Amaarae on Afrofuturism, Her Plan to Start a Punk Band, and Her Breakthrough Album ‘Fountain Baby’

Amaarae’s uniquely futurist take on R&B and Afropop comes as the product of years of unexpected travels — sometimes brief, but momentous stays in distinct locations across the globe. Born in the Bronx, the singer-songwriter and producer spent a lot of her childhood and teen years: moving from New York to Atlanta to her family’s home base in Ghana.

Amaarae is still globe-trotting, and when Variety recently caught up with her over Zoom, she was in an airport on the way to a release party for her latest magazine cover story. Since the release of her debut record, “The Angel You Don’t Know” in 2020, Amaarae has signed to a major label (Interscope in 2022) and released her second effort “Fountain Baby,” over the summer. The record was released to high acclaim across various channels, helping launch her career to new heights.

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“The other day, my father was in a plane, and ‘Fountain Baby’ was part of the featured music catalog,” Amaarae says — in a speaking voice that is deeper but similar to her high-pitched singing — while stirring her drink. “And he sent a picture to my brother like, ‘Yo, Really?!’ He still doesn’t believe it. He wasn’t always supportive but it’s very typical of an African dad — until you can show them proof they don’t believe in it. Now, he has no choice but to respect it.”

By this point, some six years after her first single, Amaarae has accumulated enough evidence of her stardom. She’s spent much of the last few years in and out of hotel rooms but claims she’s more of a homebody. “Things being balanced and centered is very important to me,” she says. “My home is a really important part of that so not being able to stay in one place has been pretty destabilizing.”

That sentiment aligns with the sound of “Fountain Baby.” With anchors in hip-hop and Afropop, the record finds Amaarae building a musical world around her personal and cultural experiences. She carries that influence into other creative ventures, from her 2000s-themed visuals to her ventures in fashion. Because her father was a fabric seller, some of her earliest memories come from that world: vibrant and textured materials find their way into the fantastical photo shoots and videos for “Fountain Baby.”

Below, Amaarae reflects on the year of “Fountain Baby” and shares a glimpse of what’s to come.

This album feels very visual — even the rhythms. The professional dance community adores your music.

The music and the visuals popped up into my head pretty much simultaneously — [between ‘The Angel You Don’t Know’ and ‘Fountain Baby,’] I was working on the album and at the same time picking the creative direction for the album. There were a lot of fashion ads from the 2000s that I took inspiration from and the music just felt right to me.

Are you a creature of habit when it comes to how or who you make music with? The production team who worked on this record is the same as “Angel.”

Yeah, I need my core team. My executive producers, both of whom worked on the first album, Kyu [Steed] and KZ, along with the same engineer. A lot of love and intention went into it on behalf of all of us.

This record feels so much like you, knowing where you spent a lot of your time growing up. The R&B, hip-hop, the Afropop… and yet you always leave room for a punk moment.

1,000% — the punk moment has always been like me dipping my toe in. With the first album, it just happened in the intro and in the outro for probably 10 seconds. And then with the second one, there’s like a full punk song with “Sex, Violence and Suicide” and “Come Home to God,” where I really immerse myself in it. And, you know, I grew up on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, on Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana and the Raincoats, who worked on some stuff for that album, but it didn’t make it. So for me, I’ve always wanted to express that side of myself, because it’s music that I really love and have always wanted to make. So I think with a full-length album like this, it just gives me the freedom to kind of throw it at people like ‘Yeah, this is something I can do. And this is something that I love to do.’ But eventually, I’m gonna start a band and make that a side quest and do a full punk- either album or EP.

On “Counterfeit,” you sampled Clipse and Slim Thug’s “Wamp Wamp (What It Do)” — what was the process in getting that cleared?

It was really easy — I actually had hoped we could’ve had a moment where I met or spoke with Pharrell. But to even have the opportunity to digest his music and say, “This is the way that you inspired me. And it’s not a copy. This is my expression of your influence on me” — that’s very real. I want them to be like, “Oh, I can hear my influence. Like ‘Yo, this is crazy for a singer to choose one of the hardest hip-hop beats and make it like a fun girly song.'”

This record is up for consideration, and has been submitted for the 2024 Grammys — how do you feel about awards shows like that?

For me, it’s not so much about the accolades, more so about what it means — the sentimentality that’s attached to it, because once again, I can go back to being a kid and seeing Kanye and seeing Britney Spears and seeing Beyoncé and seeing Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker, Michael Jackson, you know, win these awards. I remember thinking, when am I going to be able to do that? So to me like to even come as far as like, saying, okay, my album is up for Grammy considerations, and that being a possibility of even being the nominee?! I’m a young girl from Africa. Like, that’s crazy.

The Grammys also added the Best African Music Performance to the 2024 Awards, you along with many of your peers are bringing this music to the limelight. How long have you anticipated this genre making its entrance in the U.S.?

I knew was coming in 2013. When I was living in Atlanta, I was a DJ. And before, we never had African artists coming to America to do concerts and selling out. And we never used to have clubs dedicating their Saturdays and Sundays as Afrobeats night.

Once I started to see that happen, I knew. As a DJ, I think you have a better understanding of music and how music flows and what it means and what trends are about to pop up. And for me, once I saw that in 2013-2014, I was like, “Okay, it’s time like, we’re slowly making our way.” And when Wizkid was on the Drake album… it’s been so joyful to see.

Going from 2013 to 2023, “Fountain Baby” almost feels like the perfect testament to that evolution.

It’s so funny. When we were making this album, I kept saying “I want to change the frequency of the club.” I want people to start making their songs more fun, but also making their drums more danceable. Starting with the dance community, I’m excited because I feel like the intention is coming across. I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s going to carry over from the dancers into like, actual spaces with people partying and dancing. I really want to be a part of that — even if we are listening to Afro beats, like, this is a new expression of it.

Did you grow up in a musical family? Where does your affinity for music stem from?

Yes. But no one was daring enough to pursue it as a career because at the time it was looked at as taboo. When I started to make music professionally, my grandmother told me “I’m living vicariously through you — when I was 20 years old, I wanted to be in a band and I had purple hair,” but at the time it was looked at as taboo, you would be called a slur.

My father is a phenomenal singer. He was also a part of a band, but once again, he had to be a businessman. So I’m the first of my family to really pursue it and take it as far as I have. And you know, I grew up around people who love music, my uncles all loved hip-hop, my father loves funk. My mother loves jazz. I grew up around people that adore music, but never really got to fully express that themselves.

That all makes sense when you hear your niche, your fusion of sounds — do you feel the need to categorize it?

I would categorize it as Afrofuturism because the core, the drums at the heart of it — it’s all African.

What is Afrofuturism as far as you know it?

That’s a great question. I think it’s taking our current elements, in my case in the realm of music, and taking the past and creating a new future with it.

The cadence, the melody, the sound, the choice of sounds like African music. When you come to places like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, it becomes actually a very distinct thing. As far as sonics. It’s a certain drum you use or certain patterns you use. It’s never been fused and played with the way that we’re playing with it now. And I think that a lot of us are not really even thinking in the sphere of today.

We’re really thinking about the next generation and tomorrow and opening up their minds and seeing how they can take it further.

What are you planning for your 2024 North American tour?

I went to see Kendrick Lamar’s [“Big Steppers Tour”] and was blown away by the visual component, and how he was like an actor. He stayed in character the whole time. He didn’t talk to the audience, I think was a really interesting show. And I was inspired by that.

But what I was also really inspired by was his body movements, which were very specific to him. I want to have distinct movements like that and figure out what kinds of things my body can naturally do.

I recently went to see Jozzy as well, and that was an eye-opening one for me too, because she’s an R&B singer so I was just expecting like a calm, quiet chill show. But she found amazing ways to implement interesting elements — everything was choreographed. The Kaytramine show — they had a camera following them around on stage making it an immersive experience. That feels dangerous a little bit. It feels like a bit on the edge, which I like.

At the end of the day, my concept is taking people to church. If you come to a show, you’re coming to worship at the Church of “Fountain Baby.”

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