02.03.2017 | Words by: Mathys Rennela.
It's hard to separate Oko Ebombo's personal life from his art, whether it involves dance, photography, motion pictures, poetry or music. In preparation for his upcoming live performance at De School, I sat with Oko on a parisian terrasse to discuss about his music and his life in Paris.
How do you pick a medium to express yourself?
It's not really intentional. I stopped my education quite early -- after high school. My dad was a dancer and I've danced since a very young age. From dancing, I got involved in theatrical performances, then photographies and videos, and finally music. Singing wasn't really my ultimate goal but it united my universe. I had experiences as a dance with a lot of artists (like Madonna) but it didn't feel right. I felt that it was time to piece together everything that I could do to form something: music is what unites everything.
Your performances involves some spoken word and dance moves.
It's easier for me to integrate my poetry and my dance in my music. You don't hear much about poetry lately. People want a few bleeps on some words like motherfucker, and some fashion.
I've started quite young to do some poetry. I was in Los Angeles in 2007 and accidentally met Glass Candy from the label Italians do it better. They brought me to Portland in Oregon and this is where I started making music and using super8 films.
You've already been in De School. I was just thinking that you've probably produced enough to fill the whole club.
I'm not going to show most of it during my performance though. Only a part of it. I love the fact that the place is called De School, because I consider my art as my self-taught school. I'm looking forward to showcase multiple aspects of myself in that space.
How would you describe your music?
My music? I call it street jazz. It's not really jazz. It's not really hip hop. It's not even really pop. It's a mix. I have danced afro jazz and hip hop jazz, so my music is in line with my experience as a dancer.
I've noticed that there is a social message in every song of your EP Naked Life. I was particularly appealed by the last song on it: Niggality. What's the story behind this song?
I wanted to talk about equality and fraternity. A while ago, I was in Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo, with my whole family. When I came back to Paris, I lived in the 1st district of Paris, a very racist neighborhood. For the song Niggality, I thought about how the word nigga has a negative connotation in the US. I was a bit tired of this, so I took the French motto, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", and mixed it with the word nigga, creating a word that everyone can say: niggality.
I partially grew up in the 18th district of Paris and that's the image that I have of Paris. But when I go abroad, I realize that when most people think about Paris, they think about Amélie Poulain, rather than Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine. Do you feel like you're part of this parisian artistic movement which intends to give another point of view on the city?
I think so. First, I grew up in the 10th, a very diverse neighborhood. I think that it is a strength in my work. If I grew up in the (very posh) 16th, everything would have been different.
Like I said, Niggality is for everyone. I went to China and people told me "Oko, do you know what's a chigro?" and I was like "What? What is a chigro?". This is short for "chinese negro".
A lot of people have their own struggle and want to identify with black people but can't appropriate the word nigga. The word niggality puts all colors under the same banner. It's us today, yesterday and tomorrow. The song is an anthem for all colors.
The song Iro was inspired by a trip to Japan. What was your experience there?
In Iro, I'm talking to the street. I'm asking it what's up. I've spent most of my life wandering the streets, and I wanted to give a positive image of them. My experience of the streets in Japan is my experience of the streets, period. In the music video of Iro, I capture japanese streets from my parisian perspective. When you see the streets, you see colors and this is when things start getting magical. I've experienced some racism in my life but my EP pushed me to focus on the positive side.
This is why it's called Naked Life. We're all struggling, in different ways. I want to talk frankly about life, and celebrate its colors. The song Feelings explores the first feelings that we have.
My upcoming album can be seen like a book with a lot of chapters. Thirteen songs corresponding to thirteen emotions that humans experience through the course of their life.
What made you come back to Paris, after all your trips?
It's where I'm born. Maybe I'm needed here. But mostly coming back was a way to start over and then share my work abroad. Most of my following is abroad. In the US, in the UK. I've been coming to Amsterdam regularly for the past ten years. The more I leave Paris, the more I am amazed when I come back. But I don't know if I will live here forever. I would like to find another place to live in, during one of my trips.
You're playing with your band, called 19. How did you meet them?
19 for me it's "Don't forget where you come from". Because I'm from the 10th but my parents later moved to the 19th. I've met some of them in Portland. We've known each other for seven years. We've occasionally performed together, but we decided last year to record an EP.
Speaking of gigs: one of your first was right after the attacks in November 2015. How did you experience that period of time?
It was tough. I had a hard time getting over it. It touched me. It was my district. Where I was born, where I was raised. I've lost people. And I had to deliver my EP during that time, so I think that you can feel it in the music. The attacks struck us down and then brought us together. There was a positive vibe. Not for long, for about six months, but there was a positive vibe. When I played at the Palace of Tokyo, 500 people were holding hands during a minute of silence. But that feeling disappeared quite rapidly. People forget. Then comes the hatred. To break this cycle of hatred, I invite people to produce art. It's the only way.
For your gig in De School, what do you have in mind?
I want people to remember some words, and the love. That's it. Something simple, efficient, like at school. I will have a screen on all night. That's all I want, that people remember some words and the love, not my performance and my voice.