After a bittersweet European tour in support of their latest album Bittersweet Vol. 1, hip-hop and neo-soul duo OSHUN readies for a return home.
“The bittersweet movement, this OSHUN journey, is very much one of self-love,” explains Thandiwe of the group’s latest project, Bittersweet, Vol. 1, and its corresponding tours. Thandiwe, or Thandi for short, is one half of the soulful duo named in honor of the powerful Yoruba orisha, Oshun, the river goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, and purity. Thandi, her partner in rhyme Niambi Sala, their DJ for the evening Nzingah and I sit on stools squeezed into a small rectangular dressing room backstage at Brooklyn’s eccentric House of Yes. There, OSHUN is headlining The Hum, dedicated to women and non-binary performers. The venue looks more like a funhouse than a music hall, decorated with giant eyeballs, glittery spiders, three-legged hot pink giraffe, and other oddities. Thandi and Niambi indulge in pitas —Niambi opted for hot sauce— from a falafel place curiously conjoined to the room. They sip cool cranberry colored drinks in between their bites and my questions. They are hungry, jet-lagged, and very blessed, they say.
When we meet, OSHUN has just returned from their first European tour, having spent 19 days lugging loads of baggage from country to country and learning even more. Now, that they’ve started a North American run, they’ll spend the next few months in a more familiar territory, armed with lessons and a fierce commitment to spreading self-love through song.
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As artists and people, OSHUN seeks to make a change. Thandi and Niambi graduated from New York University last year as Martin Luther King, Jr Scholars, recognized for their commitment to social justice. “The music is a platform for our activism. We don’t do this for the personal attention or benefits. […] The long-term plan is the revolution,” they told Okayplayer four years ago. When you know these things about the duo, it becomes clear that Bittersweet, Vol 1. Is a handbook on radical self-love, in the tradition of black feminist thought leaders Audre Lorde and bell hooks. OSHUN understands that a society that practices love communally is made up of people who practice it on themselves. “So we try to implement in every moment during our sets and shows opportunities for people to see the beauty in themselves, to love themselves,” Thandi says to me.
On tour, Niambi explains, they sometimes asked the audience to speak their deepest desires into existence out loud. At the House of Yes that night, they did not. Instead, they demanded politely that revelers “honor the beauty, the individuality, the talent, and the skill you bring,” by simply saying “ase,” a Yoruba proclamation of will, much like “amen.” While direct calls to action like these vary, each joule of energy the duo expands on stage belting, spitting, twisting, and talking is emitted in the hope that the audience will go home, look at themselves in the mirror, say, “Damn, I’m the shit.” OSHUN hopes that the audience recognizes the worth of everyone around them as they see their own.
When the music on stage fights to overpower their voices, we transition to an unfinished room on the other side of the venue, nestled behind a loungey patio. Inside, the chilled air stands still and smells of sawdust. When I ask the pair if their European tour —their first run with Bittersweet, Vol. 1 complete— gave them insight into how their music and message could be more effective, Niambi reminds me that the group is moving through a sea of firsts. “Like being in a space like London where we’ve never been before and it is sold out. Not even just sold out, but people literally being there looking to us as ambassadors to a certain lifestyle, [to] a certain community,” she says.
It’s true —especially to someone like me who knows little to nothing about the Pan-African traditions and diasporic spiritual practices OSHUN embodies— that the duo shines as high priestesses of a particular brand of black girl magic. “People are really searching for these answers and it can get kinda overwhelming,” Niambi continues. “In those moments where [we’re] just in a space where it’s the two of us and we’re being swarmed by all of this —”
“Love,” Thandi interjects.
“…Curiosity and love,” Niambi finishes, “It definitely opened our eyes to needing to be effective in our communication.”
Right now, the duo dedicates a good amount of time to connecting with fans personally after shows. Their start as college performers in tiny venues around Brooklyn has molded them into the kind of artists that delve into conversations with their listeners about their favorite songs and favorite dreams when they step off the stage. But now, with hundreds of audience members and tight schedules, maintaining that same level of intimacy is potentially dangerous, distracting, and exhausting.
A typical day on tour in Europe, they described, required more grueling travel than touring in the US, as the pair took planes or trains between cities and countries, often on the day of each show. The travel, rehearsals and sound checks, interviews, and performances could leave Oshun working 18 hour days. Then, as independent artists, OSHUN oversees their management and booking —they are the ones that often have to worry about contracts being signed, about sending deposits to production companies for videos, about all sorts of odds and ends.
“We really need a huge team, you know, a huge foundation [to] help support us and lift us up. That’s something that was really revealed to us on the trip,” said Niambi. Even if they had the time, at the end of such demanding days, discussing their message and lifestyle with every fan who wanted to would be debilitating
But the orishas knows they tried. To practice the care for themselves on the road that they preach, they journaled, wrote music, stretched, threw back vitamins and wheatgrass, and prayed. They high-five realizing just how much they prayed in Europe. “We were so prayed up on this tour, there were moments where we were late because we were like, ‘I got to pray,’” said Thandi, shrugging her shoulders. “I guarantee every time we were late to pray the steps ahead of us just became a thousand times smoother.”
It may be too soon for the duo to gauge the full influence of Bittersweet, Vol. 1, but their time left the artists confident in their ability to make music that moves listeners to be better. “They use our music for real shit,” says Niambi of the fans they’ve met. “People are really using it and you walk away from these shows feeling moved. Feeling changed.” They describe a fan that flew nine hours to Rome, with co-workers he wanted to expose to OSHUN in tow. They recount stories of babies being made and birthed to their songs.
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“They are unapologetic, they’re vibrant, they’re boastful, they’re strong, they’re being themselves and I think that’s what had me gravitate to them. They’re extremely passionate, and I love that they’re devoted to the work that they’re doing,” said KG, a fan I ran into after the show.
Shortly after speaking with KG, I headed to the subway. OSHUN stood adjacent to a halal cart, chatting with fans, listening intently after the young women had finished making the Brooklyn crowd headbang and body roll and lean-with-it-rock-with-it and wave lighters and recite and rejoice. I had watched KG —whose pronouns are they and them— bounce and sing to OSHUN from the front row. They looked free.
Mankaprr Conteh is a freelance writer, communications specialist, and creative director based in Brooklyn. Follow her on her adventures on Twitter @Mankaprr.