Amaarae is a diligent student of transnational music. The Ghanaian polymath - born in New York and raised between Atlanta, New Jersey and Accra - may create songs that have an identifiable alté nuclei, but she can be so many things at once, such is her chameleonic approach to song craft. Born Ama Serwah Genfi, Amaarae bridged the essence of her homeland with the fluidity of diasporic expression on her 2017 EP Passionfruit Summers; merging 70s disco and a sophisti-pop shimmer with reined-in, afro-infused production.
On her debut LP, The Angel You Don’t Know, Amaarae opts for bigger, bolder and harder inflections: inventively fusing the bombast of Southern Rap, hardcore punk, druggy soft psychedelia with the incandescent sway of Afro-RnB. Whilst it’s bound to regional stimuli that spans amapiano and highlife, the record retains a hazy feel throughout, untethered to time, genre or expectation.
The Angel You Don’t Know is a deceptive audio-visual experience, precisely Amaarae’s intention. She wants to bring something a little more clandestine, a little more enigmatic back to music. Her whispery, ethereal voice - equal parts angelic, equal parts dripping with carnal desire – is a malleable weapon in her arsenal, allowing her to role play and gender bend at whim: the insouciant lovergirl, the melancholic club dweller drinking to fill the void, the cyber-punk eroticist on the prowl for her next target, all emerging from the intrepid expanse of Amaarae’s singular mind.
A trailblazing modern womxn, Amaarae - a DJ, visual artist, producer and sound engineer - dismantles mainstream opinion, eschewing superannuated views of what West African creatives should be. Just as the world continues to adapt to the blurring of these enshrined conventions, Amaarae stands at the forefront beaming in neon technicolour with no fucks to give: Amaarae is the outsider going global.
Tune in to Amaarae 'Jumping Ship' ft. Kojey Radical & Cruel Santino now.
CLASH spoke to Amaarae on the eve of her new release as part of our newly launched digital #PLTFRM series, spotlighting global talent breaking down barriers.
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CLASH: Our first entry point to the world of Amaarae was ‘Spend Some Time’; for a lot of the world it was the first time we heard your unique cadence over this sedate afro-disco production. In retrospect, do you see the track as a staple of yours, in the way that it became this crossover hit?
Amaarae: ‘Spend Some Time’ is an interesting one because it started off as a low-key sleeper track. I didn’t realise until later on that it had been racking up views and streams. Honestly, I love the track because it’s very relaxed and downtempo. I loved making the record; it was one of the most seamless sessions I’ve had because I recorded it in like 15 minutes. The artist that’s featured, Wande Coal - who is a Nigerian legend – was taking a shower whilst I recorded my vocals, he came back, rolled a blunt and starting singing five verses back-to-back. Our chemistry was just so potent on this record.
CLASH: You’re a very prolific creator, not just with your solo material, but with your collaborations and production credits for other artists. But you’ve taken your time with creating your first full-length, The Angel You Don’t Know. Tell us about the journey of recording your seminal work in a wild year like 2020? Was an end-of-year release intentional?
Amaarae: It’s funny because when I first set out to work on my first LP - this was before 2020, before all the things that have happened historically this year – my intention was totally different. It was an EP at first, it was supposed to be a transitional project for my fans to have, something to tide them over until the record eventually arrived. As time went one, as I was recording more, collaborating more, the world started to burn and lockdown happened. I got to really sit down with these songs and work on them even more. My pre-Covid plan went out the window, and I had the space to experiment and expand the record.
It’s been a long year, and I think it coming out as the year draws to a close gives people an emotional, mental and even physical escape. I want them to relate to all the different tracks in different ways. I want them to enjoy life with it, and not think too much about all the crazy shit that’s going on.
CLASH: We’ve seen how musicians have had to adjust to lockdown: learn to be thrifty and exist exclusively through their socials. How did you respond to your plans suddenly being derailed?
Amaarae: I loved tapping into being at home and connecting with fans that were also at home. Every Sunday, I’d hop on Instagram Live and play music I was listening to: I’d play music I was working on: I’d have some of them call me and we’d have topics that we’d chat about. This grew and grew to the point where these listeners were actively invested in what I was working on. I was able to leverage this into opportunities working with Pioneer and Burberry.
For me the key was authenticity. Understanding the challenges and solving those challenges but also making sure that these interactions were open, honest and meaningful. Outside of that, working with brands that understood my core values was key. Really, I have the fans to thank for this, they pushed for these partnerships. I have to thank my distribution label Platoon, who have been incredible and immaculate in their support of this project, opening doors for me to earn a living as an artist.
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CLASH: Do you have plans to tour the record in the new year. Obviously, it’s contingent on if the pandemic eases. If not a tour, a virtual concert? It’s been an avenue explored by many artists globally.
Amaarae: Yes, we have been toying around with the idea of a virtual concert. Logistically, it’s tricky. Do the fans pay or is it free? How do you regulate internet and the connection and the bandwidth in different countries? What we might do is live renditions with a cool set design of songs from the album that we put on YouTube. It’s important for it to be accessible versions.
CLASH: What’s the inspo behind the album title The Angel You Don’t Know?
Amaarae: The Angel You Don’t Know was something my Dad used to say a lot. It’s part of a saying, “The devil you know, is better than the angel you don’t know.” One time I was writing an article for OkayAfrica, and I was going to title it “The Devil You Know” and my Mum said that you should make it more mysterious by adding ‘don’t’ to it. That stayed with me.
As I was working on the project, I would think about how I was channelling these different personalities into all these songs and they all had such unique and different energies. I kept thinking to myself, what is the core of this project because I’m a million things on these songs but at the same time it still came together. The title is me being a complete mystery but also a blank canvas where I can transform and change to the point where I’m not one specific thing.
CLASH: The beauty of this record is that it’s this weird and wonderful combination of alté with future-facing RnB, trap and Southern hip-hop. It has crossover appeal. Was that an intentional decision for you to bridge these worlds and opt for some replay value this time round?
Amaarae: At the end of the day, you want to make music that is true to you, that’s interesting, that breaks boundaries. But I wanted to be accessible, I didn’t want to be so far off from what the listeners wanted. Honestly, the fans were a big part of creating this record; it was a very interactive experience. I wanted people to be able to enjoy and consistently play the music. That’s why a lot of the songs are quite short, because I wanted them to go back and play it over and over again.
CLASH: It’s a very easy listen. It’s a continuous soundscape that you play from start to finish without interruption. I imagine a lot of thought went into the sequencing – the record transitions from more upbeat numbers to a more mellow run with ‘3am’ and ‘Sad, U Broke My Heart’ as it draws to a close – was that something you stressed over?
Amaarae: 100%. The sequencing changed a good twenty times. I went through so many different iterations because there were so many different moods and energies, and I’d have friends over and I’d play songs for them, they’d make their own track lists, I’d then take that and play with it. Eventually, I took all of these versions and looked for patterns, and the final track list was born.
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CLASH: Are you a perfectionist? Was it hard to let the record go?
Amaarae: Not anymore. I’ve learnt to just let my songs go. Of course, there’s certain things I’ll hear in the songs, and it might be a tiny mixing error - I’ll think “Should I go back and mix it?”, but then I’ll be like fuck it. I’ve done everything to the best of my ability, if I keep going back and tweaking it, it will never come out.
CLASH: Your voice is very unique; you possess a unique tone which completely transforms the complexion of a song. There’s a fearlessness in how you experimented with your voice on this record. Who was your vocal stimuli growing up and on this record?
Amaarae: Billie Holiday, Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Stevie Nicks and Young Thug – those are the four vocalists I’ve studied and tried to emulate. With ‘Céline’ and ‘Hell’s Angel’, you can hear the Young Thug influence. Anthony Kiedis has this raspy, whispery tone but it has this edge, which I’ve tried to emulate in records like ‘Crazy World’ and ‘Dangerous’.
CLASH: Lyrically, on this record you touch on hedonism, fame and fortune but you tackle these heavy themes through levity and playfulness. How did your approach to songwriting change this time round, when compared to Passionfruit Summers?
Amaarae: As I’ve grown and as I’ve listened to more songwriters, I’ve learned that simplicity is the best way to communicate. About three years ago, my writing was more complicated; I’d use alliteration and poetic rhetoric, whereas now I’m thinking, what’s the simplest way I can communicate with people so that they can grasp it. I’m more confident and ballsier, you can hear that with ‘Fancy’, ‘Hell’s Angel’ and ‘Céline’ - this bravado just hits you. With ‘3am’ and ‘Sad, You Broke My Heart’, lyrically they’re quite simple but in terms of delivery, it’s sweet and melodic.
The latter was one of the most interesting songs lyrically, because I asked myself “what would this sound like if I wrote it for Wizkid?” or if I write a typical, afrobeats song? I started recording bars in 4s, and I honestly don’t even know what the fuck I was saying on that record! My other favourite song lyrically is ‘Trust Fund Baby’, especially the hook, because it’s cheeky, fun and playful.
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CLASH: You endorse and affirm the work of young West African producers and songwriters on this record, as well as ones in the diaspora – it’s very a collaborative record. Explicate the importance of someone of your calibre enabling the work of the Next Gen?
Amaarae: It’s so important, especially with this project. This wasn’t just my labour, a lot of people put time and effort into making this project what it is. I had to make sure everyone that contributed felt like they were an integral part of the roll out. At every moment, every minute, I’ve been shouting out this producer, this artist or this songwriter, because if I’m gaining anything from this, they have to as well. I made special assets for every contributor - down to the mixers and engineers - they had to feel like they were a part of this project and that their contribution was valued.
It’s very important for me to open up my platform to the next generation, or even my peer, who doesn’t have the platform I have. It comes with blessings, when you share what you have with people you work with. I’m very open to learning from my collaborators. Even down to my visuals, I’m trying to open up the minds and inspire the next generation to show them we can be different and we can switch up this afrobeat sound, and still make money and get recognition. That’s a big focus of mine, to break down these barriers as an alternative African artist.
CLASH: One collaborator that has a few production credits on the LP, is Rvdical Da Kid, a nascent producer coming to the fore. One of my favourite songs of the year is your collaboration, ‘NASA’. It’s this match made in music heaven; your sensual coos skating over his cosmic production. Break down the making of the track and your working relationship on this record?
Amaarae: Rvdical makes records that are very airy. He gives me so much space to jump into different pockets that he doesn’t interrupt with drums and extra noise. ‘NASA’ is a two-year old record, it was made the first month that I met him, and I went in and recorded it not knowing when it would come out. It was so much fun because that beat is so open, and his production on the record is the same, it’s like “this is your playground, express yourself!”
CLASH: You have a strong sense of visual style this era – cyber-punk meets androgyny - as a concept but also as an aesthetic component. What does expression through fashion, through aesthetics afford you as a creator?
Amaarae: The first thing people see before they hear your music is how you look. That might then make them decide if I’m even worth listening to. I remember seeing Lenny Kravitz for the first time, I was about 7. He had this punk-rock energy to him: he wore tight pants, cropped shirts, had these nose and ear piercings - that was so cool for me to see when I was young. That was another possibility of who I could be and what I could be inspired by.
Another person I loved was Pimp C, he always looked fresh with the grillz; his energy and aura were inspiring. When you see artists with a strong visual style, it can only add depth to their music. Being from West Africa, it wasn’t really an option to look different. Only now, because of Instagram and the internet, kids are starting to break out of these shells. When I came to Ghana 3-4 years ago, I had bleach blonde hair, I had so many people looking at me like “who is this crazy lady!” Eventually, you open the mind of the youth and they soften up. We can’t all be the same thing.
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CLASH: Your visual for ‘Fancy’ was very stylized and vivid, a tribute to MTV-era videos. What can we expect from your visual to ‘Jumping Ship’ and the era going forward?
Amaarae: The theme for this era is dark, acidic and boisterous. I wanted everything to be in your face. It comes from this punk-rock energy. It has to slap; it has to pop and make you feel alive. With the video for ‘Jumping Ship’ we took a softer approach, it still has that strain of anarchy but the lighting is softer, the theme is much more mysterious. It’s not as pungent or potent as ‘Fancy’ or even ‘Leave Me Alone’. It’s good to create new worlds and have some contrast for fans to engage in.
CLASH: Afrobeats, or shall I say the British iteration, Afroswing, are very lucrative and popular in the UK, who’ve since legitimised it with an Official chart. As an artist who sits in the intersection of all of these genres and sub-genres, what’s your take on the trajectory of the Afrocentric sounds in the UK? Are we some way off seeing it take over in the US?
Amaarae: In the US? Ha! When it comes to music there’s two different types of successes: popularity and success within the black community, characterised as “urban success”, which Afrobeats is enjoying now through the diaspora: The other type of success is…I’m curious to see whether white Middle America can even process Afrobeats. I don’t know that it can.
I think back to 2001, when Sean Paul came out with Dutty Rock, shortly after Elephant Man came out with ‘Pon De River’, and of course there was Shaggy before that. We saw dancehall-inspired music make a big impression within hip-hop. I don’t know if it ever touched Middle America, even though it made a big impact culturally. I think it will be the same with Afrobeats. How will Sally from Nevada, or Ryan in Colorado relate to Burna Boy?
CLASH: I agree. Someone like Burna Boy has huge cultural cachet and hype behind him, but these albums aren’t quite translating yet on the Billboard Charts. You compare it with Latin-pop, and consider the success stories of Bad Bunny, and there’s a dissonance there.
Amaarae: Look at the biggest artists from Latin America: Ozuna, Anitta, Bad Bunny and J Balvin, they haven’t had crossover hits in America yet. These artists have huge followings on their socials, but those followers are mostly from Latin American audiences and the diaspora in America. Outside of ‘Despacito’, which had a huge label push because of Justin Bieber, white Americans aren’t connecting almost as much as we think they are. But do we need white America to make global hits? Look at Bad Bunny, he’s huge!
CLASH: Does it irk you when you see the homogenisation of ‘Afrobeats’, and the lack of distinction between all the many genres, inflections and regional sounds that exist in your own record?
Amaarae: Yes and no. I think that it doesn’t help the culture when all these genres are clumped together. At the same time, I think about hip-hop which has so many facets: boom bap, trap, G-Funk and Southern Rap which is its own thing. Within the culture we understand what each thing is but I don’t know if breaking it up helps a wider audience who consume the music differently.
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CLASH: You’ve expressed this desire to give back to the young girls and womxn in Africa. Are there any initiatives/community-based projects you’re a part of? And what do you think creatives native to Africa, or in the diaspora need to be doing more of to have a positive impact on impressionable youth?
Amaarae: This is what I want to do next. I want to figure out how I can open up my world to young girls, especially in Ghana and Nigeria, to girls that don’t have access to the opportunities I have right now. I have this big vision that I need to whittle down so I can work with people at a grassroots level. Ultimately one of my goals is to have a centre for young people to develop: To learn about sex education, learn about coding, a place where they can do their homework, they can apply to colleges, they can learn to make music and write poetry.
My empowerment plan for young girls started with my art. With my video for ‘Fancy’, I thought that little girls in Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, South Africa might think this is some badass shit, this is where we can go with our music. In Ghana, it’s backfiring a little bit because they’ve censored some of my music videos. Imagine the little girl in the village or a little girl that lives in a shanty town in Jamestown who no longer has access to my music because they’ve censored it on local television. How can I create these bonds and these connections when they don’t know who I am? It’s incredibly frustrating. These young girls might see me on a billboard, but what then? This is a problem I need to figure out first, and I don’t even know if I can.
CLASH: Final question. What do you want the world to take away listening to 'The Angel You Don’t Know'?
Amaarae: I want for the world to first and foremost have fun with it. Secondly, it’s for two types of people: the youth overall and the African diaspora and Africans in general. For the youth I’m saying, lets push ourselves out of our comfort zones and continue to do things that we may not be praised for, it’s important we do it to foster growth. For the African youth, I’m saying I’m going to do me, I will continue to push myself; you can either do the same, come along for the ride, continue to help each other, our culture and push the boundaries of African music and culture. I want to push young artists to consider album art, adding visual styles and play around with what Afrobeats is. This is the new normal.
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Stream 'The Angel You Don't Know' here.
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Amarachi Nwosu
MUA: Elizabeth Boateng
Executive Producer: Amarachi Nwosu
Stylist: Amarachi Nwosu
Stylist Assistant: Shadraq Stone
Project Coordinator: Nana Poley (Limbo Accra)
Fashion Producer: Ekow Barnes
Production Company: Melanin Unscripted