Interview: Mohammed Yahya – Native Sun (March 2017)

If London had its own soundtrack, it would have to include a Native Sun tune. The duo composed of Mohammed YahyaSarina Leah are one of the most truthful musical portrayals of the British capital, gathering together an all-embracing influence, ranging from South-East Africa to the Caribbean islands and mirroring the quintessentially urban identity of the city.

In less than a month, on the 28th of April, Native Sun will perform at Rich Mix for Rhythm Passport’s second event at the Shoreditch venue. We feel honoured to host a project like the one created by Sarina and Mohammed 7 years ago, because they’re not simply (as Mohammed introduces them) “London’s freshest hip-hop, Afro-Soul duo”, but also because the opportunity doesn’t arise every day to work with such open-minded, conscious and proactive artists.

However, don’t take our words as gospel truth; see what Mohammed himself had to say while chatting to us a few days ago.

“Me and Sarina have known each other for over 12 years and have been friends for a long time always respecting each other’s art. I’ve always respected her as a musician, I have known her as a singer/songwriter for a long time and she has also seen the development of my art form as a solo artist as well as an individual collaborating with and being part of other projects.

In 2010 we decided to work on a couple of tracks initially, without even a name for the project, I already an idea for the project and a specific sound to create. So, I asked her to collaborate on two tracks, and the energy was just right! We developed a really good friendship and continued to create music. So, before we knew it, we had an album and shortly after that we went to America, where we did a whole tour. We even performed at such amazing festivals, like SXSW in Texas. Then, we did a few American tours and from that it started to become something bigger and we started touring all over the world (Europe, Mexico, and Sudan.)”

Native Sun’s journey is a continuous work in progress. More than the band’s sound, which is anchored to the roots of the musicians and their everyday London experiences, it’s about their approach to music and life. When two inventive musical minds get to know each other, it’s a never-ending process of growth:

“Our concept of music hasn’t changed over the years, but there’s so much you can express in one album… So, I feel that we are constantly progressing and growing as artists and there’s so much you can say with your ideas and what you want to create in one album.

Then we are constantly growing as individuals, in terms of our faith, vision of life, morals and teachings. In addition, Sarina is now becoming a mother, so that will change the perspective even further. Anyway, if we are talking about our music, the theme and the idea of having that sound, which has got a really African inspired element, blended with hip-hop and mixed with other genres of music, that’s still there”.

Despite Mohammed’s explanation that their approach to music is similar, it’s also inevitable to notice how their primary inspirations come from traditions that are worlds apart. Mohammed’s is related to Mozambique, while Sarina has her roots in the Caribbean and St. Lucia. So, we asked how it felt to blend these worlds together.

“We try to make sure that through our music we incorporate the elements of both mine, and Sarina’s identities. We have tracks that have more of a reggae influence, like ‘Day by Day’. Then, there’re other tracks with more African influences. At the same time, there’s a track called ‘Solei’ that has samples from Mozambique, but in the chorus Sarina sings in traditional Creole from St Lucia and I rap in Portuguese. So we try to bring together, and express all the elements that make our identities in our music”.

Another crucial aspect of Native Sun’s music is intrinsic to its lyrics. As a matter of fact, you won’t find ordinary words listening to their songs, because they aren’t written by ordinary authors.

“I feel that my music is a reflection of myself. I need to be honest in my lyrics. Whatever I’m going through, whether it be pain, love or struggles, or if I’m very upset about what is going on in America with Trump, or Africa with the stealing of natural resources, whatever is going on in my life, I have to reflect it in my music.

Then, a lot of songs that we have written start from conversations between us. If you look, for example, at a song like ‘Summer Rain’, which is about the environment, that started off just with me and Sarina talking about the environment itself and we built the lyrics on that conversation. Then, even in songs like ‘Gallery of Dream’, which is included on Indigenous Soundwaves, Sarina is talking and that was actually in real circumstances. We were in the studio talking about something and I decided to record it and catch that moment. From that, we kind of built ideas and the song flourished”.

It goes without saying that music is an effective medium for Mohammed to reach and inspire people.

“I feel that music is something which is getting bigger and bigger. When you look at hip-hop music for example, you see that there’s really something going on. Chuck D said that hip-hop is “the CNN of the ghetto” and that’s true! If you look at how people use the platform and hip-hop and rap art forms, you will notice how they can truly articulate the struggles they’re going through on a daily basis. That’s why people relate so much to hip-hop music when they live in shanty towns. This happens from Palestine to Mozambique, from Brooklyn to Brixton. Wherever it is, people can relate to it. If you look around, you can easily see that hip-hop has become so, so vast and that’s because it is still the language of the youth”.

As written, Native Sun are one of the most genuine expressions of the London sound. They’re clearly inspired by their city and you can constantly catch a sight of London in their songs. We wanted to ask Mohammed about his relationship with the British capital, and the London music scene, what he likes and doesn’t like about it…

“I feel honoured to be part of such a vibrant scene. It is constantly progressing and there are remarkable upcoming rappers, poets, singers, spoken word artists, filmmakers. It is such a vibrant scene, because London itself is such a beautiful melting pot of cultural diversity. People are coming from different parts of the world and their experiences are reflected in their art. That’s why it’s a great honour to be part of it.

At the same time there are many lows. Many places are shutting down for example. This is not something that is related specifically to hip-hop, but I’m now talking about Fabric. They locked it down, but then recently people re-opened it. People protested, they came together and now Fabric is open again! That’s the power of the people and that’s the key. The more we come together, the more we can do.

It’d be great to have more support from the government, but that’s a dream. So, if you want to do something… then, rather than rely on hand-outs, you’d better create something by yourself! Many years ago, myself, Poetic Pilgrimage and another guy called Jnr Sas; we were very disappointed with events, conscious events in particular. We wanted events that were compatible with our morals, in terms of our faith and places that didn’t have drugs and alcohol. We were looking forward to finding places where people could come and be super positive. So, we saw that there was a void within the industry and we decided to create a night called Rebel Muzik. That went on successfully for four years and we also released a compilation from them.

So, ultimately, it’d be great to receive the support from local authorities, and have them invest more money into the art scene. Then, it’d be great to have radio stations supporting local artists too and promoting diversity. But, at the same time, I think that it’s up to the people to support the artists and the events that are taking place”!

So we wondered, who are the musicians that Mohammed is supporting today, who are the ones he’s currently listening to and who inspire him?

“I’m inspired by various genres of music, in terms of my direct circle, I love a dope Afro-Caribbean Hip Hop Hijabi duo Poetic Pilgrimage, Mexican rapper Bocafloja. We have done a few tracks together and there’s a lot more coming out. He’s a remarkable artist. I’m currently listening to a lot of music from Oddisee a dope Sudanese rapper who lives in DC.

Outside of hip-hop I listen to a lot of world music, I listen to everything from Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde to Mussukos from Mozambique. I absolutely love Bonga from Angola, Mulatu Astatke from Ethiopia and Oumou Sangare from Mali. Ultimately, there’s a wide variety of music I listen to, depending on the the mood I’m feeling.

Going back to Native Sun music, the band is almost ready to release a sequel to their album titled Indigenous Soundwaves. We close our interview with Mohammed by trying to understand a bit more about the work and its production.

“We have 70% completed a brand new album, which hopefully will be released by the summer and it is going to be called Mother Tongue. We’re really really excited about the album because it has some dope collaborations and it explores our identities on a personal level. I love the production too and we are really enjoying working on it. I also want to say a big shout out to Kensaye, who’s our percussionist, an amazing producer and rapper and also to KMT Freedom Teacher, who’s a DJ. They have been really helping us during the last couple of years and have been really important for us.

Last week we started performing some new tracks from our new albums. So, yes there are a couple of tracks that we are performing and bringing into our new set”.


Fancy a teaser of Native Sun’s new album? Join us on the 28th of April at Rich Mix (you can buy your ticket HERE), where Sarina and Mohammed will perform next to other nifty acts like Lakuta, Family Atlantica Duo and DJ Pete from On the Corner Records.