Ibeyi’s sophomore record, Ash, retains the essential Afro-Cuban influences of their debut while foraying into experimental electronic territory. Overtly political and intensely personal lyrics allow the sisters to confront themes of race and womanhood, relying heavily on motifs and repetition.
The introductory track, ‘Carried This For Years’, dares the listener to consider the myriad forms of systematic oppression encountered by the sisters. The track listing thereafter delves into their emotional responses, producing three overarching phases on the record; frustration giving way to defiance and coming to rest on resilience.
‘I Wanna Be Like You’ describes a longing to return to an untroubled youth, oblivious to the pressures of adulthood – “I’m often down / I often cry / the only thing I know / I wanna be like you, child.” The sisters wish for respite from the discomfort and frustration of navigating their place in the world, often determined for them by others: “He said, he said, you’re not clean.”
This sense of disquiet is compounded by the turbulence of ‘When Will I Learn’, a self aware examination of the sisters’ shortcomings. This song, however, simultaneously acts as a catalyst for the next phase of the album, with Ibeyi’s emerging recognition of their self worth: “I can’t fulfill your dreams . . . but I can play on the drums.”
Self worth morphs into defiance on the track, ‘No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms’. An unashamedly political ode to the power of womanhood, Ibeyi celebrate Michelle Obama’s denouncement of the sexism that characterised Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” This defiance rages in the racially charged ‘Deathless’, Ibeyi and Kamasai Washington combining progressive jazz and provocative lyrics to proclaim “Whatever happens, we are deathless.”
Ibeyi recognise that defiance, while powerful, can be exhausting. The third phase of the album therefore focuses on the cultivation of resilience, a more sustainable life-force. “I don’t give up… I feel the pain but I’m alive.” The sisters have worked to imbue the record with quieter moments, with spaces to which they can return when they feel overwhelmed. One such moment, ‘Vale’, espouses images of solidarity and support: “Every time life seems too hard… our voices will hug you.”
While the scope of the themes explored on this record is evidently impressive, its sonic execution is sometimes lacking. Ibeyi have attempted to build on the foundations of their debut’s unique sound by incorporating electronically fuelled voice distortion. More often than not, however, these attempts distract the listener, hampering appreciation for the cleverly intoxicating beats. This is particularly evident in the final track, ‘Ash’, the overwrought vocals tainting the ending to an otherwise empowering record.
This album is, above all, an assertion of personhood. It has suffered, endured and prospered alongside the sisters, its very existence a reflection of their own. Strong in its vulnerability and brazen in its declarations, it defies the boundaries of established genres, and proves that all of this can be done to the backdrop of commanding drum lines.