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In conversation with Joy Denalane

What connects Wildling and singer-songwriter Joy Denalane? We want to feel the ground that gives us a firm footing, to discover freedom of movement, and to carve out our own unique paths. And to empower – with shoes and with soul.

When the announcement was made in the fox’s den that Wildling and Joy were launching the EMBRACE YOUR PATH collaboration, some folks got pretty excited. Because quite a few of us were already listening to Joy’s powerful voice and getting goosebumps back in the late 90s. No wonder the German Queen of Soul is the first German singer to release her work on the legendary US soul and R&B label Motown: In the fall of 2020, Joy’s fifth studio album, Let Yourself Be Loved, was released under that label.

In an interview to mark the launch of our collaboration, we talk about inspirational research and beloved brothers, the Afropean community, and role models. And about why it’s so important to listen to each other.

Joy, you’ve been making music for so many years now – where do you draw your inspiration, and has that changed over the years?

Inspiration comes from long-standing observations or coincidences – from the things that move you personally: family backgrounds, fates and fortunes, and the social issues you encounter in the news, in your private life, or from observations you make. That’s the way it works for me, too. And I’ve always had a tendency to examine the things I’m feeling, like research in a way. Recently, while tidying up around our apartment, I found some notebooks from twenty years ago. Even though I don’t do traditional journaling, I always have these notebooks where I write everything down. They’re filled with thoughts and ideas for lyrics, deadlines and commitments, but also in part with political articles that I have cut out, literary passages that I have written out. Here’s how I work: I immerse myself completely and set off in search of the crux of the matter – a bit like a truffle hog.

Old notebooks, newspaper articles, delving into the crux of the matter: It all sounds a lot like a personal story, too. To what extent does interaction with the Black community factor into this?

I’ve always addressed my Black identity publicly, but with the Black Lives Matter movement, the debate has taken on a whole new quality – and of course I’m absolutely thrilled to see how the community is growing in Germany as well, finding its place, forming alliances. Communication with the press is also changing, and there are more and more voices that are inspiring me. Right now, for instance, one such great inspiration for me is the incredibly smart political scientist, author, and activist Emilia Roig, who has been exploring the topic of intersectionality, with a focus on the Black community. I read her book almost the way one would read a Bible, because she pieces together what so many are feeling and thinking.

Let yourself be loved, the album featured in your upcoming tour, also puts the focus on your Afropean identity. In his book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, Johny Pitts writes about how the term "Afropean" allowed him to see himself as complete and unhyphenated. And he also writes about you in the book. What does that term mean to you?

It completely resonates with me and is such an apt term for making the distinctions within the Black diaspora visible. The Black community in Europe doesn’t have the big voices that, say, the African-American community has, and it also has a very different historical background. And it’s far more scattered. For a lot of people who don’t engage with the topic of Black identity, there’s not even a tangible sense of what is meant by it. But it does exist, the Afropean community, with its own experience of Black identity – and the term makes it immediately more visible.

Your album is accompanied by some amazing artwork that picks up on this theme. How did the collaboration with Diana Ejaita come about?

I generally tend to pounce on a lot of things that depict Black life, in art, in the public discourse. All the things that, particularly in Europe, I missed out on in the beginning of my life. It just triggers something in me. That’s also how I first came across Diana, who did the beautiful illustrations for the deluxe album box set of Let Yourself Be Loved. I had admired her fantastic illustrations in the prestigious US magazine The New Yorker and from then on I dreamed of working with someone like Diana, albeit without actually doing anything about it. By complete coincidence I found out that Diana had meanwhile moved to Berlin, and then everything suddenly fell into place – we both understood straight away what we wanted to do. I think it does have something to do with the palpable bond among the Afropean community.



Illustrations: Diana Ejaita


The core principle behind Wildling is that we are all part of the re:generation. We want to promote balance, on a physical level with our minimal shoes, but as a company, also on a social level and with respect to our planet. Where do you see imbalances yourself, either personally or socially? What issues do you regard as the greatest roadblocks to regeneration?

Phew, that’s a pretty big question to ask! Where do I even start? I would say one major key issue is the breakdown of communication. And as such, it also harbors the greatest potential: for us to start listening to each other and learning from each other, to give each other the benefit of the doubt. In everyday situations as well as in socio-political dialogues. I have the feeling that all too often we don’t allow ourselves enough time and space to approach the other person’s position, to shed light on it – and to compare it with our own. So that perhaps we can reach a consensus.

Always being on guard, ready to fire back, that’s something we learn from an early age. The media tells us that the most important thing is to push our own agenda. The tone is just really abrasive right now. So yes, it would be such a big step towards achieving balance: taking the time to understand each other.

Listening, the way we interact with each other and everything that surrounds us – these things shape our identity as well. How does that apply to you? Who has influenced you and is still an influence for you today?

Naturally, there are a lot of things that shape you in the course of a lifetime. But for me, it was primarily my family environment. I have the great fortune of having had very loving parents who had such fundamental trust in us children and let us do our own thing a lot of the time. I think my parents simply weren’t particularly afraid, and as a result we were able to develop quite freely. It was so easy-going somehow. I feel like that’s changed a bit nowadays, that as a generation of parents, we’re more fearful, and because of that, we’re restricting our kids a lot more to keep them from making the wrong choices.

And I also had two amazing brothers who are six and eight years older than me, and they took on a lot of responsibility for me. And they were also totally loving, not domineering at all, not dictating things and bossing their little sister around. I think my family just felt that I was quite okay the way I was, everyone trusted me, let me be me and go through my own experiences. And in the process, they gave me the opportunity to just do my thing and by extension, allowed me to be okay with myself as well.

And of course I had plenty of different role models and mentors later on, especially when it came to music, including Max Herre, of course. There were just a lot of great people that I had the chance to cross paths with. Yes, I do believe I have strong roots.



Image: Bennie Julian Gay

The "Vorbilder" mentoring project that you and Wildling will be jointly supporting is also about role models and encouraging the younger generation to share their experiences.

How do you view things? Does your status as a famous personality compel you to be a social and political role model? And can anyone be a role model?

I think it totally depends on the issue. I feel that when it comes to things that I am convinced of, that I am well versed in, then I can serve as a role model.

But I also believe that you don’t always have to make a statement about every issue, especially if you’re not sure. As a public figure, people often expect you to have something to say immediately on any topic that happens to be socially relevant at the time. Which brings us back to listening and taking the time. A lot of times we just don’t have the chance to get our thoughts sorted out, to revise and reflect. There is always this incredibly high expectation that you have to take a stance right there and then. Of course, that’s particularly prevalent in social media and I think – especially for the younger generation – that the pressure is incredibly high there and can prove to be a real ordeal.

Maybe my skin is just a little thicker, and it’s probably easier for me to separate myself since I come from a different time. I think it’s really important not to get too caught up in that. Of course, that doesn’t mean disregarding what people say to you. But I don’t believe that being in the public eye obliges you to live up to every expectation. That’s downright impossible. You have to realize that.



Image: Ulrike Rindermann

Your album Let yourself be loved speaks of love, friendship, and family. And one especially terrific line from the song "Hey Dreamer" says: “And if we keep our heads in the clouds, we’re gonna be the first to feel the rain.“ What does that mean for you?

It’s about breaking new ground, facing danger and being willing to take risks, to take a leap of faith for the sake of a dream. After all, having your head in the clouds is a symbol for being a dreamer, a little peculiar maybe. But not too far gone either – because you’re the first to feel the rain and realize that you might have lost your way, or the first to feel the stones lying on the path.

Is that maybe one way of moving the stones out of the way, at least a little bit, for the next generation?

Yes, and that’s always welcome. But at the same time, I believe there are so many things that people just have to experience for themselves. Sure, sometimes certain role models have a special meaning at certain times in your life, and that’s the way it is for me, too. But in the end, they usually come and go. And I firmly believe that you simply have to go through certain things yourself. Needless to say, I can totally absorb so much from a person who shows me things that mirror who I am. And that can be incredibly helpful – also for feeling less isolated, for finding your footing. But in the end, that’s only half the battle. Finding out whether that’s the path for me, whether something is right for me, that’s ultimately something I have to do myself.

We’re all just so different. What works for me might not work for you, even though it seems like a really good fit at first. But you have to metabolize that, with everything you are and everything you have. And sometimes something completely different comes out. It’s just never the same path. That’s why the title of our cooperation project is so appropriate: EMBRACE YOUR PATH. Your own personal path – with everything you’ve got.

Even if everyone has to walk their own path: If you could give the next generation something to take with them on this journey – what would you want to put in everyone’s backpack?

I truly believe: the ability to listen. That’s a skill that’s very much been lost, quite simply because we live in a time where the pace is dizzying. That gives rise to the pressure of always having to react and respond in an instant. And that leads to the fact that we’re just not good listeners anymore. Being quiet for a while and listening, observing, reading – I believe we can learn a great deal by doing that.


Thank you so much for this great interview, Joy – and for your music. We are very much looking forward to everything we’ll be experiencing together in the coming months.

 

Header imagge: Ulrike Rindermann

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