Notion speaks with the ever-ascending Afropop newcomer, Ayra Starr, about her debut album, '19 & Dangerous', her musical lineage, and creative empire.
Ayra Starr has only resided on planet Earth for just over 7,000 days. In that short time span, the 19-year-old Beninese-Nigerian singer, songwriter, and model has already left her mark on the ever-revolving Nigerian music landscape.
Not one to settle or to be boxed into a corner, Ayra’s style makes a conscious effort to steer away from the ever-popular but somewhat ubiquitous Afrobeat sound. Her music marches through the Alté and pop music realms, interlocking itself with buttery smooth R&B cues, sultry jazz horns, and hip hop drum breaks, forging Ayra into the de-facto leader and innovator that embodies all Nigerian culture has to offer.
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Barely two years removed from her first recording, Ayra was quickly taken under the wing of Don Jazzy – Nigeria’s answer to Dr. Dre – a record producer and entrepreneur responsible for enriching the careers of Burna Boy, D’Banj, Tiwa Savage, and many more across the African music diaspora.
With a seasoned veteran in her corner, Ayra’s debut record, ’19 & Dangerous’, was rife with musical complexity. From its pensive, autobiographical narrative and coming-of-age theme to its cohesive yet vast batch of beats, Ayra’s commercial debut serves as a weighty gut-punch of heady Gen Z qualms framed through 11 musical time capsules.
As Ayra closes the year out with a viral single in “Bloody Samaritan”, various self-directed videos, an army’s worth of adoring fans under her belt, and a nomination for Best African Act at the 2021 MOBO Awards, we spoke about her career thus far, balancing music and modelling and what’s next for multi-disciplined creative.
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Congratulations on your album. It’s fantastic!
Have you heard it? Did you like the album?
I do. I do. It’s making a lot of noise globally. First question, growing up in Benin and Lagos, what was it like immersing yourself into two different worlds culturally speaking, almost one after the other?
Growing up in two different countries has really helped me become more open-minded when it comes to diversity and just in culture in general. I try to make my music as global as possible, so different people can understand it, you understand? I don’t just try to do one genre. I like to make different genres and, you know, fuse in other genres into Afro, just because I grew up in two diverse countries.
Would you say the same ideology applies to your fashion too?
With my fashion, I feel like growing up in two different places has influenced me, you know? Having two different cultures, two different styles, two separate, that’s two worlds. Both Benin and Lagos think contrasting things about what beauty is. Having two different beauty standards in the back of my mind has blended my mind in a way that’s made me very diverse. I know how to mix other things together, and I know how to express myself through art and fashion.
I was actually going to come on to your music and fashion career kind of the tightrope you walk between them. Did you find it difficult transitioning between music and fashion?
No. It’s not complicated at all. It’s so natural to me because I like to express myself through art, and music is art. Fashion is art, so it just comes very easy to me. It’s not hard at all. I enjoy it a lot.
You first broke onto the scene with “Away”. I love this song and video because it was almost a changing of the guard for Afropop and specifically Black female musicians in general. Back in the 90s, it seemed people like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu could be counted on one hand, but how do you feel the social media revolution is turning the tide for Black female artists?
It’s just the most inspiring thing, to be honest. Afrobeat is taking over the whole world. There’s nothing to compare it to if that makes sense. It’s so cool seeing Gen Z make their own moves and just doing their own thing – nobody’s trying to be like any other person. Everybody’s proud to be African. I remember someone was telling me a few years back, people used to pretend and say they were Jamaican. Back then, being African was almost looked down upon in some circles. Nobody wanted to be African in a way. But with Gen Z artists, we are so proud. It’s the pride we show with honour. When you bump into an African or Nigerian person in the outside world, it’s all love. It’s crazy, and now we’re taking over like Instagram and TikTok. No one can tell us we’re too dark. No one can tell us we’re too light for something either.
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You guys are stetting the benchmark, right?
We’re creating our own standards and setting the pace for the next generation.
I have to mention, your album has a lot of replay value. What I love about ’19 & Dangerous‘ is it almost has that kind of a coming-of-age narrative and its artistic canvas is painted through pop, Afro-R&B and trap influences, with some Alté and neo-soul thrown in there too.
You know my album!
So, the thing about recording my album was exciting – I wasn’t trying to record an album, I don’t know if that makes sense, but it was my outlet to vent. If I felt sad, I went to the studio and recorded a song, you get me? So, like, I didn’t go to the studio to record an album. It just happened organically.
That’s interesting because all the songs fit together so well and it’s a pretty cohesive package.
I don’t have a favourite song because I love all my babies the same. I’m a good parent. I don’t choose favourites. In terms of the recording process, sometimes I would write in my house and go to the studio and record it. Occasionally my brother would like to send me demos, and I’d work on that because I write most of my songs with my brother. I’m angry or feeling a type of way, and I’ll go to the studio, you know? It’s pretty much like I’m ranting to the mic. My music depends on my mood, basically, or how I’m feeling at that moment.
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Now, I would say the world “multi-hyphenate” really sums you up. For your single “Bloody Samaritan”, you directed the video yourself. What was that creative process like?
So, I’d always wanted to direct a video, and the thing about “Bloody Samaritan” was different from my other music videos. I’ve always been very extreme as an artist, almost trying to show off. With “Bloody Samaritan”, I wanted people to see my personality and style as authentically as I could translate into video form. I wanted people to see my character. For the video, I had a tiny budget to work with, which pushed my creativity. I had to call my friends and be like please show up for me guys, just come to the video shoot and vibe with me. Like that’s what it was, just me and my friends were having fun. Very grungy, very low budget, just showing me as the teenager I am.
On ’19 & Dangerous’, you work closely with your mentor figure, Don Jazzy. What’s it like joining his musical lineage and how do you feel being the next in line for the throne?
So, the thing about Jazzy is that he’s given me 100% creative freedom. He’s helped me learn so much about myself and music but at the same time, and he’s also let me just do my thing. Every decision I’ve made so far, it’s been mine. Yeah, I ask for advice and all that, but at the same time, Jazzy gives me the ability to choose. That’s the best thing you can give to a creative, to be honest.
The press have drawn a lot of comparisons between yourself a young Rihanna. As both of you are equally footed in music and fashion, how do you feel about that comparison, is that a lot of pressure?
Rihanna is my idol. I love her. I love Rihanna so much. She was like, she’s my queen, and she’s my baby. I’ve learned a lot of things from her. As I said, when it comes to music, I just try to enjoy myself as much as possible. So, it’s not really work, if that makes sense? I don’t think about it too much. I dress the way I want to. I make the music I want to make. I’m not planning anything per se, I just have fun. With everything I do, I have fun, and I enjoy myself.
Looking at your “Sare” visuals for example, you have a lot of different outfits and makeup combinations throughout your videos, how much creative control do you take when it comes to your styling and makeup for your videos?
Everything is mine. Everything is mine. Every idea is mine that you see in my videos and when I’m out in public! I like to be very dramatic when it comes to makeup, you know? Suppose I go to a show and everybody’s wearing t-shirts and pants. In that case, if you look at me, I’m wearing you can catch me wearing a coat even if it’s hot outside, paired with the baggiest pants I can find. I just want to be stylish. I don’t even care what the weather is. I just want to, and I just want to dress how I feel. So, with the makeup, I just like to look as extreme as possible, like an alien or an elf. I like to play around with colours. I want to express myself through art. Makeup is art, and it’s another avenue for me to express myself.
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You’re really steering the ship when it comes to the Afropop movement. You have this innate ability to represent Nigerian and wider African culture really well, while still appealing to a wider mainstream audience without losing what makes them great. Is that ever a challenge for you?
It’s not something I’m actively doing. It’s really natural. With my music, it’s just something that’s within me, to be honest. I like to dive into different things, and I want to enjoy myself and just, you know, do other things. So, if that makes sense, I’m not really focused on just sounding African or just sounding one specific way. At the same time, I’m African, and I don’t ever want to let that slide or not show that off. I’m so proud of my African heritage. You can hear that in my music because it’s something I actively like to act upon, but it’s something I just am inside.
One of my favourite tracks from your album is “Snitch” with Fousheé. What was the collaboration process like for that track and how did it come about?
Fousheé! She’s a fantastic singer. I remember the day I released my self-titled I kept singing the Fousheé song “Deep End”. Three months after that, she sends me a text saying that she thinks I’m dope. And I’m like, what are you think I’m dope?! You’re not allowed to believe that! I think you’re dope. Like, I love you. I love your music. So, she was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s work! And I said, oh, I have this track I’ve been working on, let me know what you think if you want to jump on it. And she loved it. So, it wasn’t even stressful. It was so easy, she’s so sweet and lovely.
I actually heard you mention in a previous interview that you would love to incorporate more rapping and your own production work into your next project. Coming on from that point, I’m curious, what kind of rappers and producers do you draw inspiration from?
Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat, and Lil’ Kim, of course. Kendrick Lamar too, I’m obsessed with Kendrick. I’m the biggest Kendrick fan in the world.
We’re just waiting on new music from him, right?
I’m just waiting. I’m not sleeping, I’m just waiting. I’m praying he releases something!
Before we wrap up, I just want to ask, what can we expect from you next? Is it more music, visuals, what’s on your horizon?
More visuals. Definitely more visuals. Maybe you’ll hear me pop up as a guest on some songs soon, who knows?