All eyes have been on Ayra Starr since late last year. The impressive vocalist – who was born in Cotonou, Benin, and raised in various neighborhoods such as Abuja and Lagos in Nigeria – made an impression outside of the African continent with her daring debut album 19 & Dangerous upon its release in August 2021. But now, she’s ready to take the world by storm as Spotify’s next RADAR Global artist, which the company announced Thursday (Sept. 15).
Spotify added Starr (real name Oyinkansola Sarah Aderibigbe) to its marquee global emerging artist program, which will feature her on the RADAR Global playlist and spotlight her in special content, including a mini-documentary about her upbringing and come-up in the music industry. Since its rollout in 2020, Spotify’s RADAR program has been supporting up-and-coming artists and forging their path to superstardom through comprehensive marketing, content and editorial campaigns. But Ayra already knew she was destined to become a star(r). “Growing up, I knew I was going to be a musician. Since I was 6, 7, I used to argue in church with choir when they say I can’t take the lead role. I’d say, ‘When I become a superstar, you’re not going to tell me that,” the now 20-year-old artist says in the 11-minute Spotify-produced doc.
After spending a couple of years posting videos of herself singing on Instagram, she caught the attention of record executive Don Jazzy, who eventually signed Starr to Mavin Records, one of the most influential labels in Nigeria. The first song from her eponymous debut EP, “Away,” reached No. 17 on Billboard’s Top Triller Global chart. Following the release of 19 & Dangerous in August 2021, Billboard named Starr in our 2022 R&B/Hip-Hop Artists to Watch list for “her swoon-worthy blend of Afropop percussion and R&B melodies underlining her stunning, raspy vocals,” heard in hit singles “Bloody Samaritan” and “Fashion Killer.” Now she’s “wrapping up that stage of my life,” she tells Billboard, and moving onto the next chapter she jokes is “20 & Bad.”
Billboard caught up with Starr about being the next Spotify RADAR Global artist, releasing her first single off the deluxe version of 19 & Dangerous and learning more about herself at age 20.
How did you come up with the stage name Ayra Starr? And when did you realize that becoming a star was part of your destiny?
That’s a very funny story. So I like my name, Oyin[kansola], and I was planning to use my name Oyin or use the English meaning of my name, which mean honey. And I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to [do] Honey. It sounds like a stripper name.” So it was no Honey for me. I sat down with my team, my A&R, the owner of my record label, producer, Don Jazzy, and we were like, “Let’s pick a name.’ There’s this band name called Ira that I really love how it is, but I wanted people to pronounce it as “Ayra.” But I knew the only way people would pronounce it as “Ayra” was if I spelled it as A-Y-R-A. And I Googled the meaning of the name, and everything just made sense. The name was also the most confusing thing – I had my project, I had everything already, I just needed a name. I wanted a grand name that speaks for me. And I checked the meaning of “Ayra” on the internet. It’s an Arabic name meaning open-minded, woke and someone that is highly respected. I believe that your name is whoever you want to be. So I chose Ayra, and Ayra also means star. Since I was younger, I always said, “I’m a star. I’m a superstar.” Even when I got into trouble in school and my teacher wanted to yell at me, I’m like, “When I’m a superstar, I’m not gonna talk to you.” So I added “Starr” at the end. Ayra Starr!
What does it mean to be the next RADAR Global artist?
[It’s] the most amazing thing. I remember I used to watch people being on RADAR. And I’d be like, “I want to do that.” It was one of my points. When I enter a new year, I write list of things I want to achieve. And RADAR was definitely on my list, I think No. 3. So when my team told me, “Oh, you’re next up on RADAR,” I’m like, “Stop! Stop, guys!” It means so much to me because I feel like it’s going to open a lot of people, a lot of audiences to my music. And it’s going to help lift my sound in a way that has never been because it’s connecting me to lots of people around the world. I’m excited for that.
Spotify has supported you a lot over the past year, from being named the EQUAL Artist of the Month in November 2021 to performing during the COLORSxSTUDIO campaign through Spotify Africa’s RADAR partnership in June 2022 to being named as RADAR Global’s newest artist this month. Why were these Spotify programs so essential for your growth in your career, and how did each one of them help you?
EQUAL was so amazing because I remember when I used to see other people’s EQUALS and the way they support not even top female artists, just female artists from other counties that didn’t get recognition. I wanted to do COLORS even before I released my first EP. I used to watch people do it and say, “When it’s time for me, I’m going to wear pink. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” And everything came out the way I wanted it. Spotify was just there to promote me and help me, and it’s the same thing with RADAR, too. It’s exciting, to be honest.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far as you continue to gain recognition around the globe?
I’ve learned that to be a great artist and a great human being, you have to be very intentional with everything you do. You have to wake up and decide, because it’s very easy to not be good. That’s the easy part. There’s a lot of things that can make you not be a good person. There’s other things that can make you not be a good artist. It’s very easy to just wake up and not want to make music. You have to be very intentional with everything you put out, everything you do, or else you won’t get what you want. That’s one thing I’ve learned.
I’ve also learned to trust myself and trust my intuition and not overthink things. I remember my first time in the U.S. was such a weird time for me because I’ve never been to the U.S. Even the remotes were different from where I was from. And I was like, “What’s happening? This place is so difference.” But it shifted my comfort zone. I used to be so comfortable where I was. And when I went to the U.S., I saw there was a lot more to life than what I thought it was. I wasn’t too sure of myself, I used to overthink a lot of things I did, I wasn’t sure about who I was at that point, I lost my self view. But now, I feel like traveling around the world and seeing different parents of the world and different people has made me very self-conscious. And I’m very intentional about the way I love myself and the way I approach life.
In your RADAR Global documentary, you said, “Touring in America for the first time and people not knowing who I was, was crazy. It made me start to see music in a new way. Performing for me now became teaching people my song, really performing it and making them understand it.” What specifically about you and your music do you want people in America and other parts of the world who aren’t familiar with you yet to know about?
I want them to feel. I don’t want them to know or select my music because they heard it on TikTok. I want the music to make them feel something because that’s the only way the music lives long, when people associate a certain feeling with that song or that sound you’re making. And that’s the thing with “Bloody Samaritan.” I made “Bloody Samaritan” because I was trying to make a song that made me feel confident when I was in a very low, sad time in my life. I was very self-conscious and very insecure. And I wanted to make a song that made me feel good. And when people listen to it, they get that exact same feeling. The music makes them feel confident, the music makes them feel good. And for people just getting to know my sound or getting to know me, I don’t want them to know me just by seeing me on Instagram or liking my pictures or Googling who I am. And when I toured in America, that’s one thing that helped me ‘cause I got to teach them the song so they could hear the song from my point of view. I made them see that these are not just melodies, these are not just lyrics. This is a story. This is something that I know you can relate to.
Tell me about your new single “Rush” that’s coming out on Friday.
I’m so excited for this one because I haven’t release a single this year, and that’s gonna be my first single this year. And that song got me out of my writer’s block. To be honest, I was stuck for like two months where I couldn’t write anything. I wasn’t actually sad about it. It just made me remember that I was actually a very young person and I didn’t have experience and I needed experiences to make music about. So it just reminded me to be conscious of myself and to live and to actually, genuinely live my life. “Rush” was that song that actually broke my writer’s block for me. I worked hand-in-hand with an amazing songwriter called Mbryo. It was him, me and my brother who wrote “Bloody Samaritan” together. We spoke, we talked about what was going on in my life, and we got to make that song. After I made that song, I found out, “Damn, it’s not that deep. It was never that deep.” Music is never that deep, music is just something that should come from your soul. There doesn’t have to be grand meaning about it. It just has to be good music. It has to come from your soul. Once it comes from you, it’s beautiful already.
You’re going to be releasing the deluxe version of 19 & Dangerous. What can you tease from it?
I made a classic album. Before I released another project or before I released something else before I entered the next stage of my life, I wanted to wrap it up for you guys and see that this is the remaining story. This is what I’ve been at 19. I put some more songs there, I have some features, some remixes – I’m excited for that. It’s just wrapping up that stage of my life. This deluxe is like a gift I’m giving you, it’s a wrapped- up gift in a box.
The only two featured artists you had on 19 & Dangerous were Foushee and CKay. Since you’ve dabbled in collaborating with both U.S. and African acts, who’s your dream international collab?
Rihanna. I’ve been saying Rihanna since I was 5. Because why not? Rihanna influenced my sound, she’s one of the people I listened to growing up. I still listen to her now, it can never get old. Just her as a person, her as a business woman, her as a musician has influenced me in a lot of ways, in my confidence and everything. She’s one of the people I want in a song. Kendrick Lamar, definitely. Why not? Doja Cat because yes, yes, yes, hallelujah! I could go on. Teyana Taylor. Burna Boy. Beyoncé.
With the rise of vocalists like you, Tems and Tiwa Savage, what are your hopes for African female artists, especially Nigerian female artists, in the future?
Everyone you just mentioned now are people that I listened to before I even started doing music. They made such amazing music and they all, in their own ways, have inspired me to be a confident woman and defy gravity. I can’t wait for more amazing female artists. I know, as much as I pray, I know that me doing this right now is inspiring a lot of young women and telling them that they can do it, too. They can go into music all over the world, from South Africa to Nigeria to Ghana, everywhere. I want to be an inspiration to any woman that is coming now and just tell her, “You can do it. Why not? Just do it.”
Since your last project its called 19 & Dangerous and you’re now 20, what would be the best word to describe you at this age?
20 & Bad.