Afra Kane is many things: Hypersensitive, as her debut LP was titled, rebellious, raw, and creative. The new album, Could We Be Whole is a testament to these multiple facets the Italian-Nigerian singer and pianist embodies. She takes a leap away from classical Western music education and finds beauty in imperfection, practice, and honesty. Inviting us in, Afra Kane includes her “Warm Up” into the record and is not afraid of missing the pitch to gain emotion.

I dial Afra Kane a few weeks before her record drops on March 1st. The title beautifully encompasses the richness of the music. It poses the question, Could We Be Whole? And encourages us to think about what being whole means. But even though the title does resonate, it was not the name Afra had initially wanted to give her record. She comments: “I wanted to give it a French name and call it brût. That means like something raw and rough and undefined.”

“This album is about exploring different layers of self and finding my own personal and artistic freedom. The record is a decomposition, it does not have the one organic sound to it. It has many parts. Ultimately, it is all our parts that make us whole. We are different things, and we make mistakes. Being whole to me, is about being free. That is the philosophy behind the title.”

What does being free mean to you?

Afra Kane: “Being free is something I have always longed for. I come from a very patriarchal family. In Italian and Nigerian culture everything revolves around men. If you grow up as a girl, you are expected to behave a certain way. Within our Nigerian family household, I also experienced strong hierarchies. I was the youngest, so everyone would always tell me what to do. I think this environment made me rebellious. Up until this day, I have a hard time with people telling me what to do – in my life and my music.”

How does that sense of rebellion and freedom translate to your music?

“I look for freedom in music by rejecting the sense of comfort that you get if stick to a specific genre. But I don’t want to be put into a box. To me, this musical freedom is also about challenging myself. Some songs are even hard for me to perform. Once you allow yourself to go into a space of discomfort you have to embrace imperfections. When you are trying new things, they can always come out differently than expected.”

Rebel Heart

Afra Kane expresses her approach to embracing imperfections in the songs Free Part 1 and Free Part 2. Both songs are smooth compositions of soulful jazz with Afra’s voice bouncing back and forth in experimental chants. She sings “I’m free” and her voice slips, cracks, and hits unexpected keys. In that loose and free expression lies the beauty of the track. On her journey to get to the place where she could work as freely as she does now, Afra Kane had to break many rules and structures. “It was such a rebellious act for me to go into higher education in an artistic field” she explains. “In Nigerian culture, that is nothing to be proud of – or at least for my parents, it wasn’t. They had a very negative image of musicians and performers.” 

Photo by Guillaume Perret

“Through my upbringing and as the youngest child, I learned to stand up for myself. I was always rebellious and never accepted these hierarchies.”

Making the rebellious decision to follow through with music, Afra Kane went on to study at a music conservatory, another environment that is hierarchical and comes with a lot of rules, pressure, and expectations. Music conservatories are also institutions still dominated by white men making it extra challenging for, especially Black, indigenous, and Women of Color to survive and thrive in these halls. Afra describes how she spent a lot of time trying to please her environment. “I loved studying classical music, but it is also a very white male-dominated field. It pushed me to pursue this journey of looking for a place, also musically, where I wouldn’t have to justify or explain myself.”

88 Keys

Part of the journey to finding that place was distancing herself from the classical conservatory way of making music. In the process of making the new record, Afra Kane rediscovered a childlike relationship with her instrument: the piano. Afra says: “I don’t want to prove to everyone anymore that I can be a virtuosic pianist and play very complicated stuff. I stopped obsessing about perfectionism that came from the conservatory. Now, I think I am going back to the relationship I used to have with the piano as a kid. It was my best friend and a place where I could go when nobody could hear or understand me.”

The relationship that Afra Kane formed with the piano began when her mother introduced the idea of playing piano for church to the young artist. While Afra found great joy, she also tells me that she remembers having to go to church without wanting to – another experience that strengthened her drive for rebellion. “My parents wanted me to play in church. They didn’t plan on me getting into classical music, but I was really sensitive to it. At first, they were not supportive of me going to the conservatory, but they came around. They supported me through my studies, but I think they never really understood.”

Could We Be Whole grows out of all these experiences. There are gospel-like chants, and moments when the piano shines, like on “Vision”, where Afra Kane’s classical training comes through. Relying on the diverse settings in which she played the piano, the instrument becomes a steady and versatile companion to the musical visions Afra Kane put onto tape with her new record. “Sometimes you don’t realize how much things influence you until you start creating. Things came back to me, especially Nigerian gospel music that I was surrounded by. It was interesting to approach that again. I am not a fan of the church’s dogmatism and didn’t like being forced to go as a kid. But especially with the Nigerian gospel music coming back to me, I think subconsciously there is a will to reconnect with my roots and get to know more about my ancestry.”  

The Whole Picture

This drive to reconnect to her roots comes out on “Paranoïa”. Afra Kane describes the way the chant-like song came to her as tribal and unexpected. “It came as a shock. The music did not sound like anything I had ever created before. I recorded the song in the middle of the night when I needed a break from working on another track. This loud chanting ‘Aye Aye’ came out and at that moment, I did not think about pitch. It was just about vibration. I want to work on accepting, embracing, and exploring all the sounds that come from me.”

“Paranoïa” is the song that closes the record. Instead of giving the album a round finish, the song tears it wide open again. It is a disruption that Afra Kane placed intentionally. “I wanted this song to really shake you up”, she laughs. It worked, through all of the record’s highlights, it is “Paranoïa” that stuck with me the most. 

Could We Be Whole is a mosaic of different musical tiles that each shine on their own but together they make a weird and wonderful image. An image that does not necessarily make sense, but it is not supposed to. You can step back, look at it, and see in it whatever you choose. Afra Kane embraces all the parts of her story, musical education, and self, ultimately leading to this record, which has an infectiously freeing sound to it. Could We Be Whole is spelled without a question mark because maybe if we take a step away from the individual pieces, we see that we have been whole all along.

Could We Be Whole is out now via Warner Music.