Thandiwe and Niambi Sala make music that warrants them a place amongst Willow Smith's creative, eccentric, earth-loving and peace-promoting girl gang. If Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill had a baby, it would be Oshun.
The 21-year-old D.C. natives behind the band Oshun started making music together in their freshman year at New York University, where Thandiwe studies music and Niambi studies Africana Studies. At first the duo jokingly sang Drake covers, but later formed the neo-soul hip-hop band named after the traditional West African deity, the goddess of fresh waters and mother of womanhood, creativity, love and fertility.
The duo embodies Yoruba culture in more than just name. They wear all white to express purity and cover their faces in traditional Yoruba body art. Their music carries a socially conscious message of peace, self-love, and spirituality while referencing and praying to African deities. Last April, Oshun released their debut full length mixtape ASASE YAA, named after the Ashanti earth goddess. We talked to Oshun at Brooklyn's fourth annual Afro-Latino Festival about Beyoncé, the importance of learning about African spirituality, and how they balance school with a music career.
What inspired the name?
Niambi: We didn’t name it Oshun, Oshun named us. That’s a really cliché answer and really ambiguous. But we were literally sitting in our dorm room for like an hour trying to figure out some shit.
Thandiwe: And she was just like…Oshun.
Niambi: And we were like, okay.
Were you guys making music before you started college?
Niambi: I was in a rock band. I was writing a lot, I was doing more acoustic things with the guitar. It was a lot of teen angst. A response to the world and human nature. I was already on a social justice and music artistic path. But it just kind of manifested when I came to New York and met Thandiwe. We were both doing our own thing. She does music as well, and I’m not an Africana studies major but my African heritage was always something that was very alive in my house. But then it was an actual union once we connected here.
What’s next for you guys?
Niambi: [laughs] Um, we have school. We start in September.
Oh yes, I forgot. How do you guys balance the two?
Thandiwe: We don’t sleep.
Niambi: We pray a lot. We just go in between class. Our professors are pretty understanding, but we’re still responsible for the work.
Thandiwe: But we have Brooklyn Hip Hop Fest next weekend. We’re going to Sweden to perform. But, we’re not going to be on tour or anything like that because we don’t have the time.
Why do you think it’s important to create music with a message?
Thandiwe: It’s important because everyone listens to music. You can get plugged into everybody essentially. It’s a constant thing that will always exist and with that platform it’s a very optimal space to have a message. And if you don’t have a message, you’re just maintaining stagnancy. It still all depends on the music, but having music with a message allows to you affect people who you might not be able to reach on other platforms.
Niambi: It's important because we’re at a place right now where so many other people are influencing us and our people. Our music is a way to infiltrate that, to redirect their attention. Not allowing these media outlets to take advantage of us and our emotions and for us to re-instill that peace and that love and that culture into our folks.
Beyoncé makes references to Oshun in the visuals and themes of her Lemonade film. What do you ladies think when you saw that?
Thandiwe: It’s lit. Beyoncé is a mega star. So many people look up to her and listen to her. Talking about the power and reach that we have, Beyoncé is quadruple that. It’s very powerful for her to be on that wavelength and be in tune with her culture and let her people know that it’s all right, you don’t have to give into all of these unrealistic standards that have been placed onto us.
Niambi: It’s powerful and very necessary. We can do it in the underground all day long, but the moment that someone who has put in decades of work to climb to the top, she just paved a whole way and knocked down so many doors for us to be like what’s up, we’re Oshun. We’re automatically just going to be welcomed because she’s showed us that we’re her family.
Thandiwe: With Oshun, our whole movement is not just an image, it’s not just to be cool or to be pretty. It all has very social, political, and spiritual intentions, so for Beyoncé to be doing this, she’s helping us with our job, we’re helping her with her job. We are overjoyed to see it. People come to us like Beyoncé copied you, Beyoncé stole your idea, and we’re like, STEAL THAT SHIT! Keep the movement going. We’re not doing this for our own juice, for our own followers, for the fame, we’re doing it for the movement and Beyoncé is contributing to that.
A lot of black people in America didn't grow up learning about traditional African spirituality and religion. How did you come to know it?
Thandiwe: In terms of our personal journeys, we were both really fortunate to be raised in spaces where those conversations were being had before. Niambi was raised in a Pan-African community where those practices were being practiced actively. My father is a theologian, he studies African spirituality, that’s always been the focus of his career. So, I was exposed to these things growing up. We weren’t practicing but I was cognizant. And then once the universe brought me to Niambi, she was like, oh, word. Well, this is how you do this, this is what this is, and this is what that really means. And I was like, ohh, okay that’s why that feels familiar.
Niambi: We were fortunate to be in those spaces, but we were also not in those spaces by chance. We had to allow ourselves to be open and humble ourselves and really acknowledge the fact that we don’t know everything. We do need the wisdom and the guidance of our elders and our ancestors. Once we were able to accept that, then the universe blessed us abundantly. That’s how it works. There's no cookie-cutter explanation on how things manifest, you just allow them to.
Why is it important to spread this message rooted in traditional African spirituality?
Niambi: We have to understand that this war that we are in is not just a physical war, but it’s a mental war and it’s a spiritual war. In order for our bodies to be enslaved, our minds must be enslaved and our spirits must be enslaved. There are a lot of people who might be free in one of those three elements, or two of the three, but it’s really important for us to claim independence and freedom in all three. That’s where African spirituality and indulging in the practices of our ancestors comes in.
We never praised the white man. We never praised white Jesus. These things that we are so attached to now, and that we are so defensive of, but we forget that we are like that because we were raped until we believed it, we were killed until we believed it, we were beat until we believed it. And that’s scary, so a lot of our people don’t want to hear that. In addition to us having this foreign kind of destructive ideology built into us, they’ve also demonized what is ours and made us afraid of our own power. So, it’s extremely important for us to have Orisha and Oshun and Naiteru and all the spiritual forces that walk with us traditionally and ancestrally in the forefront because they’ve always been there and they will always be there.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.