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Photography Hendrik Schneider

Alewya is the spiritual artist inspired by jungle cats and Lauryn Hill

The musician on her connection to her African heritage, old MTV sessions, and how she’s always felt different

Alewya’s name fits her like a glove. Loosely translating to mean ‘most high’ in Arabic, it’s no shock that when she describes both the music and the art that she makes as “an expression of who I am and what’s inside. What information is being given to me from – I believe – the highers above me.” Raised by an Ethiopian mother and an Egyptian father who grew up in Sudan, Alewya’s connection to and appreciation for her heritage and spirituality is palpable in the art she creates – sonically and visually. Creating these moments that tap into something instinctual and immediate with kinetic rhythms, guttural melodies, global flourishes and lyricism exploring themes of letting go and transcending. Paired with her distinctly London perspective and you find the perfect soundtrack to dance the existentialism away.

Her debut EP Panther in Mode released at the end of last year is an amalgamation of rich cultural influences and history but with one eye placed firmly on the future too. “Zuggy” is a magnetic and minimal afrohouse-inspired tune, single “Play” begs to be blasted from a well-used soundsystem at a sweaty underground club and project standout “Ethiopia” merges the reverberating dub sounds of years spent at Notting Hill Carnival with delicate East African flute-song. The title is inspired by the fluid, fatal movements of the jungle cat, Alewya laughs. “I love nature documentaries and the way cats move before they pounce, the prowl is quiet but so focused before the actual attack. It’s smooth, dangerous in how calm it is. To me, this EP is that prowl.” We catch up with the ex-model and multidisciplinary artist to hear about her dreams of delivering pizza, divinity and why conflict inspires her.

Do you have any earliest musical memories that stick out to you?

Alewya: That’s actually hard, because my memory’s quite shit. But I think watching Lauryn Hill do her MTV Unplugged session and play this song called “Gotta Find Peace of Mind”, where she’s playing the guitar and singing and then she just starts crying halfway through because she’s so fully immersed in it.

And I think I just started crying with her. I was young, so I was like, ‘I don’t know why the hell I’m crying’. But music just… I guess it was the first instance where I could see music just translate through the screen into my actual soul and move me.

And what was young Alewya like, did you already have your own musical ambitions at that point or want to be anything else when you were growing up?

Alewya: (Laughs) I’ve always been like… not even different in a cool way, because I always wanted to fit in, but I was always different, if that makes sense? I didn’t like standing out… I still lowkey don’t like attention. So that was me when I was young. But in terms of being ambitious – no. 

I told my mum I wanted to go to America, learn to drive and be a pizza delivery person so I could listen to music on my own in my car and look at nice scenery. And she responded, ‘...I didn’t come to London for that’. (laughs).

Which is fully fair! But, you know, she missed why I wanted to do that. I just wasn’t a human that fit into getting a job, doing this, doing that and then just fitting in the workplace or the structure of how we work. You know? I wasn’t interested in the slightest.

That’s so interesting, almost like you just wanted to find peace and be left alone…

Alewya: Literally. That was really it. I just wanted to be left alone and have peace. It wasn’t that peaceful for me growing up, so I think I found a lot of peace in my… well not even peace, just safety in my solitude. And with that I think I just really liked movement, so anything moving, a bus, a train, cars, whatever, I just liked to be in movement listening to music. That was something I really, really liked.

And what kind of music did you find comfort in, playing in your headphones in those moments?

Alewya: There was definitely a time when it was a mixture of English indie music, but also American, and then just like garage, bashment, grime, funky house, African stuff. It was just such a range of music. It was definitely my older brother who was really into the electronic alternative side and so, I just used to hear all of that stuff from him and soak it in, take the songs that I really liked and then just mix it in too.

Before music you also modelled, right? How did you end up making the jump from your pizza delivery dreams to the creative spaces you exist in now – making art, music, co-directing your visuals?

Alewya: Yeah, I started modelling at 19 or 20, and basically that has just always been a side job. I didn’t have any aspirations to become busy from modelling. But it was good in the sense that, you know, it paid me well, I got to go to New York and be there for a bit. And then in the spaces between jobs, because I wasn’t busy, I had a lot of time to just pick up hobbies and see what came up for me. And through that time I really think I had the space to continue drawing, painting, and teaching myself how to make music. 

Now you actually create all the art for your projects too and I wanted to hear a little more about how those two processes are linked for you. Does one ever inspire the other?

Alewya: Hmm, there’s actually no one way I think, it’s more expansive. Over the years I’ve just been painting and painting and making music and making beats and learning guitar, just learning things to broaden my tools to paint more of this world, to build more of this world of mine. So sometimes it might go through a phase where I’m just painting. Like I haven’t even sprayed out on the streets in a long time, you know, but then it can change to a phase where I’m just making beats and not even writing lyrics. 

I just get called to build on whatever part of the structure at different times. And it kind of just all somehow works together beyond my control, if I’m honest. Yeah, I really believe in the highers, God, whatever people want to call it, it’s really guiding me. Because a lot of this when I get asked questions I feel bad, I’m like, ‘I don’t have the answers and I can’t lie to you’. It wasn’t here, and then it was here (laughs)

And if you had to describe the world of Alewya to someone who hadn’t encountered it before, how would you?

Alewya: It’s hard, isn’t it, to describe a feeling? But, I don’t know, I think my world is quite… it’s welcoming. Anyone can come, but they need to leave behind a lot of shit from this world when they enter. 

I like that a lot, leave your shit at the door.

Alewya: Exactly, take your shoes off before you come into my house, please.

“I get a lot of inspiration from arguments, because I don’t hold back but sometimes that backfires on me” – Alewya

And what’s the weirdest place that you’ve found inspiration recently?

Alewya: I think arguments. I get a lot of inspiration from arguments, because I don’t hold back but sometimes that backfires on me. Conflict makes me see sides of myself that are fucking hard because I like to always be right. It makes me see sides of myself that I didn’t know were there, you know? And then I will always reflect afterwards. And I write a lot about light and dark. So conflict, tension and uncomfortable conversations are probably the most unconventional place that I’ll get some inspiration from.

What do you hope people take away from the music borne out of that?

Alewya: Hmm, hope would be one way to put it. If they’re feeling what I intended them to feel, then just the hope that that feeling exists, in their world, wherever they are, you know? 

So evoking something in them that they didn’t know existed, something that inspires them?

Alewya: Yeah, just the feeling. I think it just takes one, it takes feeling that feeling once. I think that’s the thing that can hopefully drive us as a collective to create our way out of this really shitty dystopia.

Alewya’s Panther in Mode is out now