At the turn of the year, smartly dressed couples and talkshow aficionados filled RTÉ's Late Late Show studio audience in Dublin 4′s Donnybrook. It was a night that celebrated Irish success, with guests gushing about Colin Farrell and Paul Mescal’s recent best actor nominations for The Banshees of Inisherin and Aftersun respectively, as well as guests Colm Bairéad and Cleona Ní Chrualaoi (An Cailin Ciuin) and Daryl McCormack’s (Good Luck To You, Leo Grande). As the night rolled from one segment to another, seated guests sharply angled and careened, hoping for an ideal vantage point to see the celebrities that, for that night, walked among us. But for no one captured attention like Aby Coulibaly, the not-quite-old-school R&B artist who, though just 23 years old, transmits deep emotional heft and a voice like Galaxy chocolate.
“I am the trailer to the movie,” Ryan Tubridy said of Coulibaly after the performance. “I shouldn’t even be here. I’m like the Christmas stocking to the big gift.” At this, dressed in a 1950s-style silk neckerchief and tulle skirt to mirror the video of her latest song, Rewind, Coulibaly was lost for words. Before the taping she had alluded to the magnitude of the moment for her, tweeting: “I auditioned for the toy show when I was a kid and didn’t get through and now I’m going on the late late to perform my new single. Life comes at u fast.”
At its core, Rewind doesn’t stray far from Coulibaly’s musical wheelhouse. It is full of the same melancholic, diaristic narration and interesting beat choices, amplified by live instrumentation, for which she is known. Many of the songs linger in a familiar head space – self-love and reassertion of value. Her previous work (all singles) has the latitude of an artist who has weathered the storms of Solange, Jhené Aiko and Aaliyah, yet still boasts enough strength to come out swinging.
Born in Lucan, the youngest of three, Coulibaly is already a star in Ireland and beyond.;She was featured as one of Hot Press’s Hot for 2022 Irish Acts; in April 2022 she performed an enormously-praised debut Dublin headline show at The Sound House; her debut single, Taurus, released in 2020, was placed on RTÉ 2FM’s Rising List and subsequently described by gal-dem as “teetering on a precipice, with neo-soul on one side, and confessional rap on the other”. Her independent record label Chamomile Records, along with friend and fellow artist Monjola and his brother Moyo, continues to push the envelope for independent artists in Ireland and farther afield.
Home-grown fans will know Coulibaly best as the buttery vocal responsible for carrying Long Nights, the beneath-the-skin pop track that echoes Lauryn Hill, Jorja Smith and Tems, but with a Coulibaly sensibility. She has a voice that can break through the noise, proving with every beat that slow and brooding can hold its own against spry million-dollar pop any day.
Long Nights was written about Coulibaly’s own experience of women tearing each other down, and her own learning to rise above it. (I don’t hate you, but I don’t rate you/ And I’d just like to be the first person to update you/ Whatever happened in the past, please don’t try to brush it past But listen, I don’t blame you). It speaks to the vast emotional heft she can mine at just 23, despite her “first loss”, as she describes it, happening just a month before we speak: that of her father. “It’s an hour-by-hour thing,” she says of the grief. “I can’t really make plans for the week, because by Friday I might not be able to get out of bed.”
In person, she is wide-eyed, pensive and ever-smiling. Poised, with the height and grace of a working model, Coulibaly pierces her ethereal beauty with empathetic candour, often giggling self-deprecatingly about the person she used to be. She recalls the way Taurus tends, as she sees it, to lean into an American twang. “I didn’t do it purposefully, but I grew up listening to American women, rappers, singers,” she says.
It took me time to feel okay dipping between two cultures, and to be secure in my place in the middle ... to be able to think I can have any sort of mannerism I want
“So that’s what came in my mouth when I opened it. Now I listen back and laugh. Like, it’s a great song, but you can’t really hear my own voice. It wasn’t proud enough, maybe, to come out. Saying that, as a mixed person as well, there’s always, like, a question over what your accent is gonna sound like. I remember one time I posted a TikTok and someone commented something like ‘oh my god, I wasn’t expecting that accent haha,’ and then someone else commented saying ‘what accent were you expecting?’”
It’s a fine balance Coulibaly treads, with one foot in Irish culture and the other in Senegal, the country where her father was born – something she finally became comfortable with in her late teens. Her mother, brother and sister are white, meaning her vantage point in the family was different.
“It took me time to feel okay dipping between two cultures, and to be secure in my place in the middle,” she says. “To accept my afro hair, to accept what I need from relationships, to find the sort of clothes or music or whatever I liked, that wasn’t just influenced by the people around me. Like I’d say or do things and people would say sh*t like ‘that’s such a white thing to say’ or ‘that’s so black of you’ and it took a long time to be able to think I can have any sort of mannerism I want, and that I’m happy and I can be both.”
Coulibaly popped up, seemingly fully formed, in 2019, as an incognito independent. The gambit paid off almost instantly. In 2020 alone, she was hailed as the next big thing by Nialler9, CLASH Magazine and FLAVOURMAG. It happened by accident, she remembers.
“I always had friends at school, but I kind of always felt like a lone wolf,” she says, looking up from her chair. “They never had the same interests as me, so I just accepted that it was going to take a while for me to find my people. Then MJ [Monjola] reached out to me after he saw some covers I uploaded to Instagram and asked me to come to his studio. I was sh*tting myself! I remember being the only girl in the room and terrified – I didn’t open my mouth for months.”
But the team kept trying. “They’d be so encouraging and be buzzing whenever I sang quietly in the corner but that freaked me out even more,” she laughs. “Eventually though, that got me into looking up beats on YouTube and singing over them, then something clicked.” The result is Chamomile Club, the creative collective formed by Monjola, his brother Moyo and Coulibaly.
“When you upload stuff to Spotify, it tells you to fill in your label – and we didn’t have one, so we just typed in Chamomile Records, because I’d always be drinking chamomile tea coming into the studio [here, Coulibaly informs me that the beverage in her takeaway cup today is a latté, with reishi mushroom powder and ashwagandha added for her anxiety].
“Then the track got picked up and Chamomile Records was shouted out on the radio. We couldn’t stop laughing! And then we kind of decided to just go for it – I don’t even know what our intention was. After a while we changed it to Chamomile Club though, because it’s not a label. It’s just a collective of people that make music and create. And now we have this as well,” she gestures to the third-floor space in which we’re sitting, with its white walls, a comfortable sofa, Red Bull minifridge and incense burning. “It’s nice now but when we first got it, it was terrifying. It looked like an attic. One that you’re not supposed to be in.”
Music has a tendency to exaggerate, soften or oversentimentalise, to put language into code. But with Coulibaly, her lyrics are as true as her spoken voice. In her music, she turns her gaze outward, exploring her frustrations with a culture that tethers itself to black art without sufficiently valuing its sources.
For Coulibaly, racial struggle manifests itself in small but profound ways. “I’ve experienced microaggressions in jobs and stuff growing up,” she says. “I think a lot of it went over my head before George Floyd to be honest. It used to really, really bother me but what can I actually do? I don’t want to be angry all the time, so acceptance has been my main thing. That said, as a mixed person, I also benefit from white privilege at times as well. It’s all about acknowledging the different circumstances of that situation.”
In Maybe, a downtempo slowburner, she accepts this – her rich vocal evoking hope against hopelessness, her sound as sweet as her lyrics and subject matter are weighted. “Don’t be worried/ Don’t be sorry/ You’ve done nothing wrong, so don’t let the world define you/ If you cry I’ll cry too/ Some pain that I outgrew/ But some things you can’t undo/ Show them the truth don’t be afraid to [Oh] be you.”
Coulibaly’s music is marked by its wisdom, painfully earned and not easily discarded. She seeks immediate thrills even though hurt is soon to follow – the mark of a true creative, with no signs of slowing down. So, what’s next? “At the moment, my time is entirely devoted to my EP, At the End of The Day, It’s Night,” she says with a smile. “It’s something I’ve always said, and like, at the end of the day, nothing really matters. So that’s why I named it that,” she says, sweetly but seriously. “I just can’t want to get a body of work out there. It’s been too long.”
Aby Coulibaly plays The Hennessy Hip Hop House at Body & Soul Festival 16-18 June at Ballinglough Castle Co. Westmeath.. Her EP, At the End of The Day, It’s Night, will be released later this summer