By John Atkinson
Witch Prophet will be one of the standout acts at TD JazzFest 2023 as she brings her unique blend of East African and Toronto neo-soul, trip-hop and alternative R&B to Victoria.
The Kenyan-born artist will co-headline the Victoria Event Centre on Tuesday, June 27 (9 p.m.) with fellow Toronto artist STORRY and share the stage with her producer, and wife, SUN SUN.
Witch Prophet was born in Kenya, though her parents are from Ethiopia and Eritrea. She’s also hugely inspired by her grandfather, who raised five daughters as a single dad.
“It’s like a Romeo & Juliet love story with my parents, who escaped Ethiopia & Eritrea during the war and fled to Kenya. I was there until I was four and then we emigrated to Toronto in Canada, where I’ve lived the rest of my life.
“All my music is inspired by my life and lived experiences — so I can’t separate my queerness or blackness or African heritage from what I’m doing. It’ll sneak in either way.
“With DNA Activation, every song was named after a family member. The song Tesfay is about my grandfather on my mother’s side. That was such a fantastic video, filmed during COVID. The director Leah Vlemmiks hit me up on Instagram and was like ‘I really like this song, I’d love to do a video for/with you’.
“It was the first time we’ve had such a high-quality music video and shifted my perception of the value of visuals and music videos and how they can enhance your career.”
Witch Prophet is also hugely influenced by her wife, SUN SUN, who is her musical muse and partner in artistic creation.
Since the couple’s eyes met across a crowded Toronto street (Kensington Market) in 2009, the couple has been a musical powerhouse team.
“We’ve been together 14 years now and making music the whole time. I was initially in SUN SUN’s band, Abstract Random, and then we expanded into doing Witch Prophet.”
When the couple first met, Witch Prophet was making music professionally as Ayo Leilani. Soon the couple were running a music and arts collective called 88 Days of Fortune in Toronto. Eventually, it grew into their label, Heart Lake Records.
It wasn’t until she launched her debut album, The Golden Octave, in 2018 that Leilani took on the bolder artist name of Witch Prophet, inspired by a love for mysticism.
“The name was given to me by my friend and fellow artist and LA rapper Latashá after I gave her some psychic readings.
“I have prophetic dreams and consider myself a psychic. I’d give her readings and she’d always say ‘Thanks, Witch Prophet,’ and the name just stuck.”
Her debut album The Golden Octave was a multi-layered offering, opening with the lines “What if I told you just who I was?”, setting the listener up to receive her musical explorations of lived experiences as an East African, queer, and mother. As a whole, the album is ethereal and trance-like, with chilled-out beats and soft vocals.
With the release of that album, Prophet went all-in on her own music in 2018 and SUN SUN was a huge part of that.
“SUN SUN records everything I do and produced five or six songs on the first album; then all the songs on DNA Activation (which made it onto the Polaris Music Prize shortlist in 2020) and my most recent album Gateway Experience.”
Gateway Experience was released on May 1st and features 11 tracks of neo-soul, trip-hop and alternative R&B — all produced by SUN SUN bar one, co-produced with Junior T. Guest artists on the album include Zaki Ibrahim, Begonia, DillanPonders and SATE.
The songs from Gateway Experience will be the core part of their TD JazzFest setlist.
“The focus of the album is on the connection with the human brain, dreams, seizures, magic, out-of-body experiences and other-worldly abilities that we, as humans, can tap into.
“I’ll be focusing on Gateway Experience, which was three years in the making. I’ll be performing with SUN SUN and doing a lot more loops and visuals. We’re aiming to create an ethereal, mystical and haunting show.”
Witch Prophet said the success of DNA Activation was seminal.
“We didn’t have a publisher or booking agent until two years ago. Everything has sky-rocketed since the release of DNA Activation and it getting on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. I felt shock and awe to make the shortlist, but it was also amazing and exciting.”
JazzFest’s communications director Kristen Binley said the 2022 edition of JazzFest saw a welcome “full-force” return of live music post-COVID, including great turnouts at the new outdoor venues, the Cameron Bandshell at Beacon Hill Park and Bullen Park in Esquimalt.
This year, the festival has expanded from ten to 11 days of music, featuring more than 300 musicians in 70 performances across 10 stages around the city.
To learn more about Witch Prophet and JazzFest 2023, visit: witchprophet.com and jazzvictoria.ca. Cost-saving ticket packages are available exclusively through the Victoria Jazz Society Office. JazzFest runs Thursday, June 22 – Sunday, July 2, 2023.