Soul Sistahs And NYU Students, OSHUN Will Carry Erykah Badu’s Neo-Soul Legacy
Although the label of “soulmate” is usually reserved for people in romantic relationships, it also seems strikingly appropriate for Niambi Sala and Thandiwe, the best friends who grew up in Maryland, met at their NYU scholarship orientation, then formed the neo-soul musical duo, OSHUN. Influenced by hip hop, R&B, spiritual songs and Afro beats, the signature sound developed by the two soul sistahs, is at it’s core, unapologetically Black. In a time where groups like “Black Lives Matter” have garnered controversy purely for existing (“Why can’t we just say ‘All lives matter’?” is a common and ignorant critique of the group) OSHUN chooses not to dilute their blackness, but instead incorporate cultural (Yoruba, specifically) traditions into their music. With song titles like “I Wake Up/Stay Woke” and “Protect Your Self”, the girls preach self-awareness and the importance of promoting Black consciousness.
I attended the Brooklyn Museum’s “First Saturdays”, a monthly event inviting local artists to connect with their community, in addition to displaying work that explores a specific topic. This Saturday, Oshun punctuated the “Connecting Cultures: A World in Brooklyn” conversation with a captivating performance, soulfully belting out lyrics, leaning on one another for support, vibing with the crowd, all the while totally barefoot. Afterwards, we sat together in the museum’s Children’s Education Center, and the girls asked, “Do you mind if we color during the interview?”. They finish each other sentences like any real BFFs should, and when Thandi’s phone rang to the sound of Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin”, I knew they were sisters after my own soul too.
Diva Green: How did OSHUN start?
Niambi Sala: OSHUN started in our NYU dorm. Thandi used to DJ and make beats, and I’m in school for music and have always been singing. We started to sing together, and became incredibly annoying. We sang on the streets, waiting for the subway, on the train—annoying is an understatement. And then I wanted to pursue music professionally, and I knew Thandi loved music, although she’s not studying it. I was like, “Thandi, I feel like you could really be ’bout this life, and we could be ’bout this life together”…and she was like, “hmmm, okay!” And this was literally just a casual conversation that took place in our dorm room, while hanging with our friends. We were about to watch The Lion King.
Thandiwe: The decision was made right there. The dorm we lived in had a little NYU-style dance studio in the basement, and we’d just go down there and sing Drake covers for hours. We used to acapella and make beats on the floor with our hands and feet.
NS: Or go in on the piano, with like two different notes.
Thandi, what’s your major? Niambi said it wasn’t music related.
T: I major in African studies. I’ve also been taking a lot of journalism classes, because that’s another one of my concentrations. But I’m really into my African Studies.
NS: I’m a music-recording major so I write songs all day. It’s really about developing as an entrepreneur in music, developing my craft as a musician or an artist, and also giving me the tools to create a successful business around that. So we have a lot of studio and songwriting classes. Right now though, I’m taking more vocal electives.
Do you like school?
T: It’s like “Hannah Montana”.
NS: It’s legit like “Hannah Montana”.
As in, you feel you’re living one life and then you switch to another?
NS: Yeah man, it’s really crazy. Sometimes I can’t believe we’re doing it. But I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
And what do your classmates think?
T: It’s a little different for me than it is for Niambi because I’m not in music school, and my program is so big that it’s not as easy to just meet friends or people who know of you. Most people don’t even know [of OSHUN], and the people that do know are my friends. They’re just really supportive and show just a lot of love all the time.
Where are you from?
NS: We’re from Maryland.
But you met at NYU?
NS: We met at NYU, yeah. We had a lot of mutual friends growing up though, which we discovered once we met at school.
So this was fate?
NS: Yea, pretty much.
T: [Laughing] Yup.
NS: And we lived very closed to each other. We’re pretty sure that we saw each other in the maze in our local children’s museum. We lived so close to one another, we have so many mutual friends—there’s no way we didn’t see each other at some point.
T: It’s just really funny. Also, from understanding faith and the power of connection, we just know that we’ve met in the past somewhere.
What about your family? Where are they originally from?
NS: My dad is from Guyana, and my mom is from DC, although as a military child, she grew up moving around a lot. She’s super Afrocentric, and our culture was always present in at home. Even though we obviously grew up in America, she always made it clear that we were separated from that. I mean, I’m from here, it’s just not the only way I identify myself. Both of us, I feel like were always brought up like that—
T: As in, knowing our history, and knowing we come from a place beyond America. My mom was also raised a military brat, so she’s been all over the world, but she had a base in North Carolina and Georgia. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, but his people are also from the south in Virginia and Eastern Shore in Maryland. He’s a professor of African theology, so I was also raised very clear on where I come from. African culture was definitely something that I was exposed to at a young age, all while being an African-American girl raised in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland.
Which artists have influenced you guys?
NS: I listened to Lauryn Hill only for a period of time in my life, so I can’t deny that. I listen to a lot of Drake—I love Drake. And Bryson Tiller—that’s been a recent thing. He’s so dope. I like some singer-song writers like Adele…all those soulful white girls from that one spot in London, along with Jessie J and Amy Winehouse. There’s like a whole group of soulful white girls that I just fuck with, lowkey. But then there’s also Jill Scott, India Irie, Erykah Badu, the whole Native Tongues, and like, Neo Soul and Soulquarians—all those soulful Black musical eras really have influenced me.
T: We’re born in 1995, when all that stuff was popping off, while we were babies, you know, just infants running around, and those were the sounds we heard while our brains were developing. So we carry that torch; we continue the legacy of Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, all the mamas in the music scene and the fathers of the community.
NS: Our community also promotes and preaches spiritual and cultural revolution—we don’t take that lightly at all. That’s something we’re very adamant about us realigning ourselves with and waking up and waking up for.
How does a need for a cultural and spiritual revolution manifest itself in your life?
NS: We can only first focus on ourselves, and that is something that’s lot easier said than done. People get offended sometimes when you say that, like, “What you mean focus inside, how I’m gonna focus on myself when they killing us outside?”—that’s true, and valid but you have to understand that, “as above, so below”. Anything happening externally is a reflection of something that happens internally for you. So all of these things that are out of balance, or out of whack around us, can be tools to show us the things we need to focus on and solve for ourselves. I can’t tell you how to cultivate yourself because it’s different for everybody.
T: And this is why we also are just so adamant about representing a specific culture that comes from where our ancestors are from. Culture is the key to finding yourself, both as an individual and as a collective. Just holding on to those things that one have been hidden from us, especially as black people, is so important. We barely know our history, as those things haven’t been accessible to us systematically and I think that is a major problem. Us just finding ourselves reminds us where we come from, and reminds us of our power.
What was the influence for your album Asase Yaa?
T: Our influences just came from our lives, and trying to grow up, trying to live in New York without our parents. I mean, obviously that was a hard thing—we turned up, got accustomed to finally being young and free, had experiences liking boys, developed spiritually and mentally. We’re Black women growing up who are also learning how to relate to our community. Obviously we not out here in the projects of Brooklyn, but us being older and connecting with so many different types of people and also dedicating ourselves to a message and really having to observe the world to be artist and express it to the people. We have realized how real everything is how with it being so real how urgent it is for us to heal ourselves and heal our people.
Photos courtesy of Ola Spellman, and edited by Diego Valdez
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