Alewya is unlocking her superpowers
With a string of powerful releases, including the recent ‘Panther In Mode’, Alewya creates a musical universe that merges the spiritual and the physical. DJ Mag catches up with the rising London star to find out more
In early summer of 2020, in the deepest depths of the pandemic, a reminder of the life we were missing came in the form of a song called ‘Sweating’. Credited to a then-little-known London-based artist named Alewya, with production from the UK-and Ghana-based production unit The Busy Twist, the track was a sultry paean to the dancefloor with a mélange of sonic influences that ran the range from North Africa and the Caribbean to the cosmos.
But it was Alewya’s vocals that sealed the deal. Self-assured and seductive, her voice weaved its way through lines like “Keep sweating, floss on my enemies / With the tongue, come energy, baby” and “I’ll show you love with no meter / One drop of us will come lethal.” Clearly, Alewya was someone to be reckoned with. (The fact that the tune came complete with remixes from Honey Dijon and the British drum & bass vet Breakage was a bonus.)
‘Sweating’ wasn’t the first tune to feature Alewya’s vocals. Just a few months earlier, she had provided a spectral feature for ‘Where’s My Lighter’, a meditative song by her fellow Londoner Little Simz. But for many, ‘Sweating’ was the initial indication that Alewya, whose surname is Demmisse, was a talent to be reckoned with.
It wouldn’t be the last. In late winter of last year, a remarkable series of genre-agnostic Alewya live performances featuring the masterful jazz drummer and composer Moses Boyd surfaced on YouTube, followed by a string of singles: the propulsive 'Jagna’, the d&b-flavored ‘Spirit_X', and the slinky ‘Play’, all three steeped in both spirituality and physicality.
This past November, Alewya unveiled ‘Panther In Mode’, an EP featuring ‘Spirit_X’, ‘Play', and a quartet of new tracks. As with much of her work, the richly resonant songs brim with West Asian and North African motifs, along with equal amounts of inspiration from the London underground; like all of her work, her voice and lyrics take center stage. It feels like music that’s rooted in our world, but branching out to dimensions unknown.
When DJ Mag catches up with Alewya, age 27, via Zoom, she’s sitting in a bus, slouched back with a yellow wool cap on her head. She’s in the midst of a tour opening for Little Simz, who since ‘Where’s My Lighter’ has won the UK’s MOBO Award for Best Female Act.
“It’s going beautifully,” she says of the tour, which saw her perform in Glasgow the previous night, and is taking her to Dublin the next day. “I’m just really soaking in this experience. This is when the business gets, like, professional — when it gets like you’re doing this for real. I’m learning a lot, which is always a beautiful thing, you know?” For Alewya, who’s a multidisciplinary artist — besides music, she paints and sculpts, among other creative endeavors — the learning process is key. “The whole foundation of everything I do has been just figuring out whatever medium,” she says, “whether it’s painting, whether it’s production, whether it’s playing instruments. I clearly have a style in how I approach each thing, but I’m not really concerned with the training element or the technical element of them. They’re just something to be figured out for my own personal satisfaction.”
Alewya’s ability to assimilate an array of musical styles began at an early age. Born to an Ethiopian mother and an Egyptian father who was raised in Sudan, her family moved to West London when she was five. She grew up surrounded by Arabic devotional music, along with a variety of Ethiopian sounds from the likes of Teddy Afro and Mulatu Astatke.
“And my older brother was totally the opposite,” she says. “He just was completely taken with electronic and more alternative sounds, and had a real, genuine love for it. He was obsessed with Animal Collective and Deerhunter — I listen to ‘Desire Lines’ to this day. And the London sound started to kind of seep in, too — garage, funky house, dancehall, grime — and American hip-hop and R&B as well. Those kinds of sounds were what shaped my whole school life.” It seems like an impossibly broad range of youthful influences, but Alewya sees it differently.
“When I look back on it, I realize it was pretty eclectic,” she says, “but I don’t view music as having borders at all. The things that I gravitate toward, I feel like they all have the same frequency, if that makes sense. That’s how I’m able to fuse different sounds, because to me, they are the same thing.”
Alewya’s path toward making her own sounds began casually, at a relatively late age, when she bought herself a cheap guitar at age 19. “It was a little travel guitar, the ones that fit in the compartment in the plane,” she says, “just because it was the cheapest option. I went to Ethiopia soon after I bought it, and the WiFi is just shit over there, so I was spending my time trying to learn ‘911’ by Wyclef and Mary J. Blige. And I just fell in love with the guitar, and with figuring it out.” Alewya’s current playing style might skew closer to mesmeric Arabic-tinged sounds than it does slow-jam R&B — but as she puts it, “they kind of soak into one for me.”
Alewya had been working as a model since the mid ’00s, and her career brought her to the States — specifically, New York City. “With modeling, the American market model is where you can make money,” she explains. “Unless you’re massive, you just can’t do it in London, or to be honest anywhere else. America’s got a lot of commercial jobs that pay great, so every model is trying to go to New York.”
She soon discovered the joys of Gotham’s nightlife. “I love reggae, dub reggae,” she says. “I found this place called Bar 13 near Union Square, and every Sunday, they’d have this reggae night, and I became a regular. But yeah, I went through loads of different parties, from the bougie-est to fun house parties. I lived well in New York,” she adds with a laugh.
Yet something was missing. Living in NYC was fun, and the modelling was paying her rent, but she wasn’t particularly happy with the path she was on. “I didn’t feel like this life really belonged to me,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I fit in, in this particular career. It was just a bit soul-destroying.”
Still, the modeling gave Alewya one big advantage — time. “I would have a long break in between jobs,” she recalls, “so I had a lot of freedom to fill my time with what I wanted to do, and kind of just live my life. That’s when I first found painting. I had the time to seek what had to be sought in my painting.”
Her creative side began to work its way to the fore, and the urge to make music came next. She bought herself the iPad version of GarageBand, “which is a really good place to start because the interface is so easy,” she says. “It’s literally like a drum machine.” Another learning process had commenced.
“I finally bought my first laptop,” she says, “elevated to GarageBand on the laptop, and then elevated to Logic. And now I’m learning Ableton. It’s a gradual step-by-step process.” At first, though, Alewya kept that process to herself. “It was only for my soul,” she says. “I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing music. I kept it quite private for four or five years before I knew I wanted to do it legit.”
Nonetheless, she dove into it deeply. “With all that space to follow my curiosity,” she says, “I had time to think about, ‘what’s making me feel so good when I do this? Why do I feel like this? Is this the path to go down?’ I believe in higher powers — I know they exist — and I realised music was just really a way of unlocking a communication with those powers, how I could communicate with the powers, and how I could make sense of my life. It really helped me to unlock my own powers — my superpowers.”
Upon her return to London, Alewya’s focus on music started to become more public, pushed along by fortuitous connections. At a party at a London club, she started up a conversation with a stranger. “I didn’t actually know he was Shy FX,” she says, speaking of the jungle legend, “because he’s quite an elusive character and not everyone knows what he looks like.” He followed her on Instagram, and saw a post of her making beats on her iPad. “I had a story about making ‘Dragon,’ which ended up being the first song on the EP,” she says. “He saw it and was like, ‘Let me help you produce this.’” The connection grew from there.
“At one point, there were major labels trying to get in contact with me,” Alewya says. “I was asking him about it, and he was giving me such good advice. I was just like, ‘Do you want to manage me?’ In a kind of cheeky way, like a joke, but I meant it as well. He hesitated and said, ‘No, I don’t do that. I don’t manage people.’ Okay, cool, there goes that one. But then he calls me back and goes, ‘Actually I don’t hesitate. I’ll do it.’”
Since that moment, Alewya’s life in music has been on an upward trajectory — and though the Shy FX connection has played a role, that rise is due to Alewya’s own unique skills. One of those skills manifests itself via her lyrics and her delivery, both of which tend to be tautly fierce. “From Africa rooted in East / prowling like panther pounce to bleed / help myself not here to please / they’ll want to sink they teeth in me,” she sings in the sinuous ‘Ethopia’; “I know you don’t really want to unleash this dragon… and you know its fire still roaring and its action,” she warns in ‘Dragon.’ Those kinds of lyrics exude an assured self-confidence — but according to Alewya, that kind of assertiveness hasn’t always been her natural state.
“I used to be super shy, the opposite of what I am today,” she claims. “I think when I had what we’re going to call my ‘spiritual awakening,’ it forced me to understand exactly who I am, why I’m here, where I come from, and what my contribution is to this lifetime, and to this planet. And with that comes the confidence to honestly be myself, because that is my contribution, you know?”
The writing process itself is, as Alewya explains it, both naturalistic and a bit mystical. “I work from the ground up,” she explains. “Everything’s just coming from my feet, all the way up — I’ll exert all the energy, and then attach the lyrics onto it. Sometimes words pop out when I’m flowing, but really it’s just sounds — it might sound like a language, but it’s not. And within that, sometimes English words actually pop out, or a feeling will stand out for me. Or sometimes, a visual image will be in my head. And then I will know that that’s the concept of the song. The lyrics put that puzzle together, to help paint that picture of that feeling.”
The videos that accompany her songs — hugely expressive and beautifully filmed, with Alewya front and centre — help bring that picture into clearer focus, though in a somewhat subjective manner. ‘Jagna’, for instance, is essentially five minutes of Alewya sprinting at breakneck speed through a deserted landscape, before the camera settles on her face, head raised in what could be triumph or could be prayer.
“I’m not a fan of little storylines, where everything’s so given to you on a plate,” she says. “There’s a world that exists, one that’s very emotion-based, that I’m trying to bring into our reality. I really want people to use their imagination, the same way I am, to build this world.”
There’s a talisman of sorts, a symbol painted by Alewya herself, that leads off each of Alewya’s videos. It’s her representation of Isis, the Egyptian goddess. “It’s very feminine, maternal feminine,” she says. “And it represents groundedness, openness, power, and really just love. I read somewhere that humans are very receptive to symbolism, which is why branding and logos and all these things infiltrate our minds, and why we’re so fixated on them. In a spiritual context, there’s so many different symbols that are built around sacred geometry. So I wanted my own logo to be something that comes from a place of love, I hope that resonates to whoever looks at it.”
Alewya’s music is certainly resonating. Dazed named her one of 2021’s top 100 “next-gen names”, while the Guardian credited her with “the attitude of Aaliyah, the cool of a be-shaded Neo from The Matrix and a whole lot of ‘twisted Firestartaaaar’ energy.” That kind of praise could go to an artist’s head, but Alewya shrugs it off.
“I’ll read stuff and be like, ‘sick, cool’, and I’ll read other stuff and be like ‘ugh’,” she says with a laugh. “But it honestly doesn’t touch me. It doesn’t come close to how I feel in the studio, when I feel so charged, so connected to something. That’s why I do it. I know my contribution and my purpose on this planet. And I do feel like I will get it done, and that’s truly all that matters to me. Everything else is part of the movie that’s unfolding in front of me.”
There’s a behind-the-scenes video on YouTube of those aforementioned Moses Boyd collaborations — which, like all of Alewya’s onscreen appearances thus far, is beautifully shot. Among the comments is the following: “The way this woman carries herself is so sensual but also so old. I come from Benin and have felt an energy that exists around her like in the village elder women. Something is happening here and she knows it.” Anyone who listens will know it, too.
Bruce Tantum is DJ Mag's North American editor. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceTantum
Want more? Check out our recent feature with Indiana-based composer, Jlin
Photography: Chieska Fortune Smith & Christina Ebenezer
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.