There's been much-needed change in the social atmosphere of the music industry this year. Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar, Azealia Banks, and J. Cole are just a few artists who have put their politics in their art and resisted compromising their visions in order to “make it.” Similarly, newcomers Thandiwe and Niambi Sala have chosen to march to the beat of their own drum. In between school—Thandi is double majoring in journalism and Africana studies with a minor in documentary film while Niambi is on the performer track in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music—the two write and record music.
The D.C. natives, both 19, make up a neo-soul hip-hop duo known as OSHUN preaching love, peace, and spirituality. After meeting at the Martin Luther King scholarship orientation at NYU, the two became friends, and one fateful night in an NYU dorm dance studio, they formed OSHUN. First came a few YouTube covers that evolved into a SoundCloud account with a loyal following. They started performing at various school events and open mic nights, concerts, and these eventually led to them performing with Jesse Boykins III and Lion Babe at the AFROPUNK Redbull SoundSelect in March.
OSHUN started off spitting on some Dilla beats and then moved to developing their own genre of R&B with heavy influences from reggae and roots music. Their first EP, AFAHYE, serves as a four-track introduction of the duo. “#,” a popular track from the EP that samples A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight,” is an unapologetic declaration intended to incite and educate on social issues. Their latest project, ASASE YAA, is a nod to the past, an acknowledgement of the present, and a glance at the future. We talked to these soul sisters recently about incorporating Yoruba culture into their art, getting critiqued by their parents, and respecting Mother Earth. Plus, here's the premiere of their latest project, ASASE YAA, below:
What does OSHUN mean?
Thandi: Oshun is a Yoruba deity—a West African, traditional deity. She’s a goddess, and she governs over sweet waters. She’s basically the mother of love, fertility, wealth, and diplomacy. At the time that we decided to come together, her energy was just very present. It was primarily Niambi’s idea because she had more knowledge on Oshun, but we both felt her energy and felt moved to dedicate the music to her and all of Yoruba culture.
How did OSHUN start?
T: It was the first day of winter break and no one was in the dorm except for us, because we made the conscious decision to stay in New York for the winter. So we went to this kickback at our friend Ben’s house for a little bit and then we decided to go to the dance studio because we lived in a dorm that had a dance studio in the basement. We sang our hearts out for an hour, and, at the end of the night, eventually decided to become OSHUN.
Niambi: That’s why we clicked from the jump because we knew that we had a love for our people and for serving our people and enlightening our people. It was just a matter of what is going to be the machine that we’re going to do these things through. Once the spirit moved us to start creating together, then it just became clear. It was almost like some Lion King shit. This voice was like, “You are Oshun.” I thought I was hearing shit.
T: With that being said, it’s definitely taken form. We’ve always felt that it was something divine, and we also had faith in our talent. But it definitely has skyrocketed so quickly. It’s extremely difficult, especially because we’re full-time students, and we’re best friends, and we’re girls. That can get tough. We get into arguments sometimes. But we always come back to center and realize that it’s beyond us and that we have a bigger objective.
Do your families support the music, or are they more concerned with school?
T: At first, my family was more concerned about me getting my work done, considering that I’m a full-time student with two majors and a minor. So they just wanted to make sure that my work was good. But I’m a really good student, so I kind of shut them up with these grades. Now they’re more like, “Oh, I like that song. Oh, this is a nice song.” They’re music people, but they’re not, like, musicians.
N: I come from a very musical and artistic family. My mother is a singer as well. I’ve actually toured with my mom. So they’re super supportive of my interest in music. I just think that they’re more critical than most parents because they’re artists themselves. They’re never just like, “Oh, that’s nice.” It’s more like, “OK, this is how we’re going to make it better.” That response is cool sometimes, but I’m not always trying to be critiqued. Sometimes I just want to show them what I’m doing. As far as the music, they’ve always been great supporters. I’ve been doing music my whole life, in different ways. I guess there’s some kind of tension with the fact that we’re not kids anymore and we’re growing up. In order for us to be as revolutionary as we want to be, we have to push certain limits. We have to step out of safe zones and push certain social norms in order to break them down.
With that being said, sometimes my parents are worried and feel some type of way about us. For example, the “Gyenyame” video from our first project was us depicting the actual goddesses Oshun and Yemoja. My mom loved it. She’s in the Yoruba community at home and she sent it to members of our temple and stuff like that. But my dad can’t even watch it. He walked out of the room. He was like, “This is X-rated. Your nipples are showing.” And I’m like, “You’re totally missing the point, but that’s OK.” It’s a weird dynamic.
How would you describe your sound?
T: Incense burning in water. Even though the flame should go out in the water, it doesn’t for whatever reason. We definitely have coined our own genre, which we call “Iya-Sol.” “Iya” is a Yoruba term meaning priestess, teacher, or mother, and “Sol” meaning your literal soul, soul music, or the sun—the sun being the source of everything.
N: I think “Iya-Sol” is really specific to the sound. I think that we’re most closely related to R&B and hip-hop, but we also have a lot in common with gospel music, as far as the message and the content. Even though our music isn’t always about God, everything still has that connection. There’s always a problem and a solution.
Who really influenced you guys starting out?
N: I started my first band in high school, and I was obsessed with Paramore. I love their music, and I just love how Hayley is such a powerful woman, especially as a young woman. They started when she was like 15 years old. She was super young. They get a lot of crap about going mainstream or whatever, but everyone gets that criticism.
T: Niambi was in a band called Double Think, and it was like a rock band almost but with ska. It was just vibe-y, good music. I was definitely a Double Think fan when I knew her for, like, a month before we went to college together. With that being said, I think that I can speak for us both when I say that we’re very inspired by reggae and roots music. Of course, we’re inspired by traditional West African music. In addition, we listen to, like, nature sounds. Niambi goes to sleep to the sound of the ocean. I go to sleep to the sound of the river. Earth sounds are a big inspiration for us.
What was the first project you worked on?
T: Our first project was AFAHYE. It was just a four-track EP—we call it a pre-album now. On AFAHYE, we just tested the waters, and it got a lot of attention that I didn’t expect to get. We got hundreds of downloads in the first couple of hours, and no one knew who we were other than our friends on Facebook. It was us spitting over tribe beats.
N: It was foreshadowing the direction that we were going in as artists. It’s super nostalgic in the sense that we’re bringing back old Dilla beats and old tribe beats. We were letting people know that that old culture is not forgotten. We’re taking that and learning from that and building upon that. That was kind of our throwback project. It was showing that we’ve mastered our forefathers’ trade, in a sense. All of that was to foreshadow our upcoming project, which takes it to a whole other level and shows not only that we can master what they’ve done, but that we can take it to the next level.
Tell me a little bit about the new album.
N: The album is called ASASE YAA, and it’s kind of a continuation of AFAHYE. I think that the album shows how we’ve matured and how we’ve grown as artists. ASASE YAA is a West African term for Mother Earth. Conceptually, the reason that we chose the name ASASE YAA is that the album is commemorating Mother Earth in a couple of different ways. I think that the album shows an appreciation of the Earth. It’s about seeing the Earth as our home and loving and caring for it. We particularly wanted to focus on the concept of the woman as Earth, especially the symbol of the black woman as Mother Earth. We wanted to uplift her and discuss what it is to be a black woman in America. You have to know where you’re from to know where you’re going. So the entire project is a journey of us returning, as African-Americans who are here as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to retrieve things that we’ve lost and things that we’ve been deprived of. It’s about becoming whole again.