“Grace Jones is 1,000% the level of uniqueness I like to think that I can be,” says NME 100 alumni Alewya, having been handpicked by her similarly uncompromising music idol to join her self-curated Meltdown Festival line-up. “She’s Grace Jones in her own right; she’s exactly who she is. It’s purely about art and the world she’s created – I really resonate with that. I like to think I do that in my own Alewya way.” It makes sense that Jones has picked the London-based, Ethiopian-Egyptian singer, songwriter and producer, seeing as they both have entirely singular artistic visions.
“You can just tell it’s Grace Jones’ taste,” Alewya enthuses of the line-up for the 27th edition of Meltdown, which also includes Big Joanie, Skunk Anansie, Lee Fields, Nova Twins, Shingai and Baaba Maal. In recent years, the festival has previously been curated by The Cure’s Robert Smith and Nile Rodgers. “It’s such an eclectic roster of alternative Black artists that she’s picked, and I don’t think there’s many festivals that really do that, bar Afropunk. I feel like I sit well on this line-up. I feel at home.” The curation of the festival, Alewya says, “gives room for other facets of Black music to really shine. It shows that there are subcultures going on – there’s electronic, there’s rock, there’s folk… so many other sides and fusions. There’s a whole world being built outside of the spotlight.”
But Jones isn’t the only natural connection that Alewya has to the Meltdown line-up; she’s booked to play the opening night alongside the DJs Sippin’ T and Honey Dijon, the latter of whom elevated her underground hit ‘Sweating’ into an energetic club-ready workout. “It’s so fun and such a different take. It’s nice to hear a song reworked for a different experience. It wasn’t like ‘I’m just gonna get your vocal and put it on another instrumental in the same order’. She properly chopped it up, and there was real imagination and essence to it. I’m super grateful and honoured that she did it”.
Alongside ‘Sweating’, similarly playful tracks like ‘Play’ and ‘Spirit_X’ have made Alewya a name to watch over the last few years. But she doesn’t let the hype phase her: “I know how dope I am. I’ve been knowing for years,” she says. “It’s certainly nice to know people are clocking on, but do I get pressure or feel any expectation? No, I don’t.”
This level of hard-won self-confidence comes after four or five years making music “super privately” as a hobby and never indenting to make a career out of it. “Exploring music and production and learning instruments helped me find something that I could put so much love and attention into, which is something I never had before,” Alewya says. Doing it all by herself and for herself, she says, “laid the foundations”.
Alewya’s breakthrough was propelled forward in 2018, when Little Simz showed up at one of her early intimate gigs. “She was super early and came through a friend,” Alewya recalls. The pair started chatting afterwards and formed an instant connection: “She’s a human, and it’s easy to talk if you’re human as well.” From then, their friendship was born and they would spend time at each other’s house, which led to the creation of their 2020 collaboration ‘where’s my lighter’, which appeared on Simz’s lockdown EP, ‘Drop 6’.
Joining Simz on her UK tour a year later was a huge deal for Alewya. “For me, that was the crème de la crème of tours to go on, in terms of me being a new artist in the industry and seeing the levels.” Looking back, she describes it as “a beautiful education that I’m really grateful for. Simz is truly amazing and does give me tips. She’s got years of experience under her belt, so it’s beautiful to have that.”
Much like Simz, representing her heritage in her artistry is something that is “innate” within Alewya. She was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Sudan by Ethiopian and Egyptian parents, before moving to London and Alewya’s sound is heavily influenced by her African and Arab roots. “I know what I resonate with, and I know what I’m made of,” she says, “and that’s naturally going to find its way out of me into whatever I touch”. Although she sees it as more of a subconscious thing, she says “in terms of how I choose to express myself, my head is there anyway”. That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps along the way, though: “sometimes I get insecure, but these are all things that add to the colours to paint the art with anyways”.
Alewya has a similar ethos when it comes to performing live, describing her shows as like a journey and “a time for me to free up and tap into my rawest emotions and dance. I give my 110% at every gig,” she says, adding that she actually thrives off “challenging audiences”. Rather than letting it demotivate her, it has the opposite effect. “It’s like exercise for me. I lose more inhibitions, because where is there to go? Not that she’s worried about that when it comes to Meltdown; “I have a feeling the crowd isn’t going to be like that. Judging by the line-up and Grace, it’s going to attract some really open people and I’m looking forward to that.”
When Alewya is on stage, she says she feels a subconscious presence. “It’s not this trippy acid thing, though – it’s just super alignment and getting out of my own head and my own way,” she says. “Allowing something to express itself out of me.” Rather than searching for gratification, Alewya says “there isn’t anyone to prove a point to, or live up to, though. I’ve got my own personal satisfaction from what I do. And I’ve won in that way.”
Alewya plays Meltdown Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on Friday June 10