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Shot over five days in February at Further Timber Cove: The Expanding Artist, Jojo Abot’s new visual EP, “Power to the God Within,” is a beautiful sensorial onslaught, from her blood-red tulle gown to the dramatic Sonoma Coast landscape, to her music, an unusual layered amalgam of jazz, afropunk, spoken word, soul, and tribal and indigenous sounds from her native Ghana. If it’s hard to digest, well that’s fine with Abot. Part liberation narrative, part tribute to Fela Kuti, the work came to her as a calling, she says, something she knew she had to create regardless of commercial viability. We spoke to Abot, whose work spans music, film, photography, visual and performance art, about the new EP, her nomadic upbringing, and what it’s like to create work as an African artist in Trump’s America.
Let’s start with “Power to the God Within.” How did the visual EP come to be?
I was invited to be part of [Further: Timber Cove], and when I got here, to this incredibly beautiful place, I knew I had to create visuals for my EP. It was supposed to be a music residency. But when I’m at home or I’m operating in my space, I’m not an artist of a singular discipline. So when I saw that the production team was there, I said how about we make this a largely visual residency? They basically did the cinematography, I directed it, and we’ve been sort of exploring different ways of editing it.
It’s a really beautiful, unique piece of work.
Thank you. Yeah, it’s pretty wild. It’s 24 minutes. It’s interesting because we’re in a time when there’s a lot of talk about people having really short attention spans, and yet I’m creating longer works. The visual is a 24-minute piece that keeps referencing sort of similar imagery as it evolves. Two of the songs are actually over seven minutes. So it’s like when people are saying, ‘Make it shorter. People's attention spans can’t handle it,’ I’m inspired to push it to the limit.
Can you tell me a bit about the EP itself? How did this music come to be?
The EP came out of this space of just clear message. It was a call to create something. I didn’t know what it would be, in terms of genre, in terms of flow, in terms of any of those technical aspects. All I knew was that I had this intense, intense, intense, unexplainable sense of responsibility towards this thing that hadn’t even been birthed yet. And so I spent a weekend, just really sitting with this work and sitting with myself, just trying to hear what this fucking thing was that I was made to feel so responsible for.
Was this at Timber Cove?
No, this was earlier. The work essentially started birthing itself in a very unclear way. I just started making beats, and the first four beats that I started with are the ones that are on the record. It was just like, whether it makes sense or not, just keep going with it. This is what you’re called to do.
So once I had the music finished, which I produced myself, it almost had to grow on me. You have these soundscapes that are multi-layered, multi-textured. I almost see my music as a fire hydrant of ideas—music that literally just throws so much at you at the same time. I had to own this genre-less creation that suddenly existed, that I felt like I had to defend initially. People would say, ‘The record you're making, is it commercially viable?’ And of course that's the language of the industry, right? ‘Are we going to be able to sell this thing?’ And I’m saying, ‘I don't really know.’ I think that it will be what it’ll be. I think it will speak to the people that it's meant to speak to, and it will thrive where it's designed to thrive.
So then I knew I had this music and I knew I had to create visuals for it. I knew that I wanted the visuals to be sincere. I wanted it to be minimal. I wanted it to be imaginative. I like to call my visual work ‘village sci-fi.’ I don't consider it Afrofuturism simply because what I do is take everyday life and sort of flip it on its head.
And how does “Power to the God Within” deviate, musically, visually, stylistically, from the work you’ve done in the past?
It’s not so much a deviation as an evolution. In my initial work, I don’t think I was as trusting that the listener could do the work and that the listener could meet me halfway. Initially I held back a bit, and now I don’t feel the need to. I don't feel the need to limit my creation in order to be digestible. I think that knowing very early on that my work would always have people going, ‘What the fuck?’ was a gift in itself. But now that I’m older, I know that I don't enjoy existing in any other skin outside of my own. I know that I'm comfortable where I'm at. And so now it’s just a matter of making that clear, occupying that. Before I hid a lot of my work. I wasn’t really ready to share it. Now I’m ready to let the floodgates open.
That seems like a great place to be in creatively. Can you tell us a bit more about the EP, what the different chapters, or tracks, mean to you?
The clear message I received was that this body of work is a self-led liberation. It’s a self-led exorcism, a purging of aspects of self in order to reach this space of divinity and healing. And I guess that’s sort of audacious to say when you’re putting out a four-song EP, but it follows the stages of that. You know, the first song, “Dejuba,” starts off the EP by saying, 'You were born into a fire.’ How does it feel to know that your life’s a lie and you were born into a fire, that you were cursed from birth and that people never wished you well? Does it keep you up beyond the nights? Suffocate your thoughts and leave you bound? Does it haunt you even in the sun? The idea is that the world is in chaos and you’re born into this state of chaos. Will you let this chaos consume you or will you sort of become and consume the power of the chaos and actually wield it, repurpose it?
And then it goes into “Bad Mind,” which is a tribute to the King Fela Kuti in his Afrobeat sound, which he said was the sound of black liberation. So that is an evocation of his spirit of rebellion, and a love for his people that still is hard to understand to this day. And that willingness to risk his life, losing his mother to the cause. That song really is in honor of him. And it shows the power of the mind to corrupt our vision or to build our vision, to nourish us or to kill us, destroy us.
And then “Traikem” allows us to come back to ourselves in a different way. This idea that we’ve taken on these burdens of identifying ourselves in ways that aren’t necessarily true. And on certain points we have to forgive ourselves, and that forgiveness has to be deep. We have to forgive all the manifestations of self that have existed in this lifetime and the ones before, and actually forgive ourselves so that we can almost become light as air. And then in the end it goes to, “This Hard,” and this song is just simple. It's saying, it doesn’t have to be this hard. This life doesn't have to be this hard. We are active participants in causing each other’s pain. And if we choose that it will be this hard, it will be this hard.
This narrative fits really well with the natural environment around Timber Cove, the scale and majesty of the redwoods and ocean...
Yeah, it’s so interesting to look at this landscape, in California. You can’t really place where in the world it is, but you can almost sort of begin to guess where the character’s from. It almost felt like a quest through a dreamscape, like a return to self, a journey towards one’s own freedom, starting in the woods and then ending up by the waters … like pilgrimage towards one's own healing and liberation.
You grew up in Ghana but have spent much of your life moving around. How does travel, and living in various countries and continents play into your creative work?
We moved over from Ghana when I was really young. I’ve lived between cultures since then. I’ve gone between Ghana and the US for most of my younger life. And in my adult life, I’ve traveled a lot, lived in different spaces. Before getting back to New York, I was living in South Africa. My last project was in direct response to the, I would like to say the audacity of whiteness—that’s South Africa.
My first EP was in response to Ghana’s exchange and experience and history with Denmark. It was actually addressing what relations between Ghanaians and Danish people would have existed like in the 1700s through a romantic relationship between a Ghanaian girl and a Danish man. I think being Ghanaian will always serve as an anchoring element in my work. Coming from this space, that fought for liberation, that was the first to actually gain independence from British rule, understanding what Ghana stood for as a symbol of black liberation and the legacy of that… And then understanding what our experience has been since then and realizing that we haven’t reached that goal, it sobers me up and it gives me a sense of accountability. The work is not done. So that's where I’m at. I’m Ghanaian at the roots. I’m African at the roots, whatever being African means. But ultimately I’m connecting with the global narrative of what it means to be human.
Through travelling I think I learn a lot about the human condition, why we are the way that we are, what causes our biases. It allows me to skip the variables and get deeper into the energy that sustains spaces of hate, spaces of inequality, spaces of suppression, of neglect, of displacement, of despair. All of these things start to almost bear the same face, regardless of what the variables and the circumstances may be. And so in travel I’ve learned that humans in general are seeking the same things. And having that understanding be affirmed through my travels actually in essence gives more weight to my work and creates a sense of dialogue. I’m a big believer in unlearning the things that keep us from understanding other people’s perspectives. And I think through my travels I chip away at aspects of self that I know no longer serve me.
What is it like for you as a Ghanaian artist and a person of color to make art in America during the Trump administration at perhaps the most racially polarized chapter of recent American history?
To live in a country and feel a sense of anxiety and depression and frustration that has nothing to do with your personal circumstances is so invasive, so disrespectful, and overwhelming. But at the same time, in order to kill a snake, it must rear its head. As hatred rears its head, you can identify it, demystify it, and kill it. A lot of my work has been around demystifying whiteness and understanding the performance of whiteness as an oppressive identity. You know, the fact that the identity goes out to intimidate well before the physical body is something that needs to be nipped in the bud. What does whiteness symbolize as a standalone thing without having to devour other identities?
It’s kind of a catch-22, because you want to be able to talk about systemic racism, but in doing so, you also give more attention to the idea of whiteness. You feed the beast.
That is the thing. I believe in creating spaces that are outside of this idea of oppression. I believe that the black queen has to see herself as divine, as all-powerful, as indestructible. I don’t enjoy harping on the problem as much as I enjoy highlighting the solution. And I think that’s why this EP is significant, in that it focuses on what persona healing should look like rather than waiting for someone to give it to you. What does it mean for you to lead the charge in your own personal liberation? Because it is an individual task. It’s an individual calling. it’s an individual responsibility. And that’s what I realized. It starts with the self.