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Izzy Bizu. Image courtesy of RED Music.

How Ethiopia Influenced Izzy Bizu's Viral Pop Hits

Izzy Bizu tells us about the millions of plays on her debut album, A Moment of Madness, and how she's been influenced by her Ethiopian roots.

At just 23-years-old, British-Ethiopian singer-songwriter Isobel Beardshaw, better known as Izzy Bizu, has already shared the stage with music's finest including Sam Smith and Coldplay.

While her talents behind the mic seemingly fell on her lap, it was through her Ethiopian roots that she fully discovered her unique, acoustic sound. What started as a mere outlet to escape the struggles of boarding school has now become a dream come true.

But music wasn't always the goal. Izzy Bizu's career goals first began with animals. Although she wanted to be a vet, she soon learned the difference between hobbies and passions. At the age of 15, she auditioned for a teenage girl-band, singing "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera. Just one week later, she was in the recording studio.

Fast forward to 2018, Izzy's debut album, A Moment of Madness, has clocked in over 225 million global streams and her hit single "Diamonds" sits at the #11 spot at Urban AC radio. If that's not enough, she still manages to find time to travel back home and give back to the communities in Ethiopia.


Izzy Bizu. Image courtesy of RED Music.

How would you describe your sound?

Soulful, raw, rhythmical, reminiscent.

Tell us about your Ethiopian background and how it plays into your music.

My mum is Ethiopian, and we often spent holidays there when I was younger. The country is incredibly beautiful and spending time outside of the city allowed me to escape into another world. And I'm sure this played a part in my love of poetry and writing.

Ethiopians also love to dance. There was always music everywhere, which also had an impact in my love and appreciation of music. I also feel because of my mixed heritage that I am a bit of a world traveler, and this also plays an important part in my lyrics and how I see the world.

Who are your biggest musical influences?

Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye, and The Black Keys. Marvin always spoke of his darkness and challenging surroundings in such an optimistic and hopeful light. Amy spoke such truth and had a unique flair to her melodies. She had a slight bossa jazz touch. Through her more vulnerable songs and the stumbles she made, she taught me about relationships. And I'd laugh at her moralistic values. I think some of them stuck with me today! The Black Keys have this raging passion that I have, and sometimes it can be released in an impulsive way. Listening to them made me feel as free as screaming on top of a mountain. They make me feel like I'm allowed to vent! They have that "tough exterior, marshmallow on the inside" vibe.

Congrats on the success of your single "Diamond." Tell us about the making of it.

Thank you! I wrote the song with a producer called Ian Barter. He found my EP online and contacted me, and we ended up recording a load of songs in his studio, which is a converted shed at the bottom of his garden. He played me his production for "Diamond" and I wrote to it right away. We recorded the song within two hours. I didn't realize how much frustration I had in me. I was brought up with an African mum and an English old-fashioned father, so the minute I left the house and started writing music, I felt like a baby bird flying out of my cage. I felt my innocence was about to get messed with and that's what I wanted and that's what the song is about.

Did you ever think it would blow up like this?

Izzy: Well, at the time that was not my focus. I didn't know what my potential was. I just needed to let go of this oppressed feeling I had. And when I heard it back, I was so happy and felt lucky to have worked with Ian. It was later I started to really believe in the song and just wanted everyone to hear it. I was shy and finally I could show how I really felt!

You actually spent the holidays in Ethiopia giving back. What motivates or drives you to do such a great deed?

Izzy: Yes! I went to Ethiopia for Christmas with my mum and brother. While I was there, I had an amazing time visiting Studio Samuel, which is a charity for girls and young women. There's nothing more precious than the first time you have a taste for the passion you choose to practice. So when I was surrounded by these young girls at the age of 11 presenting self-written monologues about war, singing about their ideal universe and how they picture love though they haven't experienced it yet, it was so beautiful and moving. I think these voices are what can cut through this digital age, which in my opinion has great qualities but involves a lot of exterior validation. These kids don't care about that as their art really is the only way they can escape unfortunate events in their lives. The really amazing thing is that they didn't even complain about these things. I really learnt a lot.

Tell us about your relationship and experience working with Studio Samuel.

Well, I heard about them through my label in the U.S., Sony's RED MUSIC. An amazing lady, Tamara Horton, who works there set it up after adopting a child from Ethiopia—what they are doing is really incredible. It's not just about handouts. It's about building self-esteem in the girls and enabling them with life skills that they can go out and earn a living with. I did a voiceover for this film they made last year, which explains more. It's well worth a watch.

It's a charity that is really close to my heart and I'd like to do more with going forward. We are talking about how else I can support their work, and I will definitely always visit when I go back to Ethiopia.

Your debut album A Moment of Madness dropped in 2016. If you had one song for fans to hear your story, what would it be?

Each song represents a part of my story, going through the emotions of new beginnings and they all interlock, so it would be hard to pick one. The album as a whole is about my transition from a girl to a young woman.

You're only 23. What are your long term goals?

I've never been that person that has a massive game plan. Right now, my goal is making this album and taking other creatives on the journey with me. For me, being in the moment makes things feel more spontaneous. Having big expectations can kill the passion sometimes.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing music?

Probably marketing or creating apps! I love thinking of new ideas to improve people's well being, both mentally and logistically.

Who's the most played artist on your phone?

Right now, it is Massive Attack. Their string arrangements are insane, and the lyrics always kill me.

Dream collab?

FKJ, Tom Misch, or Masego. Groovy as hell!

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From Chale Wote Street Art Festival 2016. Photo by Ofoe Amegavie.

5 Ghanaian Creative Spaces Doing Afrofuturist Work You Need To Know

These Pan-African outfits are actively visualizing and creating realities for black people that are better than the ones we inhabit now—get to know them.

In her praise for Octavia's Brood (an anthology of science fiction stories from social justice movements), filmmaker dream hampton quotes these words of adrienne maree brown, a co-editor of the anthology: "All social justice work is science fiction. We are imagining a world free of injustice, a world that doesn't yet exist." A respectable appropriation of brown's statement would be: all pro-Black/African activism is afrofuturism in praxis.

In that frame of social justice activism being twined with the useful framework that afrofuturism is—envisioning and exploring viable realities for black people all over the world—here are five Pan-African outfits out of Ghana who're doing advocacy work, and variously tasking our imaginations to visualize an existence for black people other—and better—than the one we inhabit presently.

Accra [Dot] Alt

Photo courtesy of Accra [Dot] Alt.

The "Alt" in Accra [Dot] Alt stands for alternative, which should say much about this organization's orientation: an invested interest in facilitating the alternative. To that end, A[D]A creates programs which provide spacial and other forms of support for the expression of alternative thought, and also for spawning boundary-breaking art. A[D]A's most popular initiative, the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival, since its inception in 2011, has been thematically preoccupied with imagining and creating existences that are more humane and fulfilling—particularly for black people.

The African Electronics Trilogy exemplifies this. Between 2015 and 2017, the Chale Wote Festival's themes, African Electronics, Spirit Robot and Wata Mata—have altogether exhorted festival participants to "tap into a super power grid [and] create a new encounter with reality that is entirely of our choosing and construction." The theme for this year's festival, Para-Other, does not stray from this visionary mission. A[D]A partly describes Para-Other as an order "embracing of a black labyrinth and establishment of an aesthetic that captures our cessation of flight and transit into a non-contested existence."

Last time the statistics were checked, in 2016, over 30,000 people were at Chale Wote; which is a more than 6,000 percent increase from the number that attended the first edition of the festival. Talk about possibilities.

African Women's Development Fund (AWDF)

Photo courtesy of the AWDF.

This grant-making foundation, Africa's first pan-African women's fund, was co-founded in 2000 by three African women: Hilda Tadria, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Joana Foster, who passed in 2016.

Since setting up, the African Women's Development Fund has funded and supported close to 1,500 women's rights organizations and women-led initiatives in countries all over the continent.

In April 2017, the institution launched their ground-breaking AWDF Futures Project. The initiative is basically composed of projections on the future of the continent as seen through an African feminist lens. These projections are based on a mix of data/trends analysis and sheer imagination.

The AWDF Scenario Stories is one aspect of the project. It comprises of four short stories imagining four different kinds of futures—desirable, undesirable, wild card, transitional—for African women, in Africa. The protagonist in each of these scenarios (set in August 2030) is Mariam; a queer, intelligent and free-spirited young woman in a wheelchair.

The full narratives of Mariam navigating each of these four futures can be accessed, in both text and animated audio-visual formats, on AWDF's website, together with the Futures Africa: Trends for Women by 2030 report.

What will Africa be like in 2030? What would we see if we looked through the eyes of a woman? The AWDF Futures page holds a number of possible answers to these questions.

AfroCyberPunk Interactive

Photo courtesy of AfroCyberPunk Interactive.

Sci-fi writer and self-proclaimed afrofuturist, Jonathan Dotse, created AfroCyberPunk in 2010. Then, it was a blog whose focus was on "exploring the creative potential of African science fiction and speculative narratives."

Almost a decade after running as a blog, AfroCyberPunk morphed into AfroCyberPunk Interactive—a digital hypermedia content developer and publishing house—in 2017. Still, the preoccupation with "exploring the future of Africa" (as went the blog's tagline) remains prime. A part of what could be referred to as their mission statement reads thus: "Our roots in afrofuturism continue to inspire the recurrent themes, motifs and aesthetics of our publications. We aspire to [...] address the global imbalance in the representation of marginalised peoples and perspectives."

Founder Jonathan Dotse is himself at work on his debut novel, a cyberpunk mystery/ psychological thriller set in Accra, Ghana circa 2060 AD.

All of the above certainly do echo these words offered by Jonathan in a blog post titled Why Africa Needs Science Fiction: "As Africa marches onward into the future it is important that we as Africans begin to critically visualize the development that will take place on our own soil, and our vision must be based on our own unique reality, cut from the cloth of our own societies and tailored to our specific needs."

Drama Queens

Photo courtesy of Drama Queens.

This feminist and Pan-Africanist theatre organisation optimally embodies the idea of Sankofa: an examination of heritage to select and use, presently, the positive and helpful values, in the ultimate service of creating the future.

Drama Queens is founded on the ancient Egyptian philosophy of Ma'at—which adjures for justice, balance and harmony as ways of being. The world being as it is now—generally unjust, imbalanced and disharmonious, against black people specifically, and more specifically against marginalized black communities—renders Drama Queens' work futuristic.

To ground this, they are avowedly working towards "a just, balanced and harmonious world where highest respect is given to nature and all nature creates."

This year, for instance, is Drama Queens' year of "contributing to an end to homophobia towards the African LGBTQ+ community" through various activities such as theatre productions, facilitating queer film production workshops, social media discussions and talk events.

Nana Akosua Hanson, founder and director of Drama Queens has said in an interview that her organization aims, ultimately, "to end oppression by changing mindsets through the use of cultural tools, to revolutionalize thinking and bring forth the existence of an Africa without heteropatriarchy, and a continent free from the exploitation and destruction of racist nations." Sounds about Afrofuturist.

Squid Magazine

Photo courtesy of Squid Magazine.

Comics, games and animation are probably the most popular media through which creators indulge in futuristic thinking. Add to this the truism that critical, intellectual engagement and documentation are of lifeblood importance to the efflorescence of a culture. Put together, it adds up to the fact that Squid Magazine (simply, Squid Mag) is doing essential afrofuturist work.

Started in 2015 by Kadi Yao Tay and Kofi Asare, Squid Mag is dedicated to the "exploration, critique, promotion and archiving of African creativity manifested within comics, games, animation..." As it happens, Squid Mag is one of the very few, if not only, platforms on the continent that wholesomely covers African output in the above mentioned media.

There's a rather poetic resonance as to why this outfit is named 'Squid.' Here's the import of the name, as explained on their website:

The name is inspired by squids, sea invertebrates that release ink as a defense mechanism. We find it poetic how such a mechanism can be a metaphor for painting a people's realities and dreams fluidly in an ocean of canvases. An ocean that is threatened to be overrun with narratives that exclude us.

So now you know, if you didn't know before, where to go in search of a sea of narratives—of realities and dreams—that include us.

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There is a great deal more than can be said for the imagination—and exercising it. It begets creation, after all. Thus, what these and other entities are doing—engendering alternative socio-political imaginaries for all peoples of African descent—is such a needful venture. But after all is said and visualized, the ultimate challenge, most probably, is to act, to create. Blitz the Ambassador puts it succinctly on his afrofuturist song, "Africa Is The Future" (long since renamed "Africa Is Now"): There ain't no future unless we build it now.

moshood lives in Accra, from where he writes across genres. He has recently taken on painting. He tweets here: @thehamzay

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Following Government Suppression, Sierra Leone's 'People's Popstar' Is Finally Allowed to Perform

Emmerson's music has influenced past elections in Sierra Leone. Here's why his performance at the National Stadium is a win for artistic freedom.

Early December 2017, a flyer was circulating on Whatsapp in Freetown announcing one of the most exciting concerts of the year. Sierra Leonean superstar Emmerson Bockarie, stage name Emmerson, was going to perform live alongside two other popular artists. The concert was to be held at the National Stadium, Freetown's foremost and largest concert venue where the likes of Timaya and Wizkid have performed in the past.

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