In the midst of a global health pandemic that has highlighted the extent of racial inequality and economic disparity in our society, Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s EP could not have been more timely.
Witter-Johnson is the definition of eclectic soul – a singer, songwriter, cellist, composer, producer, and arranger with phenomenal musical prowess, mesmerising vocals, uncompromising lyrics, and mastery of the cello.
Graduating with a first from both Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna was a participant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme and became an Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre. She was a featured Artis with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors, a member of Anoushka Shankar’s Traces Of You Tour and became the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.
As a composer, she has scored original music for various productions and as an arranger and orchestra Ayanna has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra (Hugh Masekela), and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Urban Classic).
The Rise Up EP is another epic addition to her ever-growing discography. The 3-track project features rapper and activist Akala and the supremely talented Cleveland Watkiss. Released Friday 8th January, it is one of Witter-Johnson’s shortest but most impactful bodies of work.
We spoke to Ayanna about her new EP and the message she hopes to share with it …
Please introduce yourself…
Hi, I’m Ayanna Witter-Johnson. I’m a singer, cellist, pianist, composer, and a Londoner born and raised. My Grandparents came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation.
What word or sentence best describes your life right now?
Too blessed to be stressed.
Tell us about your EP Rise Up – How did it come about and what inspired the title?
The EP is a homage to my Jamaican heritage and an opportunity to remind us all of our collective power. I wrote the song Rise Up to remind myself and my generation as young British Caribbean people of who we are. Our greatness, our power, our gifts, our belonging in this world. It was originally released on my debut album Road Runner featuring Akala and on the back of last year and all the racial uprisings, the lyrics resonated even more, so I chose to re-release the song alongside two others to continue to encourage us all to remain hopeful, to keep rising and realising our dreams. A really positive message to start the year. Cleveland Watkiss and I duet on a rather radical cover version of the great Jamaican Roots Reggae track Declaration of Rights and I finished the EP by remixing Rise Up to create Rise Up Riddim, an instrumental for MCs and rappers to freestyle over the essence of the Rise Up groove.
Why did you pull together Akala and Cleveland Watkiss in particular for this EP?
Those collaborations happened organically and it so happens that we all have Jamaican heritage which was perfect for the theme of the EP. Akala attended my first ever headline Jazz Cafe show and jumped on stage when I first performed Rise Up publicly several years ago, so his feature on the track for the album was inevitable from that point on. His voice in the community is much respected and needed.
The Declaration of Rights cover came about through Cleveland Watkiss who first suggested that we duet together for his 60th Birthday event at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre for the London Jazz Festival. The theme was the Great Jamaican Songbook which I thought was such an amazing idea!
You are a cellist and vocalist, what made you decide to blend classical music with reggae and soul?
It wasn’t something I chose to do, it’s just an embodiment of who I am. Being born and raised in London, I really have grown up on an equal mix of so many styles of music. My Dad and Uncle are DJs and my Mum loves to sing, so I embraced a pretty healthy diet of classical piano and cello studies alongside absorbing pop culture, soul, jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and RnB music throughout childhood until now. I can say that Bach’s music, like many other cellists, has had a huge impact on me alongside Debussy’s piano music and artists such as Anita Baker, Bob Marley, and Stevie Wonder.
How did blending these musical genres encapsulate what your intention is for the EP?
For this EP I just wanted to represent myself as authentically as I can and that is as a mix of all those genres.
The Rise Up ft. Akala video shows images from Black Lives Matter marches … how did 2020 and its events affect you, your music, and your outlook for the future?
2020 most certainly had its fair share of highs and lows. I had several bereavements amongst my friends and family but two that hit me pretty hard. The first being my friend and pioneering UK hip-hop rapper Ty and the second, my Great Uncle Mervyn who lived in Connecticut, USA whose funerals both took place over Zoom. As you know, Black, Asian, Ethnic communities in the UK and US have been hit pretty hard, and whilst trying to process my loss, George Floyd was brutally murdered in the US where many of my family members live. At the same time, I had several of my white friends calling me at all hours of the day and night in tears, laying their guilt, fear, and stress at my feet, whilst I was trying to manage my own. It was pretty intense, to say the least.
The reaction following George Floyd was truly unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime, the outpouring and protests taking place worldwide really felt like a change was taking place and I noticed that my inbox was flooded with all sorts of proposals and campaigns to change the balance of racial representation across all areas of the music industry. The moment is still going so I do feel hopeful that positive change is taking place not just in the entertainment industry but across a number of sectors.
It’s not often you think of classical music and political issues co-existing. Are any of your classical music heroes political, or are there pieces of music that we should be aware of that have political intentions?
I think that Classical music, like so many genres of music, has a very strong cohort of overtly political composers. There are a number of 20th Century composers who were exiled from their homelands due to political reasons. Composers such as Shostakovich and Schoenberg. There’s a great piece by Italian composer Berio called Sinfonia for 8 Voices and Orchestra, a highly political work, referencing all sorts of major historical events of the 20th Century. The second movement O King is dedicated to the memory of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
When did you discover your love for classical music and what made you choose the cello as your instrument?
My Mum took me to see the gospel group Sweet Honey In The Rock when I was three years old and she noticed that I was singing along with every word, so she decided to explore my musical ability by taking me to my first piano lesson aged 3. I studied classical piano all through childhood which is where my love for composers such as Debussy, Fauré, and Mozart grew. I had a brief spell playing the recorder in primary school and then whilst at secondary school, my music teacher felt that I was not learning much in the class because of my advanced piano playing. He suggested I pick up a second instrument and handed me a list to choose from. I took the list home and my Mum said, ‘no drums, no brass, no woodwind’. Which basically meant I had the strings to choose from. I decided that the double bass was too big, the violin was too small, I didn’t know what a viola was and so that left the cello. I also had a memory of hearing the cello played right in front of me during a primary school class and so there was a small connection there and the rest is history.
How would you encourage people to become interested in classical or to pick up an instrument especially when in general lessons could be perceived to be expensive?
I wouldn’t say that lessons are categorically expensive. What can be expensive is purchasing an instrument. However, you can hire them to reduce that upfront cost. The most important part is actually listening to classical music to open your ears and YouTube is the best free resource for that. Especially as you can watch the players whilst listening. Listening to music cannot be underestimated, it’s one of the most important parts of practising and playing, it rewires the brain and makes it easier to connect to the music both physically and emotionally. If you never hear classical music it’s hard to know why you would want to play it. Luckily for us in this time (if we are fortunate enough to have internet access) almost any music is accessible to us.
If you ruled the world you’d?
Make everyone meditate first thing in the morning followed by learning a musical instrument and studies in the historical contributions that Africans have made worldwide.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on my sophomore album and in between, I have a number of singles due for release. I’m also featured on composer/producer Nitin Sawhney’s forthcoming album Immigrants which is out in March and I’m currently still promoting my Rise Up EP. I’m also composing for a site-specific theatre piece for Manchester International Festival and I’ll be continuing to collaborate with the London Symphony Orchestra on some super exciting projects this year!
Rise Up EP was released 8th Jan and can be streamed on all music streaming platforms.