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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Letter by Letter")

Ms. AYO OGUNMAKIN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) I wish I could watch your soul to know you better. I wish I could read you like a book, letter by letter.

MARTIN: Her name is Ayo. It means joy in Yoruba. But the 27-year-old singer and songwriter had experienced plenty of hardship and pain in her young life. Born to a Nigerian father and Romanian mother in Germany, by the time she was a young teen, she'd already seen her mother descend into addiction. But now her life has taken a different turn. This year saw the U.S. release of her first solo album, "Joyful." It's already gone to double platinum in France.

Joining us now from our New York bureau is the hottest newcomer from Europe, Ayo Ogunmakin.

Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I have to ask if your whole name - we know that your first name means joy.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Joy, yeah.

MARTIN: But what about your family name? Does that have a translation in English?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah. My family name means - Ogun means - that's the god of - I am the god of war, and Makin, that would be like the god of war meets the fearless. So that's Ogunmakin.

MARTIN: Wow. So the joyful god of war meets the fearless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Were you well-named?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes, I think.

MARTIN: Well, your lyrics are pretty fearless, I have to say. Well, let's start with - let's just start with the music. You know, your music's been described as this interesting blend of R&B and pop and reggae and folk. You know, how all these people always try to figure out how to categorize an artist. But how would you describe it?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Well, it's always very difficult for me to describe it. But I came up with a word once and I said - because when people ask me, they always want to have some examples of how it sounds like. So I always used to say it's like - I call it regg-fro-folk, or Afro-regg-fro-folk. And that's like reggae, Afro, folk and soul music as well. So maybe one day, it's going to be even more. You know, it's - you can't really name it, actually, because it's so much. It's a bit mixed, just like the way I am, I think.

MARTIN: What was some of your musical influences? How do you think you derived your sound?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: My musical influence is mainly through my dad, because he once a D.J. in the 70s. And when I was born in the '80s, I really grew up on my father's records. So that was like a lot of Afro beat like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, then Bob Marley and the Wailers, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, one of my favorite singers, Donny Hathaway - actually, Pink Floyd, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's quite a range, I can see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah. Yes. But I would say only the good stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: One of my favorite songs from your album is "Life is Real." And let's play a little bit.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Life is Real")

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: (Singing) Some people say that I'm too open. They say it's not good to let them know everything about me. And they say one day, they will use every little thing against me. But I don't mind, maybe they're right. That's just how it is, and I got nothing to hide. I live my life…

MARTIN: And, Ayo, forgive me for being so blunt about your biography at the beginning when I was talking about it, because I don't know how that feels for you to kind of hear the sort of the facts of your life kind of recounted in that way. But the truth is you haven't had the easiest time of it. Your mom - anybody who has a family member struggling with addiction knows how hard that is…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …as a child to deal with that. And then your family was separated at one point because the official believed your father couldn't care for you, so you were sent to a foster care. That's hard. So, is that why you think you have nothing to hide?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Basically, yeah. The song "Life is Real" is basically a lot about that, because I feel like I don't have anything to hide because, to me, it's like when you have stuff to hide, that means you're embarrassed about certain things in your life. And I'm not embarrassed about anything. I'm not embarrassed about my mom being drug addicted. And I'm not embarrassed about being the person I am. And, you know, I'm actually quite happy with everything that happened to my life.

And I believe everything happens for a reason, because maybe if my mom wasn't drug addicted and if I'd never been to foster houses and all this, I wouldn't be here today, probably. So…

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Because I always felt a little ashamed when I was younger about everything in my life, like there were so many things that I was trying to hide and I couldn't talk about, because even my father told me not to talk about it. But then, I reached a point where I felt like I have to talk about it, and I have to accept these things in my life. I have to accept who I am, to be able to be a free, you know, and to be able to feel good in my skin.

MARTIN: Do you think that those experiences have influenced your music? Not just your ability to make music, but influence the music itself?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes, a lot actually, a lot. Because, you know, in the beginning, when I started playing music, you start and you always try to sound like somebody, you know. And I believe that everybody's like that. When you start, you don't have your own sound right away. That's - you don't have it. Even Bob Marley, he didn't have that - he played so many different music styles in the beginning. So, when I started singing about my life, suddenly, it was my own voice talking. It was my own voice singing. Suddenly, I heard myself singing. It was my own color.

MARTIN: And, of course - and I think some of the lyrics in the songs do, I think, reference some of the things you've experienced, like…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: …like I'm thinking of "Help is Coming."

(Soundbite of song "Help is Coming")

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: (Singing) Help is coming, as long as you believe. Help is coming, for us to be released. For us to be released. Your lifestyle could be so different.

MARTIN: What were you thinking when you wrote that song?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: When I wrote that song, I was thinking a lot about my mother, because I always felt - and I still feel like that she doesn't really believe enough in something strong, you know? Like, it could be God or it could be, you know - it's just the spirit. There is something missing, you know? She doesn't even believe in herself enough, that's what I think, because that's why she is in that condition, you know?

MARTIN: Is she still struggling with addiction?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes, yeah. My mom is still, she's still addicted, and she used to take methadone for many years, and, you know, then she stopped taking methadone again. Then she goes back to drugs and all that. And it's always like - you can't even say up and down, because methadone is even worse than heroin. It's just that the doctors, they can control it, you know?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: But it's not good for your body. And…

MARTIN: I heard what you said when you said that your father had encouraged you and - I assume - the other kids not to talk about what was going on. And one can see why. I mean, he was in…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …he's a man of African descent in Germany.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And it's my understanding that you feel that that was one of the reasons that you all were taken away, because the authorities just couldn't get around their heads that he could actually be a fit parent on his own.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you feel there was probably some racism attached to that.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I wonder whether how it is now - A, you're a celebrity, public figure, and it's - you're very open about it. How is your family dealing with that?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I basically believe that I helped my father a lot and my family, maybe, but especially my dad. I think I helped him a lot because he opened up so much. Now, suddenly, he can say, yeah. You know, my wife, she's addicted, and this is what happened. And our life and my life and these other things that I had to deal with, and I'm still dealing with. He's so open now, and he's such a good friend to me now, you know? And I think that a lot of people as well, you know, people that knew us but they didn't really know our history, they kind of have even more respect for my dad now, because suddenly, they really understand him. And before, where before, everybody was blaming him, kind of, you know?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. There was a lot of blame around addiction.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Exactly.

MARTIN: People don't know what to make of it. They don't know how to handle it.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Exactly. That's exactly what it is.

MARTIN: Sure. Sure. And yet, your album is "Joyful."

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Why did you name it that?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I named it "Joyful" because I have a very good friend of mine in London, that she always used to call me joyful instead of calling me Joy or Ayo. So, I used to say to her - that was like, seven years ago - I said, you know, I think if I ever going to release my first record, I'm going to call it "Joyful." And that's what I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite song from the album? And will you play it for us?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I love them all. They're all a part of me, and I love them all. But if you would ask me to play a song, I would probably say, why shouldn't I play my first single? Because that was the first song that I actually wrote, also.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. And what's that?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: That's "Down on My Knees."

(Soundbite of song "Down on My Knees")

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: (Singing) Down on my knees, I'm begging you. Down on my knees, I'm begging you. Down on my knees, I'm begging you. Please, please don't leave me. Do you really think she can love you more than me? Do you really, really think so? And do you really think she can give you more than me? Baby, I know she won't. Because I loved you unconditionally, I gave you even more than I had to give. I was willing for you to die, cause you were more precious to me than my own life.

Down on my knees, I'm begging you. Please, please don't leave me. Don't leave me. I'm begging. I love you. I need you. I'm dying, I'm crying, I'm begging. Please love me. I love you. I love you. I'm begging. Please love me. I'm begging. I'm begging. Please don't leave me. No, no, no, no, no. I'm down on my knees, I'm begging you. Down on my knees, I'm begging you. Down on my knees, down on my knees, I'm begging you. You, you, you, you. Down on my knees. Down on my knees. I'm begging you.

MARTIN: Whoo. Wow. Going back to fearless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And nothing to hide. Are we talking about anybody in particular here?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you want me to have a talk with him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: No. The other day - today, we have a son together.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Well…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: So, today, it's even.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: We are fine today, but, you know…

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: …actually, this is - this song - this story, actually, it was good that it happened, anyway, because it made me leave Germany.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: You know, at that time, when my boyfriend…

MARTIN: Because my thing - and I'm thinking, stop begging. Come on, girl.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah, you know?

MARTIN: Stop begging.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: You know what happened? I never really begged him, that was the problem.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Because when we separated and all this, I was like - I guess I was really in love, and he wasn't. And, you know, we were both real young. But I felt like - don't do this to me. But I didn't say anything else, acting cool and - but when I went home, I wrote this song and I wrote down how I actually -how I really felt about it.

MARTIN: So I don't need to have a talk with him? Okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: You don't. You don't.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I took care of that.

MARTIN: I see. But I see your point, though. I mean, this is - you're kind of celebrating the fact that you're at a point in your life where you can really just say what you really feel…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Exactly.

MARTIN: …without feeling that you have to hide it or…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …cover it up, or…

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: …be cool about it. So - you have a very interesting background. Do you notice the audiences reacting differently to your music in these different world capitals - Paris, London, New York?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: You know, the funny thing is that I feel like the reaction is pretty much the same. The one language we all speak, not to say that it's music, but we all do speak emotions, you know?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: It's like we all know how pain feels. We all feel pain. We all know what joy means when we're happy, you know, and all this.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I think that's something we do really share.

MARTIN: Speaking of a source of joy, another source of joy, you got pregnant. And now you have a little baby boy.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Nile, I think it is?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: With your significant other. How's life going? Is it hard to be a mother and an artist at the same time?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: If I would say no, everybody would know that I'm lying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: You know, it can be really hard. I'm kind of dealing with it right now, because I'm looking into pre-school for him and all that. He's just 2 years now, and, you know - he's a very good boy, you know? I'm really blessed, because he's not giving me a lot of trouble.

MARTIN: So, what's next for you?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: There will be some concerts. There are still - it's not really scheduled yet, but I definitely know that I'm going to go back on tour. And, basically, that ends in March. I'm going to go back into the studio to work on my second record, and…

MARTIN: Do you have a title yet?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I think I have.

MARTIN: Is it a secret?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: It's not really secret, but because I'm not sure if it will really - if I will stick to the title…

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I think it's better not to mention it.

MARTIN: How about "More Joy"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: That would be great, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: That's - well, somebody already told me, maybe you should just call it "Sadness," and then this record is going to be really joyful.

MARTIN: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, is there - will you play one more song for us as we say goodbye?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: What would you like to play?

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: I think I would like to play "Life is Real," since you mentioned that it's your favorite song.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: So, I'll play that one for you.

MARTIN: All right. Ayo, the hottest newcomer from Europe is a singer and a songwriter. Her new album is called "Joyful." She joined us from our studios in New York. Ayo, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: And here she is with "Life is Real."

(Soundbite of music, "Life is Real")

MARTIN: To hear more songs by Ayo and hundreds more studio sessions by musicians, check out our new music Web site at npr.org/music.

Ms. OGUNMAKIN: (Singing) Some people say that I'm too open. They say it's not good to let them know everything about me. And they say one day they will use every little thing against me. But I don't mind. Maybe they're right. That's just how it is, and I got nothing to hide. I live my life the way I want. I got nothing to hide. There's nothing at all. Life is not a fairy tale. They should know that life is real. Life is real. Life is real. Life is real. Me, I be Ayo Ogunmakin, fear no foe. I am real from head to toe. Like life is real and you should know. Me, I be Ayo Ogunmakin, fear no foe. I am real from head to toe, just like my heart and like my soul. Me, I be Ayo Ogunmakin, fear no foe. I am real from head to toe. My life is real and you should know. Me, I be Ayo Ogunmakin, fear no foe. I am real from head to toe, just like my heart and like my soul. Life is real. Life is real, yeah. Life is real. Yeah, yeah.

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