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In Conversation With: Iyamah

I’ve heard a couple of Iyamah’s tracks before in passing, however after fully immersing myself in her catalogue, I was captivated by the gorgeous combination of neo-soul & Jazz. Her stage name (pronounced I-YA-MUH) originated from her Nigerian roots, “my surname on my dad’s side is Ayamah so when I came across the name, it just resonated with me. I grew up quite confused with my identity and stuff like that, so I instantly just saw I-yamah as a reclaiming of myself and putting an end to constantly questioning who I was. I think people have this thing where they try to go back to their roots and search for the history of who they are, like their ancestors and stuff. Some people have the urge and some don’t, but I’m definitely a person who is always trying to discover the truth and the reason why I like certain things that I’m drawn to. Also, being mixed race, you always feel like you don’t fit in anywhere, so I was always searching for something to give me that sense of belonging”.  

As someone who grew up in an area that was predominantly white, I also searched for that sense of belonging, but I was fortunate enough to live in London where there are so many black people. I wondered if growing up in Brighton affected this process. “There are a few of us mixed raced kids in Brighton – it is primarily white, but there are a few of us so I never felt like an outsider. Also, there’s a lot of culture; there’s a big rasta community, a lot of reggae, so in terms of diversity, it’s really celebrated in the music and the art that you get down there. I had this sense of belonging because I had a couple of people in my life that gave me that. However, when I moved outside of Brighton – it was only a 20-minute drive, but it was outside – there was no culture, it was very conservative, and I was the only black girl in the entire village; it was literally a village. That was when I became aware that I was the only one and I began to feel very conscious of my skin, my hair; I started straightening my hair and stopped going in the sun. When I was about 12/13, though I had never experienced racism – I still had white privilege; I had a white mum who raised me – I realised there were subtle things [microaggressions] that made me very aware that I looked different. It’s [the differences]beautiful in a way, but when you’re a kid you just want to fit in and be like everyone else. When I moved back to Brighton for college, I was already so conscious from before it that I became aware of how predominantly white it was, and I always had problems with my identity that stemmed from that. It would’ve probably been easier if I’d had my father’s side to teach me about my roots, and so it wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered more about that side, which started when I moved to London”.

Unsurprisingly, her experience in London was nothing like where she came from, “it kind of went the whole other way for me. Suddenly there were so many of us from different backgrounds, so many of us from around the world that you can’t feel like you’re alone or an outsider, because we’re all here, you know? It was amazing because for the first time ever, I actually wanted to stand out – I was going to uni, had started to take my music seriously, and it was sort of, like, my fresh start. I was like, well now, I want to stand out”, she laughs with fondness as she recalls the memory. “Let me retrace and go back to those things that I was trying to hide away; how can I rediscover those things again, what was it that made me different? And they’re the things that made me the artist that I am today”.

The conversation naturally progressed to her creative process and how she writes new music. “It’s all just inspiration to be honest. I can’t force myself to write unless I’m feeling, like, a really strong emotion. It probably does relate back to when I was in school, feeling different and stuff, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Instead of bringing those issues and conversations up to my friends – they couldn’t relate anyways, I would go and write them down as an outlet, just as a way to express and work through how I was feeling, because I couldn’t quite work it out. I’ve got a very busy brain as well which makes it quite difficult to process it all in my head, it isn’t until I get it out, either by writing or speaking, that I’m able to make sense of it. And I always found that it just made me feel better; making something that could be quite a negative emotion into something that makes sense. The first songs I wrote were quite depressing because they were coming from loss, grief and feeling misunderstood, but more recently it’s coming from a place of empowerment – of getting through something and coming through to the other side, because I really feel like all the struggles that I’ve had, there’s big lessons from those things. I also found that I became the one that my friends would often come to for advice and stuff like that, and I think my music embodies that”.

Self-identity is a journey that so many of us go through, especially the generation that grew up alongside social media, and I couldn’t help but hear the wisdom when she told me “the past is linked to the future, which is linked to who you are now; it’s all connected. If you know where you come from it can give you a better idea of where you might be headed”, words I found to be very similar to the famous quote by George Santayana. 

Whilst we were on the topic of journeys, (albeit kind of abruptly) I decided to take the opportunity to discuss her new single ‘KYWK’ (kill you with kindness). I had stumbled upon it during one of my YouTube rabbit holes and I really identified with the sentiment of the song - letting go of the struggle to try and shield your truth from someone because you’re afraid of hurting them. “When you’re young and you’re trying to fit in, you get that whole ‘people pleaser’ thing, and I was always going out of my way to make someone else happy. In my early 20’s, I found myself getting into relationships where it wasn’t about putting myself first, it was always about making sure the other person was okay, and I was living up to their expectations all the time. I came to a realisation recently, literally this year where I said to myself ‘d’you know what, I’ve spent so much time pandering to other people that I’ve actually lost myself so much’. It’s a great thing to be kind and to be liked by people all the time, but actually the most important thing is that you’re okay. Sometimes you’ve just gotta put it straight; if the truth is going to hurt someone no matter how you say it, it’s still got to be said”.

On the subject of truth, Iyamah gave me a little background behind her first EP, “my whole project is about truth because that’s such a big thing for me; you really have to live your truth and speak it too. I think the more that you can do that, the less it matters what people think. When you conform, you compensate and you end up wearing so many different layers for people, but you get further away from what’s inside, so eventually you get to the point where you just have to keep taking off all them jackets, and be like ‘okay, what am I really about’. You have to protect yourself from that, because you’ll just end up soaking up everyone else’s emotions and feelings and that’s so draining. The resentment is real too”

In fear of making the article too long (though I wasn’t quite so successful), we moved on to her next steps and what you can expect. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that her second EP, Truth 2 is being released next week, and we should expect a lot more music. “During lockdown I became super productive and really started to enjoy [the process]. It doesn’t feel like a chore anymore – I’m enjoying finishing stuff which I had a real problem with in the past. I’m also judging myself less because I have my own space – I don’t have other people’s opinions influencing what I think of myself, so this time on my own to just rest has been the best thing”.

Iyamah's latest EP 'Truth 2' is out now on all streaming platforms!


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