Amaarae: “Music is the only place where I get to be as vulnerable as I possibly can”

After a watershed year that catapulted her to the dazzling ranks of global pop stardom, the Ghanaian-American musician is reconnecting with her roots and recentering her intentions

Visualisation can be a powerful tool – something Ama Serwah Genfi knows all too well. Lately, the Ghanaian-American musician and producer has been envisioning the places she dreams of going and the milestones she hopes to reach as part of her morning routine, which also includes prayer, chilling outside, and listening to Sade. She finds herself returning to one scene frequently during her sessions: a future Grammy acceptance speech.

Amaarae on The Cover of NME (2024), photo by Ashley Osborn
Amaarae on The Cover of NME. Credit: Ashley Osborn for NME

“I really try to get into that zone of what it feels like to be there, who I’d be there with, what I’d be wearing, all of that,” she tells NME over Zoom, her gaze drifting off-camera to the verdant landscapes that surround her home in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. If you’re curious, she’d go for a red or black dress – something “really sexy” with a slit. “I want to show some skin,” she adds playfully. For Genfi, whose seductive, sweet ‘n’ sour soundscapes as Amaarae fuse vibrant elements of pop, R&B, hip-hop, alté and anything else she deems fit (much to the delight of her adoring fanbase), such visualisation is more than a lofty daydream – it’s a prelude to reality.

Genfi thrives in a boundless space where anything is possible. Where her 2020 debut album ‘The Angel You Don’t Know’ illustrated the scope of her wide-roaming sound in bright, vivid hues, her second full-length ‘Fountain Baby’ – which NME awarded 5 stars upon its release a year ago – solidified her long-term ambitions with a gilded touch. Across 14 tracks, Genfi paired irresistible tales of lust and luxury, scaling up and letting loose with expansive, attention-stealing productions that gave full play to her appetite for the dramatic; picture ornate strings and pulsating rhythms that dare you not to move.

“Things in life don’t happen as mistakes – they just prepare you for what’s to come”

‘Fountain Baby,’ released six years after Genfi’s first EP ‘Passionfruit Summers’, showed her levelling up and revelling in her international stardom, and the strong sense of self she’s possessed since the start. It’s no wonder she was tapped for a slew of captivating guest features last year, contributing to releases from the likes of Janelle Monáe and the duo of Aminé and Kaytranada.

It’s at this point in our conversation we bring up Tinashe’s red-hot summer anthem ‘Nasty’, which is having a major viral moment right now (thanks, in part, to what Genfi jokes could be the “best video of 2024”). It’s a track fans of both artists are keen to see Genfi jump on. She could, most certainly, match Tinashe’s freak. Genfi smiles mischievously. “I DM’d Tinashe about it recently and she was like, ‘Oh my god, I love your music so much’,” she beams. “That would be fun.”

Amaarae (2024), photo by Ashley Osborn
Credit: Ashley Osborn for NME

Playfulness and profundity, experimentation and intention – all anchored by a desire, she declares, to “elevate African music to the next level” – are hallmarks of Genfi’s fluid musical universe. This is most evident in her angelic voice, which she works hard to maintain, treating it as an instrument to be continually refined through vocal coaching and live performance. “I want to make it as elastic as possible,” she notes.

It’s the perfect term for how she uses it in a technical sense, but also a storytelling one, as she moulds it to fit different characters and personas: from the “excessive, bold and brash” Amaarae of tracks like ‘Hellz Angel’ to the “soft, sweet and sensitive” version presented in the opening minutes of ‘Sex, Violence, Suicide’ via the Amaarae who sits on the bob of the pendulum. (‘TAYDK’ fan-fave ‘Sad Girlz Luv Money’ – which exploded after Kali Uchis joined the party on what’s now a platinum-certified remix – exemplifies that best-of-both approach).

“I need to just keep having fun and not take things so seriously”

“I can sing in [my] chest voice, but singing in that high-pitch helps me tap into a vulnerability that I don’t naturally tap into in my everyday life. So really and truly, music is the only place where I get to be as vulnerable as I possibly can,” explains Genfi, whose “natural” voice is deep and composed, her accent skating between American English and Ghanaian. This nods to an unconventional upbringing spent back-and-forth between Accra – Ghana’s coastal capital – and cities like Atlanta and New Jersey. (These days, she splits her time between Accra, where she has a house next door to her mum, and LA.) You can hear this eclectic background in her songs as well. She’s as inspired by the Southern rap and hip-hop she heard in Georgia as the rock, punk and mainstream pop the kids in “bumblefuck” New Jersey gravitated toward.

Taking time for vulnerability amid boldness and bravado is important to Genfi, who isn’t afraid to admit that while 2023 was a watershed year in what’s been a defining few, it had its emotional challenges. “I didn’t write any music for maybe ten months,” she says. “As I was going through stuff, I was like, ‘You know what, I just need to go back to my roots.’”

Amaarae (2024), photo by Ashley Osborn
Credit: Ashley Osborn for NME

For Genfi, this meant reconnecting with the environments that nurtured her passions. She returned to Ghana to tap into the “old mojo” she’d had at the beginning of her career. Back then, she’d whip up mixtapes in her bedroom or at friends’ houses, making moves as part of a young, inspired wave of DIY creatives rising within the fecund alternative scenes in cities like Accra and across Africa more broadly. Her cousin (the first rapper in her music-loving family) was the one who taught her how to produce music, which, at the time, felt like learning a vital new language.

It’s this recalibration that informs her next project: a special edition of ‘Fountain Baby’ featuring a handful of new tracks and two remixes (an amapiano spin on ’Reckless and Sweet’ and a 6LACK-featuring version of ‘Disguise’). When we’re speaking, the release is yet to be named, but titles like ‘Rain,’ ‘Holy Water,’ and ‘Wet’ are being auditioned, in keeping with the original record’s watery themes.

“I can go anywhere and adapt”

“It reminded me I used to have fun doing this, so I need to just keep having fun and not take things so seriously,” she says of its creation. “I took ‘Fountain Baby’ very seriously because I wanted to show the level I could get to and how much I could be better. But with this, I was just like, ’I think I’ve already proven that’. So I just want to enjoy myself and go back to that kid that was hungry.”

From the outside, the story arc for the album opens with Genfi in enamoured mode. On the aptly titled ‘Sweeet’, her brain’s filled with thoughts of her lover. “Little baby got me wrapped around her index,” she sings coyly over a blissful, mid-tempo beat. By the time we get to ‘Day 1’ the rhythms have maintained that steady flow but the mood has soured. It seems the subject of her affection has been texting someone else. “To love me is a blessing, guess I never learned my lesson,” she laments. As ‘THUG (Truly Humble Under God)’ rolls in, Genfi has recast herself as the main character (despite the title pointing, perhaps, to one of her musical faves, Young Thug) as her words pour out like affirmations: “I don’t fold under pressure, I don’t fold under pain / Today I’m doing better, I’m looking for a way.” It’s an exquisite, slow-building ballad with drums that break through like the sun through rainy clouds.

Does this interpretation of the record match up with the real story? “You ate, period. That is literally what it’s about,” says Genfi, approvingly. “It’s all true. ’Fountain Baby’ was written when I was in such an interesting space and a very intriguing relationship. The whole of the album is about that relationship. Coming out of [that] – or realising that it was over – I was like: I need to think about me, and how I feel.”

Amaarae (2024), photo by Ashley Osborn
Credit: Ashley Osborn for NME

It had been a while since Genfi made music so directly about herself. But it was freeing, she reflects, turning her ruminations inward. “When your only inspiration is you, there are so many places you can go. There are so many ways to find new depth,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “I have found so many things that I wanted to say and so many ways I wanted to say them. It’s all different vibes and energies. I was glad I got to express that about myself this time.”

There are different voices, too. There’s Atlanta-raised R&B artist 6LACK – who cut his effortlessly nonchalant ‘Disguise’ verse a couple of years back, before Genfi decided to go feature-free on ‘Fountain Baby’ – and Naomi Sharon, who, like Genfi, has a voice like liquid silk. Genfi was put onto Sharon last year, and she quickly became Genfi’s favourite artist. “I love the record we have together,” says Genfi, speaking on the body-moving bop ‘Wanted’. “I feel like it’s going to be one of those songs in both of our catalogues that has staying power.”

Amaarae (2024), photo by Ashley Osborn
Credit: Ashley Osborn for NME

Genfi is always looking for ways to push herself further. Her aspirations extend beyond personal success; she envisions an academy or organisation that helps young girls in Ghana and Africa pursue careers in music, technology, fashion, film, and art in the future. “I want to pay it forward,” she says resolutely. “There’s so much that I’ve had to do by myself as an artist, and there’s so much that I’ve had to learn. What I want to do now is give back.”

Before that, though, other tasks need her attention and there are more places to be. Towards the end of our call, she hops from her outdoor setup back into her house to grab her headphones before jumping into a car. It’s just another day for the artist, who has festival appearances and top-secret studio sessions to attend. And there’s more where that came from: Genfi was recently announced as a special guest for Childish Gambino’s world tour later this year, setting the mood at venues such as London’s O2 Arena. She’s clearly not one to rest on her laurels, but she’s excited for some well-deserved downtime before then – her 30th birthday is on the horizon.

As she buckles up and sets off on another adventure, Amaarae is back in her thoughts. But rather than picturing her future, she’s reflecting on the journey she’s taken, and the unconventional roads she’s travelled thus far. “I think things in life don’t happen as mistakes – they just prepare you for what’s to come. My life has been semi-nomadic but now, being an artist, it’s made me adaptable,” she muses. “I can go anywhere and adapt. That’s been a blessing.”

Amaarae’s special edition of ‘Fountain Baby’ is coming soon

Listen to Amaarae’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Words: Jasmine Kent-Smith
Photography: Ashley Osborn
Styling: Janáe Roubleau
Makeup: Jamie Diaz with Paradis Agency using Anastasia Beverly Hills
Hair: Maykisha Bowers
Label: Interscope

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