The complex interior worlds of Jason Reynolds, Alisa Weilerstein, and Ibeyi, explored.
Jason Reynolds is a bestselling author of young adult and middle grades novels that speak to the experiences of young black males. Among his many accolades, he won a Kirkus Prize in 2016 for As Brave As You and a Newbery Honor and Printz Honor in 2018 for Long Way Down.
Born in 1983 in Washington, DC, and raised in Oxon Hill, MD, Reynolds studied English at the University of Maryland. He published several collections of poetry before writing his first young adult novel, When I Was The Greatest (2014), at the encouragement of author Chris Myers, son of revered children’s book writer Walter Dean Myers.
Reynolds has since released a steady output of novels for young people featuring African American teenagers as the protagonists. All American Boys (2015) describes a teen assaulted by a white police officer. As Brave As You follows two brothers from Brooklyn who spend the summer in Virginia. Long Way Down depicts a 15-year-old who sees his brother shot to death.
Alisa Weilerstein is a preeminent cellist who has appeared with all the major orchestras of the United States, Europe, and Asia. She was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2011.
Weilerstein was born in 1982 in Rochester, NY, into a family of musicians: her parents are both instructors at the Juilliard School and New England Conservatory. She began playing cello at age 4 and had her professional concert debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra. She made her first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1997 with the New York Youth Symphony. A graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Weilerstein also holds a degree in history from Columbia University.
Admired for her emotionally resonant virtuosity and interpretive depth, she is the foremost performer of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello and a champion of contemporary classical music, premiering several new concertos. She regularly tours with her parents as the Weilerstein trio.
Ibeyi is a musical duo formed by twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz. The pair sing in English, French, Spanish, and Yoruba (a language of West Africa spoken by their ancestors before they were enslaved in Cuba) to music which blends elements of jazz, soul, hip-hop, and electronica, along with traditional genres.
The name Ibeyi means “twins” in Yoruba. They were born in Paris in 1994, and raised in France and Cuba. Their Cuban father Anga Díaz played the cajón, a traditional Afro-Cuban percussion instrument, with internationally renowned group the Buena Vista Social Club. Their mother Maya Dagnino is a French-Venezuelan singer.
Naomi began playing the cajón at age 11, on the day of her father’s death. Lead singer Lisa studied music education at the Sorbonne, but dropped out after the pair signed a record contract at age 18. Released in 2015, their self-titled debut album was an international hit, reaching the top 200 in the United States and number 15 in their native France. The followup, Ash (2017), was named to year-end best-of album lists in numerous U.S. publications, including Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice.
Coming up on Articulate, young people are the antidote to hopelessness according to young adult author Jason Reynolds.
Jason Reynolds: If you’re patient enough to get over the antics of adolescence, you realize that there’s something really special about youth, about discovery and curiosity, about trying to put it all together. That sort of irreverence of them which makes us all feel so funny now, when the reality is that we don’t want to live in a world where young people are not irreverent.
Some of us will spend a lifetime searching for our calling. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein found hers aged five.
Alisa Weilerstein: I always knew I wanted to play with great orchestras and great musicians and in great halls.
It’s when faced with tragedy that we find out who we really are. Naomi and Lisa Diaz found their musicality with the death of their father.
Naomi Diaz: I think it’s because he’s not here that we’re sitting here.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: Yeah, yeah, it’s more extreme than that. I think we wouldn’t have been here if he was still alive.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
The first time Jason Reynolds understood the power of words, he was a ten-year-old boy, trying to console his heartbroken mother. His grandmother had recently died, and his mother was crying in the bathroom—a wrenching sound he had never heard her make before. Obsessed with rap, Reynolds wrote a few lines. When they were shared at the funeral, something happened.
Jason Reynolds: I remember everyone coming up to me and saying, “Man, you know, there’s something about what you said. This poem was amazing.” I didn’t even know it was a poem or anything. They were just like, “This poem was amazing. It made us feel better,” or, “It made your mother feel so much better,” or, “It affected some kind of change.” Now, that feeling becomes an addiction, right? You’re like, “Oh wait, you mean, I can make somebody feel better by saying something, by using these words on this page, and figuring out how to manipulate that?” And that was the beginning of this thing. That was the beginning of realizing that maybe I could say something that could affect change in some way.
Affecting change wasn’t just what words could do. It was, for the Reynolds family, a way of life, of being. The intimacy, humility, and gratitude that would become signature beats in Reynolds’ award-winning novels for children were values instilled at home. His father, for example, preached the virtue of giving.
Reynolds: He believed that if you have two dollars, give one away, right? Or he believed that if you have nice things, give the nice things away. The good stuff, you should give to those in need. Don’t give them your leftovers. Give them the things you love, right? Like, we, I was raised to believe, and my siblings, we were raised to believe that this is the way the world works, and that if you give, you would never be in need.
Today, Jason Reynolds is honored, he says, to write for kids. Not just because he remembers what it was like to be one of them, to harbor their kind of secrets and to ask their kind of questions, but because it gives him an excuse to spend time in their necessarily quirky company.
Reynolds: The antidote to hopelessness is young people. I firmly believe that. If you surround yourself with them, if you’re patient enough to get over the antics of adolescents, you realize that there’s something really special about youth, about discovery and curiosity, about trying to put it all together, about the humility of young people, about the arrogance of young people, right? That sort or irreverence of young people, which makes us all feel so funny now, when the reality is, is that we don’t want to live in a world where young people are not irreverent. Who wants to live in a world…
AJC: Nothing changes, right?
Reynolds: Nothing will ever change. And so this is just me saying, “I appreciate you.”
When not out talking to and learning from the young, Reynolds is at home in Washington, D.C., where he writes a new book every few months. This remarkable output was hardly preordained. In fact, Reynolds’ early resume was, to use his own word, “motley.”
Reynolds: What did I specialize in? At 21 years old, I worked for StoryCorps. At 22 years old, I worked for an afterschool program, as a mentorship, something or other. At 23 years old, I worked in a language arts program, teaching kids in Queensbridge language arts for a special program for the Jacob Riis Center. I lost my apartment. I ended up moving back home. Took a job at Lord & Taylor, because the recession hit. I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I tried to get into grad school. My undergrad grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t… I tried three times, was rejected three times.
Unable to gain traction for his self-published book of art and poetry, Reynolds had also given up on his dream of getting published. He was working retail in an upstart clothing store when an old friend, Christopher Myers, son of the legendary children’s book author, Walter Dean Myers, walked in.
Reynolds: He was the one who told me that I was tripping. Like, he was the one who was like, “You have to do something.” Because his father was getting older, and he simply said, “Who’s gonna do it? Who’s gonna do it? Pops is aging, and he’s been doing this work for so long. And his work has impacted the children’s industry in a very real way, so that you can even have an opportunity, if you want it.”
AJC: And this what, “You’re wasting your talents. You need to get your life together.”
Reynolds: Yeah, “Just give it a shot.” He literally asked me to try to write one more. That’s what he said, “Try to write one more book.”
These days, legions of readers impatiently await each Jason Reynolds book. It’s up to him, he says, to stir the pressure down and to remember what brought him here in the first place.
Reynolds: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I feel the weight, and it is hard. It’s funny, my agent, and my publicist, and my mother, and my friends, they see a part of me that no one else gets to see, which is the part of me that is extraordinarily frazzled and afraid, right? It does bother me.
AJC: What are you afraid of?
Reynolds: That I won’t be able to live up to it. That at some point, I mean, the bar is set, right? And I’ve set that bar.
AJC: But it happens. It does happen. I mean, you’re not afraid of nothing. Think of all the artists you know with two great albums. Happily, you’ve now got seven or eight at this point, right?
Reynolds: Yeah, but it’s scary cause you’re only as good as the last, right? And so I’m always like, I want to make sure that I’m pushing myself to be my best self, but how do I do that and also ignore the bar that other people have set? I try to remember that this is an act of service, right, that I am working in service, I am of service—this isn’t so much entertainment for me, this isn’t fame and fortune, this isn’t any of that. This is about me making sure that, when it’s said and done, I have been of service to a generation of young people who now know that they can have a relationship with literature and literacy, because it is for them.
In the end, Reynolds says, he wants us to not just engage with his work, but to interrogate it, to find upon each page sophistication and nuance, the complexity made simple. Children deserve our attention, he says. Children deserve our respect.
The celebrated American cellist Alisa Weilerstein always knew the answer to the ubiquitous childhood question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Alisa Weilerstein: I always knew I wanted to play with great orchestras, and great musicians, and in great halls. I knew that when I was five. When I was 13, and I played with the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time, I thought, “I have waited my whole, long 13-year-old life for this, and it’s about time.” That’s what I felt. It’s a terrible thing to admit, perhaps, but that was my feeling.
Weilerstein couldn’t have been born into a family better suited to supporting her ambitions. Though they would later form a touring trio with their daughter, her pianist mother and violinist father—celebrated educators at both Juilliard and the New England Conservatory—were far from typical stage parents.
Weilerstein: I didn’t practice four hours a day when I was five, just to be clear—not at all. And, in fact, my parents were very clear that they wanted me to fall in love with music and the instrument first, and then the nitty-gritty, hard work could come a little later. They were quite relaxed about that in my earliest childhood.
AJC: I mean they were pretty clever about it, because you wanted to have a cello when you were three, and they wouldn’t let you have one until you were four or five, right? So they were almost like…
Weilerstein: More or less, yes.
AJC: “You’re not ready, you’re not ready, okay go on then.”
Weilerstein: Yeah, exactly. They said, “Okay, you really want this? Here, go ahead.” And so what I would do, because I loved it so much, I had my, let’s say, my half an hour of formal practice, where I would learn where things were, and things like that, and then my mom would say, “Okay, I need to practice now.” My mom would practice, and I would take my cello into my room, and I would kind of bang around on it for an hour or two. That was my toy. Friends would come over, and I would say, “I want to play for you.” These poor people would have to sit down and have to listen to me play on my horrible 16th-size instrument, and I’m a beginning cellist. But when I was around nine, we came across someone who said to my parents, “You know, she needs to practice properly, and you need to listen to her as you would listen to, with the same center that you listen to your students. She doesn’t need to be messing around like this.”
AJC: It was almost like they were the opposite of helicopter parents.
Weilerstein: Yeah, very much.
AJC: That they didn’t necessarily create ambition for you, that somebody had to walk in and go, “Actually, this kid might have a bit more going on than you think.”
Weilerstein: Yeah, I think that they knew what I could do, but they just thought about, “Well, she’ll come to that on her own.” And of course, it’s impossible for anyone to come to this kind of discipline without some guidance. And so once they heard that perspective, that was when I started working with my father daily.
Between ages nine and 16, Weilerstein would spend two hours a day learning from her father, a self-described perfectionist. There was plenty of intensity and rigor in Alisa’s training, but also a great deal of levity.
Weilerstein: We had about five different characters that he brought out, five different voices. My father’s seen as this great pedagog, they don’t know this sort of silly side of him, which he, of course, he brought out with his kids, with myself and my brother.
AJC: Which is also great teaching, by the way.
Weilerstein: It’s fantastic teaching. It’s amazing teaching. It’s the best teaching. My favorite character was actually the meanest, and he would talk in opposites. So, like, let’s say, the better I would play, the madder he would get, and he would be really funny, and you know, stomp around, and he had a ridiculous voice and everything else. I would say he was my teacher for the first couple of years I was working with my father.
AJC: But not in a mean way.
Weilerstein: No, it was funny. That was the thing. And it was a way that I could kind of rebel against being told what to do, in that kind of way, so he let me have that outlet.
The young Weilerstein was deeply committed to her instrument, but the cello would not be her only obsession.
Weilerstein: I fell in love with Russian music when I was around 12 or 13, and then I fell in love with Russian literature.
AJC: Both of which share a huge romantic soul, combined with a horrific capacity for angst.
Weilerstein: Angst, yeah, and kind of edited suffering, and I wanted to put it in context.
AJC: And when you got the context, what did it do?
Weilerstein: In a way, it confused me more, just because there is so much that we still don’t know. And it’s incredibly complicated, and even it’s still playing out in the present. And it just reinforces the idea to me that the world is really just a bunch of shades of gray.
Weilerstein would go on to study Russian history at Columbia University, and has shown a special affinity for the great Russian composers, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, who lived in fear of expressing their deepest selves.
Weilerstein: There are so many things that they could never express openly, but that are so hidden in the music, and that you have to present with kind of a poker face, but that inside you’re in absolute agony.
AJC: But to access that, to connect to that, you have to leave yourself exposed in some way.
Weilerstein: Completely, completely.
Weilerstein: No. For me, this is what I live for, really, as an artist. It’s about giving. It’s about completely giving of this incredible music, giving of yourself. And, I mean, it’s a very raw and kind of selfless act.
AJC: As you age, and as you grow and as you develop, do they mean different things, do they have a different place?
Weilerstein: Absolutely, especially the greater the work, the more you find.
Weilerstein: I don’t restrict myself from anything, even though I know that I’m going to evolve, and I’m going to change, and take different directions. I always, for example, I always had the idea that I wouldn’t record the all the Bach Suites, or that I wouldn’t even play them all in public until I’m, I don’t know, 60.
Weilerstein: Well, just because that this is the most “high church” music, and I need experience to really do them justice. That was my reasoning before. But now I feel there is nothing wrong with approaching them with my current experience and my current way of thinking, and then allowing them to change and allowing myself to grow with them this way, and allow the audience also to grow with this. I’ve made my peace with that.
And it is thus that Alisa Weilerstein strides headlong into the world, with a cello in hand and an insatiable curiosity in mind.
French Cuban sisters, Naomi and Lisa-Kainde Diaz, are the twin forces behind Ibeyi, the band whose soulful, worldly sound has been captivating audiences since they first came to prominence in 2015.
(clip from I Wanna Be Like You):
Look at you now
So wild and free
(clip from River):
Come to you river
Wash my soul
I will come to your river, wash my soul
I will come to your river, wash my soul again
They sing in a combination of French, English, and Yoruba—a Nigerian language and culture brought to Cuba by the Spanish slave trade in the 1700s. Their self-titled first album was celebrated for its honesty, maturity, and musical sophistication. The songs were a form of mourning for the loss of their older sister, Yanira, and before that, their father, the beloved Cuban percussionist, Angá Diaz, of Buena Vista Social Club fame.
(clip from “Mama Says”):
The man is gone
And mama says
There is no life without him
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: The reason why we started writing was just because I was bored, mainly—bored and lonely, and it was a good way to express ourselves.
AJC: And there’s a lot of honesty in there about your place in the world. Is the fact that you are twins, is she representing you when she writes?
Naomi Diaz: Yeah, she’s writing for both. But I’m bad with words, I’m good with rhythm. So, we each other have our work.
(clip from “Better In Tune with the Infinite”):
It’s frustrating when you just can’t express Yourself
And it’s hard to trust enough to undress yourself
To stand exposed and naked, in a world full of hatred
Where the sick thoughts of mankind control all the sacred
I pause, take a step back
AJC: Would you guys be here if he hadn’t been your father?
AJC: How much of him is in you? How much of him is the reason that we’re sitting here talking about your music?
Naomi Diaz: I think it’s because he’s not here that we’re sitting here.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: Yeah, it’s more extreme than that. I think we wouldn’t have been here if he was still alive.
AJC: You particular, right?
Naomi Diaz: Yeah, I’m sure, and both.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: She started playing the day he died.
AJC: The day he dies?
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: The next day.
Naomi Diaz: I don’t remember.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: I remember. So, we were 11, we go to Spain, where he died. He died, and we arrived the next day. And that day, we were in the house all together, and there were musicians there, and we just went to a cajón and played. But not like an 11-year-old should play a cajón, or like when I try to imitate her, and it sounds awful. She played, she hit the cajón as if she had always played rhythms on it. Our mother and our grandmother looked at each other, and I looked at them, and I was like, “And where does that come from?” See where genes arrive.
(clip from “Deathless” performance):
Whatever happens, whatever happened
We are deathless
We are deathless
Whatever happens, whatever happened
We are deathless
We are deathless
Ibeyi signed with XL Records in the UK when the sisters were just 18. Lisa was already enrolled at the Sorbonne, studying music education, and fate and Naomi forced her to drop out.
Naomi Diaz: She was crying, and it was really hard. And I said, “Well, Lisa, ya know, that’s life. The train goes one time, and never goes twice. So it’s the time, you can be a teacher, whatever you want, you can go to school at 30 years old and be a teacher later. But now it’s the right time, and we have to do that.” And she listened to me, and that’s where we are.
AJC: The truth is you’ll be a much better music teacher for having done this.
Naomi Diaz: Yeah.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: Yeah.
AJC: ‘Cause you will be able to stand in front of the class and say, “I may be only 30 years of age, but I spent 11 years on the road, and we had hits. Now, let me tell ya how that works.”
(clip of “Valé” performance):
Our voices will hug you
Music will be our arms
The star will shine and enlighten your night
You are loved little girl, you are
I bet you’ll be stronger
When the day is back
Waye waye lo mio, waye kalamefa
Waye waye lo mio, waye kalamefa
In addition to helping to find their sound, Yoruba culture informs Naomi and Lisa’s very understanding of themselves—for one thing, offering a more interesting answer to that question all twins get asked: who’s the older?
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: It depends from where you look at it. So, in the Yoruba tradition, the oldest is the one that comes last. So I would I would be the oldest. In the European tradition, the Western tradition, the oldest is the one that comes out first. And the feeling of it, I feel I’m the oldest.
Naomi Diaz: Yeah, she’s the oldest.
Naomi Diaz: Yeah, I don’t know. She’s kind of a mom, but she’s the mom of everybody.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: I might be the oldest, but she’s the toughest. She would survive a nuclear war.
AJC: You protect her?
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: Oh yes. Oh my God, definitely. If someone is talking to me in a really wrong way, or saying something to me, or being aggressive, or hurting me physically, she would kill that people.
Naomi Diaz: Oh yeah, do not do that.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: That’s for sure. Like, the lion would get out.
Naomi Diaz: Yeah.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: She’s a tough cookie.
Naomi Diaz: She’s a tough cookie, is that what you said?
In many ways, Lisa and Naomi Diaz are stark opposites. But when they come together in music, they create a greater song.
Lisa-Kainde Diaz: At the end of the day, we know that Ibeyi works because we’re in the middle. Ibeyi works because we’re both working towards each other, but it has to be balanced.