“Are you sure you want to do a video chat? I’m only wearing my bra.”
“Girl. That’s okay. I’m about to take my bra off.”
The tone for our conversation has been set: Hilarious, honest and real. After a whirlwind month of shooting, sneak peaks and promotion, Noella Wiyaala still made time to give us – the MOM Squad – the scoop on her latest project, Leno.
You know M.O.M. interests differ sharply from the rest of the flock’s, so go ahead and prepare yourself as we slip into…
****MOM Mode With the Young Lioness of Africa, Wiyaala!!!****
MOM: I saw in the video that you were standing in a swamp. Was it cold?
Wiyaala: It was freezing! At some point it got to 1°C. Just when we were done shooting it started snowing. I was outside in a sleeveless dress with my face like this. (She imitates a mannequin with bug eyes and chattering teeth.) And then the director would shout, “Here we go! Action!” So I had to relax my face and loosen up my body like everything was just fine! I had on Wellington boots, two pairs of long johns, trousers…so many layers. But my toes were like ice… they were freezing so much that I couldn’t feel them by the end of the shoot. And at the last shot, the water got into my boots! (She shudders.)
Oh! And the make up artist didn’t turn up, so I had to do my own make up myself.
MOM: Are you serious? The thing with the eye…you did that?
Wiyaala: Well, I’m an artist. So I just drew an outline and painted it. Sometimes you have to improvise. And for me, I’m always ready to do whatever it takes, at any point, at any time.
MOM: Ei. This is very serious!
Wiyaala: Very serious! The cameraman and director were surprised I was able to do this myself. They said, “Are you sure you can repeat this for two days?” And I said “Yeah!”
For me, make up is always easy. Once my eyebrows are done and I have lipstick and powder, I’m good to go.
MOM: Was that your first winter?
Wiyaala: Yes! And we were in the north, and they told me it was going to be colder than the rest of the country. I met a little girl (the director’s sister’s child) that had never seen a Black girl in her entire life before. She was shy of me at first but I charmed her with “magic” and we became good friends. I don’t know what it is when I’m among children. Just give me 20 or 30 minutes and they want to show me all their toys!
MOM: Where was the video shot?
Wiyaala: It was shot on a farm in Yorkshire. The director’s sister and her husband owned the property and we shot there and also a few other places in the area, including St. Mary’s Abbey.
MOM: When I watched the trailer for the video, I thought the plot was reminiscent of the Camelot era, with King Arthur and Guinevere. Earlier you mentioned that your love interest was a “Viking.” What’s the story behind that?
Wiyaala: There were Vikings that had settled in the north of England long ago, so we were going for a medieval look. The story is he’s traveling through the forest and hears singing and eventually encounters this beautiful woman. He follows her around the forest…
MOM: Eiiii! So are you a witch???…or you are some spirit?
Wiyaala: (She laughs.) Well…all women are witches. Good witches! (She becomes serious.) No, I’m more like an enchantress or a seductress (with my voice). The last verse says “let’s go to this place where nobody knows us – just the two of us.” Then we go and have fun. (She makes loud, smacking, kissing noises.)
MOM: Eiiii Wiyaaaaala!
Wiyaala: …and people were surprised at how cool I was in this video. Normally, I’m known for jumping around the stage – but this time it’s a love song. ‘Leno’ is performed in Wale, Sisaala and Dagaare
MOM: Yes, it’s true! All of your performances – like Tinambaynyi, for example – are known for being very strong, high-energy spectacles with lots of muscles and theatrics. This is probably the coolest I’ve ever seen you. It’s very different.
Wiyaala: I’ve also realized that sometimes when I’m writing some of my (newer) songs, some of them come out sounding different from the ‘normal Wiyaala’ afro-pop…sometimes they come out sounding like ragga/reggae. So I said, “I’m not going to limit myself. If it sounds good, I’ll perform it and perform it to the best of my ability.” I won’t force myself to recreate the typical ‘Wiyaala sound’.
I want to add more lyrics in English to my music with the aim of drawing a wider audience towards my traditional music in my local dialect. Music is music! If I can sing any genre of music, I will sing it.
MOM: So if you hear a song in Chinese, will you perform it?
She laughs and asks why not!
Wiyaala: Even if it’s “Gangnam style”, I’ll still sing it!
MOM: I’m glad we got to this point, because we’re talking about singing in other people’s languages and using visuals from their cultures in your music. Are people usually open to that?
Wiyaala: I am an entertainer! Sometimes you have to sacrifice to please your fans. When you’re visiting a foreign country – even if it’s just two lines in their local language – you saying “Good evening” or “My name is…” – it means a lot. And I know the power in that. If I learn a new language and manage to include one or two lines in my song….wow. People love it!
(She pauses to think.) I wouldn’t mind doing a song in French.
MOM: You know, Beyonce recently came under fire for her portrayal of a Bollywood performer in ‘Hymn for the Weekend’? What would be your response to someone who says that you are appropriating English culture/history in this video?
Wiyaala: For me as a musician, I’m just trying to tell a story. In this video, the plot was very close to those medieval or King Arthur days. And they even used to have Black people living in England in that era, so I personally don’t see anything wrong with it. And in a way, I realized that in the north of England where we were shooting, there were a lot of similarities between them and the north of Ghana where I’m from.
They are both isolated from the main cities. They both have only one shop that everybody goes to and when it’s closed, that’s it! At the end of the day, we are all branches of the same tree. I don’t find anything wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with learning. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating each others culture. It’s supposed to promote togetherness. If we understood each other, we’d have less conflict and war.
I was in Yorkshire on holiday as Wiyaala; but I had to opportunity to shoot this video and I wanted to do it to pay homage to the environment. I could have worn my African print, but I always do that. This was just something different to excite people.
MOM: Oh yeah. People LOVE your costuming for the video. The white hood, the headdress, the make up…
Wiyaala: But I do understand people’s concerns about appropriation…I think this happens when people go beyond. You can always tell when people are taking it too far.
MOM: Will you be shooting in other parts of the world?
Wiyaala: Oh yes – God willing. I’m full of vim this year. We have some locations we’re looking at. I’m just going to be shooting. *pew pew pew!!*
MOM: I could talk to you all night, but I have one last question. It’s about your upcoming film, ‘No Man’s Land’. How did you land that role? Did they approach you, did you approach them…
Wiyaala: Yes! The film comes out on February 13th at Silverbird Cinemas. It’s a Salma Mumin production about conflict in the Northern Region between two ethnic groups. I play an angry, vengeful girl named Dumuni who is trying to avenge her father’s death. In the midst of this conflict she wants peace, but at the some time she also wants to avenge her father.
MOM: So she’s torn…
Wiyaala: Yeah. And you know, I haven’t even seen the movie! I can watch myself on my videos because I’m singing…but talking? Oh no! It’s just different. I have butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it.
And some to find out that Salma Mumin and I are sisters…real sisters! Her mother and my mother are first cousins.
In the movie, there is a scene where I carry Adjetey Annan on my shoulder. Everyone told me I couldn’t do it, and that I should put him in wheelbarrow.
MOM: They didn’t know, eh?
Wiyaala: They couldn’t believe it! I had to do that take about five times. And when you look at my legs in that shot, you can really tell I used all my muscles. My ego wouldn’t let me put him in a wheelbarrow. He asked me, “Are you sure you can carry me?” And I told him, “Look, when I lift you, just relax. I’ll carry you!”
Noella, John (her manager) and I chatted for another 40 minutes afterwards. Our conversation concluded with them sharing a link to the full length feature of ‘Leno’ with me and listening to me loose my mind over the visuals and the story line. We talked a little more about beauty and race and of course – hair.
She made this humorous remark with regards to her tresses: “The day I see Brazilians wearing my hair is the day I will also buy their own!”
Somehow, I don’t see that happening.
Leno (This Place) is on Wiyaala’s self titled album, available on iTunes. Watch the official video here and share your reactions in the comments!