HAWA on making “structured chaos” into self-reflective art with HADJA BANGOURA
The worst thing you could ever call HAWA is boring. The 22-year-old rapper recently released her debut LP, HADJA BANGOURA, and it's the culmination of a sound she has worked hard to cultivate and make unique. The shortest track, “7 Deadly Sins: Lust,” is a dreamy 21-second arrangement that leans on her love of vocal stacking, while the longest, “Trade,” is the only song to cohere to the three-minute rule — a song length dictum that HAWA openly finds boring and worth rejecting. The 11-track LP features more mature versions of sonic elements HAWA has been experimenting with since she started making music: hypnotic trap snares, sing-rap delivered with laid-back braggadocio and stories of romantic dalliances with women who have broken or stirred her heart, in addition to newer orchestral flourishes.
Fitting, as HAWA began her career by joining the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as a preteen and becoming its youngest-ever composer. Moving on from that classical background has allowed her to mature into the artist she wants to be: one who can merge musical influences like Aaliyah and Missy Elliott with the melodies she grew up hearing as a child in Guinea, West Africa, who puts a premium on brevity, and has learned how to bottle chaos into sonic lushness.
You started off as a composer with the New York Philharmonic. How did you transition or get into songwriting?
I've been into songwriting my whole life. Once I hit 15, 16, I knew that composing in a classical sense wasn’t what I wanted to do my whole life and that I wanted to actually sing and tour and be a professionally recorded artist, because that's all I grew up seeing. After I left composing, I took time off to find my own sound, and I was just making my own music for a little bit, and then at 17 I got signed.
Are you a melody-first person or lyrics?
Melody first. Melody, in my opinion, is the most important aspect because music is a form of communication. There's times where I sing in English or even in my own language — I'm from Guinea, West Africa, and I'm from a Susu tribe and I speak Susu — and people don't understand what I'm saying, but they understand the melody and the harmony. That's really what catches a listener's ear. That's why you are able to communicate around the whole world, and that's why no matter what genre or what country the music is from, it's melody and harmony that really catches people's attention.
HADJA BANGOURA is named after your great-grandmother. How did she and your time in Conakry inspire it?
My great-grandmother was a big aspect of my life growing up in Africa, and I thought I should dedicate this to her because she died when I turned 21, so she never actually got to see the woman that I turned out to be, and she never really got to listen to my music. It was only right that I dedicate this, the first big step in my career, to her.
You were born in Berlin, but you grew up in Conakry. What kind of sounds did you hear there that inspired you? There are a lot of different influences in your music.
Coupé-décalé is a genre in African music that was starting to get popular when I was growing up, and my uncle — he's a big musician in Africa and in France — was one of those people that really installed it into my country, so I was very inspired by that whole coupé-décalé movement. The premise of it is very simple. It's a four by four, but the way that they use melodies is very addictive. Coupé-décalé is a French word because in West Africa, there's a lot of French and British influences because these are former colonies for them. It’s a form of house music mixed with a little bit of pop and then a little bit of African rock. It's our version of hip-hop and R&B. Now, coupé-décalé has transformed into Afrobeats. A lot of the structure of African music that we hear now is the structure of coupé-décalé. Sorry — I’m a history nerd and a music nerd. It was one of my favorite genres growing up, and I derive a lot of my beat patterns from coupé-décalé.
Another one is very old African music, like the music your grandparents would be listening to. I listen to a lot of very old-school African music where they're speaking the language and it's very traditional, so that really inspired me because the melody and the harmonies that they use in old African music is beautiful. It's very sweet harmonies, and they use a lot of string instruments. Learning about African music, you find out different instruments that you never knew existed. Being a musician, you think you know it all when it comes to the instrument aspect, especially since I used to compose for the Philharmonic, but when it comes to the history of African music, it's like I find new instruments every day.
[Photo by Guarionex Rodriguez Jr.]
Older African music like that is also more minimalist, but I feel like your sound is more layered and maybe a little maximalist. Would you agree with that?
Oh yeah. I feel like the reason for that is because I like to have fun with the whole dramatic aspect of the music, the movement of sound, so it can sound a little bit climactic in a sense. I don't know if that's the right word for it, but I definitely see what you're saying, and I'm very happy you said that because that’s the goal.
There’s a theme to this project — infidelity. What made you want to explore that topic?
Because that's a very big part of my life. I feel like that's a big part of everybody's life, and I believe if I'm going to do art, if it's going to be something meaningful, I might as well put my own heart and my whole personality into it. It’s really me reflecting on myself and all the toxic traits I might have and things I need to grow. The pain that I feel and I couldn't find ways to express, I decided to put it in the album.
Your songs are all on the shorter side. Is there a reason for you not liking the traditional three-minute length?
I found it fucking boring. The traditional three minute is annoying. It makes no sense. As an artist, I'm not a robot. I'm a human being, so I want to make music where I do all you need to satisfy, but make you still want to come back. I would, generally speaking, never sit down and listen to a 23-track album of three-minute-long songs. I feel like nowadays, we're all bored of that. We want people to get straight to the fucking point. If I'm going to make art, I'm obviously going to make it the way I would want to listen to it, not the way I think others are going to listen to it. I want people to sit down and listen and actually enjoy it. I mean I’ll make a three-minute, four-minute track if it's going well and if it works, but I'm not going to force it at the end of the day. I prefer the short stuff.
How has your sound evolved from when you were a teen rapper to now? Are there things you feel more comfortable or curious about experimenting with at 22?
I listen back, and, I don't know, it sounded so dull in a sense. I've evolved my sound sonically. I understand how to structure music in a way where it's like, "This is fully how I want it to sound." If somebody asked me to replicate it, I can assure myself that they wouldn't be able to do it, which is something that I resonate with because I want my sound to truly just be me.
I really understand the production aspect of music-making now. The first time that you come into the studio, you're just coming as a singer-songwriter, but I'm a very hands-on artist, and as I've had the time to be in the studio, I've learned the techniques to make things sound the way I need to, or I've learned how to make one specific section of a track stand out while being chaotic as fuck.
I feel like I've evolved because I'm able to make structured chaos, and that's something that I've been trying to do my whole life. I like chaotic music because I like the sound that moves me. I don't like to listen to music and feel like, "Oh, my fucking God, when is this shit going to actually move?" I've learned how to make life and add life to my songs, and that's something I'm very proud of myself for.
There aren’t many out queer rappers, so that’s a unique space to occupy even though, historically, queerness and rap have always been linked. But what do you make of “queer rap” as a label?
I do not care for it because, to be quite honest, it doesn't make any difference. If you think about it, all that means is that I'm a rapper who likes to fuck other girls. Going to a straight rapper and being like, "You’re a straight artist" doesn't say much about their music or themselves as a creator. All it tells you is who they like to fuck or who they'd like to marry. So, I don't really care for the label. It doesn't benefit me. I find that that label actually separates people and makes genres, and I don't like genres. I don’t know what genre I fit into because I make a lot of different music. If you go listen to everything that I've made, you can't sort me into one specific genre. So, when it comes to those labels, I mind my own business and just make my music. As long as people like the music and it makes them happy, that's all I care about.
There’s only one feature on this LP, Eartheater. How did you connect with her, and are there other artists you want to collaborate with?
With Eartheater, we’ve known each other for a minute. She listened to my EP, and she ended up really liking it, and then I listened to her music and became a fan of hers. Then I found out that she had a classical background, so that made me just automatically into it. I like people who understand their sound. I like people who understand how to work in the studio because when I'm in the studio, I don't like to play around. I like to get my work done. And I like people who are very easy-going, and Eartheater is so easy-going, and her voice is so beautiful.
When it comes to other artists that I would want to work with in the future, I would work with anybody as long as the music that we make sounds good. I used to be that type of person who didn't want to collab, but after I started doing a little bit last year, I'm very into it now. I want to make newer sounds, and in order to evolve as an artist, you need to be able to work with other people's sound.