NME Radar: Breakout

Amaarae: pioneering alt-Afropop rebel winning fans on an international level

The 27-year-old Ghanaian-American, who recently linked up with Kali Uchis, is enjoying a renewed interest in her debut album following a TikTok breakthrough

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

The ample alternative sounds that can be heard in the African music of today can be credited to the recent breakthroughs that have been made by west Africa’s youth. Young creatives, aided by the largely unlimited access to the internet in the region, are now being exposed to subcultures from all over the world, sparking the musical experimentation that we’re currently hearing in Afropop.

One of these pioneering rebels is the Ghanaian-American singer/songwriter Amaarae, whose distinctive high register has won her fans on an international level. Living between Atlanta and Accra, the 27-year-old has always loved the self-expression that comes with making music. Growing up, she was inspired by both the southern rap scene in the US and the DIY musical culture of her Ghanaian high school peers, who played around with the online sample library FL Studios.

While interning at a music studio after she finished school at 18, Amaarae then began to hone the alternative Afrocentric sound that informed her 2020 debut album ‘THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW’. Having recently released the ‘Sad Girlz Luv Money’ remix with Kali Uchis, Amaarae now looks very well placed to take the bubbling west African music scene to the world.

Ahead of the first of two sold-out shows at London’s Colours tonight (November 3), NME spoke to Amaarae about ‘SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY’s recent TikTok success, her formative musical experiences and why she thinks that Kelis is the “quintessential Black alt-girl”.

The ‘Sad Girlz Luv Money’ remix with Kali Uchis has blown up. How has the response been for you?

“I’m super-excited about it. When we first made that record I knew it was special, so it’s just great to see people resonating with it and the album in general. Having Kali on the remix was just the cherry on top, you know? And she killed it. It’s just great to see people gravitating to music in general.”

Would you say your sound is aligned with the Nigerian Alté scene?

“I wouldn’t say that it was Alté, per se. I don’t even think I could categorise [my music] because there are just so many different types of genres and energies that I’ve tapped into. There’s one song on [the album] that I can say is Alté, for sure. But, in general, it was everything, from afrobeat to progressive house to baile funk to pop or trap. [My sound is] not always Afrocentric.”

Have you always been able to sing in a high register?

“No! It’s interesting: the other day I was looking back at my mixtapes that I did when I was in high school, and I used to sing in a much deeper voice. I think what happened was that by using my head voice, there’s a vulnerability and a sensitivity that you’re able to communicate in a way that is also very potent and cuts through. I could be saying the wildest shit – you know, like the most inappropriate shit – but whenever I say it in the softer voice and the high register, people just gravitate towards it. What you’re saying is an afterthought, so when it finally does click, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a bad motherfucker!’”

amaarae
Credit: Motombo

How have you managed to integrate your influences into your music?

“I think Kelis is the quintessential alt-Black girl. Honestly, all alt-Black girls are inspired by Kelis. For me, what I love most about Kelis is just how fearless she was in her experimentation. When I was making the project and I was experimenting with rock and pop, I would go back and listen to the ‘Wanderland’ album, or ‘Tasty’ or ‘Kaleidoscope’, and just try to get that energy for myself.

Young Thug is the Elton John or the Freddie Mercury of our time. From being a fashion icon to a vocalist who has an incredible range and incredible musicality about him, I think he’s influenced an entire generation of artists. He’s truly revolutionary.”

You grew up between Ghana and the US. How has that influenced your music?

“My first true experience of music and culture was when I lived in Atlanta – it was a very key time in southern hip-hop. There was Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Trina and Trick Daddy —  just a bunch of really fire artists. At that time, seeing southern culture is what I think put the battery in my back, because seeing the rawness of it all at such a young age was so beautiful to me. When I moved back to Ghana for high school, I first got the chance to produce music. There’d be a bunch of kids in the back of the computer room making beats on FL Studio, and this is something that wasn’t happening when I was in school in America. I got to see the whole DIY culture. Seeing people sell their records on different campuses was another big thing for me as I got to learn about entrepreneurship as an artist and distribution, even though it was on a minor scale.”

Stylistically, you’re always pushing boundaries. How important is self-expression to you?

“I don’t know if it’s about representation as much as it is about expression. I just want girls and boys like me — you know, young Africans — to be able to express themselves freely. We really come from a community and a society that oppressed expression, probably up until the last five years where the internet and Instagram started to become a thing and our cultural values shifted. It’s always about what I am doing to help the next generation of young people.

“Being an artist is a big thing because, for the longest time, it was taboo for young women to make music in Africa. My grandmother tells me all the time that you were looked at as some type of loose girl. She told me, ‘I get to live vicariously through you. To see you with pink and purple hair: these are things that I wish I could have done’. I want people to know that creativity can be a commodity through which you can earn money, and there is no shame in that. Creativity truly is the key to the world, and this is about helping African parents and young Africans to really understand that and embrace it.”

What does the future look like for Amaarae?

“I’m working on my next project, so it’s an exciting time. I’m thankful to have the fans that I do, because ‘THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW’ was so well received – it’s given me the confidence to experiment and push my sound further. I really hope to be some type of light for young African women to just come in and kill the game. Whether it’s in music, tech, the business sector, aerospace, engineering… whatever! I just want them to be absolute rockstars in whatever they choose to do.”

Amaarae will play at Colours in London tonight and tomorrow (November 3-4).