Music

Ayra Starr Always Dreamt of Being a ‘Teenage Superstar’ — At 21, She’s Confident Her Music Will ‘Reach All Different Parts of the World’

Superstardom might seem innate for someone like Ayra Starr. The Beninese-Nigerian singer-songwriter, born Oyinkansola Sarah Aderibigbe, possessed a certain level of self-assurance most teenagers lack on her 2021 debut album 19 & Dangerous, where her sweet, deep vocals documented her Gen-Z coming-of-age story.

“[It] was literally a flex when I named my first album 19 & Dangerous. It was very key for me to be a teenage superstar. It was very key to represent a teenage African girl. I wanted to become the Black Hannah Montana from Lagos, Nigeria,” she tells Billboard over Zoom with a laugh. “Naming my first album 19 & Dangerous was me registering for people, ‘This music you’re about to hear was done by a 19-year-old, by the way.’ I’m dangerous as a 19-year-old.”

Since then, the self-proclaimed “sabi girl” has been steadily increasing her star(r) power. She embarked on her first headlining tour, 21: The World Tour, with 40 stops in North America, Africa, Australia and Europe last year. Her 2022 smash “Rush” earned Starr her first-ever Grammy nomination this year, for best African music performance in the category’s inaugural year, and was included on former President Barack Obama’s favorite songs of 2022 playlist. She was also featured on BBC Radio 1’s Sound of 2024 list.

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Now, she’s starting a new chapter of her life with her sophomore album The Year I Turned 21, out Friday (May 31) via Mavin Records and Republic Records. The 15-track LP plays out like her “autobiography,” she describes, weaving in themes of love, loss, getting money and gaining wisdom over her seamless blend of Afrobeats, amapiano, R&B, hip-hop and pop. She’s in her bag as much as she is in her feels, trusting God’s goodness while getting her bread in the resilient anthem “Commas” and reflecting on her hard work paying off in the acoustic ballad “1942” (For a song named after the long-necked Don Julio tequila bottle, and by an artist who turned 21 last summer, it’s not the turn-up banger you might expect).

Her childhood love for Shakira is evident on the sensual-night-out number “Control,” when Starr sings, “I’m lit tonight/ You know my lips don’t lie.” And after collaborating with Destiny’s Child‘s Kelly Rowland on the remix of “Bloody Samaritan,” Starr imagined “the return of Destiny’s Child,” she says, when she recruited Anitta and Coco Jones for the log drum-powered female anthem “Woman Commando.” As an artist who grew up in three different cities (Cotonou, Lagos and Abuja) and speaks four different languages (Yoruba, Nigerian Pidgin, English and French), she continues expanding the borders of her music with her “Santa” bonus track with Rvssian and Rauw Alejandro, which earned Starr her first Latin chart hit when it reached No. 8 on Hot Latin Songs and No. 5 on Latin Streaming Songs earlier this month.

Even though she’ll be turning 22 in two weeks, Starr already has plans to end her 21st year on a strong note — starting next week, she’ll be joining the North American leg of Chris Brown’s 11:11 Tour as one of his opening guests, alongside Muni Long. And she’s up for three awards at next month’s BET Awards: best new artist, best international act and BET Her for “Commas.” But there’s still one more thing Starr wants to accomplish, since she’s finally 21.

“I really want to go to Vegas, though — because the last time I was in Vegas, they didn’t let me in anywhere, because I was 19,” she jokes.

Billboard spoke with Starr about her sophomore album The Year I Turned 21, 21 Savage’s impassioned cover of “Commas,” the heartfelt familial recording process of the LP’s closer “The Kids Are Alright,” and meeting her “idol” Rihanna.

Which local and international artists did you grow up listening to? What styles of music did you like listening to?

Rihanna, definitely. Beyoncé, Shakira, Nicki Minaj, Drake. I was listening to a lot of 2face, D’banj, Wande Coal – those are like the pioneers of Afrobeats for me. Aṣa, Simi. I was a Disney girl, so I had all of the Disney songs downloaded on my phone, like Hannah Montana.

And who are you currently listening to?

I’m listening to myself, obviously. Victoria Monét. mk.gee. His music gives me goosebumps, it’s just so beautiful. The new album is amazing. SZA. Beyoncé’s new album, too.

You’ve had such an incredible career trajectory. As a young African woman, who did you look up to as a success story that you could follow?

I feel like Rihanna was the closest thing to that, because I didn’t have a lot of representation. And I wanted to be that for my generation. I remember being like, “I want to be a teenage superstar.” As a teenage superstar, I can have young girls looking up to me.

You talk a lot about being a “sabi girl” in your music and on social media. Where did the term “sabi girl” come from? And what are the core characteristics of one?

“Sabi girl” is something you call somebody that just feels like an intelligent or smart person. When you say sabi, the word sabi means “to know” — like, to be smart, street smart and book smart. You can say, “Oh, that girl is sabi. That boy is sabi.” That means he knows what he’s doing, he gets it. The characteristics of a “sabi girl”: confidence; smart; on it; kind, has to be kind to everybody because a “sabi girl” is humble, even though she’s confident; and just bad – face card, body, outfit.  

What’s been the most rewarding part of your career so far? And what’s been the most challenging part?

The most rewarding part of my career so far is just being able to live my dream. This is something I wished for, this is not something that just came from nowhere. This has been my dream since I was a child. Being able to fulfill my dreams is the most rewarding thing ever, being able to improve myself and make money while doing it, girrrlllll. That’s definitely the most rewarding part.

The most challenging is trusting the process and being patient with oneself and also not always thinking about what other people think. Because when you [get] started, every artist is always [preoccupied with] what they think — it’s always about them and what they want to do. Then when they get into the spotlight, it’s like, “OK, what do people think?” I’d rather not do that. I’m already on the right path. But it has been challenging to just focus my energy on my own beliefs and my own ideologies.

Since your album is titled The Year I Turned 21, what are the biggest blessings and biggest lessons you’ve experienced at this age?

The biggest blessing is learning how to love myself — because you get a lot of love, but you never actually know what it is until you experience not loving yourself. I’m very sure of myself and I’m very confident in myself. It’s not just a flimsy confidence that can be moved by the way I look, or if I get bloated, I’ll start to feel bad. No, no, no, no. Working with people that I’ve always dreamed of working with and people that I grew up listening to has always been a blessing.

I feel like the blessings are the opposite of the lessons. The lesson was I had to learn to be patient with myself at some point, and now I’ve learned it, so I’m blessed. I had to learn how to work with other people and how to collaborate without thinking it’s a competition.

I love the breakdown of your life that you give in “21”: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10/ I was at the house/ Tryna figure out who the f–k I am/ 11, 12 went too fast/ 3 to 16, too fast/ 7, 8 was a big year/ 19 got a big bag/ Counting hundreds playing 20 somethings/ Counting on myself now/ Crying by myself now/ I’m 21/ At my grown ass age.” Thinking about those teenage years that were “too fast,” what made them feel that way? Especially since 19 was such a massive year for you, how did ages 11-18 lead up to you having your big moment?

So 11-16, I felt like it was way too fast because I don’t really remember as much as I should. Most of my experiences then were not the best. Living with my mom, we didn’t really have much and I didn’t grow up the most comfortable. I used to daydream and imagine this life now. I can’t remember a lot of stuff from then, because I used to just think of having a better life.

“13-16, too fast.” I was [that age] in high school, and I just hated it so much because I was in a very religious school and I couldn’t be able to express myself. I’m Christian, but there are a certain type of religious schools that are like, “Oh, women are not allowed to wear trousers. Women should not sit in front of church. Women should not have extensions in their hair.” The best way to cope with it was not being aware. That’s why I feel like it was just too fast — because it was easier for me to be a zombie through those years.

How did you make a sonically diverse album that still feels cohesive?

It feels very cohesive because of my voice. My voice is my sound — so whatever genre I find myself in, as long as my voice is there, you’re gonna hear the Afrobeats. You’re gonna hear me in my Nigerian accent singing, and the richness of my voice and my range. I get bored really quickly, so I always like to do different sounds and try different things.

You have collaborations with Asake, Anitta and Coco Jones, Giveon, Seyi Vibez and your brother Milar. Why were those the artists you wanted to work with? Did you intentionally want to keep mixing up African and American guest artists, or did that come naturally?

With the features, except for “Woman Commando,” I just let stuff happen. With “Last Heartbreak Song,” I was like, “Oh, who would sound good on this? Let’s send it to Giveon.” Giveon was the first feature that came. Once I heard his verse, I just saw the whole album. I remember I cried in the car on my way to the airport. His voice sounded so good, he understood what I was trying to do. I was like, “OK, I’m just going to trust my intuition with who I want on each song.” I sent to Asake, I sent to Seyi Vibez.

With “Woman Commando,” I always knew I wanted two strong women. I wanted it to be like the return of Destiny’s Child. I wanted it to feel like a global anthem [with] women from different parts of the world. I was talking to my A&R like, “Let’s try and get a Spanish- or Portuguese[-speaking] person. And I want an R&B singer.” I’ve been listening to Coco Jones since Let It Shine. I’m a Disney girl, I told you! I remember the first day Let It Shine was going to air on Disney – I remember what I was wearing [and] every single thing about that day. And to have Coco Jones on my album is the craziest thing ever.

Anitta’s a no-brainer. [My choreographer and I] work out to her music [and] twerk to her music, so I was like, “Can we ask her for a verse?” She’s the sweetest human being ever.

How has the musical relationship between you and your brother evolved over the years?

We’ve always been a team. The phase we’re in right now is aligning ourselves to our things separately. He’s doing his own stuff, I’m doing my own stuff. But we still make music together. I trust his ear more than I trust mine. Every time I make something, I just send it to him — like, “What do you think?” And he’s like, “This sounds good.” And I’m like, “Are you sure? Because I don’t think so. I’m kind of nervous.” And he’ll just tell me what to do to make it better. He’s the most talented person I’ve ever met in my entire life. Since we were young, he’s been the musical one. My mom got us a guitar, and he could play chords, write songs on it already. One month on the piano, he was playing it perfectly. He’s literally a genius.  

When we were writing “1942,” I told him what I was trying to do, ‘cause I had just gotten back from my trip from Barbados. I was in the pool with a bottle of 1942 and I felt so good. I was like, “Oh, this moment makes it all worth it. This moment right here makes all the hard work, all the stress, worth it. This is what we work for, this little moment of satisfaction and happiness.” The song is about that.

Is your mom the one speaking at the beginning of “The Kids Are Alright,” and then you and your siblings throughout the track? It sounds like you’re all leaving a voicemail for your late father.

I told everybody to send a voicemail to the group chat — like, if they could talk to my dad right now, what would they want to tell him? Just give an update of your life. We’re sending voice notes, and everybody was snitching on each other! It was so funny and cute. It really was a huge bonding moment for us.

Two weeks before I recorded the song, I was on a three-day break from work. I wanted to rest, so I went to London. And I was overthinking a lot — because I was feeling guilty for taking a break, because I’m a workaholic. And my mom randomly sent me a voice note, as if she knew. She was like, “I want you to enjoy yourself. I want you to have a good time. Go out with your friends, enjoy yourself, be happy.” I was like, “Wow, wow, thank you!” It meant so much to me, so I put it in the song.  

You linked with Rihanna at her Fenty x Puma event in London last month. What was going through your head when you finally met her?

I don’t know what was going through my head. She was talking, and I was just looking at her lips and her nose. You can see my face, I was like [makes shocked expression with open mouth], “Wow! Rihanna!” But I was really calm, because she made me feel very calm and comfortable. No joke, in the back of my mind when I make music, I’m like, “There’s no way Rihanna doesn’t like this song.” When I made “Bloody Samaritan,” I kind of made that song for Rihanna. I was like, “Rihanna is gonna love this song.”

Even some of the songs on my album, like “Birds Sing of Money,” that was a song I wanted to send to her as a demo, but I never got a reply on time. I told her, “I have so many songs for you, but they are mine now! I’m not getting rid of them, they’re on my album!” [Laughs.] She was laughing.

We got to hang out after the event. Just spending time with my idol, the person that inspired me to do all of this, was the most amazing thing. She gave me so many pointers and advice. I love my voice, but I know I have a very deep voice like, “Is that a man?! Is that a boy?!” Rihanna was like, “You have the type of voice that can take over the males and take over the girls. You are here to take over both sides of the industry.” And I was like, “You think so?” She’s like, “Yes! Yes!” I was like, “Thank you so much!” She was like, “That’s your superpower.” I was like, “I never thought of it like that. Thank you.” She just put everything into perspective for me.

We need the collab ASAP.

Very soon. Very, very soon.

I saw a video on Twitter from her most recent Fenty event in LA where she said you taught her the difference between Afrobeats and amapiano. How did you break it down for her?

She knows! I just pointed out some things. But she knows a lot about African culture, I was so shocked. She knows tribes — she knew how to pronounce my government name, Oyinkansola. I didn’t have to teach her. I was like, “Rihanna, I can steal you in my bag right now and take you away?”

You have another superstar in your corner, 21 Savage, following his Instagram Live video performance of “Commas”? The mic was on!  

If we ever want to work together, it’s gonna be possible by God’s grace. I’ve been a big 21 Savage fan. And when I saw that video, I was laughing! It’s so funny. He’s singing the song like he wrote it! He’s singing the song like I wrote it for him. I love that so much!

Which song from The Year I Turned 21 are you most excited to perform live when you open for Chris Brown’s 11:11 Tour?

I can’t wait to perform “Goodbye (Warm Up).” I already have the choreography and everything. I can’t wait to be on stage. I can’t wait to perform “21” and “Birds Sing of Money,” “Last Heartbreak Song,” everything ahh! I feel like I’ve performed my last album for two years now — so it’s like, “Finally, new music!”

What goals do you have for your career moving forward?

I want to take over the entire universe. Insert evil laugh. [Laughs said evil laugh.] I want to be the best performer I possibly can be. I want to collaborate with more people. I want to reach all different parts of the world with my music. I want to have strong fanbases from all over the world. And just kill it.

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