‘‘I want to focus on music right now,’’ Ayra tells me over Zoom. ‘‘I wish I could just make music for like a month or two weeks. That’s how excited I am by the reception my EP got.’’ When I meet Ayra Starr, she has a big smile on her face, a smile that remains for the entirety of the conversation. She is wearing a black sweatshirt, a gold chain and her hair is tied up in a ponytail. She looks exactly how you would imagine a 19-year-old would on a Friday. She’s, however, busier than your average 19-year-old. She’s currently at the Mavin Studio — she tells me, and I can see the unmistakable Mavin logo behind her — and her publicist calls out, lightheartedly, that she still has multiple calls scheduled for that day, as well as a studio session for much later. Life is fairly busy when you are Nigeria’s newest teen star.
Ayra Starr’s eponymously titled debut EP came out two weeks before our Zoom conversation. Ayra Starr, the EP, is a collection of soft afrobeat-influenced RnB records with honest lyrics.
‘‘Intense,’’ Ayra says, when I ask her what word she would use to describe her sound. ‘‘Intense because when you hear the music, you’ll get to a part where you just feel it . Even when I listen to it myself, it’s euphoric. I’m not trying to gas myself up, but it is.’’ Ayra does deserve to gas herself up. Within days, “Away”, the EP opener and lead single, was a mega-hit. When Ayra and I talk, her Spotify monthly listeners are at over 30,000 and, for context, she had 0 listeners when she released her EP barely two weeks before. Today, her Spotify monthly listeners are almost 50,000. The singer doesn’t quite feel famous yet. ‘‘I’m still processing it,’’ she says laughing. ‘‘Nothing has changed yet, I’m just excited and want to keep making music.’’
Ayra was born Oyinkansola Sarah Aderibigbe in the Benin Republic and spent her childhood moving between Cotonou and Lagos. ‘‘My mum loves music,’’ Ayra tells me. ‘‘Growing up, my mum would be listening to Tope Alabi, and my aunties would be listening to Tuface or Wande Coal. It was just a very musical home. I listened to a lot of music growing up, so that influenced me. I joined the choir when I was like eight or nine, so from there, I started doing music.’’ Ayra eventually gained admission to Houdegbe University in the Benin Republic to study International Relations and Politics when she was fourteen.
‘‘My uni was like secondary school,’’ Ayra tells Zikoko. “I was super young, but I looked older. When I was fourteen, I looked like I was seventeen or eighteen. Going to uni at that age was exactly how you would imagine it. No campus life. I would take a bike to school and back to the house. Uni was just like secondary school, I even had to wear a uniform.’’
Around this time, Ayra began to grow as an artist. She was no longer just a choir girl, she began to experiment and attempt to do more with her voice and sound. She began merging her musical influences and the various sounds she grew up with, as well as adding something that was entirely her into the mix.
‘‘I would use Youtube to learn how to do runs, how to take breaks, how to hit notes,’’ Ayra shares, her excitement almost palpable. However, despite the improvements to her vocal ability and consistent compliments she got from friends, Ayra wasn’t initially very keen on posting videos of herself singing on social media. She needed more than a little push to do so.
‘‘I have friends that would just force me to do videos and post,’’ she says. ‘‘I wasn’t sure of my vocals at the time, and I was scared of people laughing at me. So, I would give my friends to help me and post. I would make the video and be like, post it for me. I would refuse to check it after they post it. Sometimes, I would come back in the evening to check how it’s doing. The first time I did a cover, people just went mad. I didn’t expect it. People would just DM me and be like, ‘Are you looking for a manager?’ People liked the music and so I kept making more covers.’’ Eventually, Ayra tried her hand at making an original song, working with her younger brother. She posted the song on social media on the 19th of December 2019. A few days later, she got the DM that would change her career.
‘‘Don Jazzy saw it and messaged me.’’ She tells me. ‘‘He was like he has been watching it for like two hours and had to message me. It was inspiring. Three days later, and, I was in the studio with him. It was my first time in a studio. That was January 2020. That’s how it started.’’
Ayra began working on the EP that would become Ayra Starr soon after. She writes most of her songs with her brother, Dami who writes under the moniker Milar, and while the world shut down in 2020, due to an unprecedented pandemic, Ayra spent it listening and re-listening to the songs she had recorded over the course of two months, deciding which needed more work, which made the cut and which didn’t. The result is the five-track EP that skyrocketed her to fame. Think of the EP as a fifteen-minute long Gen Z guide to life and love. The open-ended lyrics let listeners interpret it how they want. On “Away”, this is particularly obvious. On the track, Ayra muses about taking back power after a breakup, but she shares that fans have been giving it their own interpretations with their videos on Instagram and Tiktok.
‘‘I love how people have been interpreting ‘Away’. People are making videos and challenges, and some of it is not even about the stuff I envisioned when making the song. ‘Away’ is about taking your power back, and I’m glad people are listening to it not just for the vibes or melody but for the lyrics and messages. I’ve seen videos of people using it to raise awareness for domestic violence and that’s just cool.’’
Despite what can only be described as an explosive debut, Ayra already has even bigger plans. She wants to make music with k-pop sensation, Blackpink, and she wants to work with Beyonce. And in the middle of all this, Ayra still makes it clear she is going to live her best life as a young person. When I ask her to take a Zikoko quiz, she’s excited as she scrolls through her options before picking a quiz that promises to tell her how much of a troublemaker she is — it says she often is.