Black Composers Open Call: Joy Nkoyo

Watch the music video for I Still, the new work created by music artist Joy Nkoyo as part of the British Music Collection's 2022 Black Composers Open Call.

We’re thrilled to share I Still, a new work by Joy Nkoyo.

Joy Nkoyo is an award-winning vocalist, music producer, composer, songwriter and pianist from the UK. The expanse of her work falls across multiple genres; from collaborating with singers and rappers, to writing for orchestral instruments.

I Still is an audiovisual collaboration with cinematographer, James Lahaise. The piece reflects on Joy’s formative memories in music and draws on feelings associated with retrospective contemplation; nostalgia/sorrow. Sonically, the piece pays homage to the history of black vocal tradition.

Watch the music video for I Still below.

[[{"fid":"57469","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"default"}},"link_text":null,"attributes":{"height":720,"width":1280,"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"}}]]

Music by Joy Nkoyo, Cinematography by James Lahaise

This work was created as part of our 2022 nationwide call for new sonic works celebrating Black creators on the British Music Collection – read more about the other selected works here.

Q&A with Joy and Grace Bailey, Executive Administrator at Sound and Music
Can you start by telling me about yourself? How did you start to make music and what are your inspirations and influences?

My first impressions of music probably came from church. I grew up in Hounslow in a very religious (Pentecostal) Nigerian household, so church wasn’t just on Sundays. There, I saw people who played various instruments and were into music. Singing was a big part of church life, and I’d enjoy performing with friends, making up silly dances. At school, I had violin lessons, sang in choirs, and started to become known as the musical one. I eventually started writing my own songs and it developed from there. Secular music wasn’t played at home, so the music I could access was in little bits here and there; in the car on the radio, on TV, learning a new song in choir, learning about a composer in class. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about artists in depth and listened to albums. All I knew was I loved music; I loved playing it, I loved listening to it, I loved how it made me feel, and that I was good at it.

I’ve always found inspiration all over the place – categorisation interests me very little. I’m a sound nomad. What interests me most are people; I’ve always been drawn to musicians that are unafraid, that stand firm in themselves and in what makes them different.

You were awarded a grant to make this work as part of a specific open call for Black composers and music-creators. How has the project interacted with your experience of identity, history and culture as a Black creator in the UK?

This project has been really exciting for me. It’s the first time I’ve been funded to make something without creative limitations. I’ve had commissions before for specified orchestral instruments/ensembles, which felt very separate from the music I was making for myself. I’ve often felt I’ve had to distill myself into different forms, depending on the context of what I’m doing, which has resulted in many moments of crisis! Who am I in all of this? Now, more than ever, I can look to other Black creatives in the UK breaking the mould and being happy to exist in multiple dimensions, which I find really inspiring. This commission has been an opportunity to further merge my own artistry and my composition; something that has felt actually quite natural.

The video for this work explores your early experiences with music while growing up on a council estate. If you’re comfortable with sharing, how did it feel to revisit your childhood home in this context? Are you able trace a line directly through the impact that those early experiences had on your creativity and work ethic today?

The process was reflective for me, of course. The journey I’ve been on with music has taken me a long way from where I started. There’s a sense of wonder looking back at where it all began and how lucky I am to have found music. Music has given my life a sense of purpose and magic. It was interesting seeing where I grew up through the eyes of someone else. It created distance between myself and the environment. I also felt exposed and vulnerable at times, inviting James to observe and film. Growing up, I can count on one hand the number of times any friends came over; I’d much prefer to hang out at their place!

Being raised in challenging circumstances definitely raises questions: How much do these things define me? Where do I belong? Have I changed? Will I always be “lower class”? I believe my sense of not belonging is part of my creative search for new sounds and places; a place to call my own. I would say I work hard because of the challenges I’ve faced - I’ve had that fire under me from a young age, but I’ve realised that I don’t want that fire to kill my curiosity. It’s a balance. My experiences are part of my perspective, but I never wanted to feel limited by my background in terms of what I can learn, do or feel.

You incorporate a range of Black vocal traditions into the piece—what does tradition mean to you as a composer, and did working with your own voice in this way illuminate aspects of or throw out any challenges in your approach to creative practice?

I can appreciate “Black vocal tradition” is a huge umbrella term with room for interpretation… I was particularly inspired by early forms of African-American music; Spirituals, Gospel, and Blues, where the voice is a focal point and full of emotive power. I wanted to explore the common thread between my beginnings in music and singing serving as a mode of expression and transformation in economically or socially barren landscapes.

I believe tradition is about choosing which parts of the past to hold on to in an ever-shifting world. So, looking back on my own personal journey felt like a fitting parallel activity. Drawing on my Nigerian heritage, I wanted to incorporate the sense of elation and movement found in West African music. Rhythm is the driving force in this, so I was inspired by this particular element.

I enjoyed the concept that both lineages do a lot with very little. Every sound in my piece is made with my body—vocal sounds or body percussion, and I wanted the piece to be very short. It was really fun to make something with this kind of limitation.

What’s next for you, or for this project?

I’m definitely going to be making more music this year, but my big focus at the moment is the launch of my new podcast ‘Noise in the Gallery’. Over the past few months, I’ve been speaking to a wide range of musicians I admire about their inspirations and creative process. It’s been really enjoyable and I’m looking forward to putting it out. Watch this space!

You can find out more about Joy by heading to her website, or by following her on InstagramTwitter and Soundcloud.