From her bedroom in Ghana’s costal capital of Accra, Amaarae wonders when a wider American audience will embrace African music. “I’m waiting to see if Burna Boy is gonna be like ’02 Sean Paul when he came with ‘Gimme the Light,’” she says over Zoom, recalling how ubiquitous the Jamaican dancehall artist once was stateside. It’s mid-August, a few weeks after the UK launched its first official Afrobeats chart, a new index of popular African and African-influenced singles. The chart encompasses its namesake genre, as well as offshoots like Afroswing—the British style that blends African and Caribbean rhythms with grime and trap—and its arrival crystallizes the assimilation of Afropop into British life. Maybe a proper U.S. Afrobeats chart is next.
Amaarae wants to break into the mainstream with her own style of Afro-fusion music, heavy on R&B influence and skeletal percussion. “I want to be the quintessential African princess of pop,” she explains. “But I wouldn’t want to have to sacrifice the integrity of my music to do that.”
As a sought-after collaborator in West Africa and beyond, with nearly two dozen features to her name, the 26-year-old has emerged as one of the most compelling new acts on any continent. Her innovative debut EP, 2017’s Passionfruit Summers, has hints of both Atlanta and Accra, two cities where she spent parts of her childhood. She wrote, produced, and engineered most of the project, sneaking in the same Crystal Waters sample from T.I.’s 2006 banger “Why You Wanna” on one song and interpolating Nigerian pop star D’banj’s Afrobeats hit “Oliver Twist” on another. Over watery, tropical beats, she sings about desire in a whisper so dainty, it almost melts into her instrumentals.
Her upcoming full-length project, The Angel You Don’t Know, out next week, offers Afro-fusion that’s more upbeat and fuller-bodied than her previous effort, but it also finds her experimenting with more of the music that made her: Fall Out Boy, Kelis, Trina. The album opens with a hard rock guitar riff. A dreamy indie-pop number is tucked in the middle. And standout track “Fancy” is pure hip-hop, dripping with the confidence and cadence of Southern rappers she admires. After largely working alone on her EP, Amaarae credits a cadre of producers and songwriters like KZ and Maesu with bringing this project’s sexy, bouncy, and brash ideas out of her. “Left up to me, the album might have sounded much darker—I did a lot of really dark, dark, dark songs,” she says. “But when we sat down as a team, we were like, ‘What is it going to take to get me to the next frontier of my career?’ Even if we are going to bring [listeners] into a darker world eventually, there has to be a build up to that.”
Born Ama Serwah Genfi in the Bronx, New York, Amaarae has been itinerant for most of her life. She moved to Ghana with her family when she was around 6 months old, then relocated to Atlanta at age 8 and stayed there for three years. She spent another three in New Jersey before returning to Ghana at 14. There, she made her first mixtape, In Splendid Isolation, where she rapped and sang about broken friendships and unrequited crushes, and mimicked the slick, shimmery beats of Ryan Leslie, the 2000s producer behind Cassie’s debut album and hit single “Me & U.” Since then, she’s known she wanted to pursue music professionally, but at her mom’s behest, she did the college thing first. She returned to the states to attend Agnes Scott College outside of Atlanta, soaking up every opportunity the Black mecca offered to develop her craft. She took a music business class with a Sony A&R and learned sound engineering during a summer internship at a recording studio. She DJed parties across the city, where African music was bubbling, as wall-to-wall crowds packed clubs on Afrobeats nights. Like a wet finger in the air, Amaarae sensed the winds of change blowing towards West Africa. After graduating in 2017, she returned to Ghana to officially start her music career.
These days, Amaarae lives in a spacious home in Accra with her mother (who is also her manager), her younger brother, and her grandmother. During a virtual house tour, Amaarae floats out of her bedroom and circles the family room, an upstairs alcove where they spend weekends watching movies together. A dramatic, grayscale portrait of her brother in sunglasses hangs on a wall (“He thinks he’s Diddy,” says Amaarae). She scurries down hardwood steps, pops into the massive kitchen, then marvels at her mother’s elaborate decor in the conjoined dining/living room, where an array of chairs, couches, and benches could comfortably seat at least a dozen guests.
The only space not suited for a crowd is Amaarae’s narrow recording studio, sparsely outfitted with a Mac desktop, some engineering equipment, and her collection of funk, jazz, and highlife records. To get to the studio, she passes through the backyard, revealing a pristine pool lined with luscious shrubs that lead to a canopied patio. It looks like paradise.
“One of my favorite things about living in Ghana is the fact that my family is with me all the time,” says Amaarae. “You have no idea how much that does for me in terms of comfort.” In the U.S. iteration of her childhood, she, her mother, and brother searched for community but were bound to each other. “When I was living in America, I didn’t realize how lonely we were,” she says. In Ghana, her extended family members live around the bend. While most 20-somethings in America may yearn for independence, Amaarae and her family are thinking of purchasing a compound where even more of them can live together.
The only tradeoff is the way some personal and professional tasks that can be completed with relative ease in the U.S.—whether it’s going to a doctor’s appointment or executing a music video, she explains—can be arduous in Ghana, where infrastructures and regulations are wanting. However, her vision of the music world’s enhanced investment in Africa has begun panning out. Since her move, Universal Music Group expanded their operations in West Africa and launched a Def Jam label on the continent, streaming platform Audiomack opened a Nigeria office, and Apple Music announced an initiative to amplify African artists around the globe. “It’s pretty clear that Africa is the next frontier,” says Amaarae. She is not the gold-seeker in this rush. She is the gold.
Pitchfork: Throughout your life, you’ve darted across the United States and between the U.S. and Ghana. Why did you move so much?
Amaarae: My mom always wanted to push herself to take new risks. We moved [to Atlanta] when I was 8 because my mom went to get her MBA. She got a job shortly after that, working in New York City, so we moved to New Jersey so she could be closer. I think my mom is a very forward-thinking person. After two or three years in Jersey, she was like, “Look, I can either stay here and work my way up in my job, or I can take all the experience, all the opportunities and the networks that I’ve built, go back to Ghana, and build something completely new for myself.”
What was it like to go back to Ghana after spending several formative years in America?
It was such an enriching experience. I was ignorant at the time because I thought, Oh, I’ve grown up in America. I’m going back and I know so much; I’m taking all these experiences with me. Can [Ghanaian kids] relate? I came back and the kids were better traveled than I was, had more of an understanding of how the world works than I did, were less sheltered, and much more adventurous.
That’s where music started for me. There were kids that were taking headsets from the computer lab. Then they’d steal a laptop from the library and download FL Studio on it and make beats. They’d just start fidgeting around and recording music. People were passing out mixtapes in high school. At the time, we didn’t know it, but we had our own ecosystem for how we made and distributed music. There was always this exchange of culture and knowledge. Moving back down really did a lot for me.
It seems like your mom’s fearlessness has taken you around the world. How do you think that’s influenced you as an artist?
I think I have the same sort of fearlessness when it comes to my art, especially given the fact that I’m doing it from Ghana. A lot of people keep saying to me, “Why are you here doing the kind of music that you make?” It’s still considerably alternative in comparison to traditional, homegrown Afrobeats. I still continue to get shut out in my own country by radio, television, and overall media. International platforms are way more willing to give me a shot. In spite of that, I continue to persevere and do my art in the way that I want to do it.
What Missy Elliott and Kelis did for me is the reason I can be so expressive now. I know that there are young girls, in this country especially, that need to know that outside of the kind of girls that you’re seeing on TV, there’s somebody out here that’s doing some different shit. And you could get into some different shit, too. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be music. Like you might want to code. You might want to be an aeronautical engineer. Whatever! They just have to know that you don’t have to be boxed in. I have to be fearless in my messaging and in my journey because [Ghana] is oppressive as shit towards women—especially women who might not have access to the opportunities that I have.
Have you broken through in Ghana at all?
Not yet. What’s actually kept me going is my audience in Nigeria. Nigerians fuck with me the longest way. The [on-air personalities] over there, anytime I’m in Lagos, they’re like, “Come through to the station! Come do an interview!” Since my single “Leave Me Alone” came out, I’m [played on the radio in] five different Nigerian states, at least two to four times a week. At the end of the day, once I start to cross the threshold, it’s going to start to open doors. I’ve abandoned the idea of ever breaking over here. But I do care about the young women across Africa.
Do you still think that the West is looking towards Africa as a new plane for music?
Yeah, definitely. I think the next thing is to sort of assimilate American culture and try to get them to understand how our music works.
What do you mean by that?
Look at the world and the way that Afrobeats has moved from West Africa into other parts of Africa, like Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. Then the UK was like, “OK, we like Afrobeats as a nation,” and ran with that to the point where they now have a [distinct] subculture, Afroswing. I think it’s going to be a bit more difficult to get Americans into that mind space. The diaspora is fucking with it—like first-generation African kids that grew up in America and now have a hunger for their culture. They want to connect. They’re doing that through the music. But if you’re talking about white, middle America, that’s going to take a minute.
Do you think it matters? Are people of the diaspora not enough to bolster the music and to have it permeate globally?
An African and African American audience can bolster you to that level of global recognition. But there’s a certain level of money and opportunity that comes with [a mainstream] market. To me, Taylor Swift and SZA, their musical content isn’t any different, but Taylor Swift’s relatability to the average teenage white girl is really the cause of her being such a global phenomenon.
You’re often discussed as part of the alté scene pioneered in Nigeria: young West African artists experimenting with fashion and sounds that would be considered nontraditional where you are. You’ve described yourself and some of your peers like Nigerian artists Cruel Santino and Odunsi (The Engine) as “punk rock.” What does that mean to you?
I think punk is just a state of mind. It’s the state of mind I entered once I got into the space where I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to try everything that I possibly can. I’m going to do it with no shame, no fear—just this relentless feeling in my heart that no matter what, I’m gonna fucking make it.” To me, my mom is punk rock as fuck. She’s super prim and proper, but her mentality to always conquer is really some trailblazing shit.
What was your introduction to punk rock? Was there a band?
I can’t say what the genesis of it was, but I’ve always listened to punk music. I’ve always been into artists like Nirvana, Meat Puppets, the Raincoats. An artist like Dolly Parton, even though she’s country, has this super punk rock edge to her and her way of thinking, too. Also: Kelis, Fefe Dobson, Grace Jones. I’ve been into them since I was a kid.
What’s your plan for your career? What do you want for yourself?
When I think, OK, well, how am I going to do this? What is my breakthrough going to be?—I think about, first and foremost, my voice. My voice is interesting, but also very pop-friendly. I can think of my voice in terms of range and style, like the way that Berry Gordy utilized Diana Ross’ vocals against so many different types of pop tropes, but still kept her Black. And for me, that’s what I would like my trajectory to be. I’ve been exposed to so many different types of music and scenarios that I continue to build my range so that I can stand and fight in any arena, music-wise, both as a singer and a songwriter. So even if it doesn’t come in the form of “Amaarae has sold 500 million records,” it might be: “Amaarae wrote that record for Adele that did.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork