With her expressive, throaty voice, Y’akoto has been compared to great jazz icons such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Now the 29-year-old Ghanaian-German singer has released her third album Mermaid Blues, which is a mixture between blues, neo soul and ambient pop.
At the age of six, Y’akoto used to go to the beach, waiting hours for mermaids to rise from the water. Growing up in the harbour town Tema in Ghana, she, like many other children, believed in this legendary aquatic creature since it was part of African mythologies. For her latest album Mermaid Blues, Y’akoto picked up this childhood memory by delving into this mythology and its depiction in different cultures. “As a child, I was fascinated by the idea of a woman who is half human, half fish. The other children were afraid of her, but I wasn’t,” says Y’akoto, laughing. “I still like this polarising image of mermaids and their unpredictability.” As she always had a close relation to water, this subject of mermaids inspired her when writing a great range of soul-seeking songs for her third album.
Y’akoto, whose real name is Jennifer Yaa Akoto Kieck, has a special bond to this mythology, which is not surprising when you learn more about her personality and biography. Just like Mami Wata, as these water spirits are called in Africa, the 29-year-old singer lives in different worlds. Born in Tema, she now commutes between her adopted city of Hamburg, Paris, Stockholm, Los Angeles, as well as African coastal towns such as Dakar, Accra and Lomé. “I think that we as global people, who have the privilege of being able to travel, should even feel committed to travelling, in order to expand our knowledge of other countries and cultures,” Y’akoto explains. “I like to travel to places where I have no orientation first: By discovering new places, I also learn a lot about myself.”
Drawing inspiration from Frieda Kahlo and Sade
During the interview, she speaks as self-confidently as she appears in her music videos – a characteristic that is said to be typical for mermaids as well, if you believe the folklore. “Our society still wants a woman to be the sweet, nice, always smiling girl next door,” Y’akoto criticises. “To my mind, women should not be influenced too much by such stereotypes and should stop worrying about being liked. Instead, it is important that women have the courage to show their personality and to be honest.” Therefore, the musician wants to compose songs that appeal to women’s strengths and sensuality. “Women can be strong, but also vulnerable – this vulnerability even serves as an outlet and to find new courage.”
It is powerful women like Frida Kahlo, Zadie Smith, Sade and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the author of Americanah) who also inspired Y’akoto when working on Mermaid Blues – artists who are not just known for their great work, but also for speaking their mind. “Honest artistic expression in any form is difficult, challenging and exhausting, but that’s soul,” says Y’akoto. On the new album, she faces her inner contradictions and reflects on the last three years of her personal development, the singer states. Featuring 11 songs, she and her producers have created a sound which varies from blues to neo soul and ambient pop, conveying passion and sorrow, seduction and determination. When she sings, her expressive, warm, yet throaty vocals remind of the great Nina Simone or Billy Holiday.
Composing timeless songs
As her first single of Mermaid Blues, Y’akoto presents the melancholic piano ballad Fool Me Once, which is about the painful feeling of holding on to a past love. In the according video, the protagonists show floating choreographies, while Y’akoto stands out in avant-garde clothes. “In this video, I’m wearing fashion created by the renowned designer Imane Ayissi from Paris,” says Y’akoto. “As an artist, I try to seek inspiration from all kinds of culture, and this includes fashion culture, too.”
Like on her first two albums Baby Blues and Moody Blues, she presents songs with a political background. For example, Reception, which has a pulsating beat, features lyrics such as ‘Global chaos, but we stay tough / no time to fake it, we can make it’. The song is about raising hope by staying true to ourselves and others, Y’akoto explains. “In my music, I also address the fact that we only have one life and one planet. Therefore, we finally have to learn to get along with each other and pay more attention to the fact that the world and nature change.”
With a Ghanaian highlife musician as her father, music was positively inherited to Y’akoto, who moved to Germany at the age of 11. She already loved singing and learned to play the keyboard when she was a child. Even today, she asks him for advice, if she is stuck while working in the studio. In We Walk The Line, for example, her father helped her to compose a bridge for this song. “My father has certainly been one of my idols, but I think that I’ve been exempt from any kind of trend when finding my personal musical style. Maybe that’s because of my Ghanaian-German background,” says Y’akoto. “However, I try to compose songs that are timeless.”
In Drink My Friend, you can listen to the mermaid again, who sings with a captivating, seductive voice as if she wanted to lure nearby sailors so that she can take over their ship. While a stomping rhythm provides as a background, a hypnotic female choir, sounding like further sirens who want the men to become drunk, accompanies her.
In August, Y’akoto will be setting off on tour to present her new album. After one concert in Hamburg, there will be many more shows in Germany, Switzerland and Austria in October. “I cannot wait to go on tour; I’m looking forward to seeing all the people who make it possible for me to do what I do,” says Y’akoto. “It’s going to be great to present the whole package. My songs, the musical arrangements and the fashion created by designers with whom I work.”
TEXT: NADINE CARSTENS I PHOTO: JULIA KIECKSEE