Ah-Mer-Ah-Su is black, transgender and in demand. On her latest album STAR, the Oakland singer gets personal, telling a story about her trans identity and how it is often connected to pain and tragedy.
The album showcases Ah-Mer-Ah-Su’s imagination, audaciousness, and her personal journey to self-acceptance. She uses the album title, STAR, as a metaphor. It does not refer to her rising popularity or musical success, but as an indicator of her experience as a black, transgender woman navigating life as a musician. Stars always burn brightly in the sky, even when the sky is covered with clouds, as she alludes to on her song “Powerful.” Ah-Mer-Ah-Su is the star, and no matter how many clouds get in her way, she’s going to keep burning brightly.
STAR is packed with empowering anthems like “Be Free,” hypnotic beats, and emotional song lyrics that hit us directly in our hearts. She sings about self-acceptance, personal growth and the freedom that she is rarely afforded.
Billboard caught up with the Oakland singer to discuss trans representation in music and how the 2016 Oakland warehouse fire affected her and her target audience. “There are probably millions of people who could relate to this album, but they will never hear it,” she says.
There is a clear lack of trans representation in the music industry. How does that impact you as an artist?
Here’s the thing: transgender people have been making music forever, and some of us are noticed and become successful. But, I think the true issue is that trans people are often dehumanized, and our experiences are Othered. People in power choose not to disseminate [our] message to wider audiences, because they don’t see themselves in transgender creatives. They believe that music from LGBTQ artists are specifically for LGBTQ people. Once people realize that they can identify with someone else’s experience, regardless of their differences, we will have a more diversity in the music industry, and we’ll probably be represented.
That said, is there anyone who inspires you musically?
I love watching Mykki Blanco perform. There is always a spectacle, and it always has a commedia dell’arte vibe to it! I live for Kaycee Ortiz’s song “Shut Up.” I’ve also been listening to Torraine Futurm’s song, “Key Party.”
What was your creative process for these songs?
I had been thinking about my life and who I was and what I wanted to say. I had an assortment of songs and a drive to let them loose into the world. My big wake-up call was the Oakland fire at Ghost Ship on Dec. 2 two years ago; this changed how I viewed life. It was shocking, scary, and heartbreaking.
My friends, contemporaries, and a huge part of the Bay Area’s creative community vanished overnight. If you were to talk to any of those who were in that community during that time, you can see the profoundness of the fire’s effect on us. This incident inspired many of my hard-hitting songs.
Also, I was separated from my boyfriend at the time. I was depressed. I was afraid of dying, and I was wishing that something changed in my life. This is when I got connected to Vice Cooler through a mutual friend. We decided to write a song together; that one song turned into five different songs. We finished an entire EP in just five days. I sat with it for a few more months, then I got inspired again. I wanted to make something similar to SZA’s album CTRL, Solonge Knowles’ A Seat at the Table, and Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauren Hill — [but with] a transgender, black woman’s narrative.
For me, this album simply means that I’m a black girl with something to say. I have a story, and I’ll tell it through my music. Originally, this album was going to be called “These Ones Are For Me,” but I realized that my name STAR had enough meaning to carry my message. So, we have STAR an assortment of songs and interludes, discussing my identity, the identities of people like me, and a slice of my community.
I listened to your album, and I must say — you have such a unique style. Why do you think that is, and what separates you from other musicians?
I would say that I have an eclectic music taste, and this has remained the same for a while. My singing voice is unique; it can be a bit androgynous, like Nina Simone or AHNONI. My songwriting is theatrical, and I’d like to think that when I’m in my 40’s and I have more coins, my songs could be used in some Tommy-esque, weird musical. I mean, when you think of indie pop, do many black 20-something-year-old transgender girls come to mind? [Clears throat] No!
Why is this particular album so important to you and to the people who will listen to it?
STAR is meant to be for #GirlsLikeMe; the ones who have been through some serious stuff and survived to tell the tale. But like I said previously, my album isn’t just for transgender black people. I want everyone to listen to this album and listen to a trans woman sing about her experience. I want everyone who listens to understand what it’s like to be me and realize how precious and delicate — yet strong and empowering — my story is. I want my sisters to listen to this album and know that they are worthy, beautiful, and deserving of love.
This is important because I’m one of thousands of openly black transgender women around the globe whose experiences have shaped them in unimaginable ways. People who aren’t like me cannot fathom what I’ve been through. They can’t tell my story. They can just tweet hashtags of people like me who are brutalized and only remembered in death. I won’t allow it. I will use my voice [and] my art to reclaim power for women like me.
What audiences do you hope hear this album?
There are probably millions of people who could relate to this album, but they will never hear it. That’s a shame, but that’s reality. More often than not, people aren’t receptive to transgender women telling their stories…but that’s another topic. I would like many people, regardless of color, creed, or sexual identity to listen to STAR and realize that human experience is a bitch!
In the song “Be Free,” you speak about signs of change. What or who were you referring to?
The full line is “Are you growing?/Are you showing any sign of change?” This is a question I asked myself about my own growth. The song is about letting go and tapping into the light that burns brightly inside everyone. To be honest, the song is a challenge to the listener, to choose freedom over the limits of a society that teaches us to hate ourselves.
What is one thing you want your fans, new or old, to know about you?
I’m just a regular black girl, with regular black girl problems and a hyper awareness of my position in this messed up world. However, I’m actively choosing my happiness and well-being, even though I struggle with mental health and self-love. A bitch is really trying!