'Lemonade' Backup Singer Ruby Amanfu Talks Beyonce, Jack White and Racism

Ruby Amanfu
Shervin Lainez

Ruby Amanfu

The joys of Beyonce’s Lemonade extend past its instant-hashtag lyrics and gorgeously shot videos. For a certain kind of music geek, reading the lengthy credits is its own pleasure: production from Diplo and the Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, samples from Andy Williams, writing credits for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Father John Misty and Soulja Boy -- and that’s just the second song (“Hold Up”).

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On the next track, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Jack White’s guitar and raspy voice is readily recognizable, but only the credit-browsers discovered that the operatic oohs and aahs in the background weren’t Beyonce -- they were talented Nashville singer Ruby Amanfu. Like Beyonce, the Ghana-born Amanfu is a skilled collaborator: She’s dueted with Jack White live and onstage (including the 2013 Grammys) and performed with Norah Jones and Hozier. Her 2015 album, Standing Still, which featured production by The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and covers of originals by Bob Dylan and Kanye West, solidified her as one of Nashville’s one most beautiful, and most underappreciated, voices.

Billboard spoke with Amanfu about hearing Lemonade for the first time, how she relates to its themes of resilience and betrayal, and what it will mean for her career.

Did your phone and social media blow up when people found out you were on Lemonade?

I think that people are still discovering that it's me singing on "Don't Hurt Yourself.” If you haven't read the credits, the truth is, you wouldn't know.

Which parts did you sing? It’s hard to tell.

I sang all of the backing vocals on the song. I wanted to utilize more of an operatic vocal style, which I love to sing from time to time. In the verses, you'll notice it's sparse and staggered, like quick breaths -- which I love, because to me it sounds almost like gasps processing every word of Beyonce's lyrics. Then we layered my vocals at least eight times in the choruses and whatnot to create that fuller choral sound you hear in the other parts of the songs. 

The song has some very pointed lyrics. What did you take them to mean when you were recording the song? 

I sang sounds, not lyrics -- my vocals were recorded before completion of the lyrics. So I'm just honored that my voice was already present when the lyrics were being put to the track. Music can be inspiring to lyricists in the same way that lyrics can inspire music, and I think that sometimes we forget the former. 

So did you even know this was going to be a Beyonce song?

Jack [White] is full of surprises!

What was your reaction when you heard it?

Jack reached out to me the weekend the HBO special came out to congratulate me. I had no idea what the HBO special would be about or contain, so of course I scurried to turn on HBO Go and load up the show. I was so mesmerized by the visuals and pure art of Lemonade that I didn't even realize that I was about to hear my own voice! I was just so in awe of the whole aesthetic that it caught me by surprise. 

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Were you a fan of Beyonce before this? 

I've been a longtime fan of Beyonce's work, and I can't think of a song she's put out that I have disliked. She embodies resilience, and I relate to that. Since the Destiny's Child days and up until now, the directness with which she presents is inspiring to me. She puts it all on the table, time and time again. Message received -- don't mess with me. Ditto.

For me this album is about recognition. Recognition for one's courage, patience, but most of all, of one's power. Women are more resilient than we are often given credit for. We handle a lot more than we are given credit for. When I say "handle," I don't just mean that we bear more -- I mean in the sense that in the face of obstacles that need to be dealt with, we are often the ones who do the behind-the-scenes dirty work to make sure that everyone is happy and that everything remains business as usual. Hashtag Olivia Pope.    

The Olivia Pope mention is fitting -- this album is about resilience, but most specifically it speaks to the strength of black women.

This album very much inspires me when I think about the rich, brown melanin in my skin -- which has at times been looked down upon during my life and career. This album reminds me fully of my strength and my beauty and my fierceness. 

The album title refers to life handing you lemons and making lemonade, as the saying goes. Is that something you can relate to?

I can relate to the title of this album every single day. I won't lie to you about the challenges of trying to break through in the music industry. The only way to survive it is to choose perseverance, and remember that the flame ignited in me as a child for this purpose -- making music for life -- can only be put out if I let it. So I choose to make lemonade time and time again. 

On the album, Beyonce deals with infidelity and, eventually, reconciliation. Can you relate?

When you look up the definition of infidelity you see that it encompasses all manner of unfaithfulness and disloyalty. I was late to the dating game by some standards. I had my first real beau when I was 19. That first real relationship taught me all I need to know -- I’m rolling my eyes. 

Your last album, Still Standing, was all covers. Will your next project feature originals?

I'm working on a new record at this very moment of original material with an arsenal of phenomenal musicians. I'm back to writing my heart, so all of the songs are originals. I'm very excited about it, and the tiny sneak peaks that have gone out to my inner circle are coming back as well received. I look forward to sharing it.

What's your working relationship with Jack like? Every time you guys collaborate it's amazing. 

Jack is great to work with because he allows every musician to be a collaborator -- meaning he wants you to do the things you do best. He didn't tell me, "Ruby, sing operatically on Lemonade." He said, "Ruby, do your thing on this track." That kind of freedom feels really good.