With this anthem for life, the french twins of cuban origins deliver a powerful chant of strength, unity and hope against state violence.
The opening verse tells the story of a stop-and-search by a police officer. This is a true story about an event that Lisa-Kaindé, who sings the song, lived in the Paris metro when she was younger. (Sound Exploder, 2017) The traumatic encounter echoes the writings of Françoise Verges who writes about “those children who the police […] apprehends as adults” (Vergès, 2020) in the same context of current day France. These brutal forms of state violence are plagued with racial bias. (HRW, 2021) While often promoted as means of security and protection, the artist suggests otherwise as she was personally left “shaken” and “frozen with fear” (Sound Exploder, 2017) while many were left “for dead in the streets” (Ibeyi, 2017).
Another song of the album, “No man is big enough for my arms”, samples a speech by Michelle Obama stating that “the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”. For Ibeyi, this speech was both poetic and empowering (Samway, 2017). It is only fair to say that their sound has similar properties.
The powerful hook then follows:
Whatever happens, Whatever happened,
We are deathless! We are deathless!
Sang by many voices, it rings like a war chant and fills the listener with power. The message was inspired by “the dark times for the world” when the album was written as Lisa discussed in an interview with Fader, referencing the election of Donald Trump (Mistry, 2017). She goes on to explain her desire for “humans being together and loving each other no matter what.” a desire for sorority and general unity. The word ‘deathless’ takes a deeper meaning beyond everlasting and immortal when looking at the video clip for the song which pictures the two twins dying and giving birth to each other again and again. Life itself coming from the womb, through fertility, the twins are able to transcend death. It is fertility that gives them power to continue the struggle, their body becoming a war machine. This can be linked to Gago’s idea of a war on women’s bodies who states that both feminised bodies and land or territories are seen as “surfaces of colonisation, conquest, and domination”. (Gago, 2020) The twins are through this imagery reclaiming the right to their bodies and also actively taking part in the feminist struggle against such domination.
The second verse tells the rest of the stop and search, with the policeman’s racist comment. This highlights how women of colour can be discriminated against in specific ways, at the intersection of patriarchy and racism. She sings about her “funny look, with her books”, which she suggests in the interview might be the reason for the officer leaving her alone: He saw she had a big book, a partition, he froze and “thought She might have a little bit of intelligence” stopped and left. (Song Exploder, 2017). She concludes the verse by stating how she was “Left for dead in the streets”
The hook comes around like a resurrection, opposing that last statement: “We are deathless!”
Kamasi Washington then takes us away with a beautiful saxophone solo, infusing sorrowful tones into the melody carried by rhythmic traditional drums, a massive part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of Ibeyi. Drums of war, drums of life, the Cuban percussions give a thrilling tempo that only amplifies the empowering capacity of the song.
B. Jeannerod & J. Sunderland, 2021, Time to Stop Ethnic Profiling in France: Organizations Initiate Procedure to Push for Reforms to End Widespread Abuses, Human Rights Watch.
Sound Exploder, 2017, Episode 116: Ibeyi-Deathless.
A. Mistry, 2017, Ibeyi’s Home, Fader.
F. Vergès, 2020, A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, Pluto Press.
V. Gago, 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything. Translated by Liz
G. Samways, 2017, Ibeyi // Interview, London in Stereo.