This interview was written by Cynthia Schemmer with photos by Tommy Rizzolli, and was originally published by She Shreds Media.
Sisters April and Nikki Kae of the Harlem-based indie duo IMANIGOLD, and founders of the art collective under the same name, have released their latest video for “Ride On,” the first in a string of singles from their upcoming self-titled EP.
Originally recorded in 2017 to help fundraise for a home studio, “Ride On” has been reimagined for 2021 within that very home studio in the sisters’ shared apartment. With April on guitar, bass, and synth, and Nikki focused on IMANIGOLD’s visuals, the two spent the last three years energetically collaborating on an established sound and aesthetic, resulting in a video that illustrates their past, present, and future. Backgrounded with intimate footage of the sisters from 1996 through 2019, “Ride On” eases in with faint twangy guitars, as if heard from a distance, from back home in Austin, where the sisters were born and raised. The beat soon kicks up with a warm, persistent, and layered groove, like a tireless trod toward the sun.
April and Nikki have followed each other across the country, from Austin to Portland to, ultimately, New York—Harlem, specifically—where the two currently live and work. Besides being musicians and visual artists, they also founded the Imanigold Collective, a digital publication that shares resources and insights for community organizing and social justice, and seeks to create spaces for marginalized people to gain strength, heal, and self-actualize.
The release of “Ride On” comes at a pivotal moment for IMANIGOLD: after several videos of April performing bass covers went viral on her Instagram, she received praise from Jaden Smith, Questlove, Chaka Khan, and more. IMANIGOLD will release the remaining four songs from the self-titled EP throughout the year, with music videos and lyrics for each.
Watch the video premiere for IMANIGOLD’s “Ride On” below, followed by our conversation with April and Nikki Kae.
I’d love to hear about your younger years as musicians leading up to IMANIGOLD. What did those early days look like in terms of listening, learning, and playing music?
Nikki: I always think of being kids and singing with Mama, and singing being a requirement of our household. When we would clean on Saturday mornings, there was always singing.
Something that is unique, because of Mama, we would go see live music from a very young age. I remember going to open mic nights at the Elephant Room or to see the musicals that she was in. We learned Ain’t Misbehavin and A… My Name Is Alice, two musicals she was in, with her. The Harlem jazz and the ‘90s feminist thing is pretty much us.
April: Our mom is a music teacher, and our parents met in music school, so theory, rhythm, and pitch were always emphasized. There were cute moments, too, like when she’d quiz us in the car about what jazz musician was on the radio.
Nikki: She’d be like, “What’s a quarter note? What’s a half note?” when we were little babies.
April: I wouldn’t say either of us is a theory genius, but it was always part of our approach, and probably brought some needed structure to both of our experimental tendencies. And I think that shows up in our music. We keep things catchy, rhythmic, and in tune.
Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to pursue music?
April: The summer before my last year of college, I was interning on Wall Street, which was basically a three-month-long job interview. I wasn’t sleeping because I was working so much; I was at the office constantly, including weekends. For me, a big turning point was when I called Nikki from work and was like, “If I do this Wall Street job, will I actually have time for music?”
Nikki: That was one of the first times you were like, “I’m going to make choices and sacrifices in order to make music.” In the past, it had been possible for you to do music with other things in your schedule. Two years before, we were living in Portland together, and you were working with a few different bands, trying to make it happen, we were both dealing with school and all of that. And in the midst of how hard it was to make music at the time, it just became apparent, like, “Regardless of all of this, we’re making music together.”
April: Yeah, I agree. I feel like this has been brewing kind of forever with how our childhood was. Then the inevitability of us making music together became more apparent six years ago or so. And for the past four years since we’ve been in New York, our work together has become more and more part of who we are. It’s at the point now where, for the past year, with so many things shut down, we’ve spent the majority of our time at home working on projects and getting ready for this release. I’m so glad we live together.
“Ride On” seems to explore the journey of getting to New York, the craving for growth and knowledge, and the importance of self-preservation. What drew you to Harlem? And what have you learned about yourselves as musicians, artists, and/or activists since leaving home?
April: That same summer I was interning, I came up to Harlem to see a friend from Portland who moved the city to work on his music, to record at his spot—really a corner in an apartment, not unlike where we recorded a lot of the version of “Ride On” we’re releasing today—and I just fell in love with the neighborhood. And honestly, not even Harlem, but his block. And now we’re on that same block.
Growing up in Austin, one of the few times I saw Black creatives really respected was when we studied Harlem in school, like once or twice, but it lodged itself somewhere in my brain that this is an important place for Black people, for Black musicians and artists who want to make change—who want to work collectively to live good lives and make things better. Who respect art and its role in the movement.
Nikki: A lot about my time in New York was inevitable, in hindsight. I really sowed my oats in Austin, but leaving was a given, and I knew I wasn’t coming back. So, when I moved to New York to study design at Parsons, that meant I was staying. And it worked out because Parsons and New York gave me space to define myself as an artist, and Parson’s validated that as an institution. I was going to be a musician and artist no matter what I studied, so design school made a lot of sense.
Let’s talk a bit about the writing and recording process for “Ride On” and the upcoming EP. What did that collaboration look like between you two? And what was the recording process like?
Nikki: We always were preparing for something, mostly shows. So, that’s how we’d compose the arrangements, based on what we wanted to do for the next show. We’d learn a lot through that process of choosing songs, arranging them, performing them, and also creating the visuals.
We’re always honing a sound. We’re always really specific with what we want to sound like, how we want to look. We’re never like, “Okay, your job is lead guitar, I’m the singer, these are our jobs.” It’s about, “What are we trying to create?” So, for like three years, we would get together and figure out what we wanted to create, and then go off on our own, share mood boards, share playlists, share songs. We met every week, and often twice a week or more, to keep moving it forward.
April: When it comes to recording, after we had been playing shows for about a year, we did a fundraiser to raise money to record at home. To get people to donate, we recorded the 2017 version of “Ride On” in a small studio in Bushwick with our friend Will Baker. Our thinking was: release a demo single, do a fundraiser, build a studio, middle, middle, middle, have an amazing EP. Well, turns out “middle, middle, middle” was “learn to produce.”
We’re very DIY, so I’m used to just making plans and figuring things out as I go. But as Nikki said, we wanted to create a super specific sound, and learning to create that sound took me about three years. I beat myself up along the way about how slow things were going, but looking back, it’s pretty amazing I took myself from knowing pretty much nothing about producing to creating an entire EP that does our music justice. I even took drum lessons for six months to better work with the drummer on our songs. So, not only did we do pretty much everything you see and hear for the EP, we also taught ourselves to do it along the way.
Nikki: Alongside working on the EP, I spent the past few years developing the visual identity of the band. We weren’t just deciding what we wanted to sound like, we were thinking about what type of band we wanted to be and what we wanted to say as artists. With my art in general, I love to be scrappy and loud—and keep everything pretty far from crisp or neat. I love making things myself, even if I don’t really know how it’s “supposed” to be done and I’ve sort of translated that into what has now become our brand.
April: After the fundraiser, we were super energized and jumped right into building the home studio. I emptied out my closet, we insulated it, and got our tall friends to hammer sound blankets and foam onto the walls. Even that part wasn’t terribly hard, especially since Nikki is excellent with figuring out how to make things.
April, can you talk more about the process of teaching yourself to produce? And Nikki, I’d love to hear a bit about your visual background and how you apply it to IMANIGOLD.
April: The person who helped mix the demo version of “Ride On” (2017), Emiliano Cabalerro, helped me put together a list of gear I needed for the studio. Then I just started trying to record vocal parts, then guitar, and so on. Nikki was super patient hanging out in the often super hot studio as I tried to get things to work. I’d look up tutorials constantly. I had used GarageBand to record my music in high school, and so learning the basics in Logic wasn’t too hard. I did some free online programs to try to get the hang of levels and things like that, but mostly learned by problem-solving along the way. One summer, when I was particularly drowning in how much I didn’t know, our cousin Joseph David Reed was in town, and he helped us with the engineering, which made a huge difference.
Nikki: It was really fun taking what was already a family project and bringing in Joseph, another family member. He was in New York for a production internship, to learn his craft, and he really brought that learning energy to the same, and some much-needed chillness, emotional support, and knowledge.
April: Also, Joseph showed up to every session with fries from the Checkers up the block. (If you know, you know. They’re delicious.) With my cousin and Emiliano and my drum teacher Caryn Halvik of the band Mortals, and so many other people, I really relied on my community to learn—which is also part of why I love that IMANIGOLD has become a collective. It really shows the number of people that are needed to make something happen, whether it’s an EP or a community organizing project. And it gives me a chance to hopefully share what I’ve learned with others.
With the 2021 version of “Ride On,” I learned a lot through doing and collaborating, too. Even though Nikki and I produced the EP ourselves and do the vast majority of the music-making, it’s not just the two of us. Specifically, the vocals you hear on the track were engineered by Joseph and me. We collaborated with Will Baker to create the beat, synth, guitar, and bass parts in 2017, and used most of those original tracks in the 2021 version. And we worked with Jume Productions in Amsterdam, across wildly incompatible time zones, to do the mixing, and our friend Timothy Stollenwerk from Portland for mastering. To me, do-it-yourself is not about isolation but rather intentional pooling of resources and talent to create something that feels authentically IMANIGOLD. Ironically, I truly believe that if we did not allow others into our process, “Ride On” would sound less like us. It would be less authentic and pure, rather than more. After all, humans are communal creatures. We need each other to exist as ourselves. There is no self without the other. I’m excited to see where things go as we work more and more as a collective.
Nikki: I hand make chain-mail and use recycled materials like leather, and paint, and anything else I can find, in combination with video and photography. For the past few years, my art practice has been focused on creating armour-looks and defense for a queer femme uprising. In 2018, I began reading Octavia Butler, and I was inspired by The Parable of the Sower—specifically how Octavia wrote the character Lauren Olamina creating her own framework for a way to live that leads to a cooperative future. I’m also inspired by Huey Newton’s memoir, Revolutionary Suicide, and the tactics of using education and the visual threat of self-preservation and defense to make space for Black community life.
There was a point that we decided we wanted our music to be the soundtrack to the uprising. So, I wanted to bring that look to our band, even though we tend to be very inviting, loving people. I always want to express that it’s never passive or easy—it’s an emphatic love.
Can you tell us a little more about the Imanigold Collective and digital publication?
April: We come from a pretty traditional community organizing background. Growing up, our mom took us to the Quaker church, which, more than a religious space, was a social justice space. That’s how we got involved in protesting the Iraq war and the death penalty at a super young age. This continued through high school as we took on other causes like workers’ rights and counter recruitment, and I would organize benefit concerts. So, the connection between art and social change was never lost on us. Like Toni Cade Bambara said, “The goal of the revolutionary artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”
The protests in 2020 were important. And right now, when the news is less sensational, it’s just as important to build coalitions and solidarity. What we’ve learned from studying community organizers like Malcolm X and creatives like James Baldwin is that education, coalition building, and helping people understand their place in the movement is crucial. And because it’s slower, forever-type work, it’s not as newsworthy. But to stage a big protest or organize a strike or boycott, you have to have the systems in place to do so.
Nikki: It’s all about the work surrounding the big events, the interpersonal work. A big part of what Malcolm and Huey talk about is that community organizing is either academic or it’s in the street. We embody the day-to-day, mutual support element—the street part. If anyone in our orbit has a need, we figure out how to bring together resources for them. This sort of community problem-solving approach is not the norm. The fact that it is so much work to even connect people with the right resources shows how subversive it really is.
Digital publication wise, we built a new website based around the new visual identity—centering community and all of the people involved in the collective. It’s an alternative to the highly mediated social media space. It is our space. We don’t have to make choices based on what the algorithm will like. If people are there, that means they already want to show up. And now, people outside of the collective can feel more a part of it and better understand what we’re doing. We’re really against the concept of “the one person” making something. The website is meant to be, in practice, a way to open up and demystify the creative process.
April: We’re also talking to an organizing collective based in Atlanta called the Global People’s Coalition, an organization that works closely with the Blackberry Collective, Treasure Quest Effect, and Pirate Nation to use the arts to mobilize and organize. We’re collaborating on a project that creates space to allow people to figure out what they individually need to be effective organizers and bounce it off others—collectively honing our individual plans, needs, assets, and resources. That’s one of the things we’ve noticed there’s a big need for: people want to connect and be vulnerable together in a way that has been pretty much impossible over the past year. I’m in social work school now, focusing on community organizing, so I’m particularly paying attention to what IMANIGOLD can do to help people transition from what we’ve experienced over the past year. We’ve all been so isolated, seeing these intense things on social media, and going to protests when we’re able, now is the time to focus on cultivating safety together. We call it coalition building, but as Nikki said, it’s just being frank with what we need and working together to meet those needs.
What can we expect musically from IMANIGOLD this year?
April: We’ll be releasing our EP, called IMANIGOLD, throughout the year, with music videos for pretty much every song. We’re also stoked to work with people to get our music in movies and TV shows. There’s so much cool Black, queer, and otherwise marginalized stuff happening in film and TV that we really want to be part of.
Nikki: We’ve always been into multimedia, so it’s cool to see the music industry move in a direction where it’s all about creating and packaging a single in as many ways as you can and focusing on that. And we’re excited about it.
April: We still love the whole “record” thing—creating a cohesive project containing multiple songs—so, we’ll also release the songs as a body of work, and plan to get started on a full-length album when the time feels right, hopefully near the end of the year, or maybe when we link up with a record label, as we’re currently unsigned. We have our visual identity, our organizing mission, the people, the music… Now it’s about putting it all together and sharing it.