Lafawndah used to think she was an orphan. Until she was about ten, the experimental artist also thought her parents had adopted, rather than created and birthed, her. Now, sitting in a boutique Japanese tea room of her choosing in north London, we both know neither of these things transpired to be true – but there’s definitely something about her demeanour that suggests a worldliness that doesn’t quite belong anywhere.
“My friend has this theory that there's two kinds of human beings,” she says, taking a sip of a matcha latte as apple-green as her acrylics. “One kind is interested in lineage and carrying on something that has happened before. And then you have the orphans of the world.” The orphans, she continues, over the sound of cast iron teapots and clinking teaspoons, “are those who want to leave or break. And I always felt like that – I was always bothered by being ‘from somewhere.’ None of it made too much sense to me.”
We’re talking about the concept of home because people often describe Lafawndah as a nomadic artist. Half-Iranian, half-Egyptian, she spent her childhood in Tehran and Paris, before moving to New York City via stints in Mexico, Guadeloupe and a multitude of other places and, since last year, she’s been based in London. “There's something unsettling with not feeling that you sit anywhere”, she says. “So you’re just constantly trying to find the next home to experience yourself in a different context, with different people in different spaces, to see where you could be at ease.”
On her forthcoming debut album, ANCESTOR BOY, Lafawndah’s music reflects that space of constant movement and self-discovery. It pieces together intricate, sculptural sounds from heritages that feel outside the western canon, but melds them into glitchy, left-field club-facing tracks. It’s devotional, without being specifically religious. Lafawndah’s music, from her self-titled and TAN EPs to her ongoing collaborative work, has always operated within that realm. But on this first album, she’s distilled those sounds to the next level of self-actualisation, creating something that delves into family secrets and spirits – in short, it is quintessentially, beautifully her.
Defining “her” admittedly feels pretty difficult though. Lafawndah cuts an enigmatic figure, and that air of secrecy lingers beguilingly across her work. For example, the press release accompanying the album mentions her “controversial tenure at the short-lived but influential Dassin Sakina Institute” – Google is not my friend here, but when I ask her about it she just offers a small smile: “I have to figure out how to talk about that still”, she offers, in a way that immediately tells me she’s not going to be talking with me about it in any case.
She’s also reticent to have her real name put in print any more (although it remains in the public domain from past releases). She’s at least more obliging when it comes to explaining where “Lafawndah” came from. “It was the name of a friend of mine who passed away”, she says, “She supported me a lot in my endeavours, and it was her stage-name so I just… carried it on. It means cacophony in Arabic, and that just made sense to me. I like the idea of art that doesn’t bow to you – you have to walk to it. I don’t make music that runs like honey, you have to come meet me.” That feels a good metaphor for how Lafawndah is in-person as well – she’s open, to a point, but she’s not here to explain every facet of herself. Instead, you have to come to her level, divulge parts of yourself, be challenged, and figure out the parts she’s left for you.
In a 2016 Dummy interview, Lafawndah said that during her childhood living in Iran, her parents didn’t tell her about the war going on there – it was kept a secret to “protect” her. This concept immediately rang true for myself and many other “non-Western” families I know; parents withholding things for a purpose that actually misses the mark, and becomes more hurtful in the long-term. I ask her now if the secrecy and intimacy that pervades her sound is born out of that place – “Daddy,” for example, with its reverberating, skittering percussion and vocals that slip cinematically between powerful fluidity and whispering silkiness, is built around that idea of family secrets with its refrain of “Daddy didn't tell you / He didn't know / Mama couldn't tell you / But it’s time to know.”
She considers this. “I love secrecy, but I don't think you have the same kind of secrets here. The cultural secrecy we’re describing has a lot to do with protection – but then you find out anyway, so even though it’s coming from a loving place, there’s a lack of humility. So it becomes painful and isolating. The secrecy that I’m interested in is much more to do with imagination and fantasy.”
Though you can hear that on ANCESTOR BOY, in how she evokes spirits and storms, that sense of imagination and fantasy feels especially clear on Lafawndah’s Honey Colony mixtapes – an ongoing series that finds her re-working tracks from womxn artists whom are among her friends, or even just those whose work she is intrigued by. The first two tapes, out in 2017 and 2018 respectively, found the likes of Kelela, Kelsey Lu and Klein as the subject of her re-versions – and the way she reworked a Cardi B Instagram freestyle is pure, dizzying magic. “Honey Colony is a way for me to be extremely playful”, she agrees, “to just have fun with something that's not my construction, not my own feelings or my own understanding.”
The format also allows her to toy with love songs, something Lafawndah says doesn’t happen much in her own work: “I haven’t really written romantic love songs in a way that feels like my default – I haven't been able to write that myself, so it's also kind of like living by proxy.”
This declaration surprises me – it transpires I’ve totally misread a feeling of sensuality in her album until I ask about it. Her breathy vocal style and talk of touch and physicality my perception of the album's sex and erotica feel pretty obvious (perhaps because in the touch-starved UK accidentally bumping knees with someone is a cause for fluster), but Lafawndah is bemused. “Do you think you hear sensuality because I’m a woman?”
This is not something I had considered, so I give the example of a lyric on the track “Parallel” – “The taste of your lipstick stays on the tip of my tongue.” Without reliving the awkwardness of this moment too much, it turns out that song is about her grandmother.
Thematically, then, family seems to be a big part of ANCESTOR BOY. I reflect that questions of home and family feel especially pertinent in 2019’s bleak political landscape of deportations and detainments, but Lafawndah explains that ANCESTOR BOY is not especially meant to be rooted in the right now. “Obviously it’s born of the time we’re in,” she speaks slowly, carefully, “but it’s also born of the time before we were even here – and especially about the time that comes after. The title came from a poem I wrote, and it makes so much sense to me, because the album is about cycles of life, death and rebirth, but also about after this. What terrifies me the most is the impossibility for people to imagine anything else after this, after capitalism.”
And so this is an album with a kind of earthy futurism, that luxuriates in an unusual beauty. For Lafawndah, the theme that is constant in all her work – be that her own music, her directorial work, the Honey Colony, or even her astounding collaboration with Japanese composer Midori Takada – is beauty and its different iterations. “I think that the process of liberating my voice and finding my own ways of defining beauty is the journey that I'm embarked on”, she says. “That will probably be a lifetime thing.”
The other journey, of course, is that of an orphan – it feels telling that the final track on ANCESTOR BOY closes with the declaration, “I am an island”. But, while there was once a time where Lafawndah didn’t really like writing with others, the album credits for ANCESTOR BOY find a host of names collaborating with her. “It was a very joyful thing to have the process be more open”, she says. “Most of the album is not just me, not just ‘I’; there’s many different points of view. It’s almost like a Greek chorus.”
Our time is up, and as I walk out into the unusual winter sunshine, I’m thinking about that future none of us can imagine (is February heat about to be normal?). But also I am mulling over Lafawndah’s concept of family, because she’s at a point now where feeling like an orphan no longer means feeling alone. As she tells it, through her art she’s been building her own family: “Not feeling like I come from anywhere, it doesn't mean that I don't have parents. I have many mothers, fathers, many brothers and many sisters, but they are a lineage that I'm creating for myself. I’m drawing my own map.”
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