Witch Prophet, also known as Ayo Leilani, once tried to hide her identity following her arrival in Canada as a four-old of mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage in the 1980s.
Faced with then prevailing taboos about new arrivals from Africa, she tried her hardest to assimilate herself into the Canadian mainstream. “I tried to hide that part of myself to assimilate into culture and as I grew older, I realized that is not and it will never be,” she said.
Her music, a blend of jazz, hip-hop and soul supported by the DJing of her partner SUN SUN, now actively reflects her own personal roots and its larger political context, namely the decades-long conflict between Ethiopia and its East African neighbour Eritrea.
Witch Prophet, who compares her parents to Romeo and Juliet for having overcome this history, did not understand the complexities of the conflict between the two countries while growing up.
She now addresses it head-on in her song Manifest, off her debut album The Golden Octave. She also captures the complex ethnic and linguistic landscape of her two homelands on her second album, DNA Activation, which made the short-list of the 2020 Polaris Music Price.
Each song bears the name of a family member and explores the meaning of that name, with Witch Prophet singing in either English, Amharic (the main language of Ethiopia based on the ethnic dominance of the Amhara people), Tigrinay (the language of Eritrea’s main ethnic group with speakers also living in Ethiopia), or a mix of all three.
“It was my way of honouring my ancestors and my family on both sides as well as honouring myself as somebody from the diaspora and trying to connect back with my culture,” she said. But this is hardly a case of navel-gazing. Witch Prophet also sees herself as an interpreter and presenter of the prevailing Zeitgeist by trying to universalize her own experiences.
“I still am political in my stance and everything like that, but when I realize that people are starting to actually pay attention, that I wasn’t just yelling in a black void or against a brick wall, I realize it’s my duty as a Black queer woman and an African woman, as a child of the diaspora to be visible, to speak my story,” she said. “Who knows who is out there, who has the same story, but thinks they are alone?”
Witch Prophet’s exploration of contemporary issues, many of them key to Canada’s diverse urban communities, has actually come against the backdrop of a recent lifestyle change, away from the urbanity of Toronto toward the relatively more rural, more relaxed environment of Caledon, where she and her partner live on a farm. Incidentally, it was a past visit to Greater Victoria as part of the Even Tide series of concerts that inspired Witch Prophet’s move.
“It just seemed like a really different pace than Toronto and something that felt more intuned with nature, with the water, the fresh air, everything,” she said, adding later that visiting the West Coast helped to solidify her move.
But this change of scenery has not fundamentally changed Witch Prophet’s willingness to speak about things that matter to her through her music. “The city’s loud, but you can be louder in the country,” she said.
Witch Prophet plays the Mary Winspear Oct. 14 as part of the Seaside Sessions, a series highlighting emerging and underrepresented Canadian talent working in a cross-section of genres. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. For more information, see marywinspear.ca/event/witch-prophet.
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