’ve perceived as an advancement is bringing us, a sort of Sisyphus paradox. Iyanu, against the backdrop of “Human”, are you concerned about the present/future of humanity, especially in relation to technological advancements and digital moderations. “Human” offers an overview of humanity against sociocultural pressures in a digital age, what you described as an “extreme sport” and “monsters lurking behind mobile screens.” The facade of social media and the portrayal of neo/contrasting/pseudo realities, the erosion of reality, “emotions into emoticons.” These moderations have confronted us with a new addiction to grapple with. Indeed, “the disease is Digital.” Also, there is the technophobia of AI taking over humanity, just as you cautioned, “do not let the algorithms be God.”
Iyanu: Yes, “Human” is an expression of my fear of the possibility that we would only continue to be less human, until we become robots and machines, and how we seem to be letting these things suck our blood-life out, obliterating ourselves in pursuit of a mirage – perfection. However, the poem towards the end, exalts the power of us as we are and our ability to conquer whatever threatens our existence, even our own selves. How we are inhumanly human. I know that right now, we are threatened by a lot of things, but I believe that we can always conquer, if we want to. The power is in the will and the victory is in a mindset change. That is what I aim to provide in the poem.
Tolulope: In “Wonder,” you gave expression to an/our endless trail of reality, asking “who are we, and where do we come from?” This performance is perhaps my best for its deep existential leanings. Little wonder it is the title of the album. You contemplated, “are we even breathing?” “Are we flawed?” “Is this magic or madness?” “Are we stars or are we just burning for nothing?” Then, you added that “There is no answer…,” “We’re an eternal question,” “we remain unanswerable,” “we begin and end in wonder.” Now, I understand that wonder is a rough estimation of your name, but what other ideas spurred this performance?
Iyanu: Yes, I was reading up on philosophical ideologies at the time I wrote the piece. I could not help it.
I find it weird that the poem is the title piece of the body of work, because it was the last to be written. I drafted it during the Black Lives Matter protests that took place after the murder of George Floyd. It was such a painful time for the black community, and I was moved with that pain and communal trauma to write an inquiry. In that poem, I am trying to figure out why the black race has been subjected to so much hatred and injustice.
You’ll find lines like “descendants of a bleeding bloodline.” This refers to how the blood of the black race has been consistently spilled throughout history and has survived regardless. Other expressions like, “Mud-house skin” refers to our brown skin and “thatched roof hair” refers to the Afro.
There is so much in that poem that goes back to my sense of origin and identity, and I like that about the poem. I just wanted to know why my race was treated this way. Why it had to be us? There was also an uproar in Africa as I was writing the poem too and I paid homage to that uproar.
I was looking for justification for the injustice, something wrong that we did, something stinking about who we are, and found nothing. We are actually so glorious and magnificent, we are unexplainable, undefinable and those who choose hate and racism do so because they are afraid of something, they cannot wrap their heads around.
While writing the poem, I implicated myself. I have always seen myself as a weirdo – the middle of the Venn diagram – never fully here or there and that came with a lot of discomfort and struggle. Since the release of the work, I have received praise from people who identify with the poem in this way, and I am so delighted with that.
Tolulope: That is an interesting distinction, and true to your words, your reflection and projection of hope are adorned with actions, transformative ones especially. In “I am something,” for instance, there is the expression of “washing my frozen dreams with fire” and in “Salt,” you reminded us that “when lightening calls our name, we answer with thunder; when anguish drown our voices, we speak the tongue of fire….we used to be a monument, now we’re a movement….pillars of salt becoming towers of strength.” In “Mad,” you mentioned that silence for survival is “not loud enough to overcome violence.” But could there be any active agency in silence as resistance, especially considering the colonial and post/neocolonial continuum the poem is set against?
Iyanu Adebiyi: Well, I think that silence can be loud enough. Personally, I know it is one of the most effective ways to get me to listen. Silence can be a gift; it can be a weapon. I have never doubted its power, the problem here is the oppressor.
With silence, you cannot claim that they heard you, even if they heard you loud and clear. When it comes to Law and contending for your right, you need to prove that you’ve carried out all due diligence. You need to show that you disagree with what is being done to you, but it first starts with silence – the whole fight always starts with silence.
Maya Angelou, when she was a little girl, stayed silent for years. When she started to speak, she could not be ignored. The effect of her voice, after years of silence, was so much more.
It is easier to listen to someone who isn’t always talking all the time, who takes their time to meditate and contemplate on their words. It is the silence that brings depth and weight to your words.
And this is one of the most powerful things that writing poetry has taught me – silence is a weapon. Now, imagine you are in a battlefield, you have a weapon but refuse to fight, what do you think will happen to you?
Silence is an important part of every conversation, although it should not be the entire thing. Our ancestors did their part – they used silence as a weapon of perseverance. If they had not, maybe our race would not have survived. Silence can be protective and persevering, but that’s just one part. The part where you speak is equally as important. We are the speaking lineage, the ‘soro soke’ generation. Now is not the time to be silent. Now is the time to speak until there is no doubt that you have been heard.
Tolulope: Indeed, “there is power in the words that define you.” Apparently, you do not agree with Shakespeare that “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” While we struggle against the torrents of westernization and (post)modernism as Africans, “Your Name” and “Your Name (Panegyric)” declare a decolonial intervention of the significance attached to names and naming, and not “just some meaningless sounds”. You did not just reach into the depth of these names, but also highlight the inadequacy of a word-to-word English translation; for instance, “Iyanuoluwa…the opening of God’s mouth/ The audacity to speak without squeezing your nose or panel-beat your tongue into alien accent.” These performances are a mix of self-evocation, identity redemption, and the symbolic power of names and affiliation. Why do you think there seem to be a continuous degradation of what these poems address, and why have you chosen to give expression to these concerns?
Iyanu: There is a continuous degradation of the significance of our names because we do not fully understand it. Translating an African name to English language cannot be done without losing some meaning. So many of us give our names away because we do not know their true meaning.
When someone refuses to call you by your name, it can be abusive – a small violence. African names are usually being mispronounced, while names like ‘Schwarzenegger’ are pronounced perfectly. I noticed that Africans are often quick to break their names into halves and this willingness to shape-shift and shrink until there is nothing left is a slavery mentality. Black slaves were usually stripped of their names and forced to bear the names of their owners. It is the most humiliating thing ever. We do that even today. You see many people drop their native names just because someone finds it hard to pronounce and then take up their English name because it’s easier to pronounce. Many may not know it, but that’s slavery behavior.
I wanted to shed light on these issues, help everyone listening to me understand that to be African is not something to be stripped. You can wear your origin with pride and when others try to degrade your sense of being, don’t take it. There is nothing wrong about being African or having an African name or accent. We can desensitize ourselves and begin to see being African as the royal, magnificent phenomenon that it is. Stripping us of our true names is one of the ways the oppressor keeps us in chains.
Tolulope: One of those elements that mark the brilliance of the Wonder album is its all-inclusiveness, the waves of each performance creating its own meaning and melody yet running into one another to create a harmonious balance. Every line transitions into a complex and endless narrative of heartbreak and healing, substantiating that “the hole in human’s sole is always bottomless.” I am very curious about the creation of the “Woman in Purdah,” your rendition has never been so gentle. What inspired this poem?
Iyanu: Several things inspired it. The first seed of the poem was planted in my heart, when I was in Gombe State. I saw a woman in purdah for the very first time and the image of her covered up from head to toe stayed in my mind for about two years, until I wrote that poem.
I did a lot of research and discovered that a woman in purdah didn’t have to be so covered from head to toe, when she’s in her private chambers. She’s free. That struck a chord and became the overall metaphor for the poem.
However, the work was birthed during a very trying time of heartbreak for a friend. She was in so much pain and I attempted to comfort her with words. I noticed that while I was talking, she would tell me to stop so she could write something down that struck a chord. She kept doing this until I asked her why. She told me the pain is more intense when I am not around, and she wanted to be able to remember my words of comfort then.
So, the poem is a love letter to her and so many other women going through heartbreaks, attempting to heal by seeking the love of the person who hurt them. There is this desire for everything to go back to normal. This fear that we will never heal on our own. We often do not know how much power we have until we go back into ourselves, like the woman in purdah who is safe in her private chambers, and rest.
I also explore the idea of human beings being self-healing. I watch too many superhero movies and from it the idea of being able to heal yourself by loving yourself. When an unhealthy relationship ends, it is a war that ends, you don’t have to go around with ammunition anymore, you can enter into yourself and heal yourself. That is the major message of the poem.
Iyanu Adebiyi is a Nigerian-born writer and performance poet; an artiste interrogating and exploring social issues as they affect the wellbeing of individuals and the society at large, with an aim to inspire, foster and advocate for positive and sustainable change. Her voice is deeply rooted in the culture and tradition, as well as the experience of being African in this millennium. Her work is refreshing and compelling, often moving towards health and healing (especially mental and emotional), encouragement and hope for the individual and for the community. She has featured in many stage performances along with high profile performers in the country. She has been awarded by the U.S. Consulate in Nigeria and has been actively involved with and artistically engaged by several institutions, community and arts organizations including BBC Media Action Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation, Arojah Royal Arts Theatre, Korean Embassy Nigeria, University of Bayreuth (Germany), University of Global Health Equity (Rwanda), among others. Through her meaningful performances and fast-growing social media platform, she has reached several thousands of people with the power of words, which continues to change the lives of her audience in significant ways. She is also a Legal Practitioner) based in Abuja, Nigeria.
Tolulope Oke is an art enthusiast and a fellow of progress. Tolulope is completing his doctoral studies at the University of Bayreuth, Bayreuth. He is the Publisher of Lunaris Review and the co-facilitator of the Toyin Falola Prize.