Amaarae Interview: From Apple Music Rising Act to Topping Shazam and Global Charts
In early January 2021, Amaarae, full name Ama Serwah Genfi, was named as Apple Music’s Africa Rising Artiste. An initiative by the music streaming platform to boost artistes from Africa through their sounds, it would run for two months and was a consolidation of the thumbs up and hi-fives, body-slamming hugs, and air kisses the Ghanaian singer must have garnered from fans and critics alike following the release and relish of her debut album, The Angel You Don’t Know.
Now for some, the heady, brilliantly-fusioned 14-track platter of hedonism and sexiness that Amaarae served on the album, was an induction into her immersive and cherubic voice. But she'd been an underground sweetheart for years, finding acceptance in the alté movement of neighbouring country, Nigeria, where she'd first made an appearance on Aylø's Whoa!
It's four years after that debut and her status is changing as her brand of not just hedonism but gender-bending, and supreme Afro-expression attains recognition on the continent and international planes.
Notjustok links up with Amaarae to hear from her on her state of mind following her release, the core of her expressive non-conformist artistry, and how it feels to finally be getting due props.
It's been almost 3 months since you dropped TADYK, what are the different phases and stages you've been at since the release, and where are you right now?
I've been so focused on pushing this album and making sure it gets to as many ears and eyes as possible that I think creatively I'm in a very conflicted space in a sense where I want to create right now but I'm not in a creative space.
Like I'll go into the studio sometimes and I'll try to get into the music space and it's just not coming.
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I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that over the last year, late 2019 all throughout 2020, I spent so much time focusing on working on this album and building it musically that right now I'm just drained and I need some time to settle down and refresh and see where I wanna go next. Cause I know that whatever that I do next I can say for a fact, will be a thousand times bigger and better than TAYDK, like I have those expectations for myself so I just need to get into that mind frame.
So it sounds like you feel pressured.
Yeah, a little.
This pressure is it coming from within you or externally, where do you think it's coming from?
It's a little bit of both. It's internal pressure from me cause I think that once you have the momentum, you can't stop. Like for me, I think about when Burna came out with Outside and how much momentum he built especially after Ye started picking up and he immediately started dropping singles consistently and he had that run throughout African Giant. I think he took max, 3 months break and he was back on the go again with Wonderful. When you have momentum like that and you have certain career goals and orientation for yourself, I feel like you can't stop, the music has to be non-stop and it always has to be fire.
So that's sort of the internal pressure I'm experiencing; I don't think I can stop and I feel like every single time now, the drops have to be amazing and the records have to be undeniable.
Then I think I feel external pressure from some of my peers because everyone is like ‘Can we do this feature together?’ And I want to work with everybody and I want to give everyone my best but I'm literally tired and I don't have it in me.
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It's more so internal and from my peers as opposed to my fans. I think right now, they're very happy with the album and they're just enjoying it. And I'm very engaging with my fans, I go on Instagram live, I play them new music. So with them just the fact that there's a constant development and conversation going on, they're cool with that. But for me, I want more and I want it now.
What are you doing to help balance how you feel and what you're trying to achieve?
I'm still figuring it out. Right now, we're expanding our team and we're growing a bigger team that can help the project expand over territories but then also that can give me more access to producers and artistes that I'll love to work with.
And just overall, improving what we're working on. So, finding the balance between pushing the album, growing my brand and my team and putting out content or just trying to make sure I'm in a creative space is really tough right now and I think I'm going to have to give up creating for now just so I can focus on growing my team and this album.
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In 2018, you were named one of Apple Music's favourite artiste, later on that same year you were Apple Music's Beat One Artiste and now you're Apple Music's Africa Rising Artiste, it seems like you've been on a trajectory. What do you think about these heights you've achieved and was it deliberate?
I think at every stage of my music career, I'm always trying to achieve the next step. For me it's interesting you see a consistent trajectory because I feel like I still haven't even done enough and I need to do more;
I want to be bigger and better and I want everything to happen at a faster rate.
So I aim as high as possible and then even if I fall short, I aim so high that me falling short is still something of value and worth being proud of. It's intentional, the trajectory that I've been on and it's something that I plan to continue but I definitely want things to be bigger and faster.
Sounds coming from Africa are beginning to get a lot of attention from the global world. You're one of the flag bearers for the alté scene, how do you feel being in this position and what do you think of this attention we're now getting?
I think it's very interesting because I've always said that alté is so specific, it has a very specific sound and energy that I've actually never thought of myself as alté and I understand that because of the work that I've done with so many of the artists that are at forefront of the alté. Now, because I'm more visible, I've become sort of a flagbearer which I think is interesting.
But in terms of the whole African movement and just African artistes getting more attention, I think it's about time. They're so many crazy talents coming from this space, it's mad.
The other day, I was on my Instagram live and people were coming on and playing me music and these two Nigerian boys that live in Hungary, played me some of the wildest music I've heard and I was wowed.
They're still undiscovered gems that I know in the coming years are going to be huge. And I think it's only going to get better and grow faster as well. And I also think we'll probably have a very long span where Afrobeats and African music, in general, will grow like hip-hop grew, it started from something niche and then it became a cultural phenomenon, I think that's what's going to happen next. I'm excited to be part of the people that carry that flag across.
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It's a big shift. What's your favourite thing about this shift right now and what do you hate about it if there's any.
My favourite thing about it is the music that's coming out of it and it's the fact that we're so pure and untouched right now that we're at the top of our creativity. So right now African artistes are creating in whatever ways they want and there's no box and people are now willing to put money and time and energy into making sure that this creativity is visible.
One of my biggest fears though is that once things start to get a bit corporate and more monetised, you'll start to see that they become more formulaic. That's what I'm afraid to see, but as at now, African creativity is at its top and within the next five years, it will get crazier.
You've mentioned previously that you get more love from the international media than the local ones, is that still a thing now?
When you say local, I don't know if you know I'm from Ghana. I was saying this because if you meant local in terms of Nigeria, I can't say I don't have support from Nigeria. But if you mean Ghana, Accra, I'm more recognised in other parts of Africa and internationally than Ghana for sure.
What do you think is holding Ghana back and why aren't they showing you as much love, do you have any idea why?
I don't really know o. And I don't think I've spent any time thinking about it or investigating it because there's that saying that says go where you're loved and the rest will follow. So I'm really not sure but for some reason, it just hasn't picked up here, and it's cool, I'm okay with that.
Earlier on you mentioned that you don't really consider yourself an alté artiste but you've also mentioned previously that you don't like labels. So if you were to give your sound a name, how will you describe it?
I actually think it's more like Afro-fusion, if I have to put a name to it. Because it takes from so many different sounds across the continent. My album samples everything from punk rock to Japanese club rock, to Wizkid and Rema and Runtown, to dancehall.
But at the end of the day, everything I'm doing still has African rhythms, sounds and energy to it and the way that I'm presenting myself too. So it's Afro-fusion for sure.
Your artistry is a rich blend as well, from your music to your style and your music videos. Do you think down the line you'll ever go into any other creative interests?
I'll love to explore film and fashion but most importantly, I'll like to dedicate my time getting more into activism and philanthropy and see how I can genuinely give back to African youths and mentor them. And be a part of the process of raising the next generation of artists, business minds, creators, tech minds, I think that's what I'm most interested in in terms of exploring a new creative field.
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With these interests, do you think your diversity is political?
I think it is but I don't think I mean for it to be. I think I kind of set myself up because no matter what I did, my art and my expression were always going to be in a sense that is political and defeats the status quo.
One of your biggest messages in TAYDK is feminism, hedonism and you keep demolishing a lot of gender lines. And when it comes to feminism, you channel this in different ways, what is the importance of doing this to you?
I grew up with a very liberal mother who allowed me to express myself in every single way possible and explore every part of life. I think that that allowance of expression has allowed me to see the world in a wide way.
So, when I see the average everyday little girl who maybe might not have had access to the things I had, whether it was travel or being allowed to watch TV or MTV and seeing so many different types of expression, I think, how do I get all the things that I've learned to them? How do I synthesize it so that I can give this information to them? Because those are the next generation of minds that we're going to raise.
So it's so important for me to always find the safest and clearest way to express what is not necessarily feminism but the religion of internal self-belief and self understanding because it's so important.
And that part of my expression is so important to me because I know what was done for me, my confidence, and the way that I operate in the world that I feel like it's something I have to pass on, not just to my children and the people around me but to the young women whether Ghanaian, Nigerian, South African. You need that energy because it's changed and transformed my life and that's why I'm able to do what I do today with full confidence.
And if a young woman somewhere in the world wanted to be a rocket scientist, there has to be a way for her to access that thought to know that she can do it. So it's important for me to pass that message on.
So on the other side, what would you say are the challenges you face as a young creative woman in Ghana?
The challenges are plenty. I think for one, it's getting respect from your male peers. I honestly thought that with the fact that I have a bit of a masculine edge, it would be easier for me to evade the wandering eyes and minds of male peers but what you find out is that it's not necessarily true.
And then there's always learning how to manage situations in such a way that you don't end up in a space where someone is asking of you things that you don't want to give in order for you to advance. Knowing and understanding those nuances is very important but is one of the challenges I have and is one of the things I've continued to sharpen and learn as I grow.
There's also the aspect of people in your field not taking you seriously. For example, usually, when I go into shows, I always go in the deck and I mix my own vocals for my show. A lot of the time, it's male engineers and they're always confused and apprehensive to allow me to do something that I know is best for me because they think they know me more than I know me.
And it happens across the board, whether you're working on videos or music, there's always that ‘I know more than you’ push and pull. And the music industry is so small, you have to navigate those types of conversations with a lot of finesse.
So women face a lot of challenges and me personally, I've faced and continue to face them. But I realise that as I'm growing and building, I am getting a lot of respect in my field.
Africa, in general, is a very normative society yet in your music and lifestyle, you come off as a norm-bender and have a strong androgynous aura. What do you think of where Africa is right now liberality-wise and why do you think it's important to channel these narratives through your art?
I don't think I'm a norm-bender or gender-bender just for the sake of being edgy or cool. I just think it's important for people to understand that there are so many ways and forms of existence and human beings really and truly live on a spectrum, and nothing is binary the way we've been taught to believe.
So through my art and my general being, I enjoy expressing that idea of the fact that we're all malleable humans living on a spectrum.
Your emotions are on a spectrum, your mental state, your self-expression, your masculinity, and your femininity is on a spectrum.
Human beings aren't made with 50% masculine, 50% feminine, 50% sad, 50% happy. It's like everything is so nuanced and my expression is about showing people this. And that we have to start approaching things in more open-minded and nuanced ways because it benefits society if we're able to apply more understanding, not just to the things that shock us like ‘oh my God, you're androgynous’ or ‘Oh my God, why do you have drag queens in your video?’
I think it's more even of basic human understanding and communication. Sometimes, someone might say something to you and you might take it how you take it, but you have to also take into consideration the fact that you don't know what happened to them that morning, you don't know what they're going through or their life situation or mental health. So it's much less about tangible things, and more so about the fact that it's about a way of thinking. You have to be empathetic and compassionate and understand that we're all operating in a 360 sense.
On your album, there were really cohesive and interesting collaborations, what are your thoughts on collaborating?
I love collaborating because I don't know everything and I don't have all the creative sauce in the world. So for me, collaborating is just a way for me to learn new things and to learn a new way to approach your art.
Odunsi probably doesn't know this, but a conversation that I had with him while we were working on Party Sad Face is what helped me create a song like Sad U Broke My Heart cause he was playing me a bunch of his new music that he was working on and as I was listening, he was making this very interesting fusion between afrobeats and very cool spacey trap. He did this by melding local sayings and local language on these fire beats and he'll mix a bit of broad slang with it.
When he did that I was like “ahh, okay, this is how I can also do it.” And I just took that from him and applied it in my own way.
This is why I love collaborations because you stay with people, you have conservations; you watch them work and you learn things that help you better your art.
So what artiste would you love to work with?
I'll really really love to work with Rema, I love him.
One other thing, I watched the Instagram live where you played your unreleased tracks. Will there be a deluxe or will you be releasing any of them?
Well, we're working on a remix EP so definitely, that would be out and that would be an interesting way we approach some of the songs that are out. But there will be one or two new songs on the remix EP as well.
Lastly, congratulations on your MAMA awards nomination. How does that feel?
It feels really amazing. Never on earth did I think that I would even be recognised within Africa so quickly, to the point where I'm in a category with Adekunle Gold and Simi.
Like Simi low-key had a huge year, Duduke was huge. And Adekunle Gold also had a really good year. Also, these are people that have been building a fan base for the last 7/8 years. So to be a part of that category and be a part of the MAMAs as a nominee is a really big deal and I'm really honoured and super thankful that someone thought “Yo, we need to give this girl her flowers.”
P.S: This Amaarae interview was earlier published on the 2nd of February 2021 with the title, 'Amaarae, the Apple Music Africa Rising Artiste, is Finally Getting Her Flowers.'