On her new debut album, Ayra Starr shows she has nothing – and no one – left to fear.
In front of me is the most excited fan in Lagos. It’s a breezy Saturday night in early June, and the smell of petrichor hangs thickly in the air. The state’s pandemic-induced restrictions on large gatherings are still in place, yet a crowd of eager fans trooped in to watch Ayra Starr – the latest Mavin Records signee and newest Gen Z voice in afropop – hold her first-ever live performance.
Currently, Ayra is in between sets, and there’s excited chatter in the room as the audience awaits her next song. A slightly familiar lovelorn melody creeps in, closely followed by Ayra’s enthralling vocals. It takes me a few moments to realise what song she’s singing, but the fan in front of me only needs an instant. “Ah, my song!” he squeals with glee, already murmuring the lyrics word for word before Ayra even lets out a note. The track turns out to be the then-unreleased “Beggie Beggie”, the CKay-assisted ballad on her recently released debut album, 19 & Dangerous. Back then, Ayra had only previewed snippets of the track on her social media, yet, here is this enthusiastic fan, frantically matching her note for note and ad-lib for ad-lib. The set ends and then comes the long-awaited fan-favourite, “Away”; the crowd goes wild, sending an electrifying energy that cuts through my phone screen, where I’m watching the concert from an attendee’s Instagram livestream. It’s her first show ever, but Ayra works the socially distanced crowd like a pro, her aura commanding and sure. It dawned on me then – if it didn’t before – that this is no ordinary 19-year-old.
“I’ve always been a performer, I’ve always loved music, and it’s just always been my goal,” Ayra tells me later during our Google Meet conversation a few days before her album’s release. She’s at the Mavin studio, getting ready to record (even more) music, casually dressed in comfy clothes. “Every decision I have made in the past was to be here at this moment now,” she adds matter-of-factly. Ayra may have always known she’d be a star, but until earlier this year, the rest of the world had absolutely no clue.
Ayra made the country pause back in January, introducing herself to the world with an eponymous EP. Backed by label powerhouse Mavin Records, the singer stepped onto the scene wielding an air of defiance and ready to ascend the throne. Her five-track project – a delicate yet buoyant collection of glittering songs that wove through themes of love, life, betrayal and self-assurance – was the perfect introduction to her artistry. Lead single, “Away” thrived off her arresting vocals, while “DITR” and “Ija” showcased a songwriting dexterity that’s well beyond her years. The raw emotions explored on the project quickly endeared her to listeners and soon enough, Ayra Starr became the name on everyone’s lips.
“Everything just went from 0-100, straight up!” she gushes, reminiscing on the very moment her life was changed forever. A genre-skirting earworm, Ayra Starr instantly shot to the top of the charts, amassing millions of streams and cementing Ayra’s place at the forefront of Gen-Z pop in these parts. Seven months, over half a million social media followers and a debut album later, Ayra’s clearly been enjoying life in the star lane: she’s admittedly been unable to take uninterrupted trips to the supermarket these days (although when she’s home, she’s still a regular teenager: “I’m still normal in my house. I still have to do dishes...I still have to clean my room and all that.”). She doesn’t mind, though, as she tells me: this is the life she’s always wanted, the life she always knew she would have.
Born Oyinkansola Sarah Aderibigbe in Benin Republic, Ayra Starr spent her early years shuffling between Lagos, Cotonou and Abuja. Growing up in a musical household fostered the right environment for her to harness her musical abilities. “When I was younger, I remember there was almost [never any] light so when there was no light, my aunty would give [my siblings and I] musical games. She would give us a word and tell us to write a song about it, or she would play a song, then we would have three hours to make a choreography,” she recalls fondly. These games kindled a songwriting partnership between Ayra and her brother, Milar, that remains integral to her artistry to this day.
Ayra recognised her talents early on, and her family did too. According to the singer, her mother was the one who nurtured her musical abilities, relentlessly encouraging her to pursue music full-time. She would often embolden – a then-shy – Ayra to record and post song covers on social media. Eventually, this instilled an unwavering sense of self-belief in her superstar abilities, so much so that she never failed to let everyone around her know – she was made to be a star.
It’s this assertiveness that informed the decision to release her debut album barely seven months after her first official release – a feat not many would dare to attempt. But much of Ayra’s life choices have been guided by this unshakeable conviction she possesses. She tells me she intentionally chose to write her WAEC exams as early as 13 solely because she wanted to get it out of the way and focus on her music career. Growing up, she always saved any money she received to pay for dance and singing classes online as she knew it’d help with her music career someday. Hence, sending this album into the world at this time wasn’t a decision made on a whim; she’s had this planned as far back as her early teens (even the album title, 19 & Dangerous, was chosen two years ago). When we speak, she lets me know that in this new phase of her blossoming career, she’s just living her life on her own terms while experiencing new things and putting all of that into the music.
As a result, 19 & Dangerous reads like an anthology of affirmations, elucidating the inner workings of a young woman with nothing to fear. With a runtime of just under 34 minutes, the 11-tracker continues where the EP left off: it’s equal parts brazen and bare, while upping the ante. Here, Ayra dons a new braggadocious persona, one that isn’t afraid to offer audacious self-proclamations as she basks in her light. On “Bridgertn”, she’s unrelenting in her confidence; she knows she’s the shit and is unapologetic about it, coyly chanting: “Bitch, I’m lit like that.” Elsewhere on the percussive “Fashion Killer”, a punchy afropop number, she spends three minutes flexing her stylish threads: “I light the room in the dark 'cause my bling is a torch/I watched fashion die today in the mirror that I saw.”
In the same breath, Ayra digs deep on the project and allows herself to peel back another layer, revealing a slab of raw emotion which she channels into songs like “Toxic” (where she sings passionately of a destructive love) and “In Between” (where she desperately flails for an escape from her demons).
“I always wanted to be a teen pop star,” Ayra mentions severally during our conversation. “I wanted to go into uni very quickly so I can still be a teen superstar [by the time I’m] done with school.” Starr may have gotten her lifelong wish, but being so young in a dog-eat-dog industry can be somewhat dicey to navigate – let alone being a young woman. The music industry can be very cut-throat, and it’s countlessly proven in the past to be rather unforgiving to female artists. For one, there seems to be an unwritten finite amount of time women can be pop stars – an assumed deadline for how long they can keep people’s attention. Hence, image-making as a female pop star is something embedded into your psyche very early on: how you look, talk, walk, and even sound is presented as a make-or-break aspect of your career. And in a male-dominated industry like ours, signing with a major label at such a young age can be a daunting affair.
Luckily for Starr, she’s in good hands, as she tells me: she has complete creative freedom over at Mavin. “Being able to do my own thing and being myself at all times, and that’s one thing that I’m so grateful for when it comes to my label and Don Jazzy,” she says. “[They let me] just do my own thing. There’s no ‘you must create this thing or that’. No. It’s just [for you to] find your sound and do your own thing and find what you like to do and enjoy. Enjoy yourself.” Starr’s breakout year coincides with the #FreeBritney era and the consequent cultural reckoning around how young female artists are treated. Perhaps, as a result, it's contributed to her self-awareness and intentionality on what career decisions she makes at this stage. Though her breakout arose comparisons with other female afropop artists (shocker, right?), Starr has no intentions to feed into that. “I try to project my energy on whatever brings me peace,” she asserts. “Right now, I’m doing my music on my own terms, and I don’t really care about what people think females should do or not do, or what is trending, or what is normal for females to do, or what will get me to be number one. I’m in my own lane completely and I’m going to be number one in my own lane.”
When Ayra speaks, she does so with a level of conviction and confidence that lets me know she’s not one to play with. “When I say ‘19 & Dangerous’, it’s not that I mean action and I have a gun in my hand,” she says with a laugh, explaining the album’s title. “It’s [more] like I’m able to be vulnerable without caring about what the world has to think. Like I’m able to do my own thing whenever I want to because that’s what I want to do. I’m living life on my own and God’s terms and not on societal terms.” This mindset embodies the entire ethos of Gen Z worldwide. Like Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and Elsa Majimbo, Ayra Starr is part of a generation of young women who are pushing the envelope and raising a – 3-inch acrylic-clad – middle finger to the status quo. Like most Gen Z, these women are doing things on their own terms, they aren’t afraid to fail or make mistakes, and to Starr, that’s when you become dangerous.
This mindset is what informs album opener “Cast (Gen Z Anthem)”. An empowering number, the three-minute track is a gutsy middle finger to convention. “Suck on these nuts, if you don’t approve of/I’ve cared for too long,” she sings in a delicate falsetto, rejecting any societal pressures unaligned with her purpose. “I don’t feel any type of pressure from anyone but myself,” Ayra says to me. “I don’t try to do things because people feel like this is what would sell. I just make beautiful music, and I put my whole heart into whatever I make. I want to make great music, make money and take vacations.” For Starr, naysayers and negative energies have no place in her psyche; the only important opinion is hers. As I close my notes, ready to wrap up our conversation, it dawns on me – yet again – that this teen pop sensation has a good head on her shoulders, if I do say so myself.
“Do you really wanna have it all? Can you really handle if it comes?” she poses on album closer, “Amin”. Ayra Starr can, apparently.