Anyone attempting to prove the redemptive power of music needs to look no further than the Nigerian chanteuse, Ayọ. The 30-year-old soul singer defied all the odds that life stacked against her, successfully signing to Polydor Records in the mid-2000s and releasing Joyful (2006), Gravity at Last (2008) and this year’s Billie-Eve in the space of five years.
Born Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin in Frenchen, a small town in western Germany, Ayọ lived only briefly in Nigeria as a child. Her father is a Nigerian DJ, her mother a Romani gypsy. Adversity entered her life early. When Ayọ was 6, her mother became addicted to heroin and was jailed for a time. Investing in a childhood love for music, she briefly studied the violin that same year, but soon abandoned the instrument.
Following her parents divorce, Ayọ spent periods of time in Germany’s foster care system. She sought solace learning both the piano and guitar, and began living with her father again at the age of 14. The very first song she wrote, at 15, dealt with her mother and the traumas of her upbringing.
Despite a stressful childhood, Ayọ pursued her dream to record music, moving to London at 21 and performing with local English soul singers like Omar. Possessed by the same gypsy spirit as her mother, she soon found herself living in Paris, where she was discovered playing nightclubs like Triptych and Le Trabendo.
Ayọ even gave birth to her first child, Nile, before relocating to New York City to record her first album. Joyful featured her hit début single “Down on My Knees” and became a Top 40 smash all throughout Europe. She dropped her bags in the Bahamas two years later to craft the follow-up, Gravity at Last. Both records were recorded in only five days time, a sure sign of her music’s raw immediacy.
Facing Nigerian neo-soul competition from the likes of Nneka and Aṣa, Ayọ still holds her own lane with the powerful Billie-Eve (named after her baby daughter). Though she’s a born gypsy, Ayọ’s not going anywhere anytime soon—and thank goodness.