Ayra Starr on her ‘crazy’ Glastonbury debut and meeting Rihanna

By Mark Savage, Music Correspondent

grey placeholderGetty Images Ayra StarrGetty Images

Ayra Starr’s videos have smashed YouTube records in her home country, Nigeria

For most musicians, releasing their debut album is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.

It’s a moment fraught with excitement, nerves, giddiness and pride.

Afrobeats star Ayra Starr had all of those emotions, too. But her response to the momentous occasion was slightly different to most.

She fell asleep.

“When I woke up the next day, I had so many missed calls saying, ‘Oh, Ayra, I loved your album’,” she laughs.

The Nigerian musician was still a teenager at the time, but that record, 19 And Dangerous, marked her out as one of Africa’s biggest new acts.

Combining lyrical awareness and hard-won confidence, Starr added hints of R&B, trap and alté to her silky Afro-pop sound.

The album yielded the chart hit Bloody Samaritan (adding Destiny’s Child star Kelly Rowland on the remix) and earned Starr her first Grammy nomination, for the viral smash Rush.

Three weeks ago, the singer followed it up with a critically-acclaimed second album, titled The Year I Turned 21. And this time, she managed to stay awake for the release.

“I got all my friends together and we listened to it outside for the first time, as if we’d never heard it before,” she says.

“And then I went to the amusement park to celebrate. I’m a real rollercoaster girl. I love the adrenaline. I love to feel like I’m about to scream.”

Her adrenaline levels are about to shoot up again, with a slot on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage this Saturday.

Over the phone from Lagos, she told us about her plans.

grey placeholderReuters Ayra Starr at the GrammysReuters

The singer was nominated for the first ever Grammy Award for best African music performance this year

How does it feel to be playing Glastonbury?

It’s actually crazy. I’ve wanted to do Glastonbury for so long.

The fact that I get to do it on the main stage is kind of scary… but I love scary.

The last time you played in England, you got stuck in a lift and had to miss a gig.

I’m not entering no elevators again! I’m taking the stairs from now on.

You and Burna Boy are the first Afrobeats artists to play the Pyramid Stage. Is the genre having a moment?

It’s our time. We’ve been waiting for the globalisation of Afrobeats, and it’s happening now.

But it’s not just what you’re seeing today. It’s years and generations of musicians and hard work that’s made it what it is.

Why do you think the Nigerian scene, in particular, is so strong?

Lagos is very small and the culture is very close.

So whether we’re at [notorious nightlife spots] Obi’s House or the W Bar, everybody is there, making the music people want to dance to.

For people discovering you for the first time, tell us a little about yourself.

Growing up, I spent half my life in Benin and half in Nigeria, in the cities Cotonou and Lagos. They’re three hours apart but the culture is very different.

Lagos is very hustle and bustle, and Cotonou is so calm. It’s a beach city, everybody’s very relaxed. Those two different cultures really shaped my art.

When did you first realise you had a gift for singing?

I’ve always loved singing. As a child, I’d stand in front of the TV, watching MTV and singing along.

I joined a choir when I was 10 but I had a very deep voice, like I do now, and my choir teacher said, “You can’t sing like that. A girl should sing higher.”

I’ve learned to increase my range since, but this is my voice. This is how I sing.

Which artists did you look up to?

I used to listen to Burna Boy, Wizkid, 2face and all the Afrobeat artists – but Rihanna was my number one.

I saw on Instagram that you met her recently.

Oh, Mark, it was a spiritual experience! And I didn’t just meet her – she knew me and loved my music.

I was just like, “Naaaah, this is crazy!”

grey placeholderAyra Starr/Instagram Ayra Starr and RihannaAyra Starr/Instagram

Ayra Starr posted photos of her encounter with Rihanna on Instagram

You met Chris Martin, too.

Oh, my. Yes. I’ve loved Chris for so long, and he’s been very supportive.

How so?

We met in a studio and I played him my album before it came out. He was giving me tips, and [his producer] Max Martin was giving me tips.

I took them all. I was like, “Yes, I’ll do all of that!”

Hang on, Chris and Max just finished the new Coldplay album. Were you in the studio to work on that?

[Speaking coyly] I don’t know. I don’t know about that!

Why do you think people like Chris and Rihanna have connected with your music?

I am very talented, of course [laughs] but I want to make positive music that makes people feel good.

And I’m a perfectionist. So I work and work on one song for months.

I heard you made 15 versions of your new single, Commas, before you were happy.

Yes.

What changed between the first one and the 15th?

The first one was amazing, sounded really good, but something wasn’t right until the 15th version.

I felt like I was transcending when I had that mix. There’s a certain guitar chord I added to the end that’s like a little gift for the listener. It just feels very euphoric.

You’ve called that song a love letter to the people who rejected you. Who were they?

It’s less about the people who rejected me than a love letter to myself. I’m reminding myself that I’m a small girl who is also mighty.

The people who think I’m not smart or intelligent because I’m pretty, they should just watch and see!

grey placeholderMikey Oshai Ayra Starr promotional imageMikey Oshai

The singer’s new album has received four-star reviews from the NME and the Guardian

Woman Commando features Brazilian superstar Anitta and US singer Coco Jones. How did you get them involved?

I had Woman Commando for months before I thought, you know what, I need two strong women on this.

I wanted it to feel like Destiny’s Child – a girl banger, a girl anthem.

I sent the song to Coco Jones and she sent me back a verse that was so beautiful it made me want to retake my vocal. Anitta’s verse came later, and it was perfect too.

You close the album with The Kids Are All Right, a tribute to your late father. That must have been very emotional to write.

It was very, very important to me.

I was laying down on the bed in my mother’s house. I could hear my niece crying in one room, and my brothers playing video games in another, and I started to feel very emotional, very vulnerable.

I started freestyling this song, a love letter to my dad, and the first line was, “I hope no clouds are blocking your view“. It was a very cheeky thing to say, but he had a great sense of humour. I feel like he would laugh at that.

And then I got my family to send me voice notes, giving daddy updates on their life and suddenly the song came together. Everybody in the studio was crying. I’m very proud of it.

grey placeholderGetty images Ayra Starr performs on stageGetty images

The singer promises a spectacular show when she takes to the Pyramid Stage this Saturday

Your first album is called 19 And Dangerous. The new one is The Year I’m Turning 21. There’s another artist – you may have heard of her – whose first two albums are called 19 and 21.

Is that Mrs Adele?

That’s the one… So are you planning a similar career trajectory?

Probably! Because I love Adele and I was inspired by her. Will I be as successful? Maybe I will, maybe not. But why not?

You need to build up your muscles if you want to pick up all those Grammy Awards…

I’m ready! I’ve been working out so I could definitely lift a couple.

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