In conversation with Lánre: On inspiration and ancestry
Inspiration, that moment where we can experience a sense of alignment and connection from a situation – be it from a person, a memory, a song or other forms of expression. It draws attention to a feeling of being in the flow of things, which in turn, contributes to strengthening our ability to cultivate. The metaphysics of this experience is intriguing, the very fact that it cannot be so easily defined is what makes it a reflection of something that goes beyond the physical realm. Lánre is a singer and songwriter hailing from Nigeria, her music can be described as a combination of acoustic soul and folk, which fuses elements of storytelling that are influenced by her Yoruba heritage. Some of her EPs include Home, Human as well as Pen Voyage: Chapter 1. I had the pleasure to speak to Lánre about all things in relation to inspiration, heritage, spirituality as well as belonging.
There are elements of your heritage that are included in your music, through language and clothing etc. Do you view your music as a way of connecting to ancestry and relaying aspects of your culture?
When I first started, I did not really think deeply about what it means to sing in Yoruba or visually represent myself by wearing certain fabric. It was more like doing something that I felt free to do. The first time that I picked up a guitar was at age 35 and the freedom that I felt from that experience is what I wanted to translate in my music, so I started writing songs. The first Yoruba song that I wrote was an ode to my grandfather, which featured words he used to speak to us as kids. My grandfather was a Babalawo, and we were not hidden from these elements of our ancestry despite growing up in a Christian household. It is not a pre-thoughtout plan that I think about connecting my music to ancestry, it is more like I have memories of my childhood and feature them in my music. When I go to share my songs in public, that is when I realise that it sets me apart from people. As a musician, I see myself taking a journey through my childhood and thinking about how I view things now as an adult.
In your song ‘Memories’, I see it as offering a way of gauging the interaction between the seen and unseen elements that shape our experiences– the Gèlè (seen) as a way to retain memory (unseen) – Is this how you perceive your engagement with heritage?
This song was actually written as a commission piece for an organisation supporting the research into Alzheimer’s awareness for black people, due to the lack of support and research in this area. Each year they host an event where everyone wears a hat or some form of head attire, and the organisers asked me to write a song for it. I started carrying out research into our fabric and what it used to mean before it was commercialised. I found out that people used to tell stories hidden in fabric even though it was used for fashion. From this you can see that fabric was also used as a storytelling medium. It made me think that if someone was losing their memory and they were found somewhere, and had a Gèlè, would they be able to tell from the fabric what the history of that person was? That is where the song came from.
Drawing attention to another of your songs, ‘Home’, one of your lyrics reads “home is where I belong”. It made me think about home not as physical but more so something that exists in our experiences – Can you talk about the process of coming to view home in this way?
,I wrote this song when I volunteered for Crisis, they support young homeless people in the UK. For a few Christmases back to back, I used to volunteer and go out and talk to people. During this period, offices and companies would volunteer their buildings for people to sleep in and have a warm place to lay their head. The sad thing was that when it reached 30 December, people would be pushed out again, as it was a temporary thing. I remember a conversation that I had with a guy about home; when you have a place to lay your head I think that you can take it for granted. It becomes even more interesting when we are talking about immigration, where people have travelled from different parts of the world and they settle somewhere and try to make that place home – what does that mean in practice? The first verse of the song talks about someone who is searching for home and has found a place where they belong. The second verse talks about someone who continues to search, and has not found a place, but that journey in itself is home for them. All of those stories are valid; whether you have a place to lay your head, whether you have travelled from a different country and now this is home, whether you have not found your place and you have moved from city to city albeit willingly or forcibly. I see home as a process rather than this fixed thing. I know people who have lived in London and they suddenly get restless and feel like they want to move, whereas some people are quite happy to stay in one place all their life.
In one of your blog posts talking about spirituality you remark that, “God is not and cannot be limited to the human boxes we tend to build. I found God listening to Foy Vance’s music, Laura Marling haunting lyrics, Sophie Jamieson’s delicately crafted songs and Sufjan Stevens’ vulnerable voice” – Can you walk us through that moment of connecting to the divine when you resonate with something?
My dad was raised as a Christian even though he was a son of a Babalawo. I was raised in a Christian home, which comes with its own thing; if you need something you pray to God, if you want to take an exam you work hard and pray to God or if you are travelling somewhere you pray to God. You are connected and read your bible, which is what was viewed as being a ‘good’ Christian. In 2009 my dad died, and it was quite sudden. I was thrown off by the fact that if you have been raised to believe in something i.e. affirmations and believing that because you are a child of God, sudden losses do not happen to you. Losing the person that I looked up to and saw as the physical representation of God brought confusion – none of it made sense. That then took me on this journey of searching, learning to play the guitar and writing my own songs, it was a process that started when my dad died. It is not that I do not believe in God, it is that my perception of God has expanded beyond just the four walls of a church. When my dad died nothing made sense, not even Bible scriptures helped, in fact they just made me angrier.
I remember picking up a book called ‘Angels in my hair’ by Lorna Byrne which helped in things making more sense to me. It helped me to come to terms with the fact that even though my dad is not physically here, it does not mean that he is no longer here with me. When I started writing music and going to cafes and pubs to listen to live music, that same feeling that you can get when you go to church and have a strong experience, I had that same experience listening to a person on a guitar just singing. I feel like music is able to do that, go through any barriers and create a connection with the heart. I have experienced it many times, listening to music and connecting on a deeper level where I do not even have the words to describe how I am feeling. It makes me doubt when someone says that you can only experience such a thing within the confines of a church. I think that we as humans try to define God by our limited language and our limited senses where we make claims that ‘this is the only way God can be experienced’.
In your YouTube video on inspiration and creativity, you describe it as a process of “learning technique and leaving space for the magic to happen by showing up and being present”– Have you always been in tune with your creative side? What steps do you take to tap into your creativity?I would say that I have discovered it in on my journey of learning to play an instrument and writing my own songs to articulate how I feel. I think that inspiration and creativity are quite fluid, sometimes it can be very early in the morning or late in the evening or on the tube. I have found that I write best when I am on the tube and sitting down, it seems to focus me as there is nothing really happening outside the windows. Sometimes it happens when I listen to music or read a book, and a line suddenly just jumps at me which becomes a theme of another song. The same way that we cannot really define or try to categorize God, you cannot put creativity in a box. You can be disciplined by showing up, but there is that sweet spot, which I view as connecting with the divine, where you can take notes and translate them into your work in that moment. Whether we know it or not, it is a divine connection.
Do you have any other projects that you are working on?
I want to explore the concept of God and why we have a problem in perceiving God as a black woman – is it something that we do not like in ourselves that makes it seem as a sacrilege to view God in this light? That is where my heart is at present, I do not know what form it will take but these are the questions that I would like to explore in my next project.
Connect with Lánre
All images published with permission.