Space Afrika: Foreground music
On the second track of Space Afrika’s new album, Honest Labour, two characters appear out of nowhere, discussing how to tell if you’re in love. Just as the female voice is about to reveal the answer, the song ends. Listen closely to the following track and you’ll find some sort of response; an enigmatic and distorted sample singing, “I don’t wanna lose your love.”
Joshua Inyang and Joshua Tarelle, the producers behind the project, call it an “overlapping moment”. It’s a real-life dialogue between separate musical expressions, and between their independent paths, with Inyang in their native Manchester and Tarelle in Berlin. It’s also the kind of fragmented, illusionary interaction that makes Space Afrika’s music tick.
Inyang and Tarelle are Manchester through and through. Their story stretches back some 20 years, when the two school friends first began exploring their city’s music scene. They set off on a mission to create the sounds they were missing, nerding out on the technicals of 90s dub techno and spurring on each other’s early productions. When Inyang moved to Bradford for university, they adapted to working remotely. Now, operating between Manchester and Berlin comes naturally. They are modern communicators, constantly sharing ideas via numerous platforms to continue the healthy competition that’s fuelled them since childhood. Speaking to them over video call, you get a sense of how their energies balance each other out: Inyang welcomes opportunities to go deep on their art; Tarelle, more reserved, interjects with concise words of wisdom.
The first Space Afrika record emerged in 2014 on the Where to Now? label. Their early experiments translated the post-industrial architecture of Inyang and Tarelle’s surroundings into smoky, dubwise house and techno. A gift for abstract storytelling led to the Jan Jelinek-style glitch of Somewhere Decent to Live four years later, before hybtwibt? revealed the full extent of their vision. One of 2020’s finest and most timely electronic releases, hybtwibt? is an artistic reaction to the murder of George Floyd, as well as their own experiences of racism in Britain. The mixtape – the name stands for ‘have you been through what I’ve been through?’ – captured a particular moment in history through tense sounds; crackling reverb, undulating drones and powerful monologues all feed into the uneasy mood. It was a clear turning point for their music and its rich emotional landscape, and one that laid the foundations for Honest Labour.
The album arrives this August on LA-via-NYC label, Dais Records. Much like Tarelle and Inyang themselves, it looks the part, dressed in a hyper-detailed campaign of monochrome photography, music videos and cryptic social media messaging. The sound, which pushes beyond the edge-of-clubland confines of their early work, is thoughtful and complex. Now assured in their ability to make urgent music, Inyang and Tarelle have laid their feelings bare. “You realise what you’re capable of when you’re in the worst situations of your life,” Inyang says, referring to events that inspired hybtwibt?, and subsequently Honest Labour. “There’s nothing that should stop us from pushing further now.”
Over the album’s 19 tracks, scuzzy hip-hop samples cut into emotive cello pieces, weightless sound collages or post-Burial UKG. Some songs feel like interludes, and some of the interludes feel like sketches, but all together it makes for a compelling story. “[Honest Labour] is an opportunity for us to showcase what we can do outside the dub and ambient bracket,” Tarelle explains. “This album reflects the kinds of music we have grown up listening to. Feel-good, timeless music by artists like Tricky, Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu. It’s no surprise that we’ve arrived here.”
Alongside artists like Chino Amobi or Kelman Duran, Space Afrika are subverting the idea of ambient music as apolitical, meditative landscapes made primarily by white men. “Ambient is usually associated with natural sounds,” continues Tarelle, “but what we do is inner city ambient for chaotic living. We’re not out field recording waterfalls. We live in the North, it’s rainy as shit anyway.” This concept is the beating heart of Space Afrika; a need to interpret the world as they see it, not as the world thinks they should.
In order to broaden and reinforce their vision, the pair brought in a host of in-person and remote collaborators, with the likes of LA Timpa, local rapper Blackhaine, guest (AKA Jasmine Butt from Jabu) and cellist HforSpirit all contributing to the album. “The thing about focusing on our own journey has dissipated,” the duo agree. “It’s not about us anymore, it’s about creating a community.” Almost everyone involved with the record is a friend of theirs, many local to Manchester. Having been supported by these musicians and creatives when Inyang and Tarelle had little to show, it’s time for them to give back.
“Ambient is usually associated with natural sounds, but what we do is inner city ambient for chaotic living”
That rawness is also expressed in the album’s structure. The tracks are straight to the point, as if to cut through the noise. “People’s attention spans are burned,” Inyang tells me. “We rely on one-minute clips on Instagram and that’s the whole story. Looking back at our previous music, it builds slowly. Now, we challenge ourselves to tell the story in the least amount of time.”
It worked. The result is addictive, like trying to make sense of a film on a flickering screen. “If anyone wanted to put the idea and the sound of the project into one image,” Tarelle says, “the album artwork is one thousand percent it. Manchester in the rain, hoods up, nighttime, lamp posts, puddles, amber lights beaming and Tibyan [Mahawah Sanoh, collaborator] at our bus stop. Real beauty.” These local specifics keep their music real. Tarelle goes on: “It’s all lived experience. We bleed into the music, it’s therapy, and the album is only finished when all of that has been pulled out of us.”
“We bleed into the music, and the album is only finished when all of that has been pulled out of us”
As the conversation begins to wind down, talk turns to their current listening habits. Inyang says he has been mainly drawn to artists who “changed moments in time” – Goldie and DJ SS are his examples. Space Afrika’s music has the potential to do the same. “Tapping into that energy,” Inyang reflects, “we realised how those pioneering artists have rubbed off on us. This is what’s significant, this is how it works. Why isn’t there anything happening like this now? That’s where we got to, then we made the album.”
Honest Labour is out on 27 August via Dais Records