"I’m going back to my roots in political art. It’s necessary to reflect the times. It’s especially important in this country..."
A Biography by : Dom Lawson
The power of music is unquestionable: to bring joy, to bring people together and, perhaps most importantly, to effect some positive change in the world. Driven by a life-long devotion to music’s unerring magic and a heartfelt belief in justice and equality for all, Ifé Mora is the fiery, creative voice that the world needs right now.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Ifé was immersed in a diverse and inspirational world of music from the very start. Her father, a jazz musician from Mexico City, and her mother, a jazz singer and African-American native of Detroit, ensured that Ifé’s childhood was an exhilarating blur of cross-cultural liberation, her family roots in the socialist art movements of the 20th century giving the young Afro-Latina a political edge at an early age. But it was always music that dominated Ifé’s thoughts, with the benign influence of a nurturing artistic environment guiding her forward.
“I always tell the story of how my first piano lesson was with [legendary jazz musician] Sun Ra,” she recalls. “My father originally moved to the United States as part of Sun Ra’s band. We went to one of his concerts, I think I was seven years old, and Sun Ra gave me a lesson backstage on this little keyboard I used to carry around everywhere. He said, ‘You can’t just think about music in terms of notes, structure and melodies, you have to think about it in terms of feeling and connecting with the cosmos!’ He started banging on my keyboard and he said ‘Just feel it, this is music!’ It was funny, but that always stuck with me.”
Growing up in Detroit would inevitably have a huge impact on Ifé’s first forays into the music world. The city has made a colossal contribution to countless styles of contemporary music, from jazz, blues and the mighty Motown label through to the pre-punk fury of The MC5 and The Stooges and the seminal Detroit techno scene of the ‘80s, and as she grew up surrounded by such sonic riches, Ifé’s own musical vision began to emerge, every bit as boldly idiosyncratic as the hometown pioneers she so greatly admired.
“I personally gravitated towards the blues, because when I started listening to rock’n’roll, I wanted to understand its history,” Ifé notes. “Obviously that led me to the blues. I was so enamoured with the blues. I was a little obsessed with it! (laughs) All those blues singers like Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, those were my new heroes. I was just trying to figure it out, how I could do rock music as a black Afro-Latina from Detroit and actually be taken seriously.”
With the blues simmering in her soul, Ifé’s adventurous instincts took her first to New York City, where she met trip-hop star Tricky and wound up becoming one of the first signings to his then fledgling Dreamworks imprint Durban Poison. Although Ifé subsequently recorded a trip-hop album, collaborating with numerous notable producers from the NYC hip-hop scene, Tricky’s deal with Dreamworks fell through and the collaboration ended. After a period spent touring Europe, while signed to a Belgian dance label, Ifé returned to the US and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she fell in love with bluegrass music: another vital piece in her ongoing creative puzzle.
“So I loved rock, bluegrass and the blues and I had to figure out how to put all of that together!” she laughs. “I put my first rock band together in Atlanta, but at the time, because the South is very segregated, people didn’t really want to see black women playing rock‘n’roll, so eventually I moved back to New York...”
Returning to NYC was precisely the move that Ifé needed to make: with perfect timing, she found herself slotting neatly into the burgeoning Afro-Punk movement that had been kick-started by director James Spooner’s 2003 documentary of the same name. A fiery rabble of balls-out, African-American punk rock bands, the scene was small and blazed briefly, but it’s fundamental principles and righteous goals had a profound effect on everyone involved.
“I felt that being part of it, I had a place in music and in the world,” Ifé explains. “I was being recognized as an Afro-Latina that could do rock’n’roll and I was accepted for it. That was the first time I actually ever felt that. Everything in the US is really segregated. Here, if you’re black you do rap and soul or you do neo-soul and R&B and that’s it. If you’re white, you do country, bluegrass and rock’n’roll, and if you play rock’n’roll, you don’t have a place as a woman and you definitely don’t have a place as a black woman. So I felt I had a place in the Afropunk movement and that was incredibly inspiring.”
With a thrilling blend of disparate influences coalescing in her mind, Ifé’s next move was to begin her career as a bona fide solo artist. The culmination of all those years spent absorbing her environment and the creative souls she encountered along the way, her first solo album In Love Story was released in July 2011 and demonstrated the spine-tingling power of Ifé’s voice, and the strength of her artistic focus, across 11 darkly romantic and soulful hymns to the heart. Followed two years later by the stunning Fire Inside Of Me, a grittier, funkier and altogether more diverse and daring record that further cemented Ifé’s steadily growing reputation as a unique proposition, with everything from breezy country rock to strutting P-funk vibes contributing to strident anthems like Mama Said, Detroit Blues and bruising, epic closer Blood On The Walls.
“As I embarked on doing my solo stuff, it was important for me to get back into my heritage and to incorporate that somehow,” Ifé remembers. “I wrote songs that had a very haunting, sad narrative and feel to them. I started embracing the blues and bluegrass, and so my music became a collection of sounds that I think people ultimately started labelling as Americana, whether that made sense or not! (laughs) With the second album I really wanted to put more of the blues and especially the funk into my music. Betty Davis is one of my favourite singers, she’s such a funk rock legend and I really wanted to have that feel in my music.”
In 2016, Ifé released another new record, this time a collaboration with Woodstock-based folk guitarist Danny Bloom. United by a love of bluegrass, Ifé and Danny’s Mink Hollow album once again challenged received orthodoxies about who should or shouldn’t be performing certain kinds of music: these songs were authentic, heartfelt and the result of a truly joyous creative period.
“I love bluegrass, those old school American narratives, outlaw songs and old school country. It really speaks to my heart,” Ifé avows. “When you think about it, the very foundation of contemporary music is American and we have all this amazing history on the States that seems to be lost. I really wanted to explore that and so working with Danny was an amazing experience. It opened me up to a new way of writing music, the traditional way that they wrote those old folk ballads. At the time I also wanted to explore the black slave narrative, so I went to my grandmother’s stories, the ones she used to tell me about being descended from slaves, and what it was like for her growing up in the United States. Making Mink Hollow was a little bit academic for me but it was also a very spiritual experience.”
Newly refreshed by her experience in the Appalachian Mountains, performing bluegrass with Bloom and reveling in the organic joy of her new music, Ifé now finds herself armed with an even more diverse palette of inspirations and influences. In contrast, as she begins work on her next solo album, Ifé also finds herself very much at odds with the current state of American society. As most people recoil from the grotesque cruelties of the Trump era, voices as clear, rational and righteous as Ifé’s are more important than ever. With that in mind, she has a clear plan for her next creative step and it’s one that is sure to resonate with these turbulent times.
“The objective for my third solo album is to write a protest album,” she states. “I’m going back to my roots in political art. It’s necessary to reflect the times. It’s especially important in this country because there are a lot of distractions going on. Even though we’re seeing all these terrible things happening, but we’re still being distracted by the Kardashians and all of that. It’s really important for us to be talking about social justice. I can’t write another love song, I have to write about what’s happening right now.”
“I’m also very passionate about Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and I’m a strong advocate for women and the disadvantaged to defend themselves and protect themselves,” she adds. “The goal is to teach people that are targeted in society how to defend themselves. It’s a very empowering thing to know how to handle yourself and to feel that if you were attacked, you’d know what to do. And for me, it’s in alignment with the music. It’s all about empowerment and justice. These things are more visible now because of technology, but these injustices have been going on forever. With Trump, I actually think that it’s good that he’s president right now because he’s bringing a lot of stuff to the surface. Now we can see what’s going on and people are protesting. We can change things, as a people.”
Currently collaborating with LA songwriter Neil Tillman, Ife has immersed herself in research and reflection, making sure that not a single word or musical idea is wasted in her most important creative endeavor yet. With her enlightened, polycultural roots still propelling her forward and an unwavering dedication to fighting for what is right, Ifé Mora is proudly speaking truth to power and making incredible music along the way. Change is coming: all you need to do is listen, learn and join the resistance.
“This music needs to penetrate a person’s soul,” she concludes. “It needs to speak loud and clear. For me, that means a lot of intense, heavy guitar but also a feeling of the American blues, because we’re talking about a country built on the backs of slaves. I want to have conversations with Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker, to find out what they were talking about when they were making political music. These singers and musicians, they felt it was necessary to talk about injustice and what was going on in this country. I’m so passionate about resisting and protesting. We need to be talking about these issues and music can be the best way to start that conversation.”
website photos accredited to : Jean-Philippe Boucicaut