On Gateway Experience, Witch Prophet transcends time and space

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      Witch Prophet, the moniker of artist Ayo Leilani, makes music inspired by her life. On the singer-songwriter’s last album, 2020’s DNA Activation, she dug into her identity as a queer, East African woman over a fusion of R&B, hip hop, and Ethio-jazz.

      Leilani’s newest effort, Gateway Experience, channels energy into offsetting the anxiety that accompanies her longtime struggle with focal seizures, which includes symptoms like dizziness, déjà vu, and memory loss.

      “It was an album for me to focus more on something to keep my mind busy and to possibly help me shift my health into a better realm,” she tells the Straight, speaking on the line from Caledon, where she lives, about 45-minutes north of Toronto.

      A jumping off point came in 2021, when a report about the “Gateway Experience”, published by the CIA in 1983, was declassified and resurfaced online. The report detailed the US Army’s investigation into how to alter states of consciousness and transcend time and space. For Leilani, it felt like validation. “I’ve always believed in astral projection, other dimensions, psychic abilities, and the ability to heal oneself through thought or through sound,” she says. “I couldn’t prove that it was something that, you know, people have invested money into scientific research to figure out what was going on.”

      Leilani frequently has lucid dreams and began reading up on it around Grade 7, when she started realizing what was happening. She learned about repetition, how it helps the mind remember, and that repeating a sentence daily can slip it into the subconscious. On “Lucid”, the opening track to Gateway Experience, Leilani does just this as she sings a line—“This is a dream”—for nearly two minutes. It’s meant to help others have lucid dreams, she explains, a sort of trigger into a dreamlike state.

      Delivered over what sounds like gently rolling waves, the mantra immediately casts a meditative spell on the listener.

      In fact, Gateway Experience’s entire musical landscape—produced by Leilani’s wife and business partner, SUN SUN—has that kind of engulfing effect. Moving between textures of jazz, neo-soul, and trip-hop, alongside live trumpet and piano, it’s lush but minimal, and absolutely gorgeous.

      When starting work on the album, Leilani was stuck on the idea that, sonically, it needed to align with the kind of dance music that was popular at the time. SUN SUN made some beats, but it didn’t prompt Leilani to write, which is unusual for her. Then, during a song camp that included Zaki Ibrahim and Junia T, they wrote “Dreaming”, which appears on the record. Twinkling and groovy, with intermittent lines of horn, it all fell into place: this was the sound.

      Soon after, in the same session, came album highlight “I’m Scared”, a stirring ballad carried by keys and strings, something that the artist has never done before. Intimate lyrics like “Hold my hand/Take my heart/Keep me safe/In your arms” offer a glimpse into Leilani’s real life and the comforting power of love’s embrace.

      She hopes that Gateway Experience allows people to further understand epilepsy and seizures, and that it also helps others to better express what they’re experiencing.

      “Before I made this album and before I even realized what was happening was seizures, I didn’t know how to articulate it,” Leilani says. “I didn’t know what to say and how to say it to my doctor for them to listen to me. Even now, with the right vocabulary, it’s still hard to have doctors listen to me, as a Black queer woman—the medical industry, it’s always been pretty hard for me. But I hope it gives people a head start, whoever is dealing with the same thing. A head start with healing.”

      Witch Prophet performs on June 25 at the Georgia Street Stage as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.