Ayra Starr: Nigerian teen leading her generation’s sonic revolution

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. This week, Lagos-based Ayra Starr on bucking the trends in her home region and releasing her debut EP on Nigeria's iconic Mavin Records

Manifesting notoriety in her aptly-chosen moniker, Ayra Starr’s lyricism isn’t cloaked in confusing metaphors or peppered with clichés; it’s a collection of her raw, unfiltered thoughts. In her recently-released debut self-titled EP, Ayra contemplates power, freedom and pain, placing her vocals over a dynamic sound that bolsters a soulful pulse. By deploring polyrhythmic beats and Yoruba vernacular in tracks like ‘Sare’, Ayra revives West African music tradition without a nostalgic relapse.

Growing up between Nigeria and the Benin Republic, Ayra always loved music and came from “a very musical home; music brought everybody together.” But unlike many West-African teens, Ayra wasn’t forced to play it safe when it came to choosing a career but was pushed to follow her dreams. It was her mother’s words of encouragement that motivated Ayra: “My mum would always call me asking me to follow through with music”.

After initially avoiding to take music seriously, she finally caved aged 17, gleaming knowledge of her craft from the internet. “I never went for any formal training; I would just go on YouTube. It would take months to learn things, it was very challenging”. Giggling, she continues, “but I like a challenge!” Once she felt skilled enough, she started covering songs by artists like Andra Day and 2Face Idibia on her Instagram – but putting herself out there was hard at first. “I would be too scared to post my videos. I wouldn’t check it for three hours after I posted because I’d always be so scared”.

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Ayra Starr
Credit: Press

In December 2019, she posted the original song ‘Damage’ onto her page, which caught the attention of Mavin Records, the iconic Nigerian record label that has fostered the careers of Tiwa Savage, Rema and Wande Coal. It was through Don Jazzy [Mavin Records boss], who first introduced Ayra to music production. In a matter of months, Ayra went from producing covers in her bedroom to sitting in a music studio and has produced her first body of work.

“I’ve been recording music for a year now. The process taught me patience, making music for so long brought things into perspective.”  Although it was a meticulous recording process, it resulted in an EP that synthesises multiple sounds, truly reflecting the globalisation of music. With an overwhelmingly positive response towards her debut musical offering – including receiving support from the countries as far as Ukraine – Ayra has now come full circle. “I was the one making covers. Now people are doing the same for my music? It’s so inspiring, it feels amazing.”

Not only is Ayra grateful for the support, but she’s also glad to be a rising star during Nigeria’s era of global dominance, where artists like Burna Boy, WizKid and Davido continue to smash the international music charts. “Thank God, at last! Witnessing this motivates me to make more music because I know that not just Nigerians are listening to me now. I’m reaching people in countries I never even knew would like my music.”

But with this praise is a simultaneous recognition of the Nigerian music industry’s drawbacks. Alté, a West African movement centred on experimental music, fashion and sensibilities, has risen in international prominence. “I wish acceptance was more of a thing here. People should accept different sounds. Just because you’re not making afrobeats, doesn’t mean you’re automatically alté. Don’t try and limit me to a specific genre”, they say. Ayra doesn’t want it to face the same fate as afrobeats, where West African artists are assumed to be a monolith and unwillingly placed under a genre umbrella.

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That’s why Ayra’s intentional in how she describes her music, “my sound is just not one genre. I describe my sound using emotions. Like, how do you feel listening to my songs?” She instantly answers her own hypothetical: “My music is powerful, emotional and free. You should feel a sense of freedom when you listen because you’ve tapped into a part of yourself you never knew was there. You feel everything.”

Creating powerful music is paramount to Ayra, especially in an industry she feels has historically sidelined women. “When I was younger, I was told that it’s dangerous for women in the music industry, which played into me being scared to do this.” For Ayra’s lead single ‘Away’, she helps African women reclaim power. The music video features Ayra clad in combatant gear, a nod to the Dahomey Warriors, an all-female military regiment from the present Benin Republic. “I wanted to tap into my new-found independence and power,” she says. “I’m breaking free. I’m a strong warrior, fighting against anything that doesn’t give me peace”. Over a swirly, airy beat, she repeats, ‘Take all your trouble / Away, away, away’.

Now in 2021, after the release of her debut EP, the girl who hesitated to post on Instagram is no more. “I’ve moved away from overthinking things. I don’t care about what people say.” ‘Away’ perfectly encapsulates Ayra’s journey through her formative years; growing from being a child who doubted her ability, to a young woman with an unbridled level of confidence, Ayra Starr has laid the foundation for something revolutionary.

Ayra Starr’s self-titled EP is out now on Mavin Records

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