Isolation Drills: Niyonu

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Niyonu: My musician self—the artist in me—expanded like a sea sponge that was now returned to water after having been land bound far too long. I’ve heard many speak it: “The pandemic has forced changes.” I would categorize those changes as in relation to time, space and, ultimately, how we conceive relationships.

Something that I had talked about for years was building the capacity to record in my home. I held the dream of building a home studio at a distance, out there in that “someday space.” But in April 2020, because the pandemic disallowed my scheduled studio dates, it became an imperative. If I was going to continue working on my album, I had to make some serious changes. I got on it, and in the midst of the terrible suffering taking place throughout our families, communities and the wider world, I found myself experiencing a joy that can only come when you are doing exactly what you are on the planet to do.

Those first few months, we were just in shock as we moved deeper into the realities of living a pandemic. Getting up early to hit the supermarkets, bringing groceries into the house as if any item might be delivering the deadly virus. Taking turns with my partner to wipe each item down: “Ah, should we wipe the bananas down with the disinfectant?” After these strange new routines, I’d return to my little home studio, settle in and the music poured forth.

Over the next months of COVID, and right through to today, it’s as if songs that I had written more than 10 years ago were awakened anew. I felt an urgency as they started burning in my spirit, again with the original force that birthed them so many years before. New songs came through with equal conviction.

I felt, in every inch of my being, that the music is a key part of tearing down the bullshit and remembering who we are as community! Systems of oppression, lies of separation—from each other and from the earth—we’ve got to create a new foundation. The lyrics that I had written from yet-to-be-released songs like “The Pull” (“And, now we feel the pull to be in place for recollection/And though we can’t recall full circle, the walls we built now have no meaning”). Or from song/video “Sit Down,” which I released a few months into the pandemic (“We know our ways are dying, but tell me the story of the great unknown”). The songs were sounding the alarm: “It is time.”

I launched NUYONI as a production company, the NUYONI Singers and started working on my own solo album (Spirit Fuel) right at the beginning of 2020. The NUYONI Singers—to be featured throughout NUYONI productions—had our first rehearsal in my living room on March 8, 2020. It was our first and last in-person rehearsal. Yet, we have kept it moving. We’ve managed to pull some harmonies together on Zoom. (Don’t ask how!) We had one super masked-up recording session at Turtle Studios in Philly, and we record tracks individually, submit them and harmonize with each other. The secret has been to just keep it moving.

For me as a musician during this pandemic, the name of the game has been, “Keep your eyes on what you signed up for.” We are in a time on the planet where whatever gifts we’ve been given need to be recognized, nurtured, affirmed and shared fully! It’s time to bring it!!

This time of isolation has allowed me—and I believe all of us—to weave deeper and stronger connections within. Yeah, I’d like some monetary exchange for the music coming through me, but this time has increased my commitment to getting it out there. Witnessing the healing, justice, remembering and joy that the music creates within myself and my communities—that is payment, 10 times over!