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Amaarae
courtesy of Amaarae

Musician Amaarae has turned her personal expression into a political act


TextHabi Diallo

The Ghanaian-American singer talks about her captivating image and ever-changing hair following the release of her new single ‘Leave Me Alone’

With her unique look and experimental sound, singer-songwriter Amaarae represents a new generation of musicians, unafraid to be authentically themselves. Raised between Ghana and the US, Amaarae grew up in a family with eclectic music taste – her mother favoured jazz, while her father listened to soul and RnB and her uncles played her old school hip hop and alternative rock – the range of sounds she grew up listening to amalgamated into her curiosity regarding music.

But it was in her teens, when she moved back to Ghana from New Jersey, that she discovered a whole new group of peers expressing their love for music through experimentation. “The kids over here would be in the backroom in the computer lab making beats and recording songs during school hours. I was like, ‘Yo, what’s going on in the backroom?’” Amaarae tells us.

From then on she started joining forces with the producers in her high school, making beats and songs. After a summer internship at a studio to learn about sound technology, she then took voice lessons in Atlanta, while studying creative writing at university, and it was there Amaarae the musician was born. Now based back in Ghana, preparing to release new music she has been working on, her sound has evolved into a fusion of genres. “It’s the first time I’m tapping into all of the cultures that influence me from like House music to rap, afrobeats, dancehall, punk music – everything,” she says.

From the first time she bleached her hair, Amaarae has used her appearance as a political act. Her coloruful buzzcut has taken the form of everything from pastel colours to red and yellow stripes, and allows her fans to have an insight into how hair can be used as a means of self-expression. Despite the disapproval she received the first time she went to Ghana with bleached hair, upon her next trip she realised her freedom to present herself in whichever way she pleased struck a chord with many, particularly men.

“I’ve dyed it so many times,” she told us. “I’ve done a blue and pink pastel swirl; rainbow colours; polka dots; half blonde, half black; half blonde, half purple – I’ve done a lot. A lot.” After years of constantly applying bleach to her hair, Amaarae has now decided to put a halt on adding chemicals to her hair in an attempt to look after it better. Instead, she is now dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing out and caring for her natural hair.

With her brand new single “Leave Me Alone” released last week, we spoke to Amaarae about her captivating image, the politics of appearance, and how it continues to change. 

In a few sentences, who is Amaraee?

Amaraee: Amaraee will always be hard to define because she is always changing and evolving, so you never know what to expect. Amaraee is also colourful, despite the fact that she is an introvert. I’m sensitive, even though I look quite the opposite of that and also temperamental and difficult to penetrate emotionally. At the same time, my music and voice is very vulnerable and that I think is the core expression of me being able to say the things I can’t say in other parts of my life. 

Have you experienced cultural divisions between the US and Ghana and how has this influenced your self-image?

Amaraee: I didn’t know I was Black or that there was such a thing as being a Black person or a white person until I moved to America. Living in Ghana, everyone is Black. My doctor is Black, the bankers are Black, the lawyers are Black, the President is Black, everyone is. It was never something I really understood as a divide. So when I moved to the States, the importance of maintaining my culture while also taking in all these different cultures became clear to me. 

Living in Atlanta, there’s this Southern Black culture but then there’s also the Southern white culture which isn’t favourable to Black culture – understanding that nuance was really interesting. I also lived in New Jersey, in an all-white suburb with a bunch of only white kids, which was also an interesting experience just in understanding the importance of identity and how different people’s experiences shape them and their communications, connections and interactions with you.

Did you always have your hair short?

Amaraee: I cut my hair way later in life, probably when I was 18. My hair was always long and black. The reason I cut my hair is because I’m not really good with my hands, so I could never figure out how to take care or treat my hair. The minute I was able to make the decision, I just cut that shit off. I was done, I was just like forget about it. 

When did you start dyeing your hair? How was it received?

Amaraee: When I first dyed my hair blonde, really and truly my inspiration was Amber Rose. I can’t lie! When I was 15 or 16 and Kanye popped up with Amber Rose and she was a super hot vixen with a bald head. I was like: ‘I’m going to do that one day’ but it took me five years to build up the courage to shave it and then dye it. So when I did that, I thought ‘OK, I like the blonde’.

I told myself I’m never going to put colour in my hair. What had happened was a friend of mine was bleaching my hair and she accidentally bleached it baby pink and I thought it was fire. I had gotten so many compliments on it so I thought we might be onto something here. I started just putting colour in it because I realised I could pull it off.

At first, everyone was like: ‘Don’t do it. It’s not within our culture and people are going to think you are a slut’ but times have changed and I don’t care what anybody says. I’m the rebel of my family. Everyone has come to accept that, I’m always going to do the things that probably aren’t going to be approved of.

Have you seen a shift in beliefs regarding experimentation of appearance in Ghana now in comparison to when you were growing up?

Amaraee: 100 per cent. Up until four or five years ago, people were not as forward with their fashion and appearance as they are now. They also weren’t celebrated, it’s really wild.

Your music video for your song “Like It” has a range of types of people and representations, including drag queens and different types of women, what was the process behind that video?

Amaraee: I wrote the script at first and it was meant to take place in this post-apocalyptic cyberpunk club but we wanted to do it so it is more inclusive and that this video is a statement piece for what life should be like in our society and what acceptance means. When I started it, I never set out to make a statement but as it was developing and as we were saying what can we do to send a message, it kind of got there.

We just thought, well, let’s just allow everyone to be themselves and we’re going to have all types of people. There’s going to be men, women who are just everyday high school or college girls, there’s going to be some strippers in there, some drag queens, some children, because really and truly we’re all living in one fucked up world. That’s really what it is, whether you’re six years old or 86, this shit is messed up and we’re all in it and we have to survive. For me, what that message was is we have to love and accept each other, otherwise, there really is no point to us being here. 

You’ve previously expressed your love for the make-up looks in Euphoria, have you ever experimented with that type of make-up?

Amaraee: I’m not great with my hands, so I’m not great at make-up but I’ve been trying to get into that look and I’ve been trying to find someone to help teach me how to do those really elaborate eyeshadow looks. Actually, I bought a pack of a thousand rhinestones and shit to put on my face. So, I’m slowly developing and trying to find out how to do it, but oh my god those make-up looks were so fire. It was insane. 

All of those make-up looks were very centred around the characters, do you think individuality in appearance is something that is important to you?

Amaraee: Absolutely. When I think of individuality, I think of Kelis and when she first came out with The Neptunes and Star Trak. She was probably the coolest person in the world, she had coloured hair and she was half-singing and half-yelling at the same time. It was a whole ass Black girl doing this shit before Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. That is fire to me and I think about how Kelis has been the blueprint for a lot of artists when it comes to not just knowing how to distinguish their own individuality. It’s absolutely important for you to communicate to the world not just through how you sound but how you look as well, so they can connect to you, your story and what you’re trying to say.

What does the word beauty mean to you?

Amaraee: Beauty to me is about self-assurance. The ability to be confident in your decisions and yourself and as a result that is expressed through how you wear your hair, how you wear your make-up and the way that you wear your clothes. You can always see a person that trusts themselves and who trusts who they are and their expression, through the way that they look. That’s the most beautiful thing to me on earth, a self-assured person. Beauty is confidence.

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