anaiis: The Lyrical Fight
In the run up to the launch of the Defiant Beauty issue, we sat down with artist and musician anaiis to talk black beauty role models and paving a way for your music, self and sound using a range of influences.
Interview By Alex Brzezicka
When French-Senegalese songwriter anaiis graced London’s music scene with a soulful repertoire, featuring her smoother-than-velvet vocals and heartfelt lyricism, she came equipped with life experiences of living everywhere from Dublin to Oakland to draw upon.
And for the fierce fighter she is, anaiis has a strange way of letting you feel at peace through her music. Ever since as a child anaiis first picked up an accordion gifted to her by her grandma, fascination with music has taken roots in a core of her identity. Sourcing from a rich tapestry of experiences, spread across three continents, of growing up as a mixed-heritage woman who couldn’t see herself on either side of the social spectrum, anaiis translated her journey as a spiritual globetrotter into a sonic landscape. Fusing West African instruments with alternative soul music, she’s laid solid foundations for what was to be a place where she finally belongs. A hometown.
When anaiis debuted with a single called nina, celebrating Nina Simone’s freeing influence on her musical identity, it was under the divine protection of her musical heroes: musicians like Nina, Bob Marley and Lauryn Hill – artists that personify the power to change the world.
Following this success, she set herself on a self-reflective quest into the depths of her psyche and came back victorious with a debut album, darkness at play. Produced by Grammy winner Om’Mas Keith, it established her not only as a beautiful artist but put her on the pedestal with those she admired as the change-makers of the world.
Since then, anaiis has been making sure that the voice she’s been gifted isn’t wasted – musically or otherwise. From her empowering talk at TEDxLondonWomen, supporting Daniel Caesar on his UK tour and performing A COLORS SHOW, anaiis hasn’t laid down her artistic arms. Even if for a second.
Alex Brzezicka: How does your dual French-Senegalese heritage influence you as an artist, both musically and image-wise?
anaiis: We are sponges as humans so a lot of our identity is informed by different things we’ve had access to. For me, I feel like my Senegalese heritage at this point is just a source of pride even though I didn’t really grow up in Senegal. I had a very mixed upbringing where I was living in Dublin, living in the States. I’m trying to use my art as a way to bring more visibility to Senegalese culture and for myself to connect more to it. That’s something I’ve tried to explore through visuals in the past.
On the sonic level, it hasn’t even fully blossomed in me yet. I feel like there’s gonna be a moment where I’ll go to Senegal for a couple of months. Just to create there and use the sounds there. I’ve tried to incorporate it before in a couple of my songs. I’ve used djembe and different instruments like koras, sounds from West Africa, but I feel like there’s a deeper way to connect to it, especially in the spiritual sense. I feel like it is a huge part of me. I use all of the different places I’ve lived in to gather inspiration. I’m always looking to empower people who are a part of my community and people whose stories deserve to be heard. People who maybe are not on the forefront of culture. I’m trying to use my medium to shine a light on that.
AB: What is the message in your new music then?
A: This body of work is exploring a form of self-liberation that I felt I needed to get from the specific story that I had. I was working in a way that I didn’t feel was working for me. That felt quite oppressive. I needed to regain a form of self-liberation and then I needed to find that within myself. My new music is looking at that. I’m always looking at social justice and social causes that really matter to me. Then I’m thinking how can I manoeuvre this world, how can I use my experience and tools that are accessible for me to empower myself and to free myself from these different oppressions that we’re constantly navigating..
“I’m always looking to empower people who are a part of my community and people whose stories deserve to be heard”
AB: Since in your childhood you’ve been travelling a lot, it must’ve exposed you to different cultures and ever-changing understandings of what the norm is. How did your upbringing influence your perception and definition of beauty?
A: I grew up in a time where there were some very singular ideas of what beauty looks like. Whether that is being extremely thin, having straight hair or being light-skinned. If you were black, it’s like the lighter skin you were, the better or having light eyes, people that have light eyes, grey or blue. Especially if you’re black – light skin, with light curly hair and light eyes. It was like the peak. I’m a dark-skinned woman, tall, I’m not particularly skinny. For a long time, I didn’t see myself represented. I don’t think I identified with the beauty standards that have been projected onto my generation.
I’m really happy to see that change a lot now. I do see beauty in so many things, but, for me, beauty is much more profound than what’s experienced at the eye level. Sometimes I look at people and really just see their aura. I see them and then that’s what makes me love them. I’m like, “You’re so beautiful, why are you so beautiful?” It’s not just like what way are your cheekbones or how light your skin is. I think that a lot of standards that we have obviously are shifting and need to keep shifting but I also think that we don’t need to put as much influence on physical attractiveness. There are things that are way more important. Things that are way more on the forefront of values. Sometimes we see people and we’re amazed by how they look and we start treating them differently. For me, that’s not actually what’s important. It’s who someone is. That really shines through.Sometimes you see someone and you can tell that there’s some darkness there and things that haven’t been dealt with or some manipulation. You can really feel that. Cultivating a beautiful spirit is so important.
On the mainstream level, in the media, we need to project upwards to people who are doing great things in the world. Not just people who are models. I think it’s happening a lot more now where you see a fashion brand partnering with someone who’s been an activist and who was doing great things. They’re putting them in their clothes because now it’s not about who looks the best in them or who’s skinny. It’s, this is the person that wears my clothes. This is what we’re about. That’s what we believe in. That’s why we do what we do. I think that’s way more powerful and that there’s way more beauty in that.
AB: Have you got any role models that inspire you to celebrate, explore and navigate the diverse terrain of black beauty?
A: One of the artists that I grew up with that did that for me was India Arie. She had all these songs like Brown Skin and I Am Not My Hair. That really influenced me because I didn’t really grow up in a family that was encouraging me to wear my hair in an afro. I actually grew up in a family that was quite like, “You need to be presentable.” Sometimes I go out and I don’t wear my best clothes. I want people to like me for who I am. I feel like somehow her message in music got into my mind as a kid. If you don’t like me when I’m wearing sweatpants, then you don’t like me. I’m not gonna wear some heels and a skirt for you. That’s just not me. I think that obviously presentation is important. I’m starting to see that more now. I’m starting to value it more, but it has to come first that I love myself in the way that I am and that I don’t need to be more than who I am.
Then if I want to use my hair, my glasses or my clothes to make a bigger statement, that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be hiding who I am. It shouldn’t be overcompensating for the lack of love I have for myself. I definitely feel that people like India Arie did that for me. Jill Scott. Nina Simone, again. Nina Simone in every single way wasn’t like a typical pop star. She’s not someone that people deem the most beautiful woman on the planet. Her voice is extremely different. You never heard a tone like that. These people come and they defy everything that we know because they are true to themselves. They are coming with a message that’s extremely authentic and powerful. People need to feel like they can be themselves. That’s when they feel good. We need those sorts of messages.
AB: The lyrics and video for woman celebrate the power of women around you and the strength you admire them for in you. What does the concept of sisterhood mean to you and how does it resonate in your music?
A: Sisterhood is so important. Up to this song, woman, I actually didn’t have that many women in my life. Because I have a lot of ‘masculine’ energy, I feel like I had mostly men in my life until the moment when I was like, “I’m really missing sisterhood.” Now, two years later, I have this incredible web of women who I’m surrounded by and I think it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s normal too because growing up, I went from being a girl into my womanhood. In stepping into my womanhood there became a need for sisterhood – to be able to speak to other women, what’s that like for them. When you reach your mid-20s, you’re operating and thinking differently. You need to connect with people who may be going through similar things as you.
For me, sisterhood is extremely crucial. It’s important to see, to experience other women in your life and see how that can be expressed in what it means for you to be a woman. I grew up feeling like I was quite tomboyish. People were often like, “Oh, but you’re a girl, you need to act like this, you need to dress like this.” Actually, as a woman, I can express myself in any way that I want. There’s no singular way of expressing your feminine energy. That’s why I wanted to celebrate women and I think that we have a real gift with intuition and nurturing. That was very important. It was a value that I needed to cultivate in my own personal life.
AB: Your single, vanishing, that you’ve debuted via performance for COLORS, is a real emotional bullet. What mental place did it come from and what were you trying to capture in the song?
A: I went through a period when I was in a really low space. I lost a lot of confidence in myself and I was just in a very dark place. I didn’t really know how to get myself out of it. I started going to therapy and it helped me to identify how so much of my own suffering starts here, in the mind. When I started to write that song, the first thing that came was ‘my mind’, my relationship to my mind – how can I gain more control over it that doesn’t harm me necessarily? There’s the real-life harm that you experience and there’s the harm, the trauma when you’re playing something over and over again. You’re really torturing yourself. For me, that song really came from that place. It was me watching my biggest fears playing out and then being able to put a stop to it and say, “Don’t think about this, this is not useful for you.”
Check out Anaiis’s recent video for the track ‘juno’ here!