Ayra Starr‘s ascendancy is only just getting started. Since releasing her hotly anticipated debut album ‘19 & Dangerous’ in August 2021, the Benin-born Nigerian singer/songwriter has earned a spot on the NME 100, collaborated with Stormzy, Kelly Rowland and Wizkid, and featured on the Dreamville-curated soundtrack for Creed III. She’s even caught the attention of former US President Barack Obama, who selected Starr’s track ‘Rush’ for inclusion on his annual year-end playlist back in December.
As well as receiving presidential acclaim, ‘Rush’ also stands as Starr’s biggest solo moment to date. At the time of writing, the September 2022 single has racked up over 126 million Spotify streams, and earned the artist her first solo UK Number One on the Afrobeats chart as well as her first entry on the UK’s Top 100 singles chart.
Starr’s infectious blend of Afropop, R&B and Alté has connected far and wide. Recent single ‘Sability’ — a self-described “happy song which will definitely take you back [down] memory lane” — has only furthered her success thanks in part to its popularity on TikTok, where Starr boasts 4.3 million followers.
With more new music and festival appearances on the way this year — as well a pledge to be “everywhere, globally” — now feels like the optimum time to catch up with Starr. Speaking to NME for the latest in our In Conversation series, the 20-year-old talks being endorsed by Obama, her close bond with her fans and still being forced to do the washing up at her family home.
Despite her international success, Starr is still regularly brought back down to earth by her family
While Starr’s music career has taken off in the past few years, it seems that her success doesn’t carry much weight whenever she returns to her family home. “My family don’t take me seriously at all,” she laughs to NME. “They’re like, ‘Whatever, go and do the dishes.'”
The artist is, however, starting to come to terms with her upward trajectory. “It took me a while, but now I’ve found the balance,” she says. “Looking back, I’d say [to my past self], ‘Stop dwelling in the past, don’t look sideways, don’t look left and right, keep going forward – I’m telling you you’re going to see a change, trust me’.
“I feel so good – like mentally, spiritually, physically – because I’m aware. There’s beauty in the stillness for me: when it didn’t feel like things were happening for me, I was still thankful. I think that’s why, now, I feel so grateful.”
She’s honoured to be representing Black African women
Given that she’s the latest star to be bringing the sound and energy of African pop music to the world stage, is Starr feeling at all pressurised by her increasingly influential position? “I don’t really feel the pressure,” she replies. “I just know I need to be myself, because that’s what works for people [and] that’s what I’ve been taught after receiving all of [this praise] from my fans.”
Much like her contemporaries Tyla and Tems, Starr is taking great pride in being able to represent Black African women in terms of uplifting her own culture and traditions – something that, Starr feels, was missing when she was growing up.
“I didn’t see this [while] growing up,” she adds. “It’s amazing to know I represent Black African women and young girls.”
Featuring on Barack Obama’s playlist was a bucket list moment
“I prayed to God and said, ‘Please just do this one for me: I really want to be on Barack Obama’s list!'” Starr recalls about ‘Rush’ being featured on the former POTUS’ 2022 music playlist alongside tracks by Bad Bunny, Beyoncé and Tems.
Another high-profile name who has acknowledged Starr’s talent in the past year is Stormzy, who invited her to feature alongside Tendai on ‘Need You’ from the London rapper’s third studio album ‘This Is What I Mean’.
“They sent me the track and said, ‘Stormzy wants you on a song’. I was like, ‘Really? Me?!’ I thought to myself, ‘He really knows me! He wants me on a song!’” Starr says now. “So that was really exciting.”
She texts her fans regularly
She might now be an international chart-topping star, but for Starr, her fans will always be her priority. “Me and my fans have been texting each other! One of them just got a job, and I told them I was so proud,” she reveals, as though it’s the norm for music superstars and their fans to interact so intimately. “It’s a way for us to communicate, and it also helps them see my personality more.”
Over on Starr’s TikTok page, her followers can watch behind-the-scenes studio clips, her collaborations with other content creators and the awkward moment she missed her set in Manchester after getting trapped in a lift. The artist has noticed how her substantial online fame has translated over to her live sets.
“I have this song called ‘ASE’ – it’s not [my] most popular song, but I performed it on COLORS [last summer]. During a show I did [recently] people knew the lyrics [to it], it was crazy. They knew it word for word,” she says. “It made me feel so warm, so good.”
For Ayra Starr, nothing is being done by force
Starr’s latest single ‘Sability’ once again showcases her signature unapologetic style, possessing a rhythmic dance beat that has already caught traction on TikTok and could very well become the soundtrack to the platform’s next dance trend. The song itself just makes its creator “happy”, though, and she’s keen to “share the feeling with the world”.
“I allow myself to be in the moment,” she tells NME about her current creative mindset. “I let myself be content wherever I am, so I can make music based on how I’m feeling. There’s a lot more pressure when you try to channel a feeling. I allow everything to be.”