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How the Inseparable Lijadu Sisters Fought for Afropop as We Know It


T
AIWO LIJADU’S TWO-BEDROOM
apartment in Harlem is filled floor to ceiling with relics that span time and space — elaborate canopies, a puzzle of rugs, and an expansive encyclopedia set among a wall of other books; aged printers and flip phones; wooden and stone African masks and pottery; Black baby dolls and birthday candles; flags of her Yoruba ethnic group and handheld Ankara fans. Over the years, many journalists have entered, immediately pointing and prodding, to the 75-year-old’s dismay. Much of what’s here is more than decor: “This house is very active. All these,” Taiwo says, motioning around her living room, where a series of small altars are set up, “they are ancestors. We feed them, we talk to them. We send them things to do for us, to protect us, and enhance our lives. And we cannot just go and be pointing.”

In Lagos, 1970

Courtesy of the Lijadu Sisters

Several of the adornings hark back to her career singing with her twin, Kehinde, as the Lijadu Sisters, like the many photos of them in coordinated clothes and braids. They often dressed identically to perform. Posted near the door is a faded photograph of the twins with soul legend Isaac Hayes taped above a promotional flyer of his, their matching headties complementing his regal tunic. There are many posters of Michael Jackson, with whom they had a brief encounter on tour in America.

The twins moved into the unit 17 years ago, having lived all around New York City since they made America their home in 1988. They had left their native Nigeria to tour here with another Nigerian star, juju sensation King Sunny Adé. This spring, Taiwo set foot on African soil for the first time in 36 years. Kehinde never made it back there. Over the course of Taiwo’s life in the United States, she lost her mother and three siblings, without saying goodbye in the flesh. Kehinde also lost a son on the twins’ 70th birthday, before dying herself at 71. The most prominent altar in the living room is dedicated to Kehinde, topped with a photo of her laid to rest in an open casket.

After asking me to help her put on her cheetah print hoops, Taiwo settles down with a warm mint tea in a chair across from the couch where she seats me. She leans in to show me the photo of Kehinde in her casket more closely before tucking it behind another portrait of her sister alive and smiling, her head topped in an elaborate gold gele and neck layered in beaded necklaces. Taiwo says Kehinde was her soulmate. The loss has been immeasurable.

Together, the Lijadu Sisters helped lay the foundation for African music’s global resonance today. As pioneers of Nigerian pop, the continent’s most impactful music industry, they diversified the sound and disrupted men’s dominion over it. “They were rock & roll as fuck,” says Ghanaian American singer Amaarae, who was gifted the Sisters’ 1976 LP, Danger, on vinyl by a man who sells vintage records in Accra, Ghana. “In the time where [Ghanaian guitarist] Ebo Taylor, [Afrobeat maven] Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti, and [Black British Afro-rock band] Osibisa were all having the opportunity to be outwardly expressive in that way, I want to say the Lijadu Sisters were the only ones that were as balls-to-the-wall.”

DOUBLE TROUBLE Taiwo and Kehinde often dressed identically, like in this 1984 publicity image

Courtesy of the Lijadu Sisters

Making everything from Nigerian juju and apala to psychedelic rock, disco, and Afrobeat (the genre oft attributed to Kuti, as opposed to Afrobeats, an umbrella term for fusing classic West African approaches with hip-hop, R&B, and more) in its infancy, the Lijadu Sisters had a limitless spirit. Three of their most celebrated songs are almost nothing alike: “Iya Mi Jowo” is a Yoruba classic, “Come on Home” is a sunny slice of flower-power pop, and “You Can Touch Me If You Want To” is a sexy soul number they’d do on tour. “I think the Lijadu Sisters were the first alté girls,” says Amaarae, citing the indie West African scene that artists including she and Tems are from. “I think that they helped me build an ethos of how I wanted to operate as an African woman and as an African artist, an African rock star.”

Their status as two of the only Nigerian women performing in a sea of men made them exciting, but also belittled. They were fearless anyway, advocating for gender equality and speaking out against the government as they came of age during Nigeria’s devastating civil war and its dictatorial fallout. “If you were outspoken as a woman, they’ll beat you up, they’ll hurt you, they’ll do all kinds of things to use you as an example to shut up,” Taiwo tells me. “The military would scatter our house and say, ‘Who sent you to sing this song? Which political party are you with?’” she recalls. “[We] talk about the realities of people’s lives, people that don’t have stability. People who cannot feed their children, we talk about it.”

The Lijadu Sisters have been quietly influential to artists as varied as New York underground rapper MIKE and Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams, who channeled them on “Dead Horse,” a lead single from her first solo album, Petals for Amor. “The sense of freedom in their vocal performances always gets me,” says Williams, who modeled the song’s bridge after them. “I just kept repeating ‘Yayayaya’ and layering it with harmonies that have very specific intervals that felt evocative of Lijadu Sisters and what I know of African pop music. It’s one of my favorite moments on Petals. It was a fun and liberating moment in a song that was difficult for me to write, lyrically.”  Yet the sisters have often been erased from the musical record and uncompensated for their contributions, even as musicians have sought to amplify them.

A FRONT ROW SEAT TO A GENERATION OF MUSICAL GREATS
The sisters, seen here with Isaac Hayes, coordinated their outfits when they performed.

When she broke out in 2021, Ayra Starr — one of the nominees for the inaugural Best African Music Performance Grammy — said publicly that she discovered the Lijadu Sisters after wondering if Kuti had female counterparts. “The way men carry Fela, that’s the same way I want women to carry these women that have worked so hard and people have forgotten their name,” she said. So, Starr sampled their hit “Orere-Elejigbo” on her song “Sare” — but failed to properly clear it, according to their manager Eric Welles-Nyström. (A representative for Starr did not offer a comment in response.) It’d be one of many unauthorized samples and uses of their likeness the Sisters have faced over the years.

“If I see your work and how important it is, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, nobody knows them,’” says Taiwo. “If I come out with a new album today, I’m going to trip all those young people because of my experience. In the next 1,000 years, people will always know the Lijadu Sisters.” (Plus, Taiwo actually credits Nigerian sax player Orlando Julius as the true originator of Afrobeat, and says the quieting of her own legacy is “because men are egoistic people who would like to cling to Fela.”)

Taiwo is satisfied with her accomplishments. She’s critical of modern Afrobeats, asserting that “it is diminishing our language and our culture.” She filled her life out of the spotlight with service as a community liaison, caterer, and most important, an Ifa priestess; a skilled practitioner of the indigenous Yoruba faith, also practiced by stars like 21 Savage. Taiwo has also never stopped being a musician. She’s now preparing to be more public-facing as a new label remasters and rereleases the Lijadu Sisters’ catalog, including 1979’s Horizon Unlimited, in the fall. It’s her chance to finally earn their due, but to keep moving forward, she’s had to repress difficult memories of exploitation, estrangement, and a dark family history, all without her soulmate by her side.

IN 2014, THE LIJADU SISTERS made their first live appearances in 30 years on a tribute tour honoring enigmatic Nigerian musician William Onyeabor. They joined a rotating group of artists under David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop. In his first meeting with the Sisters, Welles-Nyström, who was working for the label, journeyed to their Harlem home to persuade them to sing backup in honor of a man they’d never even heard of.

A LIFETIME OF LOVE Taiwo’s apartment, formerly shared with Kehinde, as a museum of photos, relics, and art that span their journey together, like these portraits

Andrew Dosunmu

“They’re amazing negotiators,” he says. They struck a deal and hit the road for shows in London, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. When Byrne and the band performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the Sisters came with a full Nigerian spread they had spent days preparing. Taiwo remembers everyone fawning over the food, including some policemen on set who were floored to find that Africans don’t eat rubbish. “I still see their faces,” she says.

Yet the day had been soured when Fallon, under scripting from Luaka Bop, named all onstage but the Lijadu Sisters. “The Sisters were upset,” recalls Welles-Nyström, who takes responsibility. “I mean, you have a reissue of a Nigerian artist being played on late-night TV. It was so rare.… It’s kind of a stain on that kind of achievement.” Eventually, the Sisters dropped out of the tour after a falling out over another misunderstanding with Welles-Nyström. It wasn’t the first time the women had been disappointed by a label.

He and the Sisters were out of touch for the next five years, and those shows would be Kehinde’s last. She had been having severe health issues for more than a decade, including spinal injuries from falling down a flight of stairs in 1996. Taiwo had devoted her life to her sister’s care. “It was very bad,” Taiwo says of Kehinde’s physical state. “The accident had impacted her body too much. It would affect me. But we didn’t say anything to anybody. We just went about our lives.”

Taiwo had been out to buy Kehinde some health items on Nov. 8, 2019. “[Taiwo] barely left the house because she was afraid of what would happen,” says Welles-Nyström. That day, she got stuck in traffic in a taxi, and then ran into issues on the train. There, she says, “I had this feeling that her spirit came into me. I said, ‘Kehinde, wait for me. I’m coming.’ By the time I came back, she was gone. She left herself inside me.”

Welles-Nyström was at a concert in Brooklyn when Taiwo called him, sobbing. He made the trek to Harlem, where he found Kehinde had been dead for a few hours, her body still in one of the bedrooms. Kehinde had died of metastatic breast cancer. Misinformation about her death was beginning to spread, so he reached out to The New York Times for an official obituary. It was published 10 days after Kehinde died, but still too soon for Taiwo, who is intensely private. “She was furious with me,” says Welles-Nyström. “[But] with social media, everyone wants to break the news. So it’s like, how do you bottle that in and protect it?”

From left: Devonte Hynes, Taiwo and Kahinde Lijadu; and Ahmed Gallab performing during ATOMIC BOMB! The Music of William Onyeabor at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn.

Chad Batka/The New York Times/Redux

THE LIJADU TWINS were born in northern Nigeria on Oct. 22, 1948, though technically Kehinde was born the next day, after midnight. They grew to be soulmates, says Taiwo, finishing each other’s sentences, perpetually roommates, sharing a bank account, raising their children as a unit.

Their connection almost seemed telepathic. Taiwo tells me of a rare moment apart, when she left their Ibadan home for a solo residency (Kehinde had just gone through a difficult child delivery and stayed back while Taiwo honored their contract): She sent her sister a photo of herself in a dress she planned to have made for Kehinde as well, with a letter explaining. “I leaned against the wall of a well and took a picture,” says Taiwo. When she soon received a letter with the same text, accompanied by what looked like the same picture, Taiwo thought her sister had angrily sent the mail back. When she looked closely, she saw it was actually a photo of Kehinde, leaning against a motorcycle. They had unknowingly made the same outfit and sent the same note. “We were that close,” Taiwo says.

They had their differences, though. “It’s bittersweet,” says Taiwo. “Twins relationship? It’s like husband and wife.” Kehinde was an inch taller than Taiwo and set the tone for their fighting spirit. “She would not let you get away with anything wrong you’re doing to anybody,” says Taiwo. She has a fond and early memory of her sister, when they were 14 and Kehinde headbutted a bully twice their size for messing with Taiwo. “My sister said, ‘Do you want more? I have the time. You always do this to people, but I am not afraid of you,’” Taiwo remembers. “I was looking at my sister like, ‘Huh?’”

They come from a family of rebels — revolutionary thinkers who resisted oppression and convention. “People wanted you to be a doctor, an engineer, a nurse, a teacher, a political person,” says Taiwo. “[Some thought] you have to be uneducated to want to be an artist, but we proved them wrong.” Their second-cousin Wole Soyinka was the first Black African to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1986. Their mother, Efunyemi Lijadu, was an artist who made candle-wax paintings, played the harmonica, and made herbal medicines with them. Their dad, Edmund Funso Lijadu, was a photojournalist and played piano. Taiwo and Kehinde started singing very young, and their mom encouraged them by building their vinyl collection with records by R&B stars like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, rock & rollers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and Afropop mavens Miriam Makeba and their other second-cousin, Fela Kuti.

NEVER FORGOTTEN Taiwo keeps a prominent altar dedicated to Kehinde, photographed above, in her living room.

Andrew Dosunmu

Though they were related, the sisters formally met Kuti during their last year of secondary school in 1965. He was 10 years older than them and they looked up to him. “We were just glue to paper,” says Taiwo. “We liked his ideology. He was funny.” I’m a bit surprised to hear her praise his ideology so generally, as Kuti’s legacy of putting his career and body on the line to lambaste authoritarianism in Nigeria and critique Western influence also includes blatant sexism. She has her critiques of him, but holds them close. “Fela was a fighter,” she does say. “But if you’re fighting for people’s rights, why do you then also take [them] away?”

The Lijadu Sisters filled their own music with passionate calls to action, and celebrations of love. Their mother, they would often say, always told them to write the kinds of songs that could live on for 200 years, songs with universal themes. One of their early recordings, “Urede,” Taiwo explains, tells the story of a young girl who escapes to heaven after her parents beat her for a perceived mistake. “We recorded it because we wanted parents to know that it’s not all the time that their children tell lies,” she says. “Every song we sing is a lesson, because that’s what life is all about.”

Throughout their discography, the Lijadu Sisters intentionally dart between Yoruba and English, the latter particularly as they widened their audience. Their music did in fact reach the States, where former Rolling Stone editor Robert Christgau, who was sometimes a fan, decried their English as “rudimentary for kin of Fela and Soyinka.” Taiwo rebukes this when I tell her. “It’s not rudimentary. It is just being on the other side of things. Our music, our songs are written for people of many discernments. At the same time, it is this music that every child would repeat and know.”

THE SISTERS FIRST GAINED acclaim for their singing when they were children, representing what was then known as Lagos Colony in competitions. In 1963, as TV was launching in parts of Nigeria, their performances were broadcast. A couple of years later, they were invited to be televised as their own act. “We sang Miriam Makeba. We sang Nat King Cole, we sang other artists,” says Taiwo. “And we sang some of our compositions.” They were approached by record labels and recorded their first song, “Iya Mi Jowo,” in 1965. It was released three years later. “It was awesome, exciting, unbelievable,” Taiwo says. “We were 20 years old, but people would look at us and think that we were about 12 because we were very tiny young ladies.” Sometimes the clubs they would eventually perform at would try to turn them away because they looked underage.

MUSIC AND ROMANCE
Taiwo (right) and Ginger Baker dated for about 18 months.

Victor Crawshaw/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Siji Awoyinka was enamored with the Sisters as a seven-year old, watching them on TV. “Can you imagine the impact it had on me? You hear all kinds of music, you see all these male musicians, and then suddenly there’s a celebration, and they’re female, they’re beautiful, they’re elegant, and they’re mysterious,” says Awoyinka, now 54. As an adult, he got to know the Lijadu Sisters through a mutual friend in Brooklyn. In 2011, he began filming the Sisters for a documentary.

By 1972, Ginger Baker — the pioneering British drummer of Cream, fronted by Eric Clapton — sought out the Lijadu Sisters to join his band Salt, having become a peer of Kuti. “He found us in Lagos,” says Taiwo, “saying, ‘I’m looking for the Lijadu Sisters?’ I was like, ‘You’re looking at them.’ He said, ‘Huh? This is how small you are?’ ” With Salt, the Sisters went to Munich during the infamous 1972 Olympics (they were meeting the mother of Baker’s friend Jimi Hendrix when explosions rang out; at the Games, Palestinian militants had killed 11 Israelis).

The Lijadu Sisters continued to tour Europe and America for about four months while Taiwo and Baker dated. She says he treated her well, though he was struggling with drug addiction. “He had a rough life,” says Taiwo.

Awoyinka believes that working with artists such as Salt, Afrofunk keyboardist Joni Haastrup, and Nigerian producer Biddy Wright helped expand the Lijadu Sisters’ solo sound to pop and rock. Taiwo says she and her sister always liked piecing together rhythms and melodies from different genres. As they made music, they had to learn how to lead extensive bands of men as the only women in the room. Taiwo laments that orchestrating the male musicians they hired was “always a struggle” for respect. They also weren’t instrumentalists themselves. “How would you instruct a band to create the music you wanted?” I ask Taiwo. “My mouth,” she says, smiling, excitedly improvising lines she might sing to a guitarist. As she and her sister wrote lyrics, they imagined the music to match, structuring much of the songs from top to bottom before even meeting with a band.

The Lijadu Sisters released most of their albums through Afrodisia, an imprint of the London-based Decca Records that dominated in a golden age of African music in the 1970s. However, there was more money to be made on the road. “Our records were being sold,” says Taiwo of their mounting popularity. “We were booked, and of course, our TV ratings went up.” Many of their early fans were men. “Men are attracted to women,” she says plainly. “They want to hear you. They want to see you, but some of them want to touch you.” Taiwo says African artists were commonly exploited, especially under white, European executives.

Their deal with Afrodisia generated interest but not real income, says Awoyinka, particularly as women on the roster, who he says were supposed to be happy by mearing having their records out at all. The Sisters grew irritated with feeling exploited by Afrodisia and their managers. “We had managers who were damagers,” Taiwo says. “They were trying to take our money, trying to do tricks.”

And, it seems, there was not enough money to begin with. In the 1988 documentary Konkombe: The Nigerian Pop Music Scene, they fiercely denounce the treatment by the label. “You should be the baby to this company because you are actually making the money for them, but the other side of the coin is that they don’t care,” they say, describing them as perpetual debt collectors:  “They want you to keep owing them, and as far as they are concerned, you can keep owing them and keep paying back until you die.”

Then, Taiwo explains now, there were expectations of them that were even more insidious. “We didn’t have businesspeople backing us. All they wanted was sex,” she huffs. “It’s different if you’re having an affair with the man you love, because you both respect each other and want to be together,” she says, noting sex itself is not a problem. “It’s another thing if you have to do a job somewhere, a radio station, television station, anywhere, you were invited to go there, and then they start harassing you for sex. And that was why we pulled back, that was what we didn’t want to deal with.”

Taiwo becomes ornery when pressed about specific instances of being mistreated in music. She struggles to relay the more challenging facets of her life in general. Awoyinka says that in some of their interviews on her career, her children, and her health issues, she’s gotten so angry she’s kicked him out. “These are things that I don’t want to go over,” Taiwo tells me. “I’m older, but these are things that will give you emotional upheaval. My life has changed, especially because I lost my sister. I lost everything. So all those backlogs of unhappiness, I don’t really want to talk about that. It’s not good to keep referring to what tied you down, because you will never be free.”

When I ask Taiwo about starting her life in New York, she corrects me. “We did not move to the States.” Rather, they had come to the U.S. as an opening act on a national tour and just never left. At first, they were getting more gigs and more labels had set their sights on them. “We thought, ‘OK, maybe six months.’” Even early on, they missed their family. “Any time that you think that it’s fun for musicians to be touring all over the place, they’re thinking of their families,” she says. “It’s a very lonely life. It’s your calling, but they want you home. It’s an emotional sacrifice that could do damage to a family.”

WELL SEASONED “Remember, I’m no more a spring chicken. I’m now a summer chicken,” says Taiwo, whose hands are pictured here

Andrew Dosunmu

Taiwo declines to tell me about her own adult children, aside from saying it was difficult to stay in touch when she felt like they were political targets. “You’re being monitored. So you have to keep your family out of the way of the government.” Beyond answering their calling in America, the Sisters began to think it safest for them to stay. “When we came here, a lot of chaos was going on in Nigeria and, of course, we joined the many groups that were protesting, which brought about problems,” she explains. “We started getting threats from home, then we decided, ‘OK, let’s do political asylum.’”

As the 1980s became the 1990s, Awoyinka recalls, the Lijadu hype cooled off. No record deals came through. Jubilant juju music, like that of Sunny Adé, became the rage, and they faded into the background. When the late 1990s and early aughts brought about a surge of interest in Nigerian music of the 1970s, a new fascination with the Sisters piqued, but was profitless for them. “Imagine being in New York, no money, career fizzled out, and suddenly seeing all [these reissues] with your music on it,” says Awoyinka. “Nobody asked for your permission or consent. Nobody sent you or gave you any money.”

This also coincided with the rise of Lijadu Sisters samples appearing in music, like Nas’ “Life’s Gone Low,” which featured a prominent reworking of the Sisters’ “Life’s Gone Down Low,” from their album Danger. That Nas track was never officially released, but Taiwo’s current manager, Welles-Nyström, tells me tens of other unauthorized songs were. To date, they’ve found more than 50 total infringements. Around 2011, the Sisters signed a 10-year licensing agreement with Knitting Factory Records in New York, and their four albums were reissued, though promotion went dormant after the Sisters had a falling out with the label, says Welles-Nyström. A representative of Knitting Factory did not return a request for comment. The infringements were left unpursued.

A NEW CHAPTER The rereleases coming later this year will bring the Sisters’ music to a new generation.

Andrew Dosunmu

OVER GLASSES OF YELLOWTAIL merlot from a large bottle Taiwo giddily ushers into the living room after a few hours of talking, she tells me how she keeps herself busy: running errands, making art, making medicine, and writing songs. She doesn’t have much of a community in Harlem, uncomfortable in the crime-addled sprawl of the public housing she lives in. As far as friends, “They’re old,” she says. “Everybody’s sick. They stay in their home. I have fun by myself with the ancestors, with the spiritual work I’m doing. It’s enough.”

When we meet, Taiwo is planning a reparation ceremony of sorts, in the West African country of Benin, where her Portuguese great-grandfather sold slaves across the Atlantic. In doing that, she says, she is also atoning for all the slave traders in Africa, including Africans. “The kings and the chiefs sold slaves,” she says. “Not the common people. But those who have sold the slaves, I am going to ask the ancestors who perished in the seas, who were killed, who were jailed, who were clamped in their mouths and hands and feet, who were wrongly treated and sent out of Africa to a land of no return — I’m going to atone for that.”

She’d like to leave Harlem when she returns, or even New York, but needs to stay close to her doctor. She’s concerned about her body; as we meet before she travels to Benin, she is being careful of how much she exerts herself so she is healthy enough to make the trip. “I’m going to go home and touch base with Africa; to go to natural clinics to cook myself up because all the medications they give you here really destroy your body,” she says. She tells me she has issues with her memory, too, a result, she suspects, of accidents and stress. “Because of loss of justice,” she says, telling me she’s cautious of what she lets herself remember, too. “I do not want sentiment to make me cry. It takes too much out of me. It makes me sick to my stomach, and I will be sick for weeks for crying.”

When she comes back, she’ll have the first rerelease of her records in 12 years to look forward to. She seems to have known that day would come. “If you were not paid by your recording company over the years, some other people will look at your work, especially when you do your work well, years later, and pick [it] up. That’s what’s happening now.” Welles-Nyström helped the Sisters’ music find a new home with Numero Group, an archival record label they trust, especially since they’ve helped the Lijadu Sisters track and file copyright-infringement claims. So far, Welles-Nyström says, there have been 25 takedowns.

Their work with Numero, Welles-Nyström says, “is allowing us to reach out to younger people. What’s going to come is creative collaborations with their music or their story, working with filmmakers and writers, trying to set stuff up creatively for Taiwo and younger artists.”

The photo shoot for this story may be the first of many, and Taiwo’s still recovering from it the day after, when I come over. She thinks she caught a cold, and she says she’ll make an oil out of pepper to help cure her. “I have to be drastic,” she says. “Remember, I’m no more a spring chicken. I’m now a summer chicken.” But, she adds, “if my body wasn’t what it is, I don’t feel that I’m more than 20 years old in my heart.”

Photographs by <strong>ANDREW DOSUNMU</strong>. Makeup by <strong>EUNICE KRISTEN.</strong> Digital Technician: <strong>RICHARD ROSE</strong>.

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