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Ibeyi’s New World

Ibeyi releases a video for their transformative anthem “Transmission/Michaelion.”

illustration of the members of Ibeyi
Illustration by Joan LeMay

Ibeyi, a reference to the Yoruba word for twins, is the name of the diaphanous electronic soul act of twin sisters Naomi Diaz and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz. The sisters were born in Cuba and raised in Paris; now Lisa lives in London, and Naomi lives in Paris. Their music features a fluid interchange of language that evokes their background: French, English, Spanish, and Yoruba all appear on their September 2017 album Ash. After releasing this deeply textured album, the pair are spending the summer pursuing collaborative projects with other artists; last month, they collaborated with Brazilian rapper Emicida on the song “Hacia El Amor.”

Their musical world is lit by Ibeyi’s sense of collage, of language, styles, and voices. Particularly on their song “Transmission/Michaelion,” the twins interweave audio clips, like Claudia Rankine reading from Citizen: An American Lyric and their mother reading passages from Frida Kahlo’s diary. Their sense of collaboration is rich, and their collaborators are peerless: Meshell Ndegeocello plays bass on “Transmission/Michaelion”; Kasami Washington lends his saxophone on the ghostly “Deathless.” Their work is explicitly about resilience, and they are singing with resistance. The twins are continuing to bolster their work with new musical styles — on their song with Emicida, they added Portuguese to their flow. These combinations inform Ibeyi’s music with a sense of futuristic expression that pulls from their past and reimagines something more Utopian.

“Transmission/Michaelion” is the centerpiece of Ash, and the brand-new music video crystallizes the ambitious poetic history in Ibeyi’s project. Images of the twins appear as transparent layers on top of a landscape that shifts from desert to stars in washes of blue and purple. The video is subtitled with passages that fuse ecological history and legend. There are so many elements to attend to that as soon as you start to watch the video, you’re filled with the impulse to immediately watch it again.

For Lenny Letter, I talked with the sisters about their influences while cozy inside their tour bus, a few hours before their show with Red Bull’s 30 Days in Chicago this past winter. Now, two seasons later, they have released the music video for “Transmission/Michaelion,” premiering below.

Maggie Lange: One of my favorite things about your work is your incorporation of many different languages. When you’re singing something in a certain language, in French or English or Spanish or Yoruba, does that change the content of the song for you?

Lisa-Kaindé Diaz: Yeah, it does. But it’s really natural. It’s rare that we go to the piano and we’re like, I’m gonna write a Spanish song. We feel like thinking about it will take out the spontaneity. And so we don’t force it. That’s our one rule. For example, “Me Voy” couldn’t have been in English.

Naomi Diaz: It was meant to be in Spanish. And there’s some songs that even now, like when we perform “Oya,” the slate will be (sings in French). I feel like it couldn’t have been in English, or in Spanish either. There’s some really special moments that happen.

ML: Can I ask a question that I feel like is maybe too simplistic? I know lots of twins, and I read “I Wanna Be Like You” as being about a twin relationship. Is it?

LKD: It was not about that at first. It was about a little girl that I used to babysit. And she was incredible. When we went to the studio, Richard, our producer, also said, “Oh, I love that song you wrote about Naomi.” I didn’t understand what song he was talking about. And then I was like, “Oh, that is way better. Of course!” It needed to be about Naomi. And so I tweaked it.

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ND: Well … you didn’t change a lot.

LKD: No. It was just, like, two sentences. You’re kind of the same character as this little girl. You know, really free and wild. Sometimes songs are like that; you realize what they mean in the studio.

ML: Art changes over time!

LKD: And sometimes it means different things at different moments. But I remember after one of the Bataclan terrorism attacks, in France, you know? It was in a venue, in a music venue, and we learned that ten minutes before going onstage in a festival. It was the weirdest show we’ve ever performed. Because suddenly, we were texting all our friends, “Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK?” And so, in our ears, our mother was getting the responses and saying, “Oh, this person says she’s OK.” And like, during the whole show: “This person says she’s OK; this person says she’s OK.”

What was weird is, suddenly all the songs had a different meaning. Then we played “Ghosts.” And everything made sense. “Now come to our world, it's a crying shame. We have built a foolish world.” Every lyric was perfectly fitting with the moment, and that’s when I realized songs that had meant so much to you one day can mean something really important and totally different another, and that’s kind of the magic of it.

ND: Art doesn’t ask you who you are, where you’re from, in order to touch you. It does, or it doesn’t. And it’s something that I really like. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s one of the few things that doesn’t discriminate. You feel, or you don’t feel. It has nothing to do with where you’re from. I think that’s why good music or good paintings will talk to you differently through the years.

In my family, people read books three times. In their early teen years, and then when they’re young women, and then when they’re advanced in their lives. I like that, the idea of watching movies like that. Several times, and then just seeing how the meaning changes for you.

ML: What are some books or movies or art that you’ve revisited that have grown with you?

LKD: I was making a list of movies I’d like to pass on to my children, in the future. And 70 percent of those movies had strong female characters. And that was a shock! I didn’t realize that. I looked out for those women so much, and that was the kind of woman I wanted to look like. I think A Woman Under the Influence, by Cassavetes, is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. Frida, and she’s in the album [the twins’ mother, Maya Dagnino, reads passages of Frida Kahlo’s diary in “Transmission/Michaelion”]. I think that her ability to transform ugliness and pain into something beautiful is quite striking. And it’s what we really try to do with our music, and I think really unconsciously.

Meshell Ndegeocello. Something that I absolutely love about her, and you will agree, is her freedom. Every album is different. She has no boundaries, she has no limits. She has this confidence that, wherever she goes, she will find herself.

And Citizen [Claudia Rankine] was one of those. And it just made sense. There's something absolutely incredible, this oxymoron ... talking about something so dirty, but with poetry, making it again, making it beautiful.

ML: Yes, tell me more about selecting a passage from Rankine for “Transmission/Michaelion”?

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The day I read the one about Katrina, “I Didn’t Know What the Water Wanted,” is the day we were doing “Transmission/Michaelion,” which was saying, “Suddenly, strange and quiet, like underwater,” and I was reading that, and I was like, My God. This is meant to be.

ML: With this song and “Rivers,” water seems like an element you’re attuned to. Do you think about elements as themes as artists?

LKD: Yeah, that’s not something I control. It’s just an obsession of mine. I’m deeply touched by water, and I deeply respect it, and I think it shows. It’s just everywhere. And it’s on my mind all the time.

ML: Do you have an element?

LKD: Thunder.

ND: Yeah, the thunder.

ML: You’re both thunder! So do you guys fight a lot?

ND: Do we fight? We do as normal people, normal sisters.

LKD: No, I think that’s the opposite. We were the opposite. Like, she’s the thunder, and I’m the water, but there’s electricity in between. It can … it goes full circle, I think. We’re actually better when we interact.

ND: Yeah.

LKD: It makes sense when we interact. But we have to find the good way to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Maggie Lange lives in Los Angeles but is still on East Coast time.