Dangerous. That’s the adjective Ayra Starr chose for her debut album, accompanied by her shockingly young age considering the Mavin signees breakout success after just an EP and some remixes. But Ayra had her choice of adjectives. Exciting, energetic, determined, thoughtful, and confident. These are all qualities easy enough to see during our interview, and perhaps these traits, when put together in a talented young woman, are seen as dangerous by an outmoded few. Regardless, Ayra Starr is able to channel an array of emotions and subjects that make her debut album multinational and multigenerational. It’s fitting to note that the young star was “discovered” by industry titan and Mavin Records founder Don Jazzy after posting an original composition entitled DAMAGE on Instagram, a story which Ayra relates in our talk. The song appears on 19 & Dangerous as “Toxic”.
This isn’t the only serendipitous confluence of imagery that revolves around Ayra’s persona. Whether it’s the comparison with one of Ayra’s idols, Rihanna, who released the similarly empowered Good Girl Gone Bad at 19, the brother sister songwriting duo in the likes of Billie and Finneas, or the irreverence and modeling background of a young Iggy Azalea; Ayra is carrying the weight of potential on her shoulders. Comparisons aside, Ayra continuously pushes for her own identity on the debut, singing in the manifesto-esque opener “Cast (Gen Z Anthem)”, “I’m gonna be who I want to be, live my life the way I wanna live, with no shame, with no haste…I heard life has no limitations but the one you make”.
Growing up between Lagos and Cotonou in a musical household, Ayra also acquired a stylistic diversity that comes through on the debut. Bouncing between r&b, afro-fusion, and rap, the young artist is ready to test anything, singing on “Bridgertn”, “broke all the stereotypes I make my rules, I break all of your rules… yeah I’m lit like that.” Perhaps it’s best to describe the album as a “vibe”, a word Ayra employs often and a feeling you’ll have to hear for yourself.
We spoke with Ayra to get a better look at the artist on the eve of her debut discussing empowerment, representation, inspiration, and her career thus far.
Can you tell us about the title of the album?
I always knew I wanted my first album to be 19 & Dangerous. I said that last year like. I just kept saying it. So I listened to the music I had and I said I should definitely have an album. I don’t have to wait for anybody to tell me it’s time. After my fans asked me for an album I felt like I should put out a body of work if I have a body of work to put out. I’m 19 of course, that’s part of the name. And dangerous… it’s just the day I found out I wasn’t scared of making mistakes, I wasn’t scared of failing, you know? I’m ready to work hard to get to where I want to. I’m ready to try as many times as possible to be who I want to be. That’s when I knew I was dangerous because I have nothing to lose. I’m ready to fight the fight, I’m ready to win the wins, I’m ready to do everything. So 19 & Dangerous was like, yo I’m 19, and I’m dangerous, and I’m ready.
Does the “danger” fit into the themes of female empowerment that you bring up on the album?
Being in a Nigerian music scene you have a lot of people saying females don’t last as long as men and just a lot of stereotypes that go with being a female artist. Me, I’m not here for anybody’s stereotypes, I break all the rules, I make my own rules, I break all the stereotypes. So the album is like a statement also. I’m not here to be anyone else. You can’t tell me what to do, you can’t tell me how to be. Just the way it is when we talk about feminism and all that, so that’s definitely one of the points.
You also talk about being a big fan of Rihanna, Beyoncé, and others. Do you take notes from them as artists?
Yeah, from their music and from their career just the rebranding and never giving up. It’s very easy. The way females rebrand themselves isn’t the way males have to rebrand. We have a male artist that wears shirts and has the same hairstyle for like 10 years and people still listen to his music. But when it comes to females, people want to see something new every time. People have really short attention spans when it comes to females. But that didn’t stop Niki Minaj, that didn’t stop Rihanna, that didn’t stop Beyoncé. They want to do it and are ready to work. They have to work a hundred times harder than most people. And it’s just the most uplifting thing and it inspires me so much.
You’ve also mentioned that you have this ability to translate experiences from real life, but also from TV shows. Can you tell us about how you pull this inspiration?
One of the songs on the album is called “Bridgerton” and I got the idea from the TV Show Bridgerton. And that’s just it. When I heard the beat I was like, “oh my god where do I notice this from?”. Just reminds me so much of the Netflix series Bridgerton. You know, representation is so important. I never knew how important representation was until I saw a black queen on that TV Show. Just imagine a 10 year old me seeing a black queen. That would have changed my whole stance in life. I would have been so confident. Because we never got to see that. TV doesn’t show all that. So as a teenager seeing a black powerful queen, it inspired me to write the song. The chorus is like, “I’m the queen bow down” and all that. Even when I say I got opal in my grills, I don’t know anything about grills, I’ve never had grills, but I saw a post from Kim Kardashian who said she had opal in her grills and I put that in a song. So sometimes it’s just like whatever I feel I get. Even “Snitch”, I was hearing the beat and I was on Twitter and I saw a female celebrity ranting about her ex boyfriend and I said, “Oh yeah I should write about this” and I did.
You’re also releasing “DAMAGE” (now “Toxic”) the track that got you discovered by Don Jazzy. How does it feel to come full circle and officially release this track?
It was one of the best things because after I dropped the original song on Instagram, Don Jazzy messaged me and when I had come to the studio he had already made the beat. I was like, “What, he did the beat?!” I was so excited that Don Jazzy made a beat for me. That’s crazy. So I was so excited to record that. The beat was so perfect that I had to record as many times as possible so I could be on the same level as the beat.
There’s also a huge blend of a bunch of different genres. How do you bring all of these influences together?
I’m the most spontaneous person when it comes to music and I’m so adventurous. Like I can come into the studio one day because I was listening to Micheal Jackson and I want to make a funk song, and we just put afro on that and like afro-funk. One minute I’m listening to Burna Boy and I want to make afro-fusion. It’s just like whatever I’m listening to. Also I grew up listening to a lot of different genres. I grew up in Nigeria but I also lived in Cotonou. So I grew up with diversity. My older sister loved reggae, my auntie loved r&b, my mom loved reggae. I just listened to a lot of music growing up. That’s what I try to work into the songs. I want to speak to people from different parts of the world regardless of what I sing or where I’m from. I want people to love me from all parts. I want people to hear my story and I want people to hear their own story in my music. So I try to go into different genres and I just try to do as much as I can when it comes to being diverse in music.
You’ve also got your track “Fashion Killer” which seems like an ode to your modeling days. How do those two worlds come together?
I used to model and I remember like when I would practice runway in my house and in my room music always made it better. By listening to music I’m like okay. If I’m going to walk on a Versace runway it has to be this song that’s gonna play. It has to be “This is What You Came For”. Calvin Harris “This is What You Came For” was my jam, that’s the song I wanted to walk on every runway. So when I used to model I used to say I can’t wait to walk on this music with this energy. So that’s the energy I want to bring to “Fashion Killer”. When I heard the beat I told my brother, because I write most of my songs with my brother, “You know let’s do this for the runway, let’s do this for the models”. I knew the type of songs that I wanted to listen to on the runway so I tried to put that energy into “Fashion Killer”. And that’s the energy we came with, just fashion and just being a vibe. That’s it.
Is your brother co-writing any of the songs?
Yeah we wrote “Fashion Killer” together and we wrote most of the songs together.
You talk a lot about empowerment in your music. Why is it important for you to empower people?
Growing up I knew how music made me feel better. I know how much music helped my life growing up from being bullied in school to just wanting that confidence. When I first entered uni I was very depressed and I know that music just made everything better. Music was therapy for me. So I tried to put that into my music. I want my music to be a therapy session for people. Go in and when you’re done you immediately feel better. So that’s what I tried to put inside, I want people to feel empowered. Young women, or men. I used to say I want young women, but now with the EP release I realised my music moved young men. It was so crazy how many men loved the music so now I’m trying to put it on for everyone. Everyone, I want you to come to the music and I want you to feel empowered. I want you to feel powerful just the way I felt when I heard other music.
So what’s next for Ayra Starr?
This Corona should just leave us alone because once the Corona goes it’s gonna be just travelling around, shows definitely, more music, features and all that. I’ve been working on a lot of features. So a lot of stuff.
19 & Dangerous is out now.