I’m noticeably flustered as I hurry towards the tall figure on the verge behind Larmer Tree’s ARC tent. I’ve spent the weekend squatting in the media shed amid an infuriating lack of internet and phone signal and fighting my way across the crowds, and I’m just in time. Calm almost to the point of aloofness, with the aura of someone at ease in any situation, Akua Naru seems like everything I’m not.
I have some handwritten notes on a water-stained notebook to keep me on track, and decide to start off light and ease into the more politically-charged conversation that is inevitable for any serious discussion of her latest album, ‘The Blackest Joy.’ That strategy lasts less than a minute.
She’s doing “wonderful”. No, she’s never been to Larmer Tree before. Yes, the set went well. No, she’s not based in Cologne anymore, she’s based in the world, is travelling, settled back in Boston for the moment. I ask how she’s finding it, if it’s a difficult time to be in the states right now.
“I feel like as a black woman, I understand the spirit of the times but…I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that or respond to that.” It’s fashionable to talk about Trump as ‘America’s darkest hour’,” I venture. “Our darkest hour was slavery. That’s why I can’t say, you know? Trump has emboldened people who knew they couldn’t say certain things before, but this is America. This is not new. These people have always been here. They were here when Obama was president, they were here when Bush was president, they were here when Clinton was president. It’s just now the administration has created an atmosphere where they feel they can come out.”
Born to a Ghanaian family in New Haven, Connecticut, Naru first fell in love with the poetry of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. Rap battles in her neighbourhood and her uncle’s Mob Deep and KRS-One records introduced her to hip hop, and it wasn’t long before she was writing her own bars.
“My mother would say that no one ever taught me how to read. I loved words, I’ve always been writing. My earliest memories are of me writing something or remembering something and reciting it. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But I was first a poet. When I was like 7 or 8 I used to write rhymes.
New Haven is an all black city, so I grew up with people from the South. I was the first in my family born in the North. My mother was born in North Carolina, so was her mother, so was her mother, we’ve been in that state for 200 plus years. I come from a very church family, Pentecostal holy church, so music is everywhere. So there was always a degree of performance.”
It’s fitting then that Naru went viral with a live performance. Since 2012 ‘Poetry: How Does It Feel Now???’ has racked up nearly six million views – and no wonder, with a barefoot Naru reciting lines like “I want to make love to your existence, drenched in the colours of your energy, then masturbate to the memories” to the backdrop of a sensual saxophone and laidback beat.
“That song even came about by accident. That’s the beauty of God, and how what needs to reach people will find them. It’s like you brought a child to life and your child lives with other people and you see it grow and take different forms. I’m still navigating it.”
‘Poetry’ is the breakout hit from her 2011 debut, ‘The Journey Aflame,’ but the whole album set the stage for Naru’s formidable reputation as a rapper and poet. “For those of y’all waiting for hip-hop, she’s here” she laughs in ‘The Backflip,’ the bold statement borne out by bar after historically-conscious bar charting the journey of black people from pre-colonial Africa to America in slave ships, to her own place as the “midwife” to bring the story of this journey to the world today. Over jazz and soul sounds from her band Digflo, she narrates her own journey from her “first tape in ’88” to continuing experiences of sexism in the industry. Simultaneously, against the backdrop of righteous anger at the brutalising of black bodies, she expresses a persisting joy maintained through the music she’s making.
Naru’s second album, ‘The Miner’s Canary,’ was released in 2015 and straddled experiences of hope and disenfranchisement. A more ambitious sound recorded with 53 collaborators over two years, it includes an ode to Toni Morrison and the invocation “Black people unite!” that pays homage to her identity as a proponent of pan-Africanism. Against the backdrop of two incredible albums, her latest release is if anything even tighter, paying tribute to the black women throughout history who have paved the way for her to speak, and who have had their own voices silenced.
When I mention that her website bio claims Naru “writes to fulfill the void she needs filled since access to female voices in female hip hop is limited”, she pauses. “I write for many reasons. So that’s one reason. I just write because I’m a writer, and I can’t be a writer if I don’t write. Writing to me is about a lot of different things. It’s about trying to navigate what it means to live in this body in this world at any given time. It’s about me understanding my ancestry. I’m very interested in black women’s voices – so much of what we had to say and so much of who we are is hated in this world. And we still thrive and we’re still beautiful and amazing, we still create, we still lead regardless. I’m interested in that. So I write as a way to honour myself, as a part of this, as a way to honour my sisters, our mothers. I write as a form of worship. And in a way, yeah, to fill a void, because it’s not there.
“The Blackest Joy is really fucking powerful” I enthuse.
“Have you heard it?” is not the response I was expecting.
“Don’t say you have. ‘Cause some people do interviews and they be like “Oh, The Blackest Joy, the first track on that is Poetry”. Like, why would you interview me if you haven’t heard the music?”
I confirm that I have heard the album and ask what the title means.
“Well what do you think?”
I choose my words carefully. “I guess the blackest joy is the deepest joy in one sense, but also the joy of blackness itself?”
She smiles. “Well there’s a lot to be joyful about as a black woman. We live in a white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy. We’re not free. This is an anti-black world. None of this is new, none of it is shocking. For us, to smile is a political act – to smile, to laugh, to love, to make love, to engage in friendship, to protect a bond, a sister bond, a bond with a lover, whatever – all of these things are political acts, because this world is designed against us. That’s the blackest joy. The joy of a survivor, the joy that we experience, that we create in the midst.”
“Is it difficult to reach that joy?”
“It’s not easy. My heart is heavy because I love my people, so when you see what’s going on and what we’re surviving daily, shit is hard. Some days I just want to lay in bed and cry, and say what’s the point of all of this? I mean, come on. 400 years? 401? 410? 425? When does it end?”
We talk about the latest case of a white woman calling the cops on a black family for no real reason, the backlash against oppressed communities insisting on platforms, and social media’s call-out culture leading to repercussions for some racists when they’re caught on camera. “In Best Life, you shout out to your ‘insta girls’ and your ‘girls in real life’. It’s quite fashionable for a lot of people to talk about social media destroying our generation, making us self-obsessed, promoting fakeness. What’s your take?”
“There’s so much that we have been able to do through social media. So many independent artists who’ve reached people, so many movements through people connecting, finding safe spaces, people you can meet from another place who share your views although physically you might not know it exists. We have to determine what we want to do in this generation and for the next.
This is just an instrument. How do we use the instrument? That’s the question. Are we gonna make informed decisions, are we concerned about a collective or just the individual? I don’t think this generation is destroyed, there’s a lot of dope things happening right now, it just depends where you look.
In the last few years we’ve seen more and more awareness around certain people’s experiences. People are becoming politicised and that’s really good. You see the #MeToo movement, the BLM movement, the Fees Must Fall movement in SA, the Never Again movement – there are people becoming politicised whose views we didn’t hear before. They are now thrown into an environment where they’re forced to critique our reality. But then again, I don’t know if that’s just because I’m interested in what’s happening and the people I attract are likeminded.”
I ask if she has a favourite track on the album and immediately rephrase on her reproach “that’s not fair!” “What speaks to you most in this moment?”
“There’s a song I wrote called Black Future. I like it a lot. It’s a song where when I started I didn’t know where I was gonna end (normally when I write songs I know where I’m going). This was living inside of me, transcending the body, spilling. You know when you see those magicians pulling one handkerchief after another out of their mouths? It was like that. And it was a blizzard, it was cold. It ended up being really different from what I had expected. Lyrically I just don’t stop, 6 minutes straight rap talking about really different things.”
I want to talk about every track on the album – the infectious beat of ‘Serena’ (an anthem to the much-villified black tennis champion Serena Williams), the scholarship behind lines like “your crown has been bought and paid for/all you have to do is wear it” in ‘Baldwin’s Crown’, the choice to sandwich the album between ‘Black Genius’ (“most hate ’cause the world wanna be us”) and ‘Black Future’, and to ask about the music video for the bonus track with Eric Benét, ‘Made It’. But her bandmates have been waiting patiently for this “quick interview” to finish and I suddenly realise that we’ve been talking for half an hour. I wrap up with the usual question. “What’s next for you?”
“I’m doing to Dakar in Senegal for a festival where I’m giving a talk and doing a show. We been touring constantly for 5 years straight, but I love it, I really love it.”
As I get up reluctantly to leave, I feel as if I’ve had a religious experience, as if I’m high. Before I go, Naru takes my hand gently and smiles. “I like you. I like your energy.” I’m more than a fan – I’m a disciple.
Words by Amardeep Singh Dhillon
Images Courtesy of Daniel Ziegert Photography