Artist and Musician Annahstasia on Identity, Los Angeles, and Artistry
"I think art is first and foremost an internal experience, an internal reflection of the world. But the art doesn’t become real and I can’t really form an opinion on it until I’ve shared it."
If you haven’t heard of Annahstasia, prepare to see a lot more of her. The Los Angeles-based Nigerian-American artist and songwriter released an epic LP, Sacred Bull, earlier in 2019, and has been lauded for her powerful vocals and astute lyricism.
Annahstasia takes a thoughtful approach to art and process-driven music projects — her videos often seem more akin to performance art than conventional music videos, and she presents a powerful exploration of the nuances and intersections of nature, identity, and femininity.
PERFECT NUMBER Mag chatted with Annahstasia about Los Angeles, her inspirations, and what’s coming up next.
PERFECT NUMBER: You are a Los Angeles native — Can you say a bit about how Los Angeles culture, vibes, and aesthetics have affected your personality?
Annahstasia Enuke: The LA slowness definitely formed a part of my personality that keeps me calm in a lot of crazy situations. I think it’s an interesting city because you still have to hustle and you still have to protect yourself and fight for what’s yours, but the attitude here is very lax; it’s not as bump and grind as New York or as aggressive as Paris or London. It’s like the same level of fighting for what’s yours, but on a vibe of, “oh, we’re all chilling and relaxing and time is passing and it’s going to be okay.” I think this culture of LA made me tough in a way that people don’t expect. I come off as a very chill, humble person… I am a chill, humble person, but if you’re going to mess with me, the LA comes out — I think that what LA teaches you, how to be separate personas, to have a balance between when to let things go and when to fight for what you need to fight for.
PN: Do you think Los Angeles affects your choices with style?
AE: Yeah, definitely.
PN: Would you look different if you were to live in a different place?
AE: Yes… I would definitely dress more aggressively if I lived in New York or a more walkable city. I think growing up for me, dressing was picking out my outfit for school in the morning. It was my favorite thing to do in the whole week. That was my motivation for going to school. I hated high school. It was like, you all suck, but I’m going to look great. It was kind of my social shield. I know for a fact that I do enjoy dressing in a way that attracts attention and also intimidates. Your clothing and your dress is your social armor.
PN: Your parents both have artistic careers. Did they want you to pursue art?
AE: My dad is a Nigerian immigrant and my mom is from the Midwest, working class. They were like, “Listen, this life has not been easy and it isn’t easy, you don’t ever get to just rest because you always have to be hustling for the next opportunity. So, get a job where you can just have a job and then retire and live your life.” I wanted to be a fashion designer at a young age; I wanted to make things like my dad. But he was like, “it’s too late, you don’t know how to sew.” Or something silly like that. I was like, fuck, okay, well I guess I’ll just become a doctor then. So, I worked really hard in school and I got into Tufts University and I went to Tufts for biology and endocrinology. I got there and I realized how much I hated the practice of those two fields. I was like, I cannot do this for my life, and I started taking art classes.
PN: That response from your parents, that must have had an impact on you!
AE: Definitely. Because of that, it was like if I wanted to do art I had to be the best. I had to be a master at it immediately. So, there was this huge pressure that I put on myself. I remember when I was in Kindergarten I painted a picture of a poinsettia plant and my dad said that he liked it. He was like, “I’ll buy it from you for $1.00, and every art piece that you make that I like I’ll buy from you.” And, it’s the only one that he ever bought from me. At a certain age, I realized I should be making art for myself because I want to make it not because of his interest in it. It was devious, like a Jedi mind trick that he played. Even today those are realizations that are still forming.
PN: How much time had you already spent studying medicine by then?
AE: That was in my first year of college that I realized that I hated it… I almost flunked out. I got so many D’s and C’s because I couldn’t find the spirit for it. I really was not motivated to do that… It killed me inside. I love science and I am always going to be a nerd, but just knowing that’s your career path, and that you just have to sit there every day and do that, never create anything — it was really scary to me. That’s when I started to take music seriously. Between music and art and philosophy, I kept myself afloat mentally and emotionally through college. That whole lesson of “if I like your art I’ll buy it” kept manifesting itself in different ways in my life. People would value my work and then I would chase that value only to realize that they weren’t going to always be there for me to chase especially if I was growing and changing at a certain pace. I realized I just have to keep doing my thing, keep making my shit, and aspiring to my own standards. Have high standards for yourself and just do, do, do, do, do. Don’t let the fact that you don’t have money, the fact that you don’t have resources, the fact that you don’t have community, stop you from creating because creating is the only thing you can do by yourself from the start.
PN: As an artist, do you feel any internal curiosity, or maybe responsibility, to get feedback and some kind of reaction from an audience? How do you build a relationship with the audience?
AE: I think art is first and foremost an internal experience, an internal reflection of the world. But the art doesn’t become real and I can’t really form an opinion on it until I’ve shared it. The minute somebody looks at it, the minute someone hears some of my music that I haven’t shown before, I immediately know how I feel about that music. At that moment, it’s like all my insecurities come up to the surface and I’m able to filter what are insecurities and what are actual flaws in what I’ve created, and that is important.
PN: Does this come from having a community you trust?
AE: Yes. For a long time, it was hard for me to find that community so I got really used to editing myself. Now I’m in a place in my life where I don’t do that anymore. I work with other people like Jahi Sundance, Jay Cooper, Ganna Bogdan who uplift my ideas through constructive critique and generosity and passion… It’s just more fun to create with other people. I’m more interested in what we can do collaboratively because I did the lonely work-on-your-own thing for so long. There comes a point where you have to step outside your bubble in order to make better work. Not only to make better work but to make work that is in a wave that follows your community and what everyone else is discussing, so you can all reach answers quicker and more profoundly.
PN: I can see that you really focus on identity and femininity through your work and also nature. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
AE: My art and my music tend to focus on ideas of femininity, love, self-respect, pride. As a woman in creative industries, you always feel like you have to fight this balance between being soft and hard. The hardness aspect of that doesn’t necessarily always fit into our image of femininity. It also can be destructive to the power of softness that is inherent in femininity and womanhood. What is softness? Softness to me is the level of empathy that you have for the world and wanting to care and nurture it.
PN: Is that where nature comes in?
AE: Nature is this direct manifestation of nurture. It’s like you put in work to grow this thing and here it is growing and flourishing and all you have to do now is maintain it. Whereas in our daily lives, we don’t really have those direct rewards. We nurture things in our everyday lives as women and we don’t always see the bloom from them. I guess that’s why I’m drawn to superimposing my own feminine experience onto nature and seeing myself as part of a bigger picture and bigger energy.
PN: This seems like a more organic, fluid approach to femininity.
AE: I like to think so… it’s necessary. Especially when you’re operating in the landscape of queerness, you fit into a space that people tell you doesn’t exist because it is “undefined”. I’m in this gray area. For a long time, it was so confusing. It was like, okay, these are the things I know about and see in media and learn about in school and I’m not in any of those examples, but maybe I should force myself into one of those so that people can more easily understand how to deal with me and so that dating is easier so that gender identity is easier. These things are always fighting for space in my brain and I get frustrated because I know it’s the external world encroaching, keeping me from exhaling and just existing as I was made to exist.
PN: How does this affect your self-presentation?
AE: In terms of my own dress and my own presentation, I find it’s really mostly about comfort. Some days I want to feel sexy, but I also realize, okay, if I put on that dress I can’t sit with my legs spread. Performing femininity really feels like putting yourself in a box, putting yourself in that outfit, you can’t really move, you’re wearing heels, you’ve got product all over your face. You’re saying to yourself, I want to look this way because it’s cute and it’s a good feeling sometimes, but I don’t want to live here. I don’t want to be expected to live here because that’s not fair to be restricted like that.
PN: Do you think this is the old perception of femininity and the new perception of femininity?
AE: Oh, yeah. It’s an old perception of femininity. It’s almost like cosplaying. It’s like you put on this dress, you put on this outfit, and all of a sudden you’re a woman or you’re womanly. But, it’s like, I’m still a woman dressed in a blazer and baggy pants, I’m a woman if I tell you I’m a woman. All that talk is outdated. I don’t know anyone in my life that thinks like that anymore. Not even in my parent’s generation do I know anybody that thinks like that. I think it’s really aged out. It’s gone. I don’t know anyone that would say straight to my face, you’re a woman you should wear a dress.
PN: How do you think about straight guys’ relationship to masculinity these days? Maybe they want to explore their femininity? Maybe they want to be gentle and subtle? It seems like a confusing time.
AE: That’s also a community-based solution. I’ve always had really close guy friends and that’s because my dad was always very emotionally available. He talked things through with me when I was growing up, at all the pivots in my own femininity and growth. I never associated stoicism with men, or illogical sternness with men, or the inability to cry with men. My dad has very well-balanced energy. He has femininity. He has masculinity. That’s because he was raised by his sisters and his mom and there was a lot of that energy around in his upbringing. And, just so, the men that I gravitate towards tend to be men who are either looking to feel “softer” or want to present their softness or have already done the work and they’re there. I think it’s really beautiful how social media and media, in general, are presenting these alternative views of masculinity and alternative options of masculinity… I imagine that a straight man who is self-aware and wants to change in that way but doesn’t have any resources or community to help or accept that he wants to be this way — that must be a very trapped feeling. I can see why it would create a lot of anger and resentment and self-hate after a long while. Hopefully seeing those examples of who he wants to be online or in media provides the validation needed when it’s otherwise absent.
PN: Can we talk a little bit about the video for “Mutual Agreement” (in which you shave your head)? How did you come up with the idea for the video and the whole act that you took there? What did it mean for you? What was the message?
AE: I was feeling this weird pressure to grow out my hair. I was growing out my hair. You know, hair holds so much energy and weight. To me, hair feels like it holds everything that you went through and just keeps it there on top of your head so you’re always hearing these voices of the past whispering to you. I had long, curly hair before. I remember when I was 18, I wanted to shave it, but the label that I was with wouldn’t let me because it would present me as not feminine enough. I couldn’t shave my head so I had to wait until I was mentally free of them. I got home from uni one summer and shaved it off when I was 21, I think, or 22. It felt so natural seeing myself that way.
PN: Did you do it on your own?
AE: Sort of. It was my snap decision but my family friend and my little brother actually helped me. I was super calm, it didn’t feel like I was having a breakdown or anything. It just felt like, oh, I can see my face. I can see myself. Like, that’s Annahstasia. Before I was actually going by Staz because I didn’t feel like myself so I just gave myself a new name. I asked people to call me that. When I shaved my head, it was like, oh, that’s Annahstasia. It’s weird because I’ve always felt like my name is so feminine. It was feminine in a way that paired with my long hair and the way I was dressing. It just felt weird. I felt like I was expected to adhere to something that just my name presented before me. When I shaved my head, it was like, oh, I have this balance now, of androgyny and my feminine name.
PN: So you felt it suited you.
AE: Mhm, but I had gone to a modeling agency to get signed and the lady was like, “Oh, you should grow out your hair because shaved heads are going to be out soon.” I was like, oh, okay, if that’s going to help me get signed, because I just needed to make some money at that point. I was growing out my hair, and job after job, I was like, I want to shave it, I want to shave it. The client would keep being like, “No. Keep your hair. Keep your hair. Keep your hair.” It got to this point where it was long enough to do box braids and locs and I was paying money to get them done and then paying money to take them out because clients wouldn’t want braids, clients would want locks, and then clients would want twists. Meanwhile, no one was paying for it. I had never experienced that before because I didn’t model when I had hair. Even then, I would enter spaces and people would touch my hair when I had spent so much time doing it they would just come up and pull the curl or frizz it up. I just remember feeling so violated. Like, whoa, I’m growing out this hair that I don’t really want in the first place and it’s a very sensitive subject for me and now you’re touching it and you have opinions on it and you want me to change it to this color and you want it to be this length. I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up! It felt like I was losing my own autonomy, especially in the modeling industry that I was entering into.
PN: That tension comes through in the song.
AE: For sure. I wrote “Mutual Agreement” about my hair and the trauma that it holds and how you take care of it and how you fail to take care of it and how as women you feel like your hair is your femininity and that if you don’t have it then you’re faulty or flawed in some way and how I let that go and saw myself as a sacred bull, a deity in a sense. Like my own deity. To respect myself in a way that you would respect and idol or a God is to see your body as sacred and you see your temple as sacred. Meaning no one but you has a say on it. The video came from that place.
PN: It seems very natural, the way you feel about your body and how you evolved those relationships with your body. You haven’t stopped at any point. You keep exploring. I find it very inspiring.
AE: Aw, thank you.
PN: You received a great deal of backlash after modeling in a Nike ad while showing underarm hair. How did you feel about that?
AE: That was so surprising because I’ve never been shamed in my family home, or in my daily life, about having armpit hair or body hair in general. Nobody has ever been like, “You should shave that.” Not since middle school when girls were mean. I don’t even think twice about it. It wasn’t like a political statement I was making. I just like having armpit hair. I think aesthetically it’s cooler than to have nothing under there. Personally, for me, it was interesting because it’s like people were attacking me, saying I was disgusting, that I was gross, that I smelled, that because my armpit hair was there, my pussy probably smelled and was dirty. It was really interesting to see how people feel about how much shame there is surrounding a woman’s natural body and how a woman is expected to be this slick, clean, virgin, baby body.
PN: So wild…and it went viral!
AE: (Laughs) Yeah, all these news outlets were covering it. It made it to the daily news in Wisconsin where my grandparents live. My grandma called my mom saying “Annahstasia is on the T.V. for her armpit hair?” I was like, what? Why are local news channels all over America covering this? Obviously, there’s a huge, unresolved feeling about women’s body hair that I didn’t even realize was there. The internet can feel like such a liberated place until those people come along. It’s always really surprising. We’re all just living and accepting each other and then all of a sudden it’s like, “no, you can’t, get back to the status quo.”
PN: Could you talk a bit about your collaboration with Lenny Kravitz? Lenny definitely has this image coming from his early years of career where he’s a very strong presence, full of hyper-masculine vigor and sex appeal. How did you find these points of collaboration and understanding?
AE: I actually find we’re very similar in the way that we present our sexuality and gender. He was doing rock and roll. Rock male imaginary is very erotic. Rock and hip hop and R&B are the industries in which men get to be sexualized. You know, Mick Jagger was sexualized in his time. Bowie was sexualized in his time. Elton John was sexualized in his time. You look at how they dressed and you don’t see the average straight man walking around in tight leather pants and no shirt and a leather jacket. They’re there to be sex icons. I think what’s interesting for men is that is equal parts vulnerable and equal parts empowering. Whereas for women, depending on how you’re perceived, it can be vulnerable or it can be empowering. It’s usually not both. For myself, as a queer woman, people may come at me, like, you’re not being queer enough. You’re not being straight enough. You don’t do this. You don’t dress like that. You don’t look like this. But see, that’s your opinion, everyone and their mother’s got one. I don’t have time to take it to heart. I’m not trying to be your full-time fantasy, I am who I am. And I happen to really enjoy performing as an andro-rock-star-sex-icon sometimes. That’s where, creatively, Lenny and I are speaking the same language. I grew up idolizing him — it’s not a surprise I picked up a few things.
PN: What are your creative goals for your future?
AE: To find the resources to start creating worlds, creating experiences through music. I’m trying to get to a place with my music and my creative team where I can bring back real life. I want to ask people of my generation to leave their phones at the door, literally, and to have a musical experience and experience a show that has performance aspects, lights, movement, story, 20 musicians on stage. Things like that. I want these experiences to feel bigger than life, larger than life, like you experience something with other people that when you step out and go home you want to spend 30 minutes trying to explain it to someone who wasn’t there. I want you to remember it in 30 years. I want to create that community around my music. If I can get a step closer to that this year, that would be amazing.
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