For Ibeyi, Music Is Freedom

The twin musicians are back with a new album, Spell 31, which explores the nuances of ancestry, mythology, and, of course, sisterhood.

Sandra Ebert

For twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz of the recording group Ibeyi, making music means constantly evolving.

The two became music and fashion darlings after the release of their self-titled debut album in 2015, which left listeners mesmerized with its intricate melodies and poetic lyrics. Through both the music they wrote and the clothes they wore, they celebrated their French Afro-Cuban roots, creating art that honored the cultures that shaped them in order to stand out in an increasingly crowded music industry.

Now, five years since their last project, Ash, the sisters are back with a new album titled Spell 31, a gorgeous, haunting record that, again, explores the complexities of ancestry and spirituality while navigating genres such as new-age R&B and Afrobeats, and incorporating elements of the group's namesake Yoruba (ibeyi translates to "twins" in the West African language). Fellow artists such as Pa Salieu, BERWYN, and Jorja Smith all make appearances on the project.

"The reason why our music [sounds the way it does] is because our personal life is like that—our mix of culture is like that. We are Afro-Latinas, we are also European, we're Black and white," Lisa tells "We have always defended the fact that we didn't want to be more one thing than the other, because we felt like there was so much culture from all of the sides."

Below, we speak with Ibeyi about the process of bringing Spell 31 to life, creative freedom, and the magic of making music as sisters.

It's been five years since your last album. What kind of growth have you two experienced in these last few years between Ash and now Spell 31?

Lisa: Humongous growth, personally and professionally. Ash came out five years ago, and then we toured for two years. We met a lot of our heroes—it was an incredible time for us. Then we thought that we would stop touring and start living a bit, because we had been working for 10 years without stopping, but COVID happened.

The silver lining is that we got to grow internally, not just professionally. Suddenly, we got to realign with who we were as women and what we wanted to say as women in this new decade that we entered. It's always hard to face yourself, and change is never easy, but I'm so proud of this album. I think it's really us. It really sounds like us.

Has it been easier or harder to create a new body of work and hone your craft during these last two years?

Naomi: I wouldn't say it was easier, but I felt like we had the freedom to just really take the time. We normally work really fast—between the first and the second albums, we did everything in a month. But for this one, we had the time to reflect on every detail. [Creating this album] was probably one of the few good things to come of this shitty time.

You two as artists have always been immensely proud of who you are, and we've heard the influence of your culture and your heritage in your music from the very beginning. This album is really special when it comes to celebrating and honoring your roots. What made you want to include that so prominently in this album?

Lisa: When we sing about our culture … I don't know how to explain it, but for us, singing is a way to connect to not only ourselves, but also to our cultures, and to our dad and our sister who passed away, and our ancestors. We don't separate them.

But I also think sometimes we make songs that have nothing to do with it. We never want to force it. We've always freed ourself from having to put our culture in. We allow ourself to be free creatively. And then, if it comes, it comes, and often in ways that we don't expect.

Naomi: With Ibeyi, I think one of the things people have to understand is that we're never gonna do the same thing. We're gonna always explore. We are a lot of things—I think everybody's a lot of things. We just allow ourselves to express them all and not choose.

Lisa: We're also in a time in life where a lot of musicians don't feel free to write what they want to write, because it's difficult to earn money as an artist. When you're not a "commercial artist"—which is so weird to say, because I feel like we are commercial artists, but that's not necessarily what comes to mind right away—you do a type of music that people are used to.

But we are convinced we can find that balance within our own music. And that's what has been guiding us this whole time—that confidence that we don't have to compromise.

Naomi: And also, we can do whatever the fuck we want! If one day we want to do a song that is more "commercial," and we want to do it—I don't think it's gonna happen—but, like, in mini shorts onstage, we're going to do it. You know what I mean? It's just having the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want. A lot of people put artists into boxes, and the industry puts them into boxes, but they also put themselves into boxes! Then they're scared to change.

The beautiful thing is that in France, for example, they put us in the R&B category, while in another country, they put us in alternative. People see as they see. You can tell them who you are, and they're gonna believe what they're gonna believe.

©sandraebert ibeyi
Sandra Ebert

Fashion has also been a really huge component of your work. What style direction did you want to take with this new project?

Lisa: It's interesting because it's the first time we really thought about that! [In the beginning] for example, we were onstage in overalls. Yes, they were chic because they were Chanel custom-made overalls—but I still wanted to hide my body. I didn't know who I was visually. Now, after Naomi pushing me for so many years, I was like, "Finally!" We got to work with really interesting people this time around, but also what is wonderful is we got to embrace this as a different pocket of art.

It's a different ambience. It's a different story. It's a different stylist. It's a different mood and energy. For example, our album cover, we wanted it to reflect royalty, but in a way that was not too clichéd. We wanted also for it to reflect power—with the movement, but also with the hair and the makeup we wanted. Simple, but also impactful.

We did another photo shoot where it was all about our heritage and Cuba. They blocked our eyebrows and made us look like Cuban women in the '50s. We knew we wanted to honor the three Sisters of Fate, which are Greek sisters. We wanted to have a nod to that—how the first one creates the thread of fate, the second one analyzes it, and the third one cuts it—and taking the idea of reinterpreting Greek mythology, of Roman mythology, into our world. How would that feel, especially with our skin and being young Brown women?

Naomi Diaz and Lisa-Kainde Diaz attend a Chanel fashion show in 2017.
Stephane Cardinale - CorbisGetty Images

You make an appearance in an academic book, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature, about your influence and your artwork. That's a huge accomplishment. How does it feel to know that your music is being documented in this way?

Lisa: It's something we need to remember to celebrate. We're always like, "Oh, great, amazing," and then we forget and go on to the next thing without taking the time to pause and look back. We did it for the first time during the pandemic. And that's why we wrote "Sister to Sister." In the lyrics, we sing, "Here's how you say it: I-bey-i," you know, saying, "We've made it." We did have an influence on the music industry. We are a band that does something that is unique, and with three albums now, it's already a body of work. That's something to celebrate.

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You both have been creating together your whole lives, but what's your favorite part about creating art as sisters?

Naomi: I think it's the process of always trying to find the middle ground between us.

Lisa: I make music that I would never make on my own with Naomi. I'm stronger when I make music with her, and I'm less scared. Back to when we were talking about freedom, it's always a scary thing to put so much effort into something, not knowing if it's going to be good, not knowing if you're going to like it at the end or if people are going to respond to it. It's so scary to put all of your heart and soul and time into something that could be meaningless to other people. But when I do that with Naomi, I feel like it doesn't matter.

Obviously I want our music to touch the whole world. I truly want Ibeyi to be the soundtrack of people's lives. If I'm fully honest, that's what I want. But I feel like just the adventure of making music is enough. Just the adventure of being in the studio with her, of being onstage with her, of discovering myself through working with her is enough and is already so much that has been gifted to me.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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