Artists find inspiration from all sorts of places. For New York-based artist Yonkwi, his cultural heritage provides much of the inspiration and influence for his music.
Yonkwi’s father passed the name down to him, a big and important responsibility in many African cultures. It took a while for him to be OK with using the name on his art.
“I wanted to make sure I was comfortable in my own skin before I used it,” he says. “Once I was, I decided not to be ashamed of it, and make my dad proud.”
Originally born in Tokyo to Cameroonian parents, Alvin Yonkwi Mbayu and his family immigrated to New York City when he was six years old. Moving to a new country at a young age was tough on Yonkwi, and he tended to keep to himself.
“I was the kid that no one really expected anything from. I was the nervous, shy, do-it-in-the-corner type kid,” he says. He always found himself to be a creative person. As a kid in Tokyo, he developed a love for anime, but it wasn’t until a few years after moving to America that he discovered his love for hip hop.
“All my life I’ve always been creating, and one day I was in my room and just decided to start making music.” He started getting really heavy into making beats in high school, but his classmates didn’t always make it easy.
“When I was in high school I was teased for being weird and an introvert — I was the one African kid that wasn’t running track. But when I went to Cameroon, I felt like a different person. Everybody would treat me with respect and love,” he says. “When you go somewhere where you’re respected, you just want to give the utmost love back.”
This is why Cameroonian and African culture and music is so prevalent in his sound. Going there every summer brings a lot of warmth and good memories to him, and for this, he wants to put his country on the map.
“I want people to know that Cameroon is a lot more than just that country under Nigeria.”
With a steadily growing catalogue of singles and an audio movie, bous[SOUL], already under his belt, Yonkwi released his latest single “Ripe Plantain” a few weeks ago.
Self-produced (as are all his current releases) and clearly showing the influence of African music with a heavy dose of wood drums, “Ripe Plantain” is an upbeat, lively, and energetic track. It’ll make you feel warm and get up on your feet.
The track was inspired by its namesake — plantains are a popular food in many African and Asian cultures. In western African countries, fried plantains — or “dodo” — is one of the most popular foods. The more they ripen, the darker and sweeter they get. There’s a…phallic… double entendre at play here, enjoying a ripe plantain. Connect the dots. But, Yonkwi insists the song is about a lot more than that literal reference.
“It’s about being funny and goofy and loving more so than being incredibly sexual. That’s why there’s a lot of funny tribal innuendos.” Regardless, it’s a track that’ll get you grooving. And people are starting to take note.
“I never fathomed how much support I’d get from my friends and family,” he says about the reaction to the song. “African parents aren’t very keen on their kids trying to do this. They don’t believe in the concept of being an artist.”
With “Ripe Plantain” gaining some serious plays and his fanbase growing, Yonkwi isn’t about to slow down. A smart guy, he wants to continue to release single until people actually “care enough” to listen to a whole EP or mixtape.
Regardless of where he goes, his culture, his upbringing, and his experiences as a kid will always weigh heavy on the music — and he wants kids who had some hard experiences to know that it’s OK to be different.
“You can be that kid that’s weird. You can be that kid that’s from that weird place. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Embrace yourself. Break barriers any way that you can… Just be fuckin’ gorgeous and the best you you can be.”