A Little Background….
I began writing this profile of Amaa Rae in late 2017. I’d discovered her through her feature on Aylø’s ‘Whoa’. The buzz around the single was unprecedented, endearing her an almost immediate Nigerian fan base. Ever the consummate artist, Amaa already had a project in the works, and solidified her position as one of the country’s most promising artists, with a debut EP, Passion Fruit Summers. I was commissioned to write about this exciting new artist and the otherworldly album she’d created. This is that profile, with a snapshot in time, preserved with minimal edits.
The featured image is from the photoshoot that was to accompany this profile, shot by Charles Lawson, you can find his work here.
My very first impression of Amaa Rae is crystallized around a two minute loop of her running through a litany of affirmations about herself. She speaks of herself in the third person, her unaccented English occasionally dipping into a Southern drawl that only hints at a whole other life in Altanta, Georgia. She tries on each affirmation, stretching it for size, shrugging it off because it only seems to do justice to a facet of the multi-faced musician she has become. She remains undecided but I eventually settle on this one because it is so on the nose that even Amaa doesn’t realise how well it encapsulates the aura she projects.
“Amaa Rae is searching for the best way to express herself.”
Contradictory self expression is the fuel that drives Amaa. You see it in the way she layers brightly colour legend tees over demure long sleeved dress shirts, simultaneously asking us to look at her and forcing us to question what we see. Her hair is cropped short but dyed a pink so radioactive it defeats the purpose of having close cropped hair in the first place. Her heart shaped face is foreboding but her voice is a susurrus, conjuring the first notes of a siren song that teases a death cry but never delivers. Her cat-eyed glasses suggest she is somewhat shy, but she is an animated speaker, her persona a dam holding back whole torrents of anecdotes and stories. It is that dam that I’m determined to crack when I ask to profile her.
From the first time I heard Amaa’s music, I knew she was going to be a part of the Trybe, a curated list of young musicians from across the continent distinguished by their unorthodox approach to creating music. She’d snuck here, introducing herself to us on singer Aylø’s single “Whoa”. She wrestled that seemingly inconsequential verse to the ground, milking it for everything it was worth, elevating what was an otherwise decent song into an instant anthem that captured perfectly the cycle of desire and loathing that defines relationships in the ghosting generation. The comparisons followed almost immediately, some people compared her to Janet Jackson at the height of her sensuality, others threw in Jhene Aiko for her mastery of self loathing set to music and more still put SZA and her contemporary story telling into the hat. Over the course of a weekend Nigeria’s small but inscrutable underground went from barely knowing this girl from Accra to cheering in the bleachers for her.
The buzz couldn’t have come at a better time, because a few months prior Amaa had met another Ghanaian poet and artist Mutombo, who’d taken an interest in her music and taken it upon himself to work with her and find a way to merge her fantastic sound with a visual image that best reflected the kind of music she wanted to make. After years of meeting artists and managers who’d gushed over her music and promised her a gilded career, Amaa was hesitant but Mutombo was unrelenting. Together they purged her social media feeds, and began the process of reinventing herself from a tortured self doubting singer dabbling into heartbreak music to an woman in control of her sound, parsing life and love over the course of a summer. Together, they crafted her image and recorded a live session of three songs that would make their way into “Passionfruit Summers”.
Together they create this hyper-realistic, saturated vista full of references to 90’s hip-hop interpolations and vintage 80’s video game graphics in. In this alternative world, all sound is filtered through a synthesizer, lending it the distinct sensation of being trapped in a dystopian fever dream, where every action is exaggerated, every touch as powerful as a lightning bolt down your side. It was a metaphor for the volatile emotions that churned inside her as she worked on the album, still hurting from a two year relationship that she’d gone into out of obligation and committed herself to just when the whole thing started to fall apart. The finished idea is such a quantum shift from tropical Ghana and the happy go-lucky casualness of relationships here that the listener is fully drawn into the illusion, and lulled into this fever dream.
The visual brand for “Passionfruit Summers” might have taken a few months to build but the music itself has been incubating since the very beginning of Amaa’s career and that vision board she made in her room three years ago. There are dozens of iterations of the six songs that finally made into the album, each version shed like skin, beautiful but unfinished. “Catching A Wav” took a whole year to make, and has five semi-completed versions sitting somewhere in a producer’s archive. Until it felt right, Amaa couldn’t stop tweaking and reworking, shuttling between electronic sampling and live instrumentation. There were false starts, including a three month session in Accra at a studio where she was given instrumentalists and her pick of producers to churn out a body of work. The rigor of trying to bang out an album by brute force of will left her spent and unfulfilled. She returned to the US and shelved the album to focus on her junior year. In her senior year, she met a producer with whom she reworked 8 potential songs for the EP. The result was interesting, but it didn’t feel like the right sound for where she was at the time. But it was her single “The Obsolete Truth” that connected her to producer Elijah Bane and started the series of events that would eventually lead to the version of the EP we were blessed with.
As Amaa has worked her way to “Passionfruit Summers” she collected an impressive roster of producers, only a fraction of whom eventually made it onto the EP. But they were all instrumental to her growth as an artist and the evolution of her sound. Working in such male driven environments means that Amaa can and has often fallen into disagreements with the army of producers who have worked in various capacities on the EP and she has had to assert herself at various points and reassert that ultimately it was her vision not anyone else’s that is being brought to life. She tells me that because of that, in her earlier years as an artist she would drag her brother along to recording sessions and her uncles would in even drop by the studio and sit in on recordings. Having a male presence that was loyal to her was an inconvenience smoothed out creative differences. As she’s grown, she created boundaries with her male collaborators, joking that it helps that she doesn’t fall into what is conventionally considered attractive for a woman in music. She tells me she understands it is a privilege that she hasn’t had to deal with the casual misogyny that pervades artist/producer relationships.
A question about song writing is the prompt Amaa needs to circle back to Aylo. Rumours had spread that Aylo had suggested the Nigerian music press framed their creative relationship as her upstaging him in his moment in the limelight. She dismisses them, clarifying that Aylo was introduced to her when she was in the UK and they forged a strong personal and professional relationship, recording a number of songs that they intend to release in the coming months. She tells me their chemistry works because he prioritizes the music he creates over the buzz it could potentially bring him. There is a sheen of admiration to her voice as she explains.
“The way he creates music, especially collaborations, he makes sure that whatever he creates is the best platform for the artist he’s featuring to shine.”
This rings true. Aylo’s best music are often the songs where he features other artists like Santi and Odunsi the Engine and while I don’t understand the logic, I appreciate that his magnanimity allowed a whole demographic discover Amaa Rae.
The air cleared, she delves properly into the technical aspects of her music and explains that her emotional states greatly influence the kind of music she makes, half joking about the quality of her music being directly proportional to the quality of fucking she’s getting. Love features strongly in her writing process, losing it especially. She cites the work of Amy Winehouse as her biggest creative influence. The singer’s languid, melancholy drenched song writing rang with a truth so visceral that she was put in the canon of musical greats like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Amaa’s music might have a veneer of contemporary synthesizers but her core reflects theirs. Frank Ocean’s tangential lyrics helped her accept that it was okay to colour outside the lines and ignore the traditional conventions of song writing when she creates, and has given her permission to get super explicit in her lyrics. It is telling that her biggest writing influences are a white British woman and Black queer singer, both of whom immortalized the angst of the generation they were born in while somehow embodying anything but that era.
Her biggest influence however, like her collaborators and a good number of her influences is Nigerian. How Sade Adu has been able to inspire such a universal longing for her often infrequent music while courting an intensely private, other life is how Amaa Rae wants her future to play out. A beach house in Akosombo and a catalogue of music inspired by her most genuine self, crafted with time and love and none of the pressure to participate in the often predatory music cycle. A homely beachfront house in Akosombo built with a long great love and children raised in love and immersed in music.
Like “Passionfruit Summers“, Amaa Rae envisions a surreal future, but if she’s created this gorgeous body of work and the world in which it unravels, the life she envisions is easy work.
Here’s the video for fluid, and a link to the album.