Maybe because she’s lived all over the world, USC’s Ayoni is working on becoming an artist whose genre-defying music moves people to emotional places and spaces they’ve never been.
1. You’re from Barbados, but kind of not, right?
I was born in Barbados, but we moved to Miami before I was one. My dad worked for an oil company. After Miami, we went to Singapore for a few years. Then we moved to a little town in Northern California, Danville. I was there from fourth through tenth grades. Then we moved to Indonesia. And then, I came back to California for college.
But even though I didn't grow up in Barbados and get to experience it in that way, I was still raised by Bajans and owe so much of my passion, humility, and joy to my culture.
2. Where’s home to you?
Well, I lived the longest in Danville, but that was really hard for me because I was the only black person in town – so it was interesting to be there as an immigrant. Don’t get me wrong. I made a lot of really close friends, and I found “my people” for sure. But I also struggled because so many people were like, “Oh my God, you’re my first black friend,” and I was representing a lot more than just myself at a time in life where you are just figuring out who you are anyway.
3. What happened after Danville?
We moved to Jakarta, and I ended up at an international school where there were students from over 100 different countries.
4. Woah! And?
I got to grow into myself. I learned about the world, and I started to see how American culture can be very insular and focused on individualism. But in Jakarta, my school really pushed community service – its slogan was, “Better for the world.” I started to organize a lot of events for musicians and partner with NGOs that worked with disabled musicians. I guess I was starting to understand how I could use my love for music to do more than entertain.
5. What does that mean – to use your music to do more than entertain?
I grew up watching my dad sing in church. I didn’t know how to do music myself then, but I was fascinated with the whole concept of leading worship – leading someone into a divine experience using song.
So often with music in this generation, we listen passively, but I want to be like the musicians who ask their listeners to meet them halfway. My next project is a social commentary of sorts. I want it to be about growing up in this age – with its modernity, technology, and politics. I want my listener, when they come to live shows, when they listen to the music, to go somewhere else, and to think more deeply, you know?
6. You throw the greatest dinner party in the world – who’s there, living or dead?
Aretha Franklin, she’s a queen. Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Beyoncé, even Lorde and Frank Ocean. As artists, I love how much they commit to the story. They’re not chasing a genre, they’re not chasing a sound, they’re chasing an experience, and they want to take you inside of it. I want to hear them tell me about that, and tell each other.
7. Can we come?
Quadio is invited!
I was representing a lot more than just myself at a time in life where you are just figuring out who you are anyway.
8. Are you a songwriter or a performer?
I love every part of the process. Every part. From the writing to the video to the production. And performing – I love it. It’s almost like being a witch, it’s so weird. When I performed “Edge of Seventeen” – that was the first song that made me understand you can hold the audience in your hand. It was like channeling this energy, and watching everyone just transfix, like they couldn’t do anything.
9. How would you describe your music?
I struggle with this one. I would say: honest, ethereal, hopefully modern, and simple. If somebody forced me to pick a genre, maybe I would answer ‘world music.’ But what I really want from the music I release is that by the time people get to the end of it, they can’t name three songs that are in the same genre.
10. Do you have a Plan B if your musical career doesn’t work out?
Oh, no – I just feel it’s destiny. I know it’s going to work out, and I’ve known it since I was little, when I used to tell myself, “I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do this hard.” Every time I sing, I’m like, “If this is my last performance, you would have to buy the album.”
But I do want to do a lot alongside it, alongside my music. The humanitarian side of things. I want the music to say more, but I also want to do more.
Check out Ayoni below!