AyraStarr: Naija’s Bi-coastal Pop Princess

Supa Group is a cohort of 5 Gen-Z artists consolidating on the territory claimed by the Alte movement as a viable alternative to the by-the-numbers afropop movement that preceded them. Chosen for their distinct but complementary approaches to the music business and their individual successes, Clout Mag celebrates the collective power of a new movement that has married the subversiveness of the alte-generation with commercial viability of Naija music’s Golden age, producing a hybridized template for what it means to be a pop star in 2021. This is our profile of our maknae, AyraStarr.

 

 

Ayra Starr

 

Cross generational appeal is the holy grail for any artist. Even more so for Nigerian artists making music for an industry with clearly delineated audience demographics. As an industry, we collectively experienced this for the first time when Afropop singer Ayra Starr was debuted, fully realized with self-titled EP in tow, earlier in 2021. That cross generational appeal is immediately apparent when she walks into the Clout Studio, managers and glam team in tow for her Clout Mag photoshoot.

 

Standing a little under 5’9 with a shock of red hair, Ayra is respectful but firm as she takes control of the photoshoot, stating her expectations and ensuring the photographer and stylist commissioned for the project understand that this photo-op must conform to the overarching theme she has crafted for her ’19 and Dangerous’ musical era.

 

It took a few false starts to even get Ayra into the studio, and while we shoot, she mentions that her schedule has become near impossible to predict now that she has been tapped to join the hallowed ranks of Pepsi’s global Ambassadors. The significance of this major co-sign is even more impressive when you consider it is coming just weeks after the release of her debut LP and months after her unveiling as a Mavin Records signee. Even Don Jazzy broke character on Instagram to share that this global endorsement, Ayra’s first big one, is coming almost two years than they’d earlier projected. Such is power of the raw charisma that Oyinkan Aderibigbe wields over her audience.

 

Not that you’d accurately gauge it if you interacted with her outside of work. When she is not in artist mode, Oyinkan is effervescent, quick witted and always ready with an appropriate quip for any situation. She puts everyone around at ease, and time warps as she moves between video interview to photoshoot. She is so charismatic, when she meets Zinoleesky, one of our other cover stars, she immediately disarms him with light banter. You’d be forgiven for assuming she’s being doing this for years, rather than the 18 months in which she’s been active. Because, in a sense, she has.

 

‘When I was a child, my aunt would play a version of song association where I had to write a song based one word or phrase, they were my first attempts at writing music, ‘she tells me when I ask about her background. ‘My mom got us a guitar just before I became a teenager and me and my family’s collective interest in music really took off.’

 

The family she talks about is a close-knit unit consisting of her mother (who she considers her best friend), her brothers and carousel of extended family who encouraged her and her siblings as they began to explore careers in entertainment. While her family was supportive of her music, her mother was also adamant about Ayra finishing school before she delved fully into a career in music. It was just as well that she was discovered just as she was about to finish a tier of education. Because Don Jazzy came calling not long after she posted her first original song on her Instagram profile.

 

‘I was so anxious, I actually put my phone away after I uploaded the song,’ she says of the experience, ‘I distracted myself with a film and came back three hours later to see that Don Jazzy had not only messaged me, but he had also messaged my brother to ask me to check my phone.’

 

Entering into the Mavin bootcamp gave me the time to do a lot of introspection about who I wanted to be as an artist. It helped me become a better artist and a better person.

 

Always a champion of originality, the second generation of artists who are being debuted by the Super Mavin Dynasty are reaping the benefits of nearly 2 decades of experience Don Jazzy and his management team have gleaned from navigating in a volatile industry. They are receiving overwhelming support to define their careers in ways that stay authentic to their personal ethos and their career ambitions. Mavin has the most diverse roster of artists under one label in Nigeria and the success metrics to show that its way works and works well. Ladi Poe just got nominated for his first BET Awards for best international Flow, Rema has become a global superstar on par with Becky G and Olivia Rodrigo who are doing ridiculous streaming numbers, Johnny Drille is an indie darling who pulls thousands to his live performances and now Ayra Starr who is breaking boundaries with 19 and Dangerous in a pandemic year.

 

‘Don Jazzy found me right before the pandemic and entering in to the mavin bootcamp just as lockdown started gave me the time to do a lot of introspection about who I wanted to be as an artist. It helped me become a better artist and a better person.”  

 

Being discovered in this way closely mirrors one of most familiar tropes in show business, the Disney Pipeline. The Mavin pipeline has the same kind of access and structure as Disney Records but there is a lot more flexibility as Ayra Starr discovered when she released her self-titled EP. But beyond the magic, watching two generations of Disney stars come of age has taught he about crafting a public persona that is fashion forward and fun, without being hypersexual.

 

In this current era, the image she is crafting for the Ayra Starr brand is fun and fashion forward and sits style-wise somewhere between Aaliyah and the characters from HBO’s Euphoria. Working with stylist Pat Ada Eze and beauty artist Merika By Onome and drawing from her own experience as a nail technician and makeup artist, Ayra has minted a now signature look, defined by graphic eyeliner and a swirl of 90’s influenced architectural pieces and the exaggerated athleisure on the body. Complemented by her energetic performances, Ayra Starr’s mien has quickly become a cultural touch point for Generation Alpha, who are emerging from the pandemic and coming into their own in a rapidly changing world.

 

But calling her a ‘Disney kid’ would be a disservice to the vast well of influences which have shaped her into the artist she is today. She is a bi-coastal multi-lingual princess, speaking fluent French and multiple Yoruba dialects thanks to her heritage and the time spent in her ancestral home in Benin Republic. Her album opens with a 2001 quote from the respected but divisive Hollywood screen legend Eartha Kitt and her self-titled EP had a much-loved homage to the Lijadu sisters, who she also considers an inspiration. She lights up when I name check Caroline Polachek, former lead artist of revered indie group Chair Lift and specifically references Polachek’s ethereal voice and penchant for quirky but exacting choreography. She is vocal about her obsession with the small screen and regular employs techniques used in cinema to create ambient soundscapes that help transport the listener into the worlds she tries to build with her music.

 

Every album needs an arresting lead single, and Ayra finds the perfect one in ‘Bloody Samaritan’. Writing songs that rely heavily on a vibe doesn’t come naturally to her as a storyteller, but the beat was too unique to waste.

 

‘London had shared the beat with me, and I begged him not to show it to anyone else while I figured out what I wanted to do with it. It took me six months of revisiting it before the chorus came to me, in a freestyle of all things.”

 

Ayra says an A&R person at Mavin happened to hear her lay down this freestyle and became so taken with the sound that before the end of the day, even Don Jazzy had heard and commented on the progress, giving his blessing to the new direction of the song. Once she got feedback that she was on to something, the rest of the song followed. The reception to Bloody Samaritan has proven Don Jazzy right. Ayra’s fans have embraced the song, whole heartedly, with all the versions of the song she’s uploaded on Youtube garnering a cumulative 3 million views on Youtube.

 

‘I couldn’t believe how well the single and album was received.” She explains, ‘I had just released an EP and even I didn’t know I would still release another project, let alone a full-length LP in the same year. It has exceeded all my expectations.”

 

Ayra Starr might be surprised by the acceptance she’s gotten but you only need to hear Bloody Samaritan to see that her fears were unfounded. It is the kind of single that only someone with the confidence of Rihanna could pull off, with the kind of longevity that could have set Ayra up enough that she could slack off for the rest of the ’19 and Dangerous’ era. But Ayra brings that same kind of star quality to the rest of the album. It helps that the Mavin music machine allowed her to maintain much of her routine, including her close working relationship with her brothers, one of whom is a music video producer and the other song writer David Aderibigbe. Working closely with her brothers and seeking feedback from her mother keeps her grounded as more is at stake than just her ego but also gives her an honest sounding board for when its time to fight for what she wants.

‘I try not be a brat about what I want, especially when the label has paid (for studio time or a producer), but if I feel something is wrong and I don’t mind sacrificing some money to kill an idea that doesn’t work for me.” 

 

Her writing partnership with David and the contributions of a team of songwriters (including Don Jazzy himself) has all worked to ensure the songwriting on the rest of the album is as excellent as its lead single and that the album stands as one of the most conceptually solid debut albums released by a Nigerian artist in the last decade.

 

Photography: Iyesogie Ogierakhi

 

Ayra is an evangelist for using her music as a megaphone to make powerful statements. Power anthems are strewn across the ’19 and Dangerous’ with songs like Bridgertn (a play on the wildly popular Netflix series of the same name), Fashion Killa, Cast and of course Bloody Samaritan expressing her thoughts on a range of topics, including self-confidence, forging a path for herself as a woman in music and of course cancellation as a public figure.

 

‘I’m a 19-year-old who is not scared of breaking stereotypes, making mistakes and learning from them and that to me is what makes me dangerous.’

 

There haven’t been any irredeemable mistakes so far, but Ayra is always learning. She recently directed her first music video, the video for Bloody Samaritan with some guidance from her brother. The experience slaked her thirst for more control over the rollout for her album and gave her new respect for music video directors. She won’t be directing any more projects, but that doesn’t mean that door is closed indefinitely. In the interim, there is fashion and beauty, and getting the music to the fans.

 

‘My showcase in June was my first time performing and seeing people sing along to my songs, loving me unabashedly and telling me the impact my music has made, still feels surreal.’ She tells me.

 

That showcase felt like a whole lifetime away from the girl who uploaded a single to her Instagram and closed the app because she was too anxious to see how it would be received. A lot has changed since then, performing on the Big Brother stage as a Pepsi Ambassador and having her Bloody Samaritan challenge go viral on Tiktok, Triller and Instagram. Much of her newfound fame is turbocharged by social media, which she says she has hacked to work for her good by doing the barest minimum and directing her energy to her career and her art. Now that she’s here, the first in a new generation of female artists who get to build on the foundation artists like Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade and Niniola built by breaking certain stereotypes, she is determined to do things her way.

 

“Bridgertn says it all’ she says, as a parting quote, “Broke all the stereotypes, I make my rules, I break all of your rules, your rules”

 

CLOUT MAG VOL. 01