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Yussef Al Jabar

Amaarae is the punk angel we needed in 2020

Amaarae's debut album, The Angel You Don’t Know, was one of our favourite releases of the year. Rahel Aklilu talks to the Ghanaian artist about womanhood, creative process and what it’s like having a momager.

16 Dec 2020

Photo credit: Yussef Al Jabar

“My dad has a saying that I grew up with and has stayed with me forever: ‘Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t know’,” Amaarae – real name Ama Serwah Genfi – is explaining the title of her debut full-length album, The Angel You Don’t Know

When we think of angels, the image of a winged, chubby cherub often springs to mind. Think Raffaelo and Michaelangelo (no, not the Mutant Ninja Turtles). However, according to descriptions in certain Holy Books, angels actually had four faces – including one of an ox and another of a lion – and hooves instead of feet. 

Like our common perception of angels, what you might expect of Amaarae is definitely not what you get.

Sure, the 26-year-old’s voice is nothing short of seraphic, but she has also arrived with a fourteen-track, genre-bending statement of intent that takes listeners on a trance-y trip through her escapades as well as her ebbs. Although released mid-November and thus ineligible for most of the infamous “End of Year Lists”, Amaarae’s album is without doubt a viable contender for one of the best offerings in a year that has cemented the cultural and commercial significance of African musicians.

“It’s been a long journey but what really excited me about this project was that, for the first time, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it,” she explains over a Zoom from her sunny hometown of Accra. 

Although based in Ghana, it is in neighbouring Nigeria’s alté scene – the alternative music scene – where Amaarae first found prominence. She built a profile through a solid run of EPs, as well as scene-stealing features with stalwarts of alté like Cruel Santino and Odunsi The Engine and Afrobeats heavyweight, Wande Coal. Pointing to the now-international cult following of the subgenre’s culture, style and figures, Amaarae credits the “easy-to-the-air, relaxed, soothing sonic qualities” of most alté music for the attention it has garnered. After visiting Nigeria for two weeks following the 2017 release of her first EP Passionfruit Summers, Amaarae found a home in this experimental and subversive scene.

“The alté scene has its own ecosystem of mixers, producers, videographers and photographers that doesn’t just function, but thrives”

“They have their own ecosystem of mixers, producers, videographers and photographers that doesn’t just function, but thrives. I envision the future of not only Nigerian, but West African music being funneled through this,” she says, noting how the familiar comfort of community and home allows her to give her best work. “Some of my most prolific work – like on Cruel Santino’s ‘Rapid Fire’ or Odunsi’s ‘Body Count’was written and recorded in my bedroom”, she says, explaining how – compared to bustling Lagos or Abuja in Nigeria – the quiet and calm atmosphere of Accra allows her to relax and create.

The year-long journey towards her debut album started in her room. Writing and recording, she built her “rap persona” that touches on her time growing up in Atlanta and New Jersey (both hubs of Southern and East Coast rap respectively, birthing the likes of Outkast and UGK as well as Juelz Santana and Naughty By Nature).

But it’s not just rap that gets channelled. On TAYDK, Amaarae is sweet, sensual and psychedelic as she flutters over a body of work that she admits she initially felt hesitant to put out amidst the current mainstream releases from African musicians. “In terms of sound, I feel like I took a risk in delving into different spaces like indie pop, punk rock, reggaeton, bossa nova, dancehall, afrobeats – especially as I’m not known for tapping into those sounds and have widely been categorised as an alté artist.”

The release is based on the concept of escapades of the club: before, during and after, “from the excitement of the unknown as you start at a night, through the highs and lows, to the end of the party when it’s 4AM and you’re looking for the next adventure.” Amaarae continues: “This is an album that makes girls feel good – something to put on whilst you get dressed, then listen in the cab on the way to the party, then on the way home or to the next escapade.” In the same adventurous, unafraid way you’re supposed to have a no-holds-barred night out, Amaarae draws parallels to her headspace around making and releasing an album that draws together all her influences – from Marilyn Manson to Gucci Mane.

This rebellious attitude links in to Amaarae’s self-proclaimed “punk state of mind” as well her androgyny in a musical and cultural landscape that arguably relies on women to tap into perceived femininity to gain acceptance. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve never wanted to be bound by rules or expectations – even on ‘own clothes day’ at school I would come in with baggy shorts and a cute colourful hairstyle with bobbles in my hair.” She credits growing up between “an amalgamation of cultures and energies” for her “rule-breaker” attitude that has pushed her to speak out when she feels necessary – even in a culture that so strongly emphasises respect to elders in a way that arguably borders on blind submission. 

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve never wanted to be bound by rules or expectations”

Amaarae also credits this “perpetually punk” mindset to those before her who have broken boundaries and refused to be boxed in. Artists she grew up with, such as Kelis who “rocked up with coloured hair and was on TV screaming ‘I hate you so much right now’”, inspired her to follow complete creative expression in her own life and career. “The love and acceptance of others, regardless of whether they complied with societal norms or not is, for me, the foundation of the ethos behind punk and why I claim it,” she explains.

Indeed, it is this freedom that has seen Amaarae touch on sex positivity in a socially conservative landscape that doesnt mind sexually objectifying women in music but is yet to embrace a woman celebrating her own sexuality. Tracks such as ‘Trust Fund Baby’ – Amaarae’s favourite on the project and one of the shortest on an album that is only 36 minutes long – speak candidly and powerfully, with Amaraae crooning that her love should “feel privileged” and “treasure it”. She says, “Womanhood, in all its complexities and layers is the most important and interesting thing for me – being a woman is so powerful, as is being with a woman, and I think ‘Trust Fund Baby’ accurately depicts that.”

The album’s artwork is vivid and entrancing, featuring the naked form as well as an image of the traditional cherubs we associate with angels. Ama credits her creative directors Toyosi and Nyahan (who she went to university with) for pinning the “punk-rock, angsty” aesthetic she had hoped to present. “They are bold, off-the-wall with their work and I loved that about them,” she explains. “So when we were bouncing ideas around, I gave them some themes such as women, sexuality, angels.” 

The one person on her team who objected to the artwork was Amaarae’s mother, who is her manager – she still hates it, even after several attempts to milden the imagery. Having a momager is an arrangement many would be wary of, and Amaarae chuckles that their working relationship has been “very eventful”. However, with a 25-year age-gap, it’s only expected that they might clash on matters of personal taste. In an industry where artist exploitation at the hands of managers is rife, Amaarae is grateful for her mother, who she calls “resourceful, sharp and knowledgeable due to life experience”. 

“Being a woman is so powerful, as is being with a woman”

Studying English Literature at university also shaped Ama’s creative process, including a love of reading – especially poetry anthologies. “I had an incredible poetry teacher, Professor Lee, who showed me how dope poetry could be and opened my mind up to a whole new world. I wouldn’t be the artist that I am without having met her or taken her classes.” Her own journey into journalism led to an op-ed for OkayAfrica that included an unfinished essay for Professor Lee’s class, amongst other texts that explored being a black artist and a disruptive woman’s voice in an industry dominated by men.

Fully equipped with the tools to express and empower herself as well as her ‘Angelz’ (her fans), Amaarae’s disruptive voice joins a chorus of young Africans musicians across the continent.  With political and societal movements from Nigeria to Ethiopia, musicians are using their platforms to dismantle the status quo and direct the future of Africa. With liberating lyricism that celebrates the nuances, complexities and power of womanhood and sex, our very own Head Angel of Accra has swooped in to save the year.

Ultimately, as mysterious and ethereal as Amaarae may initially seem, her sweet, silky ambitiously punk body of work offers an insight into the future of African music that anchors the continent as it touches every corner and every influence of the world.

You can listen to Amaarae’s The Angel You Don’t Know now on all streaming services.