Passing the Torch: Iyanla Ayite Raises and Reinvents the Spirit
I feel the pressure of the blessing, started to question if
He sent it to the right address,
I don’t know if I’m cut out for this, but I’m going to take it
with gratitude nevertheless.
I get caught up stressing the service, guessing my
purpose, looking for an impossible greatness that exists
without faith and love.
Faith and love.
Don’t cry for me Miss Nina,
You don’t have to die to feel freedom,
We can all see it in your eyes.
Iyanla Ayité’s torrid tribute to Nina Simone captivates on several fronts and levels. The lyrics dazzle. The words dance gracefully even without music. Had a lesser talent tackled the daunting task of high fiving such a mercurial talent, the result might be a sweet, perhaps even a saccharine nod to the late singer-songwriter. But Ayité’s talent is neither modest nor meager. She sets the lyrics aflame in a video performance featured on the local Aurora Channel, breathing life into the memory and meaning of a deceased artist who reached her creative zenith decades before Ayité’s birth.
Ayité teases the melody and lyrics, threatening to scat as she stutters over a syllable or two mid-songs, only to segue into the next verse without further ado or hesitation. Melismatic phrases appear before withdrawing abruptly as the singer declines to unleash the vocal pyrotechnics burdening so many performances of budding artists anxious to gain attention.
The understated but emotive performance is an example of exquisite subtlety. It’s difficult to silence a room with a whisper, but during her performance, a simple aside can stop both time and a heart. That’s not to imply Ayité lacks vocal wattage. Her voice rises to the occasion throughout the performance. But the volume is to accentuate a point or emotion, not merely to make an impression.
When asked what inspired the composition, Ayité explains the motivation. “I found that I identified/empathized deeply with a lot of what Nina Simone experienced emotionally in being an artist (to the extent that we can know her precise emotional experience): depression, isolation, pressure, and on the other end of the spectrum, joy, radiance, agency,” she responds via email. “The song, in other words, is a love song to Simone, as much as it is a love song to myself, about finding freedom through our craft, rather than in spite of it. While the meaning of the song is elastic, the overall message encourages ‘faith and love’ for not only what you do, but who you are.”
Deep. It’s obvious Ayité’s intellect matches her artistry.
There’s no doubt Ayite has a strong sense of who she is as an artist. She revives rather than memorializes the icon’s legacy. While other young artists often remain faithful to their influences’ artistry to the point of mimicry, Ayité is both an interpreter and an innovator. In phone and email exchanges with the Denver Urban Spectrum, the young artist – a 20-year-old Aurora native and Colorado College sophomore majoring in music –makes clear that while she appreciates her accomplished predecessors, her artistic vision and journey are uniquely her own; her musical delivery expresses her personal dreams and desires.
Chief among those dreams and desires is creating a communal exchange with her fans and followers. Comparable to the internet enabling a global community of co-creators rather than the previous one-way broadcast to a passive audience, Ayité intends to assemble groups of interactive contributors at her gatherings. Instead of aspiring to a self-absorbed position of a prima donna distanced from the proletariat by a velvet rope and entourage, she wants to “create spaces with my audience… go out in my community and see what’s going on in their world.”
Ayité then uses the gospel practice of call-and-response interaction as an example of her artistic ideal. She doesn’t want to simply “sing at” people without their own voice or input in the performance. In church, the great gospel warriors invited the audience to not only sway, pray and clap to a holy testimony. The congregants enthusiastically participated in the performance, responding in sermon and song; moving the singer to improvise and uplift the song to a level a merely observant audience could never inspire. She says this communal call-and-response vibe creates a “sense of freedom… free to be and do as they please… the least capitalistic, consumeristic experience ever.”
If Ayité is crowned queen, her audience will be co-regents rather than subjects.
Personal sensitivities and inclinations – expressed through an embrace of inclusion and opportunity – find expression in her artistic pursuits. Her performance dreams aren’t fixated on selling out stadiums and arenas. Instead, she envisions “block parties, out in the street and open to the public.” She wants to serve food alongside hot jams; rather than dreaming of playing plush halls, she’d prefer open space. She doesn’t plan on marketing merchandise. Instead, her block parties would distribute art supplies, all in the spirit of “inviting people to create with us.”
Such egalitarian concerns and designs coming from the ascendant artist impress comparable to her talent, especially considering the popular fixation on wealth and fame. Ayité embodies the cliché – “art for art’s sake.” She learned art appreciation early, the youngest of six siblings, growing up in an artistic family that includes dancers and songwriters. Before the age of 10, she played the piano, wrote songs and debuted a video, “Big Blue Whale,” on YouTube.
Her family supported her precocious tendencies. Her older sisters also introduced her to millennial titans, Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. From these artists, Ayité reached further back to Simone and previous generations. But she isn’t content to rest on her idols’ laurels. Their artistry influences without defining her own artistic pursuits. “I don’t identify entirely with them,” she explains. “The messages I have to offer… will be different.”
Her current pursuits include following up a 2021 EP release, Moonwalk, with a recorded collection of all her compositions this winter. While she will expand her contacts to music meccas like Atlanta and Los Angeles, she intends to collaborate a lot with local musicians and producers. “I really think Denver is underrated… so many corners in Denver,” she states. “There’s art everywhere.”
Following college graduation in a couple years, she plans to tour and record more music – auspicious plans for a sophomore college student. But, unlike many of her collegiate contemporaries, she has years of preparation to back up her goals. Currently, her college curriculum provides what she calls “balance,” the equilibrium between academic theory and practical experience. “They inform each other in a really beautiful way,” she observes. “Definitely my whole world is music.”
Perhaps even more auspicious than her plans is her awareness of the responsibilities of her gift, partially gleaned from the lessons learned from Simone’s story. The lyrics of “Miss Nina” reveal a preternatural awareness of Ayité’s gift, both its blessing and its burdens.
You were chosen, you were chosen,
To be here for a reason.
You’re going to struggle, you’re going to hurt.
But it ain’t got nothing to do with your worth.
So don’t cry Miss Nina.
You don’t have to die to feel freedom.
We can all see it in your eyes.
Editor’s Note: Follow Ayité on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/iyanla.xite/