In Conversation with Yiigaa
Upon meeting Yiigaa (pronounced: yee-gah) you’ll be struck by her charisma and kindness. She’s confident but not conceited, personable but not personal, reflective but not ruminative. In other words, Yiigaa’s demeanour is more becoming of a socio-political leader than a singer, or rather, a ‘Southeast songstress’ – this being the brief bio published on her SoundCloud, which has amassed over 188,000 listens. For this title, she gets an A for aesthetic alliteration but a U for comprehensiveness. Admittedly, the Brixtonian actress-producer-singer-songwriter has far too many artistic titles to make for a succinct hyphenation. But how else might she define herself, her attitude to life and her work? Yiigaa the boundary-breaker, perhaps?
Yiigaa certainly has a tendency towards transgressions. She recalls how she was admitted into the prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, only to stray away from Saturday singing practice to ‘go around the Imperial War Museum, and just walk around.’ She also criticises those who rely on their privilege, noting that ‘some guy vocalists are incredible, it’s just the idea that they don’t feel like they need to train their voice. If you’re trying to be a singer, it should be something you’re constantly doing.’ Evidently, the Southeast Songstress is self-assured to say the least.
However, Yiigaa isn’t entirely immune to doubt. As recently as two years ago, off the back of the 2017 single ‘Sunrise’ and her 2018 EP, Mist, via collaborations with Lord Apex, Finn Foxell, P-rallel, and Lsow of Trackout Records, she gained a substantial following on SoundCloud. But times change, and most listeners were moving over to paid streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. ‘I’d gone from really buzzing and really popping to having to start all over again. My SoundCloud people [weren’t] going to move over…they don’t like to pay for stuff. [Spotify] is a whole different audience … it’s like: ‘I don’t know what you guys want.’
The music business had changed, and she had too. ‘The fans that I had loved low-fi alternative hip-hop…[but] it was really easy for me. I was getting bored. And, as soon as that happened, there was this huge flux in the alternative hip-hop scene. We’ve been pushing it for three years, and now it’s like “I’m bored of this” – and by the time we’re bored of it, it gets the attention that it deserves. That’s how music works and you have to move with it.’
So, where did this leave Yiigaa’s music? Well… it seems in a state of flux. In early 2019, Yiigaa had a chance encounter with an actor on a trip to Zimbabwe who re-introduced her to the musical genre of South African House, which inspired her current sound. ‘Obviously I’d listened to South African House’, I look startled; I hadn’t listened to South African House but nod along anyway. ’For some reason, being where it was being made and being with the people that danced to it, it just really awoke this side of me that was like: 1. I’m not even making music that I dance to; 2. I’m not making music that I would even want to listen to’. Her eyes gleam as she recounts her epiphany; ’I had a meeting with one of my friends, and I showed him the music that I’d been doing. I had one song [left over] from my last EP, that was produced by Lsow. [My friend said] “I’m not really feeling anything that you’re showing me…this one though, this one with Lsow…this is good.” So, I phoned [Lsow], and I was like, look: “I know you’re busy, and I know you’re in The Lion King, and I know you finish at 11:30PM every day, but please. I know this sound makes sense to you.” He was like: “fuck it. Let’s do it. We’ll have to do sessions at midnight.” So, we [did] sessions from midnight till 5am. We just had to. So [now] we’re like four, five beats down. We’re on a roll. I’m so happy now.’
Many artists fake excitement for their work, more a product of their label than themselves, but Yiigaa is independent and her electric energy is real and infectious. But was she really not dancing to her own music as recently as last year? ‘I’d listen to it, but not, like, the genre.’ So how does she feel about Blue Rivers in My Wrist, the EP she released in 2018 which she still performs? ‘I always try to make music that makes people feel. In that sense, I will always love what I make.’ A very diplomatic answer.
Is this Yiigaa’s sole aim – to make people feel? Indeed, Yiigaa’s lyrical style is paradoxical: her words are ostensibly intimate but so nondescript that she doesn’t actually give anything about her life away – she sings many unimaginable mes and yous. In particular, you don’t get any sense of what she thinks about the world. For an artist so opinionated and passionate, why not? ‘A lot of music tells people how to feel and how to think. I want people to feel calm and happy and euphoric and I want people to come together and dance without worrying about the world…I think [activism is] something that will come at a time when I feel more in a position of power.’ So, Yiigaa the Leader may be the most appropriate title after all? ‘I feel like people get freaked out when I say stuff like this – so don’t get freaked out!’ Yiigaa pauses. ’I’m not here to be a pawn.’ You don’t need to scroll too far through @Yiigaa’s Twitter feed to find her thoughts about societal sexism; this hesitation, this personal mixture of paranoia and self-awareness, feels off-brand. ‘I feel like I’m gonna freak you out! My aim is to be … like … a big boss.’ Yiigaa the Big Boss, it is.