Not only is Pietro NoLita in Manhattan an Instagrammer’s dream come true, but the rose-colored, 1950’s-tinged restaurant also features pleasant touches of girl power. From the Hillary Clinton nutcracker on the shelf by the entrance to the pastel-colored napkin placed under table utensils stamped with the words “pink as f**k,” there’s enough feminism to fit the cramped corners of the box-shaped eatery. Much like in the ‘50s, the modern-day feminista is fully content in respectfully disrupting the status quo and rebelling against society’s ideas of conformity and femininity, which is why this was the perfect place to meet with OSHUN.
The hip-hop/rap/R&B duo consisting of Thandiwe and Niambi Sala own an electric energy and self-assured feminine power that can also be described as “pink as f**k.” The D.C. natives—who gently place five miniature sunflowers on our table to “clear the air”—waltz in decked out in ivory nylon jumpsuits, piercing white contacts and sunglasses with canary yellow lenses, their loc’d hairstyles adorned with cowrie shells.
Despite dressing similarly (and ordering the same meal of pasta and grapefruit juice), these 22-year-old vocalists and MCs have their own distinct personalities and journeys with music. Passionate Thandi (“pronounced like Ghandi”) grew up listening to varied styles from jazz to neo-soul to hip-hop, and started to toy with production and deejaying in high school. Easy-going Niambi grew up in a musical family, performed in a rock band in high school, and experimented with songwriting to “creatively express [herself].”
The fire signs met at a freshman orientation at NYU in 2013, where they noticed their compatibility stretched far beyond a musical sphere. “It was kind of like that movie Roommate that came out mad long ago,” Thandi says with a laughs. “We’re super radical with things. There’s a lot of people who meet us right here, but we’re already over here.” The team says that their like-mindedness, mutual friends and afrocentricity contributed to their personal and professional relationship. They aimed to make music that carried an air of intentionality, since that’s where they find common ground.
“Our [NYU scholarship] program was awarded to those who did a lot of community service and were interested in social justice and leadership. That was the context that we met in,” Niambi says. “So then we were like, ‘let’s do this music together, let’s create together…’ I think [us doing music together] was a combination of knowing and then a little bit of ‘let’s ride this and see where it goes.” They performed at several campus-events, many of which were organized by the school’s Black Student Union. They even opened for Jesse Boykins during one of their earliest performances.
Since then, OSHUN has received resounding co-signs from artists such as Kehlani, Willow Smith, Flatbush Zombies, Princess Nokia, Lion Babe and Jorja Smith, who is featured on their debut album, bittersweet vol. 1. They welcomed listeners into the “OSHUNIVERSE” in 2014 with their introductory EP, AFAHYE, which was followed by their 2015 mixtape, ASASE YAA, named for Mother Earth. Their discography contains songs such as the reflective “I Wake Up/ Stay Woke,” the trap-tinged “Blessings On Blessings,” and the musical reverie, “Not My President,” which features political commentary from a black millennial lens. They credit acts like Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Prince and Nina Simone as a few of their inspirations.
Bittersweet vol. 1 was released on Apr. 6, and features 10 versatile songs that aim to hydrate the world’s “space-age shawties.” They possess a delivery reminiscent of acts like Erykah Badu and Ms. Lauryn Hill; when coupled with their inherently woke spirits, the project produces a tonal triumph only the constellations could create. It’s sonically separate from their past works, where they interpolated beats and lyrics from inspirations such as Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Queen Latifah, Gil Scott Heron and A Tribe Called Quest.
“Bittersweet vol. 1 is all stuff that we created from scratch. It was nothing, then it was something,” Niambi says with a smile. “It’s very futuristic, but also nostalgic.” Inspiration from the past to feed the future is evident in the moxie-filled tunes such as “Me,” “Solar Plexus” and “Glow Up.”
“[bittersweet vol. 1] is very much about the journey, the steps. First loving yourself, and then walking towards spiritual love in other ways.”
“I’m excited to see the wave that [bittersweet vol. 1] creates in the industry and the culture,” Thandi says. “All artists bounce off of each other, and I’m excited to see how this project inspires the rest of the culture—not directly who listens to us and who was inspired—but just our presence in that space, and what it’ll do to the overall creative process in the end.”
Named after the African goddess of of love, beauty, sexuality and fertility, OSHUN is at one with their feminine energy. During bouts of self-doubt or lack of energy, the twosome remember their relationship with a higher spirit and their ancestors, which in turn helps them understand themselves.
“When I think of Oshun, she’s just so powerful, potent and present, and feminine,” says Niambi, whose parents instilled the importance of spirituality in her from a young age. “To be potently present in your femininity, you have to be able to love yourself to do that. For us to be able to have the confidence to be present in these spaces, to be present in in hip-hop, which is a very male-dominated space, and to be loud, to be disruptive, to be healing…You have to have a certain level of love for yourself, connection with yourself, confidence in yourself and your femininity.”
“To know that I’m the child of life…I love myself,” Thandi adds, whose own name means “the beloved one” in Zulu (she is the daughter of “an astute Pan-Africanist”). “We all feel insecure, we all doubt ourselves. But when you realize you’re literally the child of love, water, the creator, the Great Mother…it’s like ‘no, I’m actually perfect.” [Smiles] I’m mad poppin’, yo!’”
OSHUN has displayed their knack for marrying the positive aspects of femininity, while also displaying the crunchiness that these characteristics may carry. “What does femininity sound like?” Niambi queried at Instagram’s “Black Girl Magic” influencer event back in February. “It sounds sweet, but even that is multidimensional, because with sweetness, there’s also bitterness.” These parallels can also be found in the phenomena known as Black Girl Magic, which Niambi believes comes with “reclaiming and reaffirming” your feminine energy through self-love and self-care.
“[Black Girl Magic] is being able to nurture yourself, before you fill anyone else’s cup, you fill yourself,” she explained. “That’s where the magic comes from: from you being well, from you being taken care of, because that’s you loving yourself. I definitely had moments where I questioned myself, my beauty, as we all do, just because of the society that we live in. I do think that I was fortunate to have a lot of powerful, magical black women around me that affirmed me, even when I did feel uncomfortable with my blackness.”
“When we are told we’re magic, we’re told, ‘That’s evil, that’s bad, that’s scary,’” Thandi explains. “There’s a really critical time now where people are observing inherent magic that we have. Not even on just a mystic, superpower level, but just our ability to nurture families and bring forth life.”
“OSHUN has just always been kicking through the door radically black,” she adds. “That’s been the foundation of our friendship, that’s the foundation of our music, and it just doesn’t feel right for us as individuals to sensor ourselves. That’s not how we work. We’ve never been afraid of that! As opposed to being surrounded by so much stimuli, pain, joy, sweetness, frustration, bitterness, just remembering that there is somebody who prayed for me to be here, and that I’m here so somebody else can be here. It makes a difference.”
The dynamic duo is hoping to expand listeners understanding of their place in the world by continuing to push the sounds of inner peace and prosperity with their music. “OSHUN’s presence in the industry, I think it will offer another side,” Niambi says. Their multifaceted messages reach listeners who range from kids to teens to older humans from the U.S. to Brazil to Europe. “One that is radical, one that is peaceful, one that is sweet, one that is fun… It just offers that perspective. ‘I can be at peace. I can do my part in the world, I can make this world a better place just by making sure that I’m a good person by being kind, by checking in with myself and going through my own experiences, processing them, and just being alive.’”
“That’s where the magic comes from: from you being well, from you being taken care of, because that’s you loving yourself.”
“This album kind of plays with those themes,” Thandi adds. “You know, you have to love yourself, in order for anybody to love you, and for you to be able to love anybody. It’s really that journey for us. Our artistry, our lives, are driven by love. [bittersweet vol. 1] is very much about the journey, the steps. First loving yourself, and then walking towards spiritual love in other ways.”
As their album opener “Welcome” states, it’s OSHUN’s “time to take over the planet,” and it appears that everything will be in good hands.