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The Arresting Sound of Ayanna

Zanj Radio | Friday, March 28, 2014
Ayanna Witter Johnson

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Listen to the interview here

Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a British singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (cello and piano). Her second EP, Black Panther, released January 2014, is delicious. Zanj Radio recently spoke with her as a part of a special feature we were inspired to do in honour of Women’s History Month, Women in Sound Art.

Ayanna tells us in an intimate interview that she was introduced to music at age four when her mother first signed her up for piano lessons. Since then she has gone on to be the first non-American to win Amateur Night at the Apollo (2010)—joining the ranks of former winners like The Jackson 5 and Ella Fitzgerald, complete a Masters in Music Composition degree, release two EP’s and be nominated for the 2012 Best Jazz Act MOBO Award.

Ain’t I a Woman, the original composition with which she won at the Apollo, appears on her debut EP Truthfully. The song is a tribute to African-American abolitionist and women’s right activist Sojourner Truth and is based on a speech she delivered at a women’s convention in 1851.

Black Panther is Ayanna’s second EP and the name of its title track. The EP also features Grandma’s Hands, a soulful cover of Bill Withers’ original and Denied, a reflection on British chef and journalist Nigella Lawson’s highly publicized experience of domestic violence. Ayanna gives an exclusive interpretation of A Single Sun, the third of the EP’s four tracks, during her conversation with DJ Afifa.

Ayanna’s sound is arresting and we invite you to enjoy it. But first, check out our interview to hear her thoughts on how she writes music, what changes she would make to the music industry for women and where she sees herself and her music in the future.



DJ Afifa: Was there any reggae or Jamaican music influences around (when she was growing up)?

Ayanna: There was. My dad and my uncle are deejays and I used to sort of go to some of the parties they would deejay at. There was always like a lot of a sort of revival music, not that I can remember all the artistes. There was Bob Marley, of course, Barrington Levy, Gregory Isaacs and I suppose a little bit later in childhood there was like the early beginnings of sort of dancehall and ragga. That sort of time with Red Rat and people like that.

Dj Afifa: And how does it (the music scene in New York vs. in London) compare in terms of like sound, type of music, the creativity, the artistry?

Ayanna: I think they are both pretty diverse. I would say that America is probably a bit more experimental in New York. There is probably more space for the extremes of any genre. I think yeah they are both pretty much comparable in terms of having every type of genre, every type of music.

DJ Afifa: With all the things that are changing in music… where do you imagine your music in like 20 or 30 years?…

Ayanna: I feel like it will live in various places and hopefully in people’s hearts. That’s where I want the songs to stay.

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