OSHUN Makes R&B With A Fluidity That Speaks To Their Yoruba Namesake

Listen to the New York duo’s hiatus-breaking single, “Not My President.”

OSHUN Makes R&B With A Fluidity That Speaks To Their Yoruba Namesake OSHUN   Photo by Face2face Studios

"No one is enemy to water" is the mantra that's displayed in OSHUN's Instagram bio. The New York R&B duo is made up of singers Niambi Sala and Thandiwe, who go by Niambi and Thandi. The pair interact as an infallible unit; in conversation, they build off of one another with the ease of merging rivers. They complement each other with a fluidity that's akin to the waters that are associated with the Yoruba goddess that they chose as their namesake.

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The unity OSHUN possesses is also reflected in their music. Niambi's fast-punching lyricism weaves in and out of Thandi's smooth, honey-like harmonies, creating something that neither one of them could have formed without the other. The two friends use their music to share their reality, and no topic is left uncovered. Over subtle melodies that give a sense of steady calm, they expound upon current events, knowing your history, and the triumphs and tribulations of being young Black women growing up in today's society.

Today on The FADER, OSHUN is sharing a brand new track after a long hiatus. "Not My President" starts as a soft denouncement of this country’s newest “leader,” and ends up as an energetic renunciation of the broken system that gave him that title, complete with live instrumentation. During two phone conversations over the past couple of months, OSHUN told me about their musical beginnings, the importance of "artivism," and how they stay true to themselves in a time when the idea of being multifaceted is so often questioned.


How did you meet and begin making music together?

Thandi: So we got together through NYU. We hit it off automatically. We built that friendship and that sisterhood in 2013. [We also] linked up with Proda, who is another NYU student and an integral part of our [production] team and our life. Towards the end of our first semester, right around winter break, we decided, "Hey, let's try this together. We sound good." We both, at that time, were individually going through these personal break-throughs where we were focusing more on music, and wanting to take it seriously. And it kind of just exploded really rapidly from there.

What's your earliest musical memories?

Niambi: I came up in a very musical home. My mom is a musician, and I grew up with her singing back-up; I grew up with her performing and doing her own stuff. We were always traveling, always on the road. So my mother was really my first introduction to a creative career, and seeing somebody that wasn't on TV really live that. My name Niambi actually means "melody" in Swahili. And that was something that I always knew, so I was always very musically inclined.

I was a college baby — my parents had me when they went to Clark Atlanta University — so I was on campus a lot, doing a lot of college shit with my parents. There was this panel that we went to and there was an intermission and the whole auditorium was silent. I'm like 3 years old with my dad, and I just [start singing], “Boricua, morena,” from the Big Pun song. That was my shit. That was like the first time I really performed, and my dad still talks about that to this day.

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Thandi: For me, I think my music background began a lot just as a music enthusiast, not necessarily someone who created music. I'm sure the first sounds I heard were some form of John Coltrane or Miles Davis because my dad is a huge jazz fan. But in terms of being creative with music, [it was at] family gatherings and stuff. There were definitely performances. I can remember just being young and being in my basement, and pretending I was JLo or whatever when watching music videos.

My roots in creating music come from production and making beats. So maybe when I was like 7 or 8, one of my brother's friends came and he had this laptop that had Fruity Loops and he let me play on it once, and I was like, "Oh, this shit is cool." But I didn't really touch it until [later] — it was when I started making beats in the high school era that I really started to establish a taste or a sound for myself.

Niambi: A pivotal moment in my artistry that I can recall [was] when I saw Fela at the Kennedy Center in DC. I had always known that I wanted to tie [music] with my compassion with my people and my wants to advance the lives of my people, and I wasn't really sure how to do that. Then I saw Fela and suddenly I felt like my whole life was just like, "Oh, this is what it is, this is what it looks like." I was so moved. I remember that resonating very much with me and feeling like I had a real model of artivism. Now we're figuring out what it means to be artists, and what it means to be activists, and studying artists and studying activists and taking from what they've done to kind of construct our own reality and figure out how we're going to have and manifest dual-careers. I think that Fela just opened my eyes to it being possible and it being done before, and us not really needing to reinvent the wheel.

“We’re studying artists and studying activists and taking from what they’ve done to kind of construct our own reality.”

What inspired the name OSHUN?

Thandi: Niambi grew up in a community that integrated traditionalist African spirituality systems from the Yoruba people and the Akan people of Western Africa. In our first semester of school, we were both in this "Who am I?" phase. Niambi was bringing Oshun and the Yoruba deities to my attention, and putting me on to stuff that was familiar for me and not completely foreign — I come from a family where my father is a theologian, and he studies African spirituality. And also, though she was rooted and grounded in those things, she was still in this transition period, reconnecting with the orisha and all of these different deities from the Yoruba and the Akan people, and even learning more herself. And also at this time, the first class I took [as an Africana Studies major] was a class about the tendons of African culture within the Caribbean. We started talking a lot about the orisha. Niambi felt a particular connection to Oshun, and so did I.

Oshun is femininity and water and healing and fertility, and as young women in this transition period from little girls to women, that's Oshun all over it. So it kind of made sense because at that time, her energy was just at the forefront. And she still is. We call her name everyday that we live because we named ourselves OSHUN. And when people see us, they see that spirit, so we've done active spiritual work on a personal level to properly represent Oshun. And in us naming ourselves OSHUN, we kind of signed a lifelong commitment to representing love and fertility. It was a spirit-driven thing. We knew what we were doing, but now three years looking back, I don't think we expected how deeply we've gone, how far we've gone to continue to properly represent that spirit and be a reflection of love and beauty.

What made you stay in school once OSHUN started taking off?

Niambi: Nobody would let us drop out. That's literally the reason. Everyday to this day and even this moment, as I'm trying to multi-task and finesse finals, I'm like, "Why the fuck am I doing this?" And that's because for me, specifically, my parents were not having it at all, whatsoever. And as we got management, that was part of the deal. They were like, "We're all going to help you as long as you stay in school." So we were finessed into staying in school, and now we're about to graduate, so it's all good.

Now that we're at the end of it, we're definitely happy that we did so because we have a lot more leverage and a lot of conversation. When you look historically at movements in the world of freedom fighters and leaders, a lot of times movements started in school. They started in academic settings, so it's really important to what we do, not only as artists, but as activists. You have to be able to articulate the conditions of your people through music, but also just through speaking and being able to talk, period. Being able to talk to large groups of people, being able to write it out, I think it adds a new level or other dynamic to our identity as artists, and as activists. We look forward to what the future holds in an academic setting.

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OSHUN Makes R&B With A Fluidity That Speaks To Their Yoruba Namesake Single art by Markus Prime
“Artists have the power. Artists are the ones that are creating and maintaining culture.”

How do you approach writing your songs?

Niambi: [Lately, we're trying to be] intentional in every lyric, every melody, every break down, every chorus, every hook. We've had to collaborate a little bit more and get out of this individualistic songwriting place, so that our writing can really be indicative of a union. We want to positively enter people's psyches and transform how they view the world without them even knowing it. We really have to play with these songwriting formulas and know how to make a song stick, and for that to be successful, sometimes we can't do too much — sometimes we have to bring it back.

What's the story behind your new single "Not My President"?

Thandi: It grew as a concept at a rapid rate. We were pulling from some things that we had started demo-ing ourselves in terms of content and production. A lot of times we'll depend on other producers and stuff to give us what we need, but we were very much in a "let's do for ourselves" mindset. So we were just being creative and then Niambi was like, "Yo, I got this joint..."

Niambi: Yeah, Thandi just sent mad beats that she had, and I was just listening to them and freestyling whatever came to mind.

Thandi: And mind you, this is right around winter break — right when Trump was inaugurated. We had gotten some advice before then in terms of the content of our music, to speak more literally on things. We're always talking about the movement. We're always talking about liberation, but a lot of times, it's overarching concepts, whereas this was a moment for us to very specifically be like, "Yo."

Niambi: Yeah, be direct. And be in tune with the times and reflect the times. And allow ourselves to be inspired by what was going on around us.

Thandi: We're not saying "not my president" like "Go Democrats!" It's not the narrative of "He's not my president, somebody else is." It's more so like, "None of y'all are my president."

Niambi: Yeah, like, "No one has dominion over me at all. Period. Point blank.” Once we adopt that world view, I feel like it'll change the conversation. And if you really believe in yourself, empower yourself and know that nobody has control over you, it's more of a conversation of "Who can I work with?" or "Who can I collaborate with?" You know, see people as your equals and see the power that you have.

Thandi: Musically, "Not My President" is a whole different level that a lot of people haven't seen us do yet. People know we can write, and that we can sing and rap. But on a production tip and a musical tip and arrangement tip, this is definitely another level of musicianship that we just are proud of ourselves about. It's a journey and it shows that we are growing.

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“We’re not going to sit here and pretend that we only listen to Erykah Badu and burn incense. We burn incense to Lil Uzi Vert, too.”

Why do you think it's important to incorporate messages about what's going on today into your work?

Niambi: Artists have the power. Artists are the ones that are creating and maintaining culture. The politicians and the rich people essentially are controlling policy and controlling the things that kind of enforce societal structure. They have no choice but to respond to what people are doing — what people are demanding— and art is a place to help shift that conversation. So although this is not a stance that everybody takes, we definitely feel that it is our duty as artists to reflect the times, and talk about the things that are going on because that would really be a waste of talent if not, a waste of skill, a waste of gift. So if we have the power, and we have the ability to encrypt our messages in our melodies, then why would we not have those messages be of something that's important?

There are so many things going on in the world and people are upset because they feel like it's so new and they wonder, "What type of world are we living in today?" And the reality is that this world that we're living in today is a manifestation of the world that we've been living in for millenniums at this point. There's a deep rooted history as to why things work the way they do here in America, and why things work the way they do all around the world. And those are conversations that need to be had if we want to make any progress as a people. If any communities want to rise and elevate together, unify together, we have to break this cycle of mass distraction and complacency. A lot of the music that we listen to, a lot of the art that we indulge ourselves in is designed to create complacent people.

Thandi: Niambi and I are authentic artists. We don't try to be anything other than who we are at the core, at the root. Being an artist is dangerous. As long as you have the following and the content, people are going to listen to you and follow you and look up to you, and there's some people who — and don't get me wrong, don't get either of us wrong: we support any artist who's doing what they gotta do and we're very ratchet, so we're all for the ratchetness of music because we're of the hip-hop era — but when you aren't actively doing something to impact the masses positively, you are allowing yourself to influence a great mass of people to follow the same bullshit that you're doing. And me and Niambi personally, we are people who want to do good and want to influence positively — not even as musicians, but as students, as daughters, as sisters, as cousins. In us being spiritual, in us being political, in us being socially aware, that's not just like, "Oh, we're going to make a group and put that hat on when we have the mic." No, these are things that make Niambi who Niambi is, make Thandi who Thandi is, and it reflects in our art and reflects in our interviews because we're being true to ourselves and reflecting a personal mission, a personal focus that we have.

How do you navigate trying to be placed in categories, and incorporating "ratchetness" with your political message?

Thandi: We're 21, so there's no way that we're going to escape that because that's the music of our generation, and we're influenced by that music. Lil Uzi Vert, Drake, even Lil Yachty. You will catch us spitting Kodak Black on any given Tuesday. If you played a song of his, I would probably be Milly Rocking or something. We are reflecting our times. We reflect the political shit and we reflect the fact that it's 2017 and we're college students. That's what they're playing at the parties, and that's what they're playing on Soundcloud, and that's what we genuinely enjoy. It is a cultural thing, even if the lyrics aren't saying things that are harmonious with what our lyrics say, it's still hip-hop. It's still our music, that's still the music of our people. Trap, mumble-rap, ratchetness, however you want to classify it: those are still derivatives and descendants of the music of our ancestors. It still comes from '80s hip-hop; it still comes from soul and gospel. You hear those things, you hear those incantations and those rhythms and the drums. Those things are still very present and that's why I personally love it. We're not going to sit here and pretend that we only listen to Erykah Badu and burn incense. We burn incense to Lil Uzi Vert, too.

Niambi: Yeah, we can't pretend. Oneness is the overall theme that we're really firm in right now and it's not either/or. It is one. There are all different sides and experiences of this world and of reality, and we are not one-sided because all of the sides are one. So of course we support other millennials and their journeys and how they express themselves in their journeys. We appreciate it, we value it, and we enjoy it. The same way we hope that people from different walks of life — people who identify as the most ratchet of the ratchet — still find something that resonates with them in our music because it's not either/or. We are fully diverse beings in ourselves and we encourage all of our supporters to be the same. That's really a huge part of why we are in the position that we're in. We've been told that identities need to be singular and we are this or the other, and things are not really able to coexist, and that's just absolutely not the case. We are multifaceted beings, and we have layers upon layers upon layers that make us individual. So why would we not indulge in those layers that create us and form who we are?

What's next for you?

Niambi: Graduation, for sure. This new song, for sure. More music, we have a vault full of stuff that we're just waiting to finish. We have mad shit coming out. We have some more singles coming out, some more videos coming out. We're doing a comic book actually, with Markus Prime, for "Not My President." He's doing the cover art and then we're going to follow up with a comic book that we release afterwards. Everything is leading up to our album release, which is in October.

Thandi: Touring too, traveling. Not even just for the sake of playing at these venues all over the world, but also to connect with our supporters and to connect with the world wide network of OSHUN-nites that exist. Not only out of wanting to meet our fans, but because we're artist activists, and a lot of the people who do like our music have these same passions and interests. Being able to build unity with like-minded folks and really do the physical work to change the world throughout the world, and not just be in New York. Once we don't have to go to class Monday to Friday, there'll be more time for us to be in Brazil, and L.A., and Madrid. All over the world.

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April 12, 2017
OSHUN Makes R&B With A Fluidity That Speaks To Their Yoruba Namesake