We talk to the rising Nigerian star about growing up between Cotonou & Lagos, meeting Don Jazzy and how she made her explosive debut EP.
When Oyinkansola Sarah Aderibigbe—now better known as Ayra Starr—was in university, she was often complimented for her vocal skills. "I would just be singing and people would be like you have such a great voice,'' she tells OkayAfrica over a Zoom conversation. Because of this, her friends kept telling her to consider recording covers of songs to share on social media. Ayra refused—not to make the videos, but to post them—because she was shy.
Eventually, she allowed her friends to share her covers on their own social media channels. Ayra would try to stay away and not keep track of people's reactions to them, but each time she would fail and end up going to the comments section, she'd be surprised at the overwhelming support. ''The first time I did a cover it was crazy, people just went mad. I was shocked, like 'wow, people really like the music.'''
The support that helped her the most in deciding to pursue music full-time, however, was that of her mother. ''My mum would call me from home and be like 'Oyinkansola, do music''' Ayra remembers. ''She would say, 'music is for you', 'God wants you to do music.' She would even check up on me to ask if I had posted on social media.''
Arya Starr's childhood was soundtracked by the musical greats of the time—2Baba, Wande Coal, Tope Alabi. Being born into a musical family also helped. ''Everybody loved music. It was a musical home, and I listened to a lot of different types of sounds. From there I joined the choir when I was like eight or ten," Ayra says.
Photo: Ayra Starr/Mavin Records.
However, Ayra's influences aren't just musical. She spent her childhood moving between Lagos and Cotonou, listening to and learning from different people and cultures, understanding what was different and, perhaps more importantly, how to find common ground. She also found a way to fuse their music and sounds. When she gained admission to study International Politics at Houdegbe University in the Benin Republic at the young age of fourteen, Ayra quickly began to come into her own as an artist and learn how to deconstruct sounds and bring them together. YouTube became her home.
''I didn't have access to a lot of tools or learning resources so I fell into YouTube,'' Ayra tells OkayAfrica. ''I would teach myself how to do more complicated vocal techniques, riffs, hit high notes and other stuff. I didn't have any resource other than YouTube.'' What she never needed to learn was fusing sounds together, that was innate. ''If you listen to the EP, you can tell I am versatile when it comes to styles,'' she mentions. ''I like to explore and I like to make different types of sounds and I don't enjoy restricting myself to one genre. Growing up, I used to listen to different types of music, every type of music. That's why I want to keep making my music versatile.''
After watching her covers gain significant traction—much more than she expected—Ayra decided it was time to consider taking music a bit more seriously. She played with the idea of an original song for a while before reaching out to her brother Dami Aderibigbe, who goes by Milar professionally, and they began working on original music.
''I posted an original song that I wrote with my brother a few days before the new year in 2019 and it went everywhere.'' The video Ayra posted of herself singing her first original song went viral almost immediately. A few days later, she got a DM from Don Jazzy, the owner of Mavin Records and one of Nigeria's biggest musicians.
Ayra Starr - Away (Official Music Video) youtu.be
"Don Jazzy messaged me saying he had been watching the video and just had to message me about my music. Three days later, I met him at the Mavin studio."
Ayra's first time meeting with Don Jazzy in the Mavin Studio—the studio out of which we conducted this interview—was her first time in an actual studio.That meeting took place in January 2020, the same month they began to work on what ended up becoming her debut eponymous EP. For a year Ayra recorded the album and added as well as removed bits and pieces to ensure that the project worked as a solid cohesive body. The result is a five-track, 14-minutes long mediation on life, growth, love and changes from the perspective of a Gen Z Nigerian woman, set to afrobeat-inspired R&B records that fuse genres in a way that is uniquely Ayra.
Earlier this year, on January 22, Ayra released her debut EP to zero monthly listeners on her Spotify followers. Two weeks after the release, Ayra had almost 30,000 listeners and was the name on everyone's lips. Today, barely a month after, she has more than 60,000 monthly listeners on Spotify alone and "Away," the lead off the EP, is an obvious hit.
But for Ayra it's not about the numbers, it's about people connecting with her music. ''I keep seeing people's take on 'Away' and it just blows my mind,'' Ayra says excitedly. ''People are using it to make videos about domestic violence and leaving toxic relationships and I'm so happy because while it may not be what I made the song for, I am happy to see people connect with the core message of the song beyond the vibes.''
Ayra, however, doesn't quite feel famous yet. She's excited when we talk, smiling and laughing easily. She is still blown away by the reception but doesn't feel much like the star she already is. What she does feel is excitement and a desire to keep making music.
''I just want to keep making and releasing music,'' Ayra says. ''The reception from my EP has me gingered. I don't want to talk about it too much, I don't want to jinx it. But when it is out, you'll be the first I'll DM to show.''