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Meet the MC: Amaarae

Inspired by the flourishing West African rap scene and her time spent living in the United States, Ghanaian artist Amaarae has been crafting a sound that reflects her myriad influences and strong creative and collaborative vision. She chats to DJ Mag’s Amy Fielding about her process

Ghana’s capital, Accra, is often described as the country’s beating heart. Home to the buzzing Makola Market, postcard-perfect beaches and high-energy nightlife, it’s a hub of creativity and movement. It’s also a place where sound and rhythm permeate through everyday life, and native artists bring that same energy to their music. 

The West African rap scene is making moves, and MC, producer, singer and songwriter Amaarae is one of Accra’s brightest stars. Inspired by artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, Kurt Cobain, Kelis and Billie Holiday, alongside a wealth of African artists, she is a product of her life growing up between Ghana and the US — something she says has allowed her to adapt “quite nicely”. 

Her experiences from the two countries bleed through into her music, fusing African hiplife, hip-hop and highlife with the pop, rock and mainstream R&B she heard in the states. “When I lived in Atlanta it was all about ‘down south’ rap in the early-to-mid-2000s,” she remembers, “but when I lived in Jersey, the kids liked Green Day, Metro Station and Britney Spears. I think each space served its purpose in my development overall as a human being.”

At just 17-years-old, Amaarae wrote her first mixtape: ‘In Splendid Isolation’, or ‘ISI’ for short. She was back in Ghana, in what she describes as “the heavy mixtape era”, when artists like Trey Songz, Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj were dominating the internet and blog sites, uploading projects to Tumblr, YouTube and Myspace. With an internet connection and plenty of time on her hands, Amaarae found herself inspired.

“I was listening to a lot of Drake, Ryan Leslie, Jhene Aiko, Erykah Badu... honestly more names than I can mention,” she says. “I wanted ‘ISI’ to be reminiscent of those artists and mixtapes — but I didn’t want to just jack instrumentals and spit over them, so I created my own versions. “There was a song called ‘She Came First’, and that was my take on Cassie and Ryan Leslie’s ‘Addiction’,” she continues. “Another song on there, ‘CrukdStr8’, that was my spin on Big Sean’s ‘A$$’ — I even rapped over Goapele’s ‘Closer’ as an ode to Drake’s freestyle over the same instrumental.”

Amaarae’s official debut EP, ‘Passionfruit Summers’, released in 2017, sounds much like its title. Brimming with fruity and fresh slow-jams, the artist softly delivers lyrics about getting high, lost loves and breezes through the palm trees — it’s sugary sweet, but with an edge that’s sharp like citrus. The melodic debut also featured two collaborations, with fellow Ghanaian singer/ songwriter Sutra, and vocalist Fingers, cementing Amaarae as an impressively versatile creative from the word go.

Amaarae has been embraced with open arms by Nigeria’s Alté scene too. With both western and Nigerian influences at play, Alté — championed by artists like Odunsi, Lady Donli and Cruel Santino — brings together R&B, funk, soul, afrobeats and rap, infused with guitar melodies and indie sentiments. It’s a rebellion in a way — going against Nigeria’s largely conservative, religious culture — but there’s no denying it’s unstoppable, and the sounds from Nigeria, and Western Africa, are permeating across the globe.

“We’re just so fresh, man,” Amaarae says. “People can’t believe all this sauce and creativity is coming from us. It’s just so fresh and sexy, and if you’re not from here, you can’t replicate this sound… the drums, the tone, the language. Like, Justin Beiber or Chris Brown could sing over an afro-instru — but they can’t get that tempo, that bounce, that effortlessness, like the way an African artist would.”

After a string of singles, Amaarae released her debut album ‘THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW’ in 2020. It’s an amalgamation of all the sounds the artist has absorbed over the years, flowing effortlessly through experimental intermissions and passionately delivered verses, traversing countless genres and flitting between tempos. Written from her bedroom in Accra in Ghana, as well as in the Canary Islands — “going to the beach at 3am, waking up to sunshine, fresh air and fresh fruit” — the LP is a signal of Amaarae letting go of her inhibitions, sending a message of confidence, and simply having fun. It’s brimming with collaborations too. ‘FANTASY’, produced alongside Maesu and Nigerian artist CKay, melds pop, afrobeats and psychedelic synths together; while ‘JUMPING SHIP’, featuring Kojey Radical and Cruel Santino, is an indie-infused slow-jam, with the underlying sounds of West Africa embedded in its rhythms.

“Successful collaboration is about trust and genuine love for the artist you’re working with,” she says. “I will never collaborate with someone if I’m not a genuine fan of their music, or just because they’re a big name for the hype. “I love music. I love artists. If I’m gonna work with you, I’m able to recite your songs and lyrics off the top of my head, I’m able to go in-depth about your music and the details of it,” she affirms. “If I’m coming to you to collaborate, it’s because I know exactly what you can bring to the vision. I’ve made the mistake of working with artists for the hype, and I will never do it again. If there’s no real love or admiration there, I can’t sing with my heart.”

“Successful collaboration is about trust and genuine love for the artist you’re working with,” she says. “I will never collaborate with someone if I’m not a genuine fan of their music, or just because they’re a big name for the hype. “I love music. I love artists. If I’m gonna work with you, I’m able to recite your songs and lyrics off the top of my head, I’m able to go in-depth about your music and the details of it,” she affirms. “If I’m coming to you to collaborate, it’s because I know exactly what you can bring to the vision. I’ve made the mistake of working with artists for the hype, and I will never do it again. If there’s no real love or admiration there, I can’t sing with my heart.”

Her solo efforts on the album, though, still remain some of the most impressive. ‘HELLZ ANGEL’ is a showcase of Amaarae’s unique ability to deliver quickfire verses, while retaining emotion and telling clear stories. As inimitable as the MC is, there’s elements of artists like Lil Peep, Juice Wrld and Post Malone in her music, too, with that emo-pop-electronic sound tugging on the heartstrings. Producing, engineering, writing and singing/MCing on her own songs is only a small part of what Amaarae is capable of.

Her recent music video, for album track ‘SAD GURLZ LUV MONEY’, is as vibrant as her music sounds — and it’s because of how involved she remains with the creative process. “I pick the stylist, hair, make-up, director — my treatments are detailed all the way from the set to detailed aspects of costume design. I’ll always write my first treatment to get my vision out, then Mutombo, my creative director, will bring it to life. He’s the one that always thinks of the radical shit,” she laughs. “My visuals are just as important, if not more important than the music. It’s a direct representation of who I am and what I stand for. You can always feel the energy in my videos, and that’s because I put 10,000% of my soul into it.”

Now that ‘THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW’ is out there in the world, and the MC feels confident that her vision is being shared with like-minded souls, Amaarae is looking forward to being vaccinated against COVID-19, and making touring plans for 2021. “There’s gonna be more music too, fingers crossed,” she says, laughing, “but I don’t wanna promise anything… because fans will deadass be in my comments later demanding new music!”

Want more? Watch every episode of our Meet the MC video series here, and read recent interviews with Le3 bLACK and TRAPY

Amy Fielding is DJ Mag's digital staff writer. You can follow her on Twitter @amebbbb