AMAKA Talks Vivacious 'Oasis' Solo Debut EP & 'Championing Black Weirdos'

By Bianca Gracie | August 23, 2023

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DSC4387.jpgAMAKA photographed by Obidi Nzeribe

AMAKA, formerly of R&B duo VanJess, has a vivacious solo debut EP and a newfound confidence to match. Oasis, released on Aug. 18, marks a thrilling career chapter for the R&B singer. The six-track EP was produced entirely by Kaytranada, who previously collaborated and produced for VanJess.

"I feel excited because the music is so good. There’s a lot of things that make me feel insecure. But my ability to write songs that just are great and make people feel good at the very least, I'd have such confidence in it," AMAKA told EDITION about sharing the new music with the world. "People who always look for negativity and want to create drama that doesn’t need to exist, that’s the stuff that stresses me out easily. But being able to share music and have people embrace it, that’s just exciting.

Below, the singer discusses key tracks on the summery EP, working with Kaytranada and owning her creative identity.

I saw that Amaka in Igbo is loosely translated to “beautiful.” I would love to know the significance behind choosing that stage name for this next chapter of your career.

The biggest thing is just representing my culture. I haven’t spoken much about it. But I’ve had a very typical first-generation American experience where I went through moving to this country as a kid feeling the need to assimilate and almost hide behind my cultural identity. Obviously, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to find the balance of those two identities being Nigerian and also American. But one thing that I think I want to proudly represent now in my life is just that identity. And I thought, “What better way than to use my middle name?” Again, growing up being in a position where I would be in class and kids and teachers would mispronounce my last name. I think there’s something really cool about being able to now in this day and age, just have a name and not have it be my canon.

I definitely relate to being that first-generation kid where, when you’re younger, you try to assimilate to what you see in school—especially surrounded by white students. I didn’t know many other Jamaicans or any other people of African descent in my school. Now that I’m older, like yourself, you become even more proud of your culture and just want to show it off in the best way possible. I’m glad that you’re also able to embrace your culture. I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Yeah, it’s very liberating. And it also ties into where I’m at with who I am. I think I’m also someone who hid myself in general. I was always very nerdy, like I would read manga. And I didn’t always feel comfortable being myself, even as an artist in VanJess. But I’m just so unapologetically who I am now. It’s very “take it or leave it” for me right now.

Of course, I want to keep your sister’s story private. Is there anything you could divulge about the reasoning behind her wanting to step back from music?

I definitely want to respect her privacy. But as for me, I think I have so much that I haven’t shown the world with my artistry. I’m sure anyone that’s listening to VanJess’ music probably recognize the quote-unquote “formula” of it, which was my sister always having this soulful foundation with everything. And I would always be a wildcard, where sometimes I would rap sometimes, I would be in more of a pop cadence, or have lower tone higher tones. That’s what I've always been. And now I get to showcase that in a way I haven’t been able to before. So I think that’s really what it was for me. She’s stepping away, but I have a lot more to give. So why not?

Speaking of you feeling liberated, when I first saw the announcement on Twitter, it was nice to see you in an even more confident setting. Your demeanor is very cool and edgy. Did that also play a role in you finding your identity and really honing in on your sexuality?

100%. For me, the biggest thing was as I am in the space of confidence, I gotta showcase that with the visuals. Being in this new space, even with the music that’s really what it represents. It’s owning who you are and being unapologetically confident. So it just made sense for the visuals to go in that direction.

Oasis5552.jpgAMAKA photographed by Obidi Nzeribe

You reconnected with Kaytranada on this project. You’ve previously worked with him during your VanJess days. How has your working relationship with him evolved?

It’s evolved quite a bit. It began back in 2017—a lot of people don’t know that. “Another Lover” was the first song we technically did together. Funny enough, honestly all the songs that my sister and I worked on, I primarily wrote. So I always felt this connection to him. He really felt like my dream producer. So when I did tell him about this new solo journey, it was actually his idea to write my name in all caps. We would always talk about visual ideas and it felt aligned creatively because again, going back to the way that I was as a kid, I was always inspired by everything, musically. I would listen to African music, I would listen to pop, British pop. I listened to Japanese music and rock. I discovered R&B later in life so I always had all these crazy influences in my brain. And I would look up to artists like Pharrell, Kelis, Solange, just a lot of Black artists that, in those days, were bold enough to be that. But I never really felt I had kindred spirits. And I feel like Kay is really one of those [people] that’s always been a champion of innovation and a champion of being Black weirdos, to be honest. And that should be normalized.

We need more Black weirdos.

It’s just fun because now our collaboration is really exciting. It’s cool to be able to share it and have it be embraced.

How do you think sonically this solo music differs from what you’ve been doing before?

I think the biggest difference I would say is it’s incorporating a lot more Afrobeats. “Cruising” is the perfect representation of it. It’s not so on the nose. This is just an Afrobeat record. But that’s what I’m most excited about. And also just me showcasing the range that I have as a vocalist. I never thought I was the best singer. I’m not Whitney Houston, but I’m incredibly versatile with the things I could do with my voice.

Speaking of your voice, “Oasis” is my favorite song on the EP. Your voice is so sultry here.

That one was so fun. I do this thing where when I’m recording, will just have people in my mind that I’m trying to channel. So on the hook part, Sadé is in my head. On the “gyrate” part, it’s Rihanna. I’m tapping into this almost heightened version of myself where I’m most confident. That’s the way I tricked myself into getting into character is. I have to just embody it. And then next thing is I'm just in it. And I’m like, “What did I just do?”

It’s funny that you brought up Rihanna. In one of her interviews, she said that sometimes she doesn’t always feel sexy. She literally just fakes it until she makes it.

That is very real. It’s a starting point but we all have to find our ways to get there. In any kind of creative medium when you think about it, whether you’re an actor or model. Anytime you have to become something, you have to find a way to get there. As for some people, they’re just 24/7. I’m all I’m up and down. So sometimes I do really have to be somebody else.

Going back to your point about Black weirdos, I like that you’re showcasing different sides of what a Black woman could be. Because this white-facing society often looks at us as a monolith. Your demeanor right now is very calm and chill. And then we just talked about sensuality and you doing different things with the music. So it’s nice that you’re showcasing different facets of your personality with this project.

I love that you’re talking about that. Because that is something that I really want to represent: being a black woman. I’m not just one thing. I shouldn’t have to be put in a box of expectations or anything, and none of us should. So with this project, it’s great because every song has its own story, its own theme. There’s no rules with it. Honestly, that’s how my sister and I always made music. We weren’t those people that had industry connections. We were the opposite of what everybody wanted. In that space, you think, “I don’t have anybody that’s gonna give me a boost to get in this thing. So maybe we have to fit in this R&B box.” But then we wrote songs like “Control Me” which ended up being something that’s celebrated to this day. I’m so happy that we were able to do that and realize that we didn’t have to fit into a box. But I carry that now. I keep it going. Now I’m so much more sure of myself and the way to execute who I am artistically.

The way that I interpreted “Cruising” is keeping your dreams alive. I know your sister stepped back, but you’re still pursuing music and continue striving toward that goal.

That’s honestly on point. It was the first song I wrote after my dad passed away two years ago. I didn’t know how I would go on. Yeah. But the one thing he left with me was, “I never want you to doubt yourself ever again.” So I made a promise to him. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get there. So writing that was what I was trying to do. It was a message to myself.

Thank you for being so vulnerable with me. I’m very close to my father as well. I think that relationship that you had with your dad really channeled beautifully with this song and made him proud.

It’s celebratory too because it was so fun making that song. I also wrote “Hold Tight” in that same session. That one is a bit more serious. It’s [talking about] holding on to the people you love, you never know when [they will leave]. But it was also fun to creatively channel things. On the way to the session, I was listening to this group Perfume—they're a Japanese band I love. and they have a song called “Baby Cruising Love”. I always just pay attention to words that I feel like I don’t hear often in songs. And “cruising” just sat in my head. It’s so cool to be able to pull from different things. That’s why as an artist, life is a blessing. Because living is what inspires and what informs what you end up sharing with the world. So I’ve always been quite a sponge.

Another song I wanted to talk about is “Leave It Behind.” I referenced your calm and relaxed demeanor earlier, and this song reflects that energy. I feel very at peace listening to it. The lyrics to me read like affirmations.

In some ways, yes. I’ve had to learn this and honestly find ways to deal with the fact that at the end of the day life is life. Sometimes you do have to have hard conversations. I know it sounds so cliche, but I hate drama.

It’s the hard part of being an adult.

I hate fighting. I hate raising my voice. I don't like to do it. So, it is affirmations. 100%. Leave your worries behind. Sometimes you just have to leave things out the door and just don’t think about it right now. We don’t need to think about it in this moment. Let’s make the best of what this is and just have a good time. I’m such a champion of that. Sometimes life sucks for all of us sometimes. But that doesn’t mean you have to just sit in it.

I agree. Sometimes we could really wallow in our emotions, and it takes a lot of strength to lift yourself up from that.

I’ve been on my own spiritual journey. So a lot of the things I’m saying are what I really do believe in life. Every day, you have to make an effort to be happy and to make the best of life. And understand that things not always going your way. It would be weird if things always went our way.

Photography by: Obidi Nzeribe