Jojo Abot is a sublime enigma, a spirit robot: a seeker of the divine. She is also a multimedia artist expressing herself via her signature afro-hypno-sonic sound, stunning visual art and arresting performances. She has toured with icons such as Lauryn Hill and performed on stages across the world, from a New year’s Eve concert at Times Square in NYC to the WOMAD festival in Australia and Afropunk Fest in Johannesburg. She embodies a decisive will to create, express and transform, both independently and collaboratively.
GRIOT caught up with the one of a kind mover and shaker in Johannesburg just before she left for her residency at the National Sawdust in NYC. Talking points: life lately and her creative practise.
GRIOT: How long have you been based in Johannesburg?
Jojo Abot: I guess for the last ten months. It has been a journey for me and Johannesburg that is growing. I’m here for as long as it feels good. I know for a fact that I’ll be back in NYC for the summer, so it’s a matter of figuring out whether I want to be in Ghana or Brazil for the last quarter of the year. It’s funny in the sense that you can plan out your year and things just go however they want to go. I generally try to be open-minded in that process.
Does travelling feed your creativity?
Well, I always move around. I think I’m never really based anywhere. I’m always ready to move into and exist in other spaces. How could one talk about an experience if they have never lived it? I think it is more so understanding the value of the growth that I experience when I move around. I don’t feel that any part of the world owes me anything, and I don’t go into these spaces with a strict expectation. I end up being in these spaces by virtue of larger energies coming together to even make the opportunities possible. For me it’s really about being present, and seeing what ultimately results from that.
Well, you have been faithful to the continent, we’ll give you that! A couple of years ago you were in Nairobi revitalising the community of creators via the Afri-Na-Ladi Residency. Tell us more.
Well, I went to Nairobi to play Africa Nouveau Festival. That was already exciting. While there, I met a group of five young boys who are now EA Wave. I just felt this strong pull that they had something musically and creatively that I wanted to explore, even though I didn’t really know what it was. I had to go back to NYC but I told them I’d be back and that we would work together. A few months later, I was back in Nairobi. Afri-Na-Ladi was a very daring attempt to look at what our future as creatives could look like.
As a young African creative, I always wonder what could happen if people’s realities were shifted just through experience and exposure. Mindsets can be changed and ideas pushed. It’s a matter of creative expression being accessible to the youth, it being disruptive not being confined in its existence. That requires making the process of creating—creating, not creation—accessible to people that operate in different spaces, because they are the ones who are going to carry that language forward. If those people don’t have the same opportunities and resources then how can they create their best work with the resources that they have? After that, they develop their own languages around the resources that they DO have, rather than killing themselves to work with western tools that aren’t inherently theirs, or that are difficult to access.
How did you experience the creative community when you arrived?
I think in some cities you have a lot more happening with the industry having moved along a little bit more, in Nairobi it’s still very fresh. The youth are wondering who they are. Of course history plays a part in that kind of loss of self, which in time may cause a curiosity and eagerness to regain one’s self. Being children of a generation that takes calculated risks and aims to live by the western standard of success, our parents tell us to go to school, earn a degree and achieve the western ideal.
In all this haste towards living a “better life and aiming higher” the youth begin to wonder as citizens what serves as evidence, reminders or measures of their identity and heritage. This curiosity leads to an investigation of self; what true Swahili even sounds like; what our connection to the rest of East Africa is; what it means to be East African; what indigenous traditional music sounds like; a lot of these kids started to wonder along with the collective wave of reawakening happening globally.
I think it was around that time that these curiosities about the self, began to inspire the youth to recover the self through experimentation and discovery. The elements for a cultural revolution and awakening were all there. All that was needed was resources and guidance. Mostly the latter.
Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg: how do you experience Selfhood in these different places?
Identity negotiations are something that I acknowledge, but choose not to indulge in. The process of actually negotiating your identity within a space that you occupy in time involves you needing to assert your identity as you understand it within and in relation to that space. However, you start to encounter the space prescribing or superimposing an identity on you because of who they perceive you to be. Between those two, there’s a need to decide and establish for yourself who you are willing to be.
This happens no matter where you are. It could be the same country that you have lived in all your life. Identity changes all the time: when we are around our mothers versus when we are around our friends, when we are in public versus when we are in private. So over time as I travel and occupy these spaces, conversations become more and more about who we know ourselves to be: who we are, versus who we are willing to negotiate ourselves to be.
Another thing that ties right into this idea of personal language is conformity vs. deformity. I believe that as we conform, over time, we start to deform. There’s no way there can be presence of true self while you are still conforming. Something is going to have to move to make space for the other. Also, there’s a very performative aspect to living, period. So it’s not just about your identity as prescribed based on your skin colour: it’s your sex, your sexual identity, your religious identity, your body type, your preference etc. There are all these variables!
If you choose to conform and renegotiate your identity and your existence, you will inevitably become deformed. There are also a lot of us who have gotten to that point of deformation but don’t know because that is life right? So do I experience blackness different as I navigate the world? Absolutely, because people’s understanding of who I should be and who I am is based on their own sense of ego, exposure, experience etc. But I think what is most important in all of these constructs is being myself: getting closer to a greater sense of understanding of self that is deeply rooted.
If you happen to be in New York on 14 July, go see Jojo Abot’s performance POWER TO THE GOD WITHIN at National Sawdust, find more info here.
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Eric Otieno Sumba
I am a decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar.