Music has always been a place of escape, refuge, and solace for many. Our ancestors have used sound as a way to document time and circumstance and emotions that words can never quite capture. When I was introduced to Mermaid Blues, I felt the vibrations that your elders may say is ‘before your time’. That same deep tone that our dear Nina Simone embodied. That tone that surrenders you and forces you to engaged with what is trembling beneath the surface of your everyday façade.
I discovered that this soulful sound belonged to Y’Akoto; a twenty-nine-year-old woman, born to a Ghanaian father and a German mother in Tema, Ghana. Mermaid Blues is Y’Akoto’s sophomore album that blends melancholic blues with neo-soul jazz notes topped with piercing lyrics that suggests a self-composed feminist with an admirable intolerance for patriarchy.
Distinguished Diva was able to catch up with Y’Akoto to talk artistic motivation, her childhood in Tema, and her self-care practices.
Y’Akoto: My father named me after his mother. AKOTO. We come from the eastern Region. I’m a Thursday born. So my Name is Yaa. I mashed it up with my grandmother’s name. I have a ritual before I step on stage. I look up and call for my grandmother, asking her for guidance. I never really got to know her, she passed away when I was quite young. But she was something else. Strong, beautiful and the only woman who could put my dad into place. She impressed me.
What are a few moments in your childhood that stand out as definitive?
Y: I grew up in Tema, community 9. Close to the Tema harbour. I was a rough child, always outside and mingling with other kids. My parents were not as overprotective as other parents. My knees were always bruised, I ran, jumped, climbed trees and never left out an opportunity to try the different meals prepared at my friend’s houses. My Dad hated when I ate outside of the house. Thinking back to my childhood in Tema, it was the best time of my life.
You have publicly spoken out about feminism and creating inclusivity by teaching our sons and lovers and family members about how to practice feminism…in your career, have there been moments where your beliefs in this have been challenged? Especially in the male-dominated music industry…can you speak to us about that?
Y: Being a female in this game is tricky. Men have different ways of communicating, or not communicating at all. As a woman, you have to figure that out for yourself. Some women in the industry do that by emulating the guys. I never felt comfortable acting like the boys in order to be accepted, or part of the group. I’m a lady on the tour bus, in business meetings and in the studio. I don’t pretend to be less, more or something that I’m not. I don’t feel the need to get to places by sleeping with someone. I ask for what I want, and if I get shut down, I move on. I get underestimated, ignored, misunderstood and bullied all the time, but it doesn’t distract me from my goals. It never has. This takes practice, patience and time. I believe that real feminism starts with us women. I’ve been put down by women far too often, and it hurt my feelings more than when men cut me out. I’m not in the business of putting other women down. I don’t believe in that. The more we care for each other and encourage each other to become A&Rs, CEO’s, producers, DJ’s, Label founders, the more things will change.
What are the benefits of being a woman on the brink of 30? Is it easier to say “NO” without the confidence of explanation? What are your fears and excitement around turning 30?
Y: I love every year that adds on to my life. I just talked to my Mum the other day about that, we watched my interviews on YouTube and compared them to each other. I told her that I would never like to go back to 2012. The insecurity, the self-doubt, it’s all so present in your younger years. I feel so much more like myself now than the years prior. I’ve never really had a problem to say NO but it feels much better now being able to say YES to myself entirely. My Mum aged gracefully. I respect that. She is beautiful.
How important is it for you to have control of your voice and narrative as a young woman of colour?
Y: As an artist, it’s always important and significant to be yourself. My voice is my thought, but also my observation… It matters to make sure not to be misunderstood.
When were you introduced to music and when did you know that it could be a profession? Who were you listening to?
Y: My Parents were music Lovers. Back to before I was born, My Dad played a concert in Hamburg. By that time my Mum just finished her studies in Hamburg. African Highlife music was “the thing” in the 80s in Germany. It was hot. She saw him on stage, he saw her, they fell in love. The rest is history. My life was and is all about music. But my parents wanted me to study and be on the safe side. I don’t come from a rich family. My dad hustled hard and had to make many sacrifices in his life for his music career. My mother worked very hard every day, seeing that as a child sometimes, how tired and stressed she came home, was not easy. Looking back, I get it now. It’s not easy being a musician in the industry. It’s just not for everybody, but I’m a Tema girl. Tema Girls go hard. I’m built for it. I don’t sit around and wait for people to do me favors. I work every day: on myself, and my music.
How does your culture and origins inspire your music?
Y: I AM my culture and my origin. It’s all inside of me I don’t dissect my identity. I never had to make a choice, be this or that. Africa is every single human beings mother and father.
What has happened in your life that inspired Mermaid Blues?
Y: I just needed to write again. My two albums took me around the world. I’m so thankful for that. I was the first in my family to get to America, Asia, and to almost every place in Europe. I was inspired by this whole Artistic Lifestyle, performing, shooting, doing interviews… I broke up with my then-boyfriend, that was tough, but I immediately got to work. I wrote every day. This whole mermaid thing guided me. Mermaids don’t care about the negative opinions of others. They go with the flow and the only force they bow down to, is the force of nature and god.
What and who do you seek out for balance and inspiration?
Y: I had to learn the hard way that the only person who can balance me out is myself. Long walks, dancing, practicing and taking care of my family and friends inspires me. Looking for fulfillment in other people just doesn’t work for me.
How do you care for yourself? What are your rituals and motivators for self-care? What are your practices?
Y: I try not the stress about stuff I can’t really change. I make lists of what needs to be done, from phone calls to taxes and then I get it done. After the work is done I have fun. I love hanging out with friends and reading books. I’m a real girl, that means I love to take care of my hair, skin, nails and well-being. Nutrition is important also, but I don’t take it too seriously. I used to be on diets and a strict vegan when I was in my early twenties. I quit that all together. I accept my body and try to listen to what it wants. We women, gain and lose, we change all the time. It’s part of our beauty to be versatile and unpredictable.