At just 2 years old, EmmoLei Sankofa started singing in her local church choir. By the time she was 7, she was playing violin and starting to learn the saxophone. She took up percussion in middle school and continued to play in ensembles through college. “From there up until now, percussion has been a huge part of my development as a musician, composer, producer—all of that,” she says.
But EmmoLei isn’t the only lifelong music-lover in her family: Her father deejayed funk and soul records and played bass in a band called Klymax, while her mother was a classical violinist. “She was an all-state player,” EmmoLei says. “I mean, she was really good. She even played in college.”
Through more than 16 independently released singles, EPs and full-length albums, EmmoLei has shown that she can weave a vast range of genres into her own sound. And her latest release, Geometry, is no different. Although the album might sound like R&B on the surface, its songs are full of complexities and subtleties that reach far beyond that classification.
“I still am heavily influenced by R&B,” she explains. “It’s actually what I listened to the most [growing up]—more than rap.” But between her father’s Earth, Wind & Fire records and her mother’s classical taste, EmmoLei was always most inspired by musically rich albums, a large portion of which she heard on her mother’s favorite classical radio station.
“She would just blast that,” she remembers. “And as a kid, it would be annoying, but I eventually learned to appreciate it, especially when I started playing with orchestral ensembles and stuff throughout school. It’s really good music, and it’s an acquired taste, definitely. But once you understand it and the nuance behind it, how could you not appreciate it?”
On Geometry, EmmoLei blends orchestral percussion, wind and string instruments with contemporary hip-hop production into lush arrangements. And she’s just as versatile a vocalist as she is a musician, offering sounds that are by turns powerful, soulful, whimsical and mellow.
It’s hard to believe that the dynamic singer initially struggled with whether she should be a behind-the-scenes producer or a solo artist. “My whole life I’ve performed,” she says. “But I’ve never been the front person. So being the front person and singing, I kind of fell into that. I haven’t been trained by a vocal coach or anything yet.” However, her layered harmonies and captivating vocal melodies suggest that she’s doing just fine without any sort of professional training.
Lyrically, Geometry is a concept album about a complicated relationship between two women, Iris and Janine. Iris says she is in love with Janine, but Janine doesn’t seem to want a full-fledged relationship with her. But Iris is also romantically involved with two others—one other woman and one man. “So, it’s funny because Iris wants Janine to commit, but how can you expect someone to commit to you when you can’t commit to anything else?” EmmoLei explains with a laugh. “It’s like she’s holding onto these other options as a fail-safe solution for if things don’t work out with Janine.”
As the track “Circles,” featuring guest vocalist Shaelle, describes, “Janine is essentially playing with Iris’ emotions,” EmmoLei says. “But Iris is also playing with the emotions of other people.” Musically, the song is as complicated as the narrative it presents. The first section is in 5/8 time, which is uncommon in pop and R&B, but EmmoLei makes it sound so natural that the listener probably won’t notice until they hear her counting it out about a minute into the track.
Peculiarities such as this are sprinkled throughout the entire album. For instance, “Point A” and “Point B,” which function as orchestral interludes, were structured around Morse code: The rhythm that each track is respectively built on spells out its title. “I was like, ‘What’s a way to create a percussive melody?’ So I typed ‘Point A’ into a Morse code generator, and when I played it back, I was like, ‘Yo! I can take this rhythm, add some harmonic textures to it, and make it musical,’” she says. “I’m actually developing this Morse code motif method for some of my other work because I think I’m on to something here—just finding a different way to articulate things musically and to embed a message.”
EmmoLei also runs Bèl Son Kolektif (Haitian Creole for “Beautiful Sound Collective”), a small, diverse group of musicians who came together while she was attending Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She had noticed that there weren’t many Black composers or sound designers in the film industry. And when she moved to California, EmmoLei quickly realized it would be difficult for her to get past the interview stage. “It was like everything was all good until they actually met me,” she remembers. “And after that happened so many times, I was like, ‘This discrimination thing is real.’”
The Bèl Son team consists primarily of people of color and includes members from countries such as Colombia and China. “It’s not even a thing where I’m trying to just put Black creatives on,” EmmoLei explains. “I’m trying to bring everybody in the mix who’s typically overlooked.”
The Kolektif has worked on films that have screened for Warner Bros. and Lionsgate, and EmmoLei is currently composing for her first feature film, Enongo, a documentary about the rapper Sammus. Between that and her masterful solo album, it’s clear EmmoLei is just beginning a long, successful career.
Learn more about Bèl Son Kolektif and listen to Geometry, along with its accompanying commentary album, at e-sankofa.com.