Music continues to be a male-dominated field, from producers and label executives to performers, particularly in the African and diasporic music genres. It was a breath of fresh air to speak with Rafiya, a New York/New Jersey-based female singer/songwriter thriving and in control of her musical message. Rafiya is not new to Afropop. If you recall, she was one of the performers at our very first residency program at Threes Brewing this spring. She is an energetic performer and dancer whose versatile upbringing lends itself to the many genres and languages she showcases in her music. I was excited to speak with Rafiya since she had just been announced as part of the lineup of Essence Festival in New Orleans (presented by Essence magazine June 29-July 2). She will be the first African performer to participate in Essence's inaugural Center Stage on July 1 during the annual event, where award-winning artists Diana Ross, Chance the Rapper and Mary J. Blige will be headlining. Read the full interview below to get to learn more about the rising star, Rafiya.
Akornefa Akyea: First of all, I want to congratulate you on Essence Festival!
Rafiya: Thank you! I know, I’m so excited, nervous and anxious but so excited.
When do you go down there? It’s on the first night?
Yup! It’s on the first but I leave on the 27th. I’ve been to New Orleans once before, last year actually for the festival. I didn’t get a chance to look at the city much but I really like the vibe and the culture.
Yes! I hope you’re free to relax and enjoy this time. I was reading your bio a little bit and I’m really interested in your background and all the places you’ve lived. I would like to know how your background informs the music that you make.
I was born in Los Angeles but I moved a lot, mostly in West Africa: Benin, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Cape Verde, and actually Barbados as well. So that’s why when people ask for my style of music, it’s hard to box it in. It’s really influenced by all the sounds I’ve heard but there’s always this African background for sure with different languages and different sounds.
Your style is very versatile. I heard a ballad in your song “Je Me Cherche,” then reggae on “Where I’m From” and Afrobeats on “Hustle.”
It’s very versatile. We have songs that have a reggae hint, ballads like you said, other songs are more upbeat but I feel like even if a lot of the sounds are different, it all ties in together. It’s all about positive messages and they all center around Africa.
Was there a place that you lived that spoke to you most musically and made you want to create more music?
I know as far as the culture, Senegal stands out. I was 12 when I lived there, but that’s the country that I always want to go back to. Interestingly, I don’t use mbalax in my music but I like to use the djembe, which is an instrument that they use a lot. But I remember really loving Senegal.
Oh, I want to go so badly!
I definitely recommend it! Whenever someone asks “Where should I go in Africa?” I say Congo, which is where I’m from, but I always say Senegal too! Then Ghana! After those two it’s definitely Ghana.
Can you tell us a bit about your music process?
Well, when I create music it always starts with inspiration. I don’t have a set strategy that I go by but sometimes we come up with the lyrics first, then work with the producer to create the music around it. Other times it will be the other way around and I’ll hear a beat and it evokes emotions which inspire me to write the music after. So it’s not one specific formula.
Who do you collaborate with in terms of production?
I’ve worked with different African producers from Cote d'Ivoire and Mozambique. More recently I worked with a producer, Mr. Lab, who is actually based in Jersey City and I’m going to be working with him for my next project. I’ve had a variety of different producers but they’ve been mostly African so far.
You are a performer through and through. You dance, you sing and you engage the audience. In terms of your performance style, is there anyone that you tried to emulate?
Growing up, I really loved watching Angélique Kidjo. She’s amazing, she has so much energy on stage and she also dances and sings to really put on a show. She’s one of the artists I admire in terms of stage presence and even aspects of her engagement with her culture. She sings in her language and says “I am African and this is my music” to show the whole world. So I would say Angélique Kidjo.
How do you come up with your new choreography?
It depends on the song. For instance, I’ve worked with Eto'o Tsana, she’s Congolese and I’ve collaborated with her before for my last performances. I know her personally as a dancer so I have no problem with collaborating with people who can help me and teach. I go to her and say “Here’s the song, what do you think would be best? I really want this part to be a break-it-down part” and she’ll give suggestions. I’ve also collaborated with Jlyn and she recently helped me to choreograph what I’m going to be performing at Essence, so that’s really, really recent. I love working with her. Dancing is definitely something that I want to improve on and get better at.
How do you think about your style?
For my style, I always want something that’s going to be comfortable. I need to be comfortable, it matters to me a lot [Laughs]. You’ll always see me in jeans or pants so I can move around comfortably and I also like to incorporate African accessories like big necklaces or earrings. My favorite earrings are in the shape of Africa, I wear those a lot. I also like bangles, African fabrics as well. Definitely always a hint of something African or Afrocentric. People have also pointed out my hair and how it’s natural and big and it’s something that they immediately point out, that they recognize about me.
What is your mission as a musician and what you hope to accomplish?
It’s definitely to promote African culture and African pride and unity. That’s definitely my main mission but I also always want people to feel loved and uplifted. I want people to feel uplifted, encouraged and motivated. I want to use the power of music to do something good and positive.
I think the social activism portion of music is so important and you can do that with just one song. I know that you perform with your twin sister. How did that come about?
We actually used to be a group when we were little! We were called Gemenic, and then we were called Rafiya, to represent the two of us. Later on, she decided to move on to more of a managerial role and she’s actually part of my management team. She still loves music and loves to sing so when we do live performances, she does my background vocals so she’s still singing in that way.
So would you say you come from a musical family?
Yes, definitely. My grandfather used to be a choir director. My dad wrote poems and his musician friends would turn his poems into songs and my sister and I would sing those songs.
Oh, so he’s a lyricist!
Yeah, pretty much.
In your musical journey, at what point did you realize you wanted to take your singing to the next level?
When I was 8 was when I realized. I had my first recording experience with Oscar Kidjo, who is actually Angélique Kidjo’s brother. I just loved the experience, I loved being in the booth and trying different things and at the end, hearing the final product. It felt like a magical experience. It made me realize “I can do this.” Around that same time, my sister and I had a performance at a stadium in Benin. There were thousands of people and I remember feeling really--happy is too small of a word--feeling really... wow. I remember seeing people’s reactions on stage and they were clapping and dancing. I realized that music is powerful. I don’t know what they were going through that day but in that particular moment they were smiling and I realized I could bring that and that my music could affect people positively. And that was when I was about 8.
Wow, and have you been working on music diligently ever since? Or did you ever consider taking a different path?
Well even now, I’m actually a teacher. I’m not sure if people are aware of that but I teach kindergarten to eighth-grade French and next year I’m going to be teaching sixth to eighth grade. I’ve always been doing music as well as teaching.
Wow, so you also manage a full time job!
Yeah, it can be challenging sometimes to do both because I’ve been managing them both full time. But my favorite phrase is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and that kind of gives me the power to go and do it. I find it hard and challenging but there’s always a way to do what you’re called to do and what you’re passionate about.
I know that New York can be tough for musicians. What struggles have you faced there as a musician?
I honestly can’t think of too many challenges I’ve faced here as a musician. I’m very involved with Congolese events, like performing for Congo in Harlem, and I know there are a lot of African artists who come together to participate in these African events. But the reception that I get when asking to perform has overall been very positive so nothing really comes to mind as particularly challenging. I’m sure that when we’re done talking I’ll be able to think of some but right now nothing stands out.
For Essence Fest, what does your audience have to look forward to?
I plan on bringing Africa to Essence so they can look forward to having a lot of fun and feeling the African love and pride. I hope that the Africans who are there can feel proud and that everyone can just have a good time and see something different. Apparently, I’m going to be the first African to perform in the Discovery Hour there, which is huge for me.
That’s awesome! Congratulations again! Break a leg at Essence Fest!
Thank you! It’s been a pleasure talking to you.