Ayo: 'I focused on my dreams'

Her mother's drug addiction resulted in a traumatic childhood, but it led to Ayo's signature mix of fragile soul and honesty. Andy Morgan is enraptured

Strumming an acoustic guitar that dwarfed her delicate frame, stamping the floor like a latter-day Janis Joplin, plunging deep into the flagrant source of her soul, Ayo sang a song about being lonely. It was a bewitching performance of unheralded power. Admittedly, Ayo's mojo had already been working on me. About 18 months ago, news of the huge European success of her debut album Joyful managed to filter across the English Channel. Whispers were heard in London about a young, talented, mixed-race singer with a voice of fearless yet fragile soulfulness who was hitting it big in the French charts.

Next it was America's turn, with appearances on prime-time TV and endorsements from America's showbiz aristocracy. And earlier on the night of the Africa Express Koko gig, I'd managed to chat to Ayo. Her broad, generous smile, her funny unaffected banter, her ready intelligence and weightless innocence worked like sweet voodoo.

This sunny smile and generous innocence are the survivors of a difficult childhood in and around the German city of Cologne, where Ayo was born Joy Olasumnibo Ogumaki in 1980. Her Nigerian father and Romanian Gypsy mother provided a happy enough home for the first few years of her life, but when her mother hit the hard drugs, domestic bliss turned sour.

Ayo and her three elder siblings were shunted from care home to foster family to their father's house and back again in a nightmarish round of trauma and betrayal. She has memories of her father weeping at the care home where the German social services had forced her and her sister to go at the age of six, and of having to hand back Christmas presents to the police because they'd been stolen by her junkie mother. Then there was the challenge of surviving as a black kid in a very white land.

"Everything I experienced in Germany made me stronger," Ayo tells me. "We were never in one place for too long. I became isolated. I focused on my family, my father and all the problems. And my dreams...."

Ayo's trust was blighted by her mother's addiction, so she had to rely on instinct when record labels came knocking. She rejected proposals to turn her into a reggae diva, or a counterfeit Beyoncé, and left for London and Paris to carve out success.

"I didn't know exactly what I wanted, but I knew what I didn't want. Whenever I felt that something wasn't right for me, I just didn't do it," she remembers. When the boss of Polydor in France, Jean-Philippe Allard, heard her plea and gave the then pregnant Ayo carte blanche to record the album she wanted, it came like a moment of redemption.

Joyful went double platinum in France and other European countries, appealing thanks to its candour, its gentle acoustic simplicity and its easy rhythms. Ayo was hailed as the new Sade or Europe's answer to Corinne Bailey Rae. But her music is more bruised, more defiantly open and uncompromising. It's the mix of sweet, fragile soul and discomfiting honesty that has become Ayo's strength and signature, and it is evident on her new album Gravity At Last.

"When I started writing my music, it helped me so much. I stopped being embarrassed," Ayo recollects. "Telling the truth in my songs became almost like a drug. It was important for me to get rid of it, because it was like a weight on my chest. I didn't really communicate with my parents at all when I was making Joyful. So I guess I found a way to communicate with my music. I just felt like, they're going to listen to that, because they have to!"

When Ayo's father eventually listened to his daughter's debut CD, he must have felt blessed by what he heard, especially the song "Without You", in which Ayo thanks him for his courage and protection. This generous response to her dark past is typical. Where you might expect only bitterness, venom and anger, Ayo delivers wisdom, compassion and a defiantly positive outlook on life.

Ayo's son Nile came into the world simultaneously with the runaway success of Joyful. For her, these two pieces of good fortune are inextricably linked. Ayo often alludes to her need to function, which kept her sane through the darkest corridors of her life. Nile now embodies that need. "When I look at my son, it's like I'm facing myself. It's like... OK, this is why I'm here. He always gives me so much strength. He's my gravity actually."

Ayo offers a jaded world the splintered blues of Billie Holiday, with a funky, jazzy, reggae coating as functional and pared down as the emotion in the songs themselves. Her instinct must have told her that an uncompromising desire to tell the truth in her songs, to confront demons, is the key to success and the secret to the perfect bittersweet balance of her music. Her courage makes Ayo a mesmerising presence, a fighter who has found gravity at last.

'Gravity At Last' is out now on Wrasse Records. Ayo performs at the ICA in London on 20 April

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions