Ayra Starr is the Nigerian teen whose self-assured music is shining through
Following the release of her debut album 19 & Dangerous, newcomer Ayra Starr talks youth, self-belief and social justice.
“I’ve always wanted to be a star,” says Ayra Starr when asked about the origins of her stage name. With the hype following her self-titled EP and now her debut album, 19 & Dangerous, that dream is being realised. Confident and intentional, the Gen-Z Nigerian artist is rising to prominence – this week saw her release the impressive self-directed video for single ‘Bloody Samaritan’.
But still, there’s more to Ayra’s moniker than ambitions of fame. The singer is also proudly socially conscious. “Ayra is an Arabic name,” she explains over a video call, adding, “It means someone who is highly respected, woke, open-minded.”
Real name Oyinkansola Sarah Aderibigbe, Ayra was born in Benin Republic and raised in Cotonou and Lagos, and was catapulted into the limelight after her work caught the eye of Nigerian super-producer and Mavin Records CEO Don Jazzy. He saw a clip of her singing on Instagram in December 2019 and, two years on, Ayra is signed to Mavin Records, with Rema and Korede Bello among her labelmates.
Ayra’s singing career isn’t totally a surprise to her family and friends as she describes herself as coming from a musical household. Her grandfather played the guitar, her mother used to make reggae and her brother Dami – aka Milar – is a frequent collaborator with whom she often writes songs. “We wrote music together growing up,” Ayra explains, “He learned how to play the guitar, so I could learn how to write. He’s also my best friend and when we write, it’s like we’re just talking to each other.”
“I want younger girls to listen to my music. I want them to feel like they’ve been heard. If I don’t speak on these matters, then what is the point?”
Apart from her brother, Ayra also says that other artists in the music industry have helped her. She doesn’t reveal their names because she doesn’t think they would want to be named, but says: “A few artists have given me advice, ones who I didn’t even know would know or love my music. It’s amazing.”
It’s unsurprising that her musical peers are also her fans – Ayra’s music is bold and brave. On her new album, 19 & Dangerous, she tackles a range of subjects including feminism, sexual consent and drug abuse. Take the track ‘Toxic’, which finds her singing, “Why did you give me the drugs that I took? Why did you force me to take it?”
Certain sections of the right-wing media have turned the label ‘woke’ into a pejorative, but Ayra proudly describes herself as such. “I’m definitely woke,” she says, “I don’t know how to hold back when it comes to speaking on social justice and all that. I just can’t help it.”
The 19-year-old’s outspokenness is particularly powerful when put in the context of her being a young Nigerian, when the country’s youth have been at the forefront of the #EndSars movement against police brutality. Nigeria is home to many ethnic groups with unique cultures, and across society, seniority in age is highly valued. Ayra remarks: “You know how Nigerian culture is – people will be like ‘you’re 19 and singing about this.’”
Ayra went to university aged 14 in the Benin Republic and encountered bullying which she believes was due to her age. “I was the baby of the class and everyone knew this and it was annoying,” she says. She refuses to be limited by her age, but it is clear she makes her music with young people in mind – especially when she approaches taboo topics. “I want younger girls to listen to my music. I want them to feel like they’ve been heard. If I don’t speak on these matters, then what is the point?”
The first song on 19 & Dangerous is ‘Cast (Gen Z Anthem)’ and Ayra proudly embraces being the teenage ambassador for Nigeria’s young people. When I ask what message she has for her country’s youth, she answers: “Don’t change yourself, be good and be kind.” On upbeat R&B number ‘Bridgertn’, Ayra makes her rejection of societal norms clear, with lyrics proclaiming: “I’m the queen, bow down… Broke all the stereotypes, I make my rules, I break all your rules.” We discuss her feelings on feminism, and she tells me, “Nobody should be treated less because they are female – it [feminism] is equality on all rights: political, economic, or social equality.”
It seems that the obstacles she faced are where her unwavering self-belief has come from. “I have no other choice but to be confident,” Ayra says, “I want to make iconic things with everything I do. When I make music, I want it to be iconic.”
“When I have to be vulnerable, I’m not scared of crying when I need to cry. I’m strong because I’m so confident in my emotions”
As full of self-belief as Ayra is, her strength is also multifaceted. “I’m so strong in a way that I’m not scared of being vulnerable,” she explains, “When I have to be vulnerable, I’m not scared of crying when I need to cry. I’m strong because I’m so confident in my emotions.” Her views on strength resonate following a summer of sport in which young women of colour like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have rejected expectations placed upon them and been candid about their struggles.
Although there have been strides with the body positivity movement, women in the public eye have always been under intense pressure to look and act a certain way. Ayra is unbothered by this. “I don’t feel any type of pressure from any human being except for myself. So I don’t allow anybody to pressure me into thinking a certain way. I’m Ayra and I’m proud of that. I’m an independent thinker. I want to use that to inspire other people to think independently – so no pressure.”
Even though I speak to her via Zoom call, Ayra’s unwavering nature shines through. From her stage name to what she expects from herself and wishes for her career, she is clearly self-assured. In a time when Nigerian artists are enjoying popularity worldwide, the singer also wants to reach the dizzying heights her country-people are now enjoying.
“Number one, that’s what we’re working towards – number one,” she declares. And with her confident attitude and enchanting vocals, it is easy to believe her.