In the midst of a global health pandemic which has highlighted the extent of racial inequality and economic disparity in our society, the much anticipated return of Ayanna Witter-Johnson could not have been more welcomed or perfectly timed.
“Turn up the volume let’s hear the sound/I am the speaker let’s gather round” are the opening words of an EP which puts Witter-Johnson firmly at the centre of a conversation with our ancestral consciousness. There is no mincing of words here. On the song ‘Rise Up’, she paints a vivid picture of life during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, detailing the mental and physical manipulation deployed to destroy countless African civilisations (“striving to keep you under the thumb/blind you with tricks so that you succumb”). These same lyrics could be applicable to the Jim Crow Era, the Civil Rights era and as recently as today with the Black Lives Matter movement. As evidenced by the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of American law enforcement and the criminal justice system’s refusal to take immediate action.
However, the sentiment expressed on the EP is more intertwined with the latter part of the chorus than it is with the first verse (“leave the chains on the ground/time to turn this thing around”), it is a beacon of hope piercing through the darkness.
More than capable of relaying this message on her own, Witter-Johnson’s musical sensibilities towards collaboration see her enlist the services of Akala on the opening song. He doesn’t disappoint. True to form, Akala uses his verse to speak to the potential of the oppressed when we become aware of our self-worth and we possess with strength in numbers.
Her critically acclaimed debut album ‘Road Runner’ was far broader in its scope, fearlessly grappling with themes like romance, family and attachment. In stark contrast, ‘Rise Up’ is succinct and laser focused in its messaging.
Witter-Johnson is a musician in the purest sense of the word. The art she manifests into the world has always been formless (RnB, Jazz, Classical, etc.). She draws inspiration from her classically training at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and marries it beautifully with the soulfulness of her Jamaican heritage. On her previous project, she aimed for the stars with an ambitious cover of Sting’s ‘Roxanne’, but this time around everything seems more grounded and spiritual. The second song on the EP is a modern-day take on the classic 1976 anthem ‘Declaration of Rights’ by the Reggae Roots group The Abyssinians. It features the unmistakable tones and beatboxing of the legendary Cleveland Watkiss, beautifully complementing the rich essence of Witter-Johnson’s voice. Whilst it doesn’t explicitly reference him, it is clear that this EP was birthed from the seeds of one of Witter-Johnson and Jamaica’s forefathers, Bob Marley. Rise Up echoes the messages of Marley’s timeless records ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ and ‘Exodus’ among others.
In an appearance on the BBC Sounds’ show ‘This Classical Life’, she spoke to the host (Jess Gilham) about being inspired by Marley’s music. She said: “it tells history in an uplifting way and shows the people how they can think other themselves. Think the best of yourselves and stand up for your rights”.
The album cover itself acts an extended metaphor. It shows Witter-Johnson in a fierce warrior stance, armed with nothing but a bow in her right-hand and the neck of her cello in her left. She is ready to go to war with her most powerful weapon against injustice, her music.
Despite the presence of collaborators and an emphasis on lyricism, there is no shortage of work for her cello (who she affectionately refers to as “Reuben”). Throughout the EP, her mastery of the cello forms the backdrop from which she and the other artists on the project can express themselves, but on the final song we hear her in her element. ‘Rise Up Riddim’ is an absorbing display of technical brilliance, every vibration, every frequency, every string, all in harmonious alignment.
In three songs Witter-Johnson succeeds in capturing the duality of the Black experience; it is to feel trauma, but it is also to know that our very existence is a testament to the resilience of those who came before us.
One can only hope that the day will come where an EP of this nature will no longer be required, but the world we live has offered no such promise of an immediate change. Rise Up is a timely, necessary and infinitely uplifting body of work from one of our generation’s finest talents.
Have You Heard The Rise Up EP? What Did You Think Of It? Are There Any Artists You Would Want To See Collaborate With Ayanna Witter-Johnson Next?
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