A little background…
Falana and I met for the interview for this profile at a cafe in Yaba. It was the second time I was physically meeting an interviewee for a profile, everyone I had done prior, I had done remotely, finding ways to make up for the lack of physical presence. Though I’d met her many times before, interviewing her was reintroduction, to the cerebral artist who spent years between projects and cared only for an honest, compelling story. She is still the same today.
The most important tool in a musician’s arsenal is her power over time. We forget that the musician is more than a singer or a poet; she is a conjurer of worlds, a creator of realities, with the singular ability to manipulate time, shrinking and expanding it, creating pools where we can glimpse the future, looping the present to the past, reanimating memories blunted by time’s passing. This idea of the musician as a time weaver is especially true of Falana who I meet in a tiny coffee shop in Yaba, Lagos’ tech corridor.
Falana is known for many things; her music, her personal style that is as recognizable as it is hard to pin down and of course, her signature puff braids that betray her identity as she walks into the cafe. It is clear that she is not really here for a cup of coffee and a quiet place to work, and I worry that one of the patrons may try to ask her for an autograph. She draws a few stares, but nothing compared to the hundreds of eyes that revelled as she sang an as yet unreleased song at the Lagos Fashion Week for her long-time friend Adebayo Oke-Lawal’s 10th-anniversary collection showcase. They watched, entranced as she pranced in white thigh high leather boots, pleated pants, and an androgynous tunic. Some of that aura remains, acknowledged by looks that linger and the effusiveness with which the server at the counter responds to her order.
She settles quickly, and we begin the interview, glossing over the formalities of personal introductions before delving into Falana, the artist.
“We don’t choose our gifts, we only choose how much and how far we indulge them.”
This is how she explains her career as a performing artist. It is an interesting metaphor for creative ability, one that many artists use to encompass the limited language with which we explain why one person has perfect pitch and another cannot hold a note. She tells me she’s chosen to indulge this gift, embracing it wholly as the medium through which she shares her experiences and documents her life, taking care to mention that this might change in the future. After all, not all gifts remain ours forever.
To her, the body of music she is creating is part prophecy, part self-help manual and part journal of her travels and how those travels have influenced her, reaffirming the truth that her music was destined to find its home here in Nigeria.
And Falana is well traveled. She has Canadian citizenship, much like poet Titilope Sonuga and actress Somkhele Idhlama and the country claims her as its own. But she’s spent a significant amount of time adrift, mooring for spells in the United States, Europe and Lagos. When the time came for her to study music full time, she went South of the Equator, sequestering herself in the island country of Cuba, immersed in the very distinct strains of Havana’s popular and classical music, developed in near total isolation from the rest of the world. She acknowledges that being able to physically move between these vastly different places was a privilege not many artists have and touches on how her travels have helped her grow as an artist. She corrects me when I suggest that her return to Nigeria to pursue full-time mirrors the migration many repatriate Nigerians undertake when they are frustrated by the barriers to entry into creative industries in the west.
“I’m not repositioning myself as a Nigerian artist, I am Nigerian.” She says, matter-of-factly. It is clear this is a distinction she constantly has to make.
She spent much of 2016 and 2017, experimenting, through a series of unplugged concerts called ‘Uncover’d with Falana’. The idea behind those concerts was two-pronged, to introduce her existing oeuvre of music to Lagos’s musical crowd and to make a statement about reclaiming public spaces for performance artists. With sparse musical arrangements, her guitar and her cajón, Falana converted spaces like the Alara Lagos concept store and the Lagos City Hall into concert spaces, performing a mix of original songs and covers of beloved classics.
By 2017, Falana had become a regular fixture in the Nigerian music scene, performing at Gidifest, the country’s biggest outdoor festival and booking prestigious private gigs. Her arrangement of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s “Lady” would quickly become a fan favourite and her cajón would become a signature instrument, with many people erroneously assuming that the box drum was a carryover from her time in Havana. And now that she has the country’s ear, she’s readied her next act.
Being in Lagos was the move she needed to tie in all her influences, cultures and memories to her identity as Nigerian. Creative quirks that never quite made sense when she was away, unveil themselves as she studies vintage Nigerian music and sees how her pre-adolescent exposure to them helped shape her as an artist. There are also the connections between the music created in the Americas and the music in Nigeria and how events like the transatlantic trade are responsible for this diffusion. Her work now is amalgamating all these experiences into a cohesive, united sound.
“If you’ve not heard my new music yet, you’re already at a disadvantage because my new sound is a reintroduction into Falana the artist.”
That reintroduction is her new EP Chapter One, which she first performed in full at a private listening session at Alara Lagos earlier this year and will be released to the general public in February 2019. The new EP comes nearly five years after Things Come Together, her 5 track debut EP that introduced her as an accomplished instrumentalist, composer, and singer and formed the core of her performances in the intervening years. Things Come Together was revolutionary because of its superior production and delivery but she also had to deal with the paradox where African born artists who create music that ‘passes’ as Western are both lauded and reviled for their ability to create in this way. Falana has no such misgivings about Chapter One, but the sound she has created is very much her own. She’s not even worried that so much time has passed between her albums especially now when musicians do just about anything to stay in the public consciousness.
“You teach your audience what to expect.” She says, quoting a mentor. “If you are the kind of artist that releases every day that’s what they will expect. And if you are the kind of artist who releases quality, your audience will wait for that quality.”
Her only objective with Chapter One is to produce an album so saturated with original, quality music, it remains relevant and contemporary five years after its release. To achieve this, she looked to the past for inspiration, mentorship, and collaboration. Nigerian pop duo, the Lijadu sisters were the main focus for her album, she studied the universality of their sound, the clarity of purpose in their arrangements and composition and mentored with Nigerian legend Mr. Odion Iruoje who produced Danger, the album that made the Lijadu sisters famous during his time producing for international music giant EMI. She also got Commissioner Gordon, a veteran producer and sound engineer who worked on projects as iconic as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Frank, the album that introduced the world to Amy Winehouse to mix her EP.
Chapter One sits somewhere between the confessional style of Lauryn’s debut and worldly wisdom of Frank. She calls it her specific lane, a sweet spot everyone is looking for but no one has figured out. She calls this niche ‘Vintage Contemporary’, where the old informs and inspires the new.
“It’s not soul,” she explains, “you can hear the high life and the afrobeat rhythmically but I also use contemporary synths. Some of the album is recorded traditionally but a lot of it is was also recorded entirely on electronic mediums, a mix of live instruments and synthetic instruments. None of this should work, but it does.”
This understanding of her niche extends beyond her music, into her public image, her career choices and especially her stagecraft. Falana introduced Nigeria to her music through live performances, forgoing the traditional route of a massive PR drive and a campaign to get on the radio and reach listeners. Each performance has taught her lessons which she applies as she refines her craft to the point where there is nary a silence during her performances that isn’t predetermined. She took up a number of instruments because of the freedom it gives. The cajón she chose intuitively, driven by necessity and a rhythm. She didn’t choose it as a performance gimmick, it was the most accessible percussion instrument for her needs, and it allowed her to add her own unique ‘flavour’ to the music she was creating.
But every performer understands that to give of yourself every single time is to relinquish some control over how the performance will play out and she embraces that. She suggests the audience prefers it because it requires a level of vulnerability from her, the vulnerability that is interpreted as sexual accessibility.
“I perform more music on my guitar than my cajón, but my cajón is more memorable because I’m sitting with my legs open, making sick beats.”
She says this plainly, not needing to explain how sexualized and misogynistic the music industry can be for women.
There’s a spectrum of sexuality on which female artists are placed, that operates independently of their talent, musical genre or even their time in the industry. They are either stripped entirely of any sexuality or hypersexualized and pressured to wear makeup and dress a certain way to project a certain persona that allows them to stay ‘marketable’ to a chosen demographic. Their bodies are connected to their brands, no matter what kind of music they make, how they choose to dress or present themselves to their followers and fans. This perception is like a house of mirrors, exerting such force over the lives of female musicians that to maintain control, they must give up likeability or even worse, accept that there are some heights of success they might not achieve simply because they will not conform to external expectations.
Everything she does is interpreted through the lens of her identity as a woman and people have tried in the past to take advantage of her because of her gender. It is exhausting to live constantly aware of this so she sets her focus on how best to manipulate the elements in her purview. Though she is not averse to the idea of a major label deal, creating music as an independent artist has allowed her to exert some control over her image and her sound and allowed her to choose a path different from hypersexualization or desexualization.
“You teach people how to treat you, in the same way, you teach your audience what to expect from you. You can come and respect through how you interact with people.”
It might be harder for a woman but Falana believes this is possible. She also believes it is necessary as celebrity and stan culture gains momentum in creative circles. She is grateful to not have experienced much of the inappropriate responses other artists have had to their persons or music, but doesn’t think that fans being so inspired by an artist that they imitate their style or sound or immortalize their craft through fan-fiction or tattoos are too invasive. Provided that admiration is expressed with respect for the artist’s humanity, they are allowed to be a part of the experience and participate in whatever way they deem fit. For her, that respect must also extend to the artist’s rights to live as individuals apart from their art, and their right to be human and fallible.
Mentoring with Odion Iruoje and Commissioner Gordon and studying earlier musical epochs has shown Falana that this tussle between the public’s perceptions of an artist and their personal limitations isn’t even a millennial problem. Musicians like Prince and Marvin Gaye faced the same tension from their fans as they tested the boundaries of social expectations. Access to social media might have increased access to public figures and allowed us direct voice our displeasure at their actions, but disowning, boycotts, and public protests have always occurred as ways to control public figures. Falana hasn’t experienced any backlash, but she is determined not to spend her life pre-empting this kind of negative feedback. She is going to make the music she wants to make and speak up on the issues she feels led to pursue.
If anything stands out about Falana, it is her certainty in her choices, in her music, in her path as an artist. She is ambitious but not desperate, concerned by the peculiar challenges female artists face in our industries created to cater to the male gaze but not overwhelmed by the attention. She is unafraid of losing the fame, prioritizes her right to drop everything and navigate the world largely unnoticed. This ease she explains comes from her belief that she is merely a vessel and if she follows her internal compass, everything will play out in ways that best serve her cause.
“I know my music has a purpose that it’s supposed to serve. I’m attuned enough to my inner self-awareness to know when something is not right for me and how to let it go if it isn’t for me.”
Find Chapter One here.