January 22 was unofficially Ayra Starr Day in Nigeria as Mavin Records’ latest star-in-the-making was formally introduced by way of a self-titled EP. A week later, her EP was perched high on official and unofficial charts in and outside of Nigeria; Its lead single “Away” could be heard on every airwave, subsequently sprawling into a viral social media challenge.
The Ayra Starr EP is a bite-sized exhibition of the 19-year-old singer’s vocal and lyrical range. It explores themes of romance, self-care, nostalgia, and coming of age from the perspective of a Gen Z Nigerian woman with shrewd lyricism and unbridled expression of emotion.
Ayra wields a necessary conviction to recount phenomena from personal and adjacent experiences. “Most of the things I’ve learned are basically from watching other people experience them because I’m 18, and I’ve not really gotten to experience most of these things, but I’ve been around enough to see them happen to people around me,” she explains to Audiomack.
Life’s gotten a lot faster since January, and daily, Ayra is reminded of her status deep in the hearts of loving fans: “Every day I get a DM. If I don’t post on my story, somebody is texting me asking if I’m good. People I’ve never met in my life love me and love the music genuinely; that’s just amazing.” For many young Nigerians, Ayra Starr’s presence signifies another exciting woman balancing an androcentric music industry one song at a time.
Your Ayra Starr EP went No. 1 in five countries and officially brought you into the limelight. A few months later, what’s been its biggest impact, in your opinion?
When I [have] people message me like, “Your EP saved my life,” that’s just the most important thing to me. I don’t know if that would feel like a great impact to other people, but to me, it is. Going No. 1 in five countries is amazing; I’m grateful for that, but are people listening to the music? Are they listening to the message? Not just dancing to it, not just feeling the vibe. And for me to know that people love the music and also understand the message, that’s amazing.
How have you managed to keep your mind in the right place to create since life has sped up?
It’s hard because there’s just a lot happening, and sometimes it’s hard to get in that creative space. So I tend to take a break when I need a break: read a book, go to the garden, drink some wine… When I have my head in that space again, I come to the studio. My self-care is so important to me, so I take a break when I need to.
You have some shrewd lyrics which appeal to much older listeners. It’s almost like you’ve lived a lifetime you’re not telling us about. How would you say you’ve learned your biggest life lessons? And what are some of them?
I was in Uni very young, so I saw a lot of things happen. That’s why I can write about them because I had friends that went through them.
One of my biggest life lessons is just to be patient, as patient as I can be, because I tend to overthink, and I think that’s a very teenage thing to do. A lot of things that have happened in my life constantly have taught me to trust the process, trust in God, be patient. Everything will just come into place at the end of the day.
The emotions you express on “Away” seem so sincere. Did the words come from a personal place?
They definitely did! From a personal place, from my and other people’s experiences.
Also, people tend to see “Away” as about only romantic heartbreak. Sometimes heartbreak isn’t romantic. Different people can break your heart, so “Away” was just me telling people that had the negative energy around me to take their trouble away.
“Ija” is a groovy song unabashed in its romantic intent. Why did you decide to make this song?
When I did “Ija,” I wanted something women could listen to while doing their makeup or feeling themselves generally. Not a lot of girls are that confident to say, “I like you,” that type of thing. You don’t hear it; we’re not brought up that way in Africa. We wait for the other gender to approach.
This song is very different, and that’s what I wanted: people to feel confident and know, “I can do that. I don’t have to not do that because I’m female.”
“DITR” has a message that resonates with Nigerians across generations who’ve experienced coming of age in a stifling environment. What were you thinking about when you made that song?
The normal Nigerian stereotypes and normal life; going to school and just… In other parts of the world, when people go to Uni and leave their parents’ homes, they’re allowed to be wild and explore. But in Nigeria, when people do that, it tends to spiral because there's a lot of stress in the country from the schools. People become addicted to drugs; people leave the path of where they were supposed to go and all of that. So I took that and put it into the song.
Do you think young Nigerian voices are heard enough today?
I think they’re starting to be heard, but not enough. Younger people are becoming more confident with their crafts and what they have to say. Before, it used to be, “What do you know you’re talking about? You’re too young to know,” but now everybody has something to say, and they are becoming confident enough to say it. Either through music, poetry, or how they live their lives. Younger people are becoming freer. They can color their hair the way they want because people are becoming more confident in themselves and how they want to live.
In a conservative Nigerian society infamous for policing women’s bodies, your style portrays a woman owning and confident in her sexuality. When did you decide to disregard patriarchal social constructs around appearance?
That’s where we have it wrong, ‘cause not everything is about sexuality. Sometimes I want to wear something because I feel hot and not because I want to show off my body. Not everything about women is sexual; women in this country are just over-sexualized. You breathe and it’s too sexy; you don’t breathe [and] it’s not sexy enough. I just dress the way I want to dress, the way I feel comfortable. Nobody’s mindset is going to stop me from having an independent mind and just doing what I want to do, what genuinely makes me happy as a person.
What would you say to any young woman struggling with confidence issues right now?
I don’t want to be cliché and say, “Just do you,” but it’s just the fact. Listen to yourself. Do what makes you happy. The most permanent person in your life is you; you have to come first because if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love other people.
You have to just do what makes you happy, be yourself every single time. If you want to laugh as loud as you can where you are, be loud, let them call you loud. If you’re quiet, be quiet; let them call you quiet. Don’t care about what people say; just be happy and be yourself every time.
By Nasir Ahmed Achile for Audiomack