Amaarae Is A Leading Light For the New Age African Woman


In the summer of 2017, Amaarae’s ear-snagging vocals first hypnotized listeners as she sauntered down the corridors of genre-fusing R&B. Three years down the line and the ever-evolving multi-hyphenate has taken her place as a pivotal figure in the Alté scene. 

This is how a young girl went from writing amateur songs in a classroom to becoming a disruptive female voice in an androcentric industry.

“I look more androgynous or masculine, but I have this really feminine voice, and I say some really nasty shit sometimes, but people love it.”

Amaarae is a walking paradox. Clad in oversized, glossy leather jackets and pants, futuristic glasses, edgy metallic jewelry, and a colorful buzzcut that has taken the form of everything from pastel colors to red and yellow stripes, the Ghanaian singer-songwriter, producer and engineer’s style oozes alluring androgyny. But when she opens her mouth, all stereotype expectations are thrown out the window as we’re greeted with soft, honey-dipped, featherlight vocals, laced with earworm melodies you just can’t shake off. The polarizing combination of Amaarae’s epicene outward appearance and her small yet seductive vocals is what makes the 26-year-old so intriguing to listen to. Yet, one cannot help but fall prey to the fierce expression of lust, pain, and lost love in her music.

Amaarae is no taller than 5 foot 3 inches, but when I am graced with her undeniable star presence, her quiet composure shines through. Leaning in towards her phone as she settles in for our afternoon Zoom call from her family home in Ghana, all the glitz and glamour are evidently out of sight. She’s in her most natural state, casually dressed in a comfy tank top and bottoms, regular glasses on, and her usually varicolored, close-cropped cut is replaced with a head full of jet black finger twists. Yet, even with less glamorous adornments, her commanding aura is inescapable. “People see me and expect me to be a rapper with this deep voice, but they end up like ‘she sounds like a baby and looks like a thug, how do you connect those two dots?’, but it works,” she tells me, flashing a toothy grin.

Debuting back in the Soundcloud-halled days of 2017, Amaarae’s delicate vocals on the piercing ‘The Obsolete Truth’ instantly swooned us and left us yearning more from this new, talented artist. Her experimental take on R&B with clear influences from highlife and hip hop kept us interested as she further explored the depths of genre-bending. Tracks like AYLØ’s ‘whoa’, on which she gave a sweet, sultry tribute to lost love, cleared the path for the warmly welcomed release of her debut EP, Passionfruit Summers. While running just under 20 minutes, the 6-tracker is long enough to aptly illustrate her immersive writing and composition and concise enough to leave the listener intrigued for more. 

Since then, Amaarae’s sonic exploits have firmly placed her in the center of neo-R&B conversations in Africa. Her releases may be few and far between, but they’re well worth the wait. Her eclectic sound, coupled with her inimitable vocals, has made her an essential voice in the Alté sound – Africa’s burgeoning sub-genre. Unafraid to be authentically herself, this young maverick is redefining power and identity for the 21st-century black woman. In a single breath, she’s bold; she’s sexy; she’s vulnerable, and always talking her shit. And as the sounds grow beyond the continent, Amaarae’s impact in shaping the future for women in Africa cannot be ignored. 

Born Ama Serwah Genfi to Ghanaian parents, Amaarae took her first breaths in a hospital in Bronx, New York. Carted back to Ghana to continue her childhood, she grew up in a family with eclectic music taste, that would later have an integral effect on her artistry. “My mum was a jazz fan, so I listened to a lot of jazz through my mum, and my dad was into R&B and soul, so I picked that up from him. One of my uncles was into alternative rock, so I picked that up from him as well,’’ she tells me. 

Her 8th birthday was followed by a move to the storied city of Atlanta, Georgia – hip hop’s center of gravity – where she became a rap-head almost by default. Southern rap had just begun to gain serious momentum, so her move seemed almost fated. Atlanta in ‘03 saw the rise of the trap era with pioneers like Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and Dem Franchize Boyz leading the charge, rapping in pockets as opposed to on time, and embellishing their flow with cryptic writing. Fascinated by these new sounds, Amaarae found inspiration in the early movement of the dirty south. 

Age 11 saw a move to Mount Olive, New Jersey, a town almost the polar opposite of Atlanta. ‘It’s like 98% white people’, she says with a laugh. It was here she got exposed to the DIY sounds of indie rock and indie pop. “All those kids used to listen to Fall Out Boy, and you know, really interesting shit, like Metro Station.” Unknown to her, she had already begun collecting the threads that would later be woven into the sonic blanket that defines her genre-swirling sound, one city at a time. 

Moving back to Ghana at 14 to live with her grandparents, she continued her secondary education and further explored her creative abilities. Settling into high school back home, she had dreams of being a neurosurgeon as she was a stellar science student. But all that went down the drain when she discovered a whole new group of peers expressing their love for music through experimentation. She would watch kids at the backroom in the computer lab making beats and recording songs and this inspired her to get to work. After writing her first song at 13 (an amateur remake of Usher & R Kelly’s ‘Same Girl’), Amaarae released her first mixtape at 17, while in high school. The tape – titled Splendid Isolation – saw her take full creative control, writing, producing, and performing all the songs as well as handling the art direction and design of the cover. 

From an early age, Amaarae knew she was a perfectionist, and this has translated into her creative process even to this day. ‘It’s the gift and the curse,’ she told Harmattan Rain. “I thrive for perfection so much I will ruin a good thing. I make everything myself, from the beat to writing my content and choosing the people who will work on my songs. I will go here to work with the best drummer, and there to work with the best voice coach and come back here to write my music.’’ 

Her level of perfectionism granted her a knack for sonic refinement and moving back to Atlanta at 19 allowed her to develop that further. Enrolled at college in Decatur, she landed a summer internship in a studio where she learned the technical aspects of sound engineering. This new knowledge motivated her to push the sonic boundaries of her music. “My voice is the last thing I think about when making music. I care most about the production. The first thing I think about is: how can I make these beats or instrumentals super immersive?” she revealed in a 2019 interview. After graduating from college four years later, she decided to move back to Ghana to pursue her musical career, bridging her global influences with her African roots.

2017 was a pivotal year for music globally. Helmed by Cardi B’s ‘Bodak Yellow’ and Migos’ ‘Bad and Boujee,’ hip hop saw a rise to the top of the Billboard charts and has been recorded as the most consumed genre of music in America since then. And with the colossal success of the Justin Beiber assisted remix to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s flirty reggaeton bop, ‘Despacito’, Latin music cracked the Hot 100 and has gradually been integrated into the mainstream host of power pop numbers. 

Here in Africa, a paradigm shift was unfolding as well. A new sub-genre was emerging in Nigeria, transcending the Soundcloud halls to becoming a cultural movement of its own accord. Spearheaded by frontrunners, Odunsi [the Engine], Cruel Santino, and Lady Donli, the burgeoning Alté scene was united by the artists’ mutual desire to experiment with genres and strong visual storytelling. Their music is a cocktail of various sounds, ranging from R&B, soul, and rap to Afrobeats and indie guitar music. It’s an amalgam of global influences and their own transcontinental experiences while placing individuality and authenticity firmly at its center. 

Around the same time frame that this emancipated pop scene was seeing its rise, Amaarae was making her move back home in Ghana to begin laying the groundwork for her career. There, she began releasing music as a rapper in a group known as Crooked Straight. But the Ghanaian audience’s reception wasn’t as welcoming as she’d hoped. “I  wonder if Ghanaians like me at all, I don’t even think they like me. I think they want me to get the entire fuck out of there,’’ she laughs, gazing at the ceiling as if searching for the possible answer. “And that’s totally fine with me. Go where you’re loved,” she finally shrugs.

The reception in Nigeria, however, is a different story. A quick scroll to the bottom of Amaarae’s (reasonably sparse) Soundcloud page and you’d find the very first track she ever put out for streaming purposes, ‘ANthem4deezhoes’ – a sultry, sex-positive number with a message reminiscent of the infamous third verse on Missy Elliot’s ‘Work It’. But it was the tranquil ‘The Obsolete Truth’, that opened her sound to the Nigerian audience.

It was love at first listen; her delicate drawls gently placed against the experiential production yielded many eargasms. Mesmerized by this fresh, feathery voice that’s equal parts piercing as it is tender, Nigerian artists and listeners alike became intrigued by her essence. And almost immediately, Amaarae was welcomed into the (then growing) Alté community. 

The crossover was so seamless that, to this day, a sizeable crop of Nigerian Amaarae fans aren’t aware of her Ghanaian roots. Building on the traction gained from ‘The Obsolete Truth’, Amaarae’s first guest appearance on the Alté scene was on AYLØ’s ‘whoa’. Her airy vocals melded perfectly with his baritone melodies and completely transformed the track. And then subsequent collaborations began pouring in. “Nigerian artists have really embraced me and my music and embraced collaborating. The crossover wasn’t forced, it really just started with one person, and the next person was like ‘hey, let’s do this.’ It’s given me the opportunity to express my fearlessness because they give me the avenue and the platform to do that”, she tells me. 

Since then, she’s acquired quite the reputation of lending her voice to different artists, creating magical collaborations you wouldn’t get with anyone else. Her honey-dipped, ethereal vocals are one of a kind, and everyone wanted a piece. “What would you say is your standout quality that makes artists from different genres want to work with you?’’ I curiously ask. ‘I really wonder what it is, whether it’s because I have an interesting voice or if it’s the fact that I’m experimental, but I still try to be me,’ she modestly replies. “Maybe I should start asking people..’’, she trails off. The synergy exuded with each artist she works with is unique, different with each one, but authentic nevertheless.

Her versatility knows no bounds. Irrespective of the genre, if Amaarae hops on it, you know it’s bound to be straight fire. It’s why she can go from lacing sweet melodies in Cruel Santino’s mosh-starting cult classic ‘Rapid Fire’, to adding her magical touch on Zamir’s bouncy number ‘Munchies’, to talking her raw and grimey shit on Odunsi’s female-led anthem, ‘body count’. 

It’s this effortless chemistry she evokes with collaborators that has allowed her to immerse herself in different music scenes. In addition to Nigeria and her homeland Ghana, so far, she’s tapped into the UK music scene as well as the Jamaican scene, collaborating with artists like Kojey Radical and Friday Night Crew, respectively. “Every artist has a certain vibe, and you have to be able to tap into it. The fun part for me is being able to tap into another artist’s energy but still maintain my individuality”, she tells me when I ask how each experience has differed. “My favorite collab has to be Kojey because we were at a writing camp, writing specifically for his album. I really enjoyed having to put myself in his shoes and write things from his perspective.

And in some ways, her crossover to the Nigerian scene opened up the doorway for other alternative Ghanaian acts, like La Même Gang and Kwesi Arthur, proving yet again just how influential a figure she is in the Alté scene.

“Androgyny has become a big thing in music videos now, and that’s helping to broaden people’s perspectives. You see more people start to become flexible in the way that they present themselves,” Amaarae remarked in a SowetanLive interview.

The term ‘androgynous’ and Amaarae may very well be synonymous with one another. Famous for her eccentric fashion taste, the singer is most likely to be caught in oversized masculine-looking clothes, chunky jewelry, and a bleached buzzcut that has probably seen every color combination under the sun.  “I like the fact that I look the total opposite of how I sound, and I don’t do that on purpose,” she tells me with conviction.  “Music is a medium through which I express myself, and clothing is another medium.” 

In some ways, she’s as androgynous in her music expression as she is with her taste in clothes. Her emotive writing is dotted with raw & grimey references expressing carnal desire. She sings like she’s making rap, filling her songs with a host of double entendres and hidden messages. And she’s spitting real shit too. “I stopped lying in my raps when I was 10,” she cheekily tweeted once. It’s as deep as it is sensual, with a delivery that’s every bit as masculine as it is effeminate.  

Amaarae has never been one to shy away from exploring the sonic boundaries of her music. It’s part of what makes her so unique. Her 2017 debut release, Passionfruit Summers EP,  was an experimental ode to heartbreak and compromise in relationships. “I think that project was really about self-discovery and growth. I started working on that project in my junior year in college, and I had just experienced my first major relationship break-up. So heartbreak was a big part of that, but more so, the self-discovery that came out of that,” she admits.

A fuse of atmospheric R&B and lush bubblegum pop, her honest, romantic woes instantly catapults the listener to a place of pure serenity and joyous pain. But it’s the icy, electronic production that ties it all together. Heavily involved in the production and post-production process of her music, Amaarae takes her time to painstakingly source out the best of the best people to work with. 

She’s just as experimental with the accompanying visuals to her songs. The video for her single, ‘Fluid’, is an aesthetic masterpiece of simple, stark artistry & creativity. A definite unorthodox concept, the video sees Amaarae’s head floating in milky water in a bathtub filled with brightly colored flowers, as she sings with emotive facial expressions. In the psychedelic video for ‘Like It’, she explores the unknown, brought to life in the form of an eccentric motel depicted as ‘The Lost Motel’. Filled with a variety of off-kilter characters, the video elucidates what may seem like a fever dream. And for the animated visuals of her recent single, ‘Leave Me Alone’, she revels in a dystopian dimension brought to life by Gianluigi Carella.

Coming up with the concepts for such boundary-pushing work is no easy feat. 

“How do you usually draw inspiration for your work?” I ask her. 

I draw inspiration from a lot of things. It varies, and anything can happen at any time, and that could inspire me,” she says. “But one of my most interesting experiences with inspiration is, I was with a friend and we were going up into the mountains. We were on a wave, and on our way back down the mountains, he started playing ‘Joro’ by Wizkid. I had played ‘Joro’ and I was like ‘oh, it’s a cool song’, but I don’t know, at that moment that song took over my spirit. Two or three days later, I was working on a song, and I was like, ‘yo, I would like to write this song from Wizkid’s perspective. How would Wizkid approach this?’. I tried that, and it was an interesting approach, and it became one of my favorite songs on my new album.”

It’s no news that in recent times, there’s been an evident global scramble for African music and culture, with Afro-pop as a genre receiving the majority of the attention. Our sounds have begun transcending the borders of the motherland, making its way to foreign spaces, and New Age African talents like Amaarae are at the helm of that. She saw this happening earlier than most. Through a couple of project opportunities with a PR agency back in college in Atlanta, she gained some insight into the industry. She saw the tide was changing for Afrobeats, and it was quickly becoming a more coveted genre. She then realized that her R&B fusion would seem more interesting if it was made from Ghana, so after graduation, she hastily returned home. 

Nevertheless, while this current western interest could mean a lot for Afropop, the importance of taking ownership of our narrative and controlling how our sounds and stories are shared, is not lost on anyone – certainly not Amaarae. “I think as Africans, we have to claim full and total ownership of African music in order for it not only to thrive but to have longevity. And that’s my fear: how do we claim our space on the global scene while keeping our music purely as our music? People shouldn’t be able to just hop on our wave”, she says intently. “And in a wider sense, the way our industry works in terms of publishing, royalties, the way contracts are signed and the overall structure; people being able to make money in music apart from just being artists. There’s a space for producers, songwriters, managers, tour managers, A&Rs, label execs. I think if we’re able to get the infrastructure right, Afrobeats would be unstoppable. We also have to document our history right, and that’s why there are people like you.

In many ways, Amaarae is a leading light for the New Age African woman. With this recent global interest, many African artists have begun fusing their sounds with Western influences to satiate foreign audiences. Female artists, however, haven’t been granted as much freedom to experiment as their male counterparts. In fact, female African artists have been dealt the short end of the stick on all fronts. From being placed in genre-rigid boxes to constantly being policed on the content in their music, women can’t seem to catch a break. Everything Amaarae stands for is the polar opposite of that. 

Earlier in the year, Odunsi rallied Amaarae, Gigi Atlantis, and DETO Black to deliver ‘body count’, a body & sex-positive number challenging the purity culture African women have been expected to conform to. Peaking at #7 on the Apple Music Nigeria charts, ‘body count’ was a considerably big moment for African women, especially in a country as conservative as ours. “You’re helping them understand that their freedom, sexuality, and sensuality is 100% theirs, and they have autonomy over themselves and their decisions”, she explains. “And outside of ‘body count’, the way I present my music is all about autonomy and being able to take responsibility for my decisions, and sexuality and sensuality is just a fraction of that. I like that in the Afro space, I get to represent that.”

From her dress sense to the content of her music, Amaarae embodies the new generation of progressive African women. The new age African woman is confident. The new age African woman is fiery. She’s daring. She’s never silent. She shows up and shows out for women everywhere.

In an interview with Unorthodox Reviews, Amaare was asked her opinion on an artist’s role in being a force for societal change. “A musician, essentially,  is supposed to use their platform to create dialogue and social awareness with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and finesse”, she replied. Amaarae indeed leads by example, as she displayed back in June when women took to social media to name and shame their abusers. She used her Twitter platform to speak out, posting a 7-tweet thread categorically calling out different classes of people involved in sexual assault and harassment and letting them know that they’re ‘part of the problem.’ 

She’s an inspiration to many and the textbook definition of owning and living your truth. 

“I think the same way an artist like Asa helped me to see that it’s possible to be alternative and make music, is the same way I hope that I’m opening the floodgates for women to say ‘I can talk my shit and no one is gonna stop it’. And that’s really all that matters.”

Life is coming full circle for Amaarae. Having a childhood characterized primarily by constant familial uprooting, she took all those different experiences, cultures, and lessons gathered along the way and put it in her music. “It’s allowed me to be versatile because I’m able to look at things through a different lens/perspective, so my perspective isn’t singular,” she says. Her current sound didn’t emanate from thin air; it’s an amalgamation of all the influences she’s garnered from every city she’s called home. 

Somehow rap was always destined to be in the books for her. Being born in the Bronx – hip hop’s birthplace – and raised in Atlanta – the current home of hip hop – rap’s influence on her was inevitable. “Living in Atlanta taught me how to think about music in a very fluid way. I, as a singer, write and think more like a rapper, and I sing what I happen to write. It’s always finding ways around and finding pockets that I can fall in,” she explains in a 2019 interview. 

Every time you think you have this bright-haired princess figured out, she switches it up and leaves you wondering. Her latest single, ‘Leave Me Alone’, is nothing like anything she’s made before. The first offering off her debut album The Angel You Don’t Know, scheduled for release in September, ‘Leave Me Alone’ is a bright and bouncy number on which she conveys her air of awareness in a different way than we’re used to. She’s putting all her acquired influences to the test. “You’ll hear a certain style with the singles, but it’s different when you get to the actual album. The intro has me singing a punk rock song for like 20 seconds and people won’t really expect me to do that. I have these really alt-pop records and records that are very Afrobeats adjacent. It’s a melting pot of different moods I was in,’’ she instantly gushes when I ask her for details on her new music. “It’s a lot more ballsy, much more expressive, much more fun record. There’s a lot of shit-talking, higher tempos, and there are sad moments too. It all comes full circle very nicely.

‘How would you describe your journey so far as an artist?’

My journey so far as an artist has been tasking but rewarding. You get to those points when you’re like ‘God when? When am I going to blow?’ but there are also moments where you make a really great song and great things happen.

Regardless of any obstacles, Amaarae has had some rewarding moments in her career. In April 2018, she was named one of Apple Music Africa’s Favourite New Artists and later that year became an Apple Music Beats 1 featured artist. Her striking style earned her a mention in Vogue’s Top 100 Style Influencers of 2018 and a nomination as Artist of the Year at the Glitz Style Awards in Ghana in the same year. But this moving train is far from making her final stop. “I still don’t think I’m good enough. I want to push myself to try new things but also make music people can relate to wholly and entirely,” she reveals candidly. 

Based on her steady incline over the past couple of years, it’s evident that Amaarae is simultaneously learning and playing the game – she’s mapping out her own rules and seizing control of her trajectory. She’s gone from a newcomer in the Nigerian industry to being a household name and a defining voice in the Alté community. With her music, she’s consistently striving to create a feeling that transcends the listening experience. It’s reinventing herself, over and over again. 

“How does this all make sense for you in the end?” I ask, closing my notes, ready to wrap up our conversation. “I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied, but I think a really happy moment for me would be to write and score an animated movie. I really enjoy cartoons, and it’ll be a crowning moment for me,” she says, flashing that toothy grin one last time. 

Makua Adimora

Makua has forgotten more Young Thug lyrics than you'd probably ever know. Tweet your fav horror movies at her @coldasmax_


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