Identify: Saràh Phenom is soundtracking the youth experience with exuberance

"I want Black women to not feel boxed in. You can be so many different things, we have so many layers to us."

As a new wave of hitmakers make their way to the mainstage, Afropop’s freshest faces are only getting younger, armed with refreshing perspectives and exciting recipes. Spurred on by the likes of Mavin Pop princess, Ayra Starr, and South African megastar, Tyla, this new generation boasts a robust catalogue of African music stars, serving as a reminder that it’s never too early to start. And with this, the foundation is set for the likes of Saràh Phenom to arrive with an admirably receptive attitude and world of cultural experiences, eager to explore the various facets of her identity and her artistry. 

The Rwandan-born and UK-based artist describes her sound as a “melting pot,” adding: “I want Black women to not feel boxed in. You can be so many different things, we have so many layers to us. In my case, for example, I’m not only the Black girl that’s gonna make R&B. I can also make Pop.  I could also be edgy tomorrow and the day after I could make classical music. We can be so many different things and I want to be able to show that.”  

For her debut solo performance, “10%,” she leans into her Pop side, backed by reverberating basslines to soundtrack the chaos of young love, typically characterised by toxic back and forths and non-committal attitudes that ultimately result in hurt feelings. 

Following the single’s release, we caught up with Saràh Phenom to discuss her creative process and moments leading up to the release, with inside information on her upcoming debut EP. 


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A post shared by Saràh Phenom (@sarahphenom)

Our Conversation, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity

NATIVE: When did you first realise that you wanted to be a musician?

Saràh Phenom: I always knew I wanted to be a musician. Every single time I had the opportunity to turn on Trace TV, I would. My grandpa used to be a huge fan of classical and Latin music as well. So every time I heard music, I’d think, ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’ Apparently, I told my mom when I was three that I wanted to become like Janet Jackson.

Wow, all the way back then?

I always knew, I was just scared. It’s a scary thing to say, especially if you live in Africa. They want you to say you want to become a doctor or something similar.

So when did you move past that fear and decide that this is something that you actually wanted to pursue?

I don’t even know if I’m over that fear. I tweeted the other day that I went to Koko and while I was outside, this person said “I really love your song.” Mind you, in my head, I’ve been an artist for two days since I dropped “10%” right? She’s like “It really inspired me. I’m going through something” and in my head, I was like, “What are you talking about what song?” and then I realised that she was talking about “10%” and I finally said thank you! There was a disconnect. I wasn’t aware that there are real-life people actually receiving the music. That made me feel amazing because [the music] transcends and that, to me, was beautiful. So right now, I’m in the process of getting up here and accepting that I’m an artist. It’s so scary to even say but people’s validation really does make your art worthy. 

It sounds like meeting that fan was very meaningful. 

That was a really big thing because it wasn’t because of anybody else. Before it used to be because of my affiliations or what I look like, anything but the art but that moment was purely because of something that I put out. I’m still indie even though I had a distribution deal, so I started working on this song alone. It felt like wow, you saw me and you got the message and it transcended to you. So to me, it doesn’t even matter if it’s a person with notoriety or not. It was the person who took the time and courage to talk to me, and tell me that she appreciated it. That was a very significant moment for me.  I’ve opened up for other acts before and people do tell you that they like what you’re doing. It’s amazing and it makes it feel worthwhile.

You grew up in Rwanda, and currently live in London. How has experiencing both cultures impacted your work as an artist?

I think it’s funny, it’s not only impacted my work as an artist but as a human being. I understand different cultures to the next level. I understand that if someone reacts or talks in a certain way, it’s because of where they’re from. That’s very hard to understand if you’re not from a certain place. When I grew up in Rwanda, I ended up going to a Belgian school in an English-speaking country. I went to an international school as well where they spoke Kinyarwanda, their national language, and English. That’s how we learned English, plus what we saw on TV. So I grew up around a lot of people and that opened up my mind to not only music but aesthetics. Aesthetics are such a big thing that people don’t put enough emphasis on. That’s definitely something that I understood, how people in Europe dressed differently from the people in the UK or America. That helped open up my mind to all sorts of things. And in my music, when you guys discover my EP later on you’re gonna see how much it impacted me because most of my collaborators are Nigerians and Ghanaians. Every culture that has impacted my life, can be found on the EP. It’s a bit eclectic but it’s fun. It’s 100% Sarah. There’s a song that just sounds like EDM-leaning, another’s Amapiano etc. It’s a fun melting pot of who I am. 

You described the EP as a reflection of accumulated experiences. Did you draw from any specific ones?

On the project, it’s like I’m taking you on a journey, from being a girl to a woman. Because I feel like women in general, we’re different, but all the same. Whether you’re a nurse or a PhD student, we all go home and talk to our girls about the same things. The reason I wanted to talk about that is because I didn’t grow up too close to my family. My friends were my family. It’s always from a perspective of “Okay, this disappointed me” or “This brought me joy,” or “ I don’t know, I’m scared.” I don’t want to give away too much but it talks about my disappointments and the growth I experienced through that. I also talk about finding love and different eras I had which I think a lot of women can relate to.

What was the initial inspiration behind your new single “10%”?

I had a situationship. He put me in a situation where a choice had to be made between me and another girl. Then it clicked to me that I’m not one to chase. It’s either you give 100% or nothing. I’m not gonna be in the middle and be the other girl. You’re wasting my time. So “10%” was me recouping my time. But then, I also understand that in situations like that, both parties have not been able to communicate because there are always two sets of stories.  I feel like men speak a language that women don’t understand and there’s always a big barrier in the middle. That’s why in the visuals, there’s a big separation between the two of us. There’s his reality and then at the end, there’s kind of like this resolution. I think the lyrics go:

Sarah, why don’t you hear my side/ when I’m searching through the weeds/ and I’m trying to find the right one

I know that we got soul ties/ but I’m try to keep it P/ and I gotta find the right one

Maybe one day we’ll both try/ and I’ll find out then/ that you really was the right one/ 

till then/ I’ll just live my life/ but you really is the right one.

And we’re saying that together because we’re both gonna end up in a situation but he’s gonna figure out that he made the wrong choice. Eventually, we’re gonna be at peace and I’m just gonna carry on living my life. It’s exploring the lack of communication between two human beings and there being two sides to the story. 

The music video was very striking. How did you first decide on its visual identity?

I’m a person that writes in journals and surfs Pinterest a lot. I find a lot of inspiration from those places. I love colours as well as old Japanese or Asian movies or photographers that play around with colours. I found this amazing photographer Cho Gi-Seok, I’m absolutely in love with all his work. 

Are there any visual artists that have influenced you?

David Lachapelle is incredible. I like fantastic worlds. I like people that bring hope to the world. I also like things that are bright. Even though my video is very dark you can still see blue, which I feel is a hopeful colour. I just like colourful things and I love fashion so it all comes together. 

Speaking of fashion, how did you approach finding the style for the video?

I got a stylist and a lot of our inspiration came from my time in Belgium, one of the biggest fashion capitals. There’s something called the Antwerp Six. You have Raf Simmons and all these big designers that became huge. You don’t really see it in the video, but my obsession for fashion came from there. When it came to doing silhouettes for a woman, I remembered I had seen one at the Academy of Fashion when I used to model for them. I wanted something similar to that so I told my stylists, El-Shaadi [Nyagodzi] and Kevin [Lacey]. They made it happen. I wanted something that could gain attention and be dramatic while still being simple. 

Is there one piece of advice that you’ve gotten that’s been invaluable to you as an artist? 

My sister once told me “Make a plan and stick to it.” That’s how I moved out and came to the UK in the most chaotic way.  I think I came here with like £200 with a plan to make music. My plan has always been to make music, I just didn’t know how. I think one piece of advice I would give, is to give yourself the tools to do what you want to do. If you really want to be a dentist, don’t go to school to be an engineer. I also met James Fauntleroy [American singer-songwriter & producer] a few weeks ago and he just gave me the advice to just do it. He told me that in the beginning, people used to ask him if he knew how to write songs. He didn’t but he would just say yeah and that’s how he became who he is, he gave himself the tools to succeed.

So where there’s a will there’s a way.

100%. Even for this video, I remember telling my team I wanted to do choreography. They were like, “Can you dance?” I’m like, “Yeah I can!” I can’t dance for anything, by the way, I have two left feet. The African in me left the chat for that one. I only had two rehearsals because we were shooting back-to-back videos, and I did it. I learned that in a day. You have to be up for a lot of things. I think it depends on what kind of artist you want to be. In my case, I’ve always said that if I wanted to do it then I want to do it fully. No shyness. 

What do you want people to take away from your music? 

Freedom in the sense of expression. I wouldn’t say I do it for Black women [only], but I want Black women to not feel boxed in. You can be so many different things, we have so many layers to us. In my case, for example, I’m not only the Black girl that’s gonna make R&B. I can also make Pop.  I could also be edgy tomorrow and the day after I could make classical music. We can be so many different things and I want to be able to show that. I want to be able to show the freedom and the range that we have. I want to be able to work with as many Black writers and artists as I can. That’s what I want to push. I don’t want to say Afrofuturism because it’s been overused but that is really the future of everything. We need to start opening up our minds to different types of music. So I want people to take freedom from what I’m doing and how I’m expressing myself. 

Is there a specific artist you want to collaborate with in the future? 

I think there’s too many. I have a list and monthly I post them on Twitter. Some people get it, some people are like, “what are you doing?” I also really believe in prayer and manifestation so I just put it out there. But I really like Baby Keem, I think he’s really cool. I like James Blake. I wish Britney Spears was from this era because I think she’s so cool. Right now, I really like Bloody Civilian. Kanye West would also make sense. Gunna, I think people were sleeping on him, now people are waking up. He’s so lyrically and melodically gifted. Don Toliver as well. I think Rosalia, SZA and Summer Walker are incredible. And Rihanna, but that’s in my deepest dreams.

Well you said you have to back yourself, so it could probably happen.

If they say “You have to do this with Rihanna,” I’ll say “Yep!” 

Listen to “10%” here.

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]

Interview by Moore Wright