SSENSE : The Magic of Abra
Dark-Wave Duchess Abra on Love, God, and Psychedelics
Interview & Styling: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photographer: Maria Ziegelboeck
New York’s Highland Church led Abra’s family of missionaries across the world. Stationed in Kerala, South India, they decided to return stateside to give birth to their little girl in Queens, only to pack up and spend the next eight years building a church and congregation in South London. With a pastor for a father, and her mother leading praise and worship with the church band, Abra grew up immersed in song and spirituality. Several relocations later, she found herself navigating adolescence in Atlanta. A perpetual “new kid,” Abra sought solace in music, love, and experimentation, eventually growing away from the church and forging a new identity online. Her bedroom productions now stand as a testament to the cathartic power of music, echoing her Baptist upbringing while encompassing her unique sense of self. Here the singer-songwriter-producer shares her wisdom of love, god, and the spiritual power of psychedelics.
Nazanin Shahnavaz: We grew up just a few streets from one another in South London. Do you have fond memories of your time there?
Abra: My first memory ever is sitting in on my mom’s praise and worship. I remember watching her play guitar with her band and thinking, “What is going on?” All my first memories of music are in London.
How else did your upbringing impact you?
Christianity is really about how we don’t belong on Earth, and we’re supposed to be uncomfortable with everything. I was ashamed of my sexuality. I was ashamed of my body. I’m a very sexual person. I’ve had sexual thoughts all my life—not like sex-wise, but sensual thoughts, thoughts about sexuality. That was pushed aside. It added a lot of discomfort to my life. But religion also gave me a great sense of compassion, and a sense of humanity. Not to say you have to be Christian to have a big heart, but it opened my eyes to other people’s struggles. Pay attention. Other people are going through shit. Make sure you’re looking out for your people, and take care of others. That’s important.
And triumph—that’s huge. I try to make people at my shows feel how I feel when I go and see a gospel choir perform, or go see a good sermon. You don’t have to feel alone, and you come out feeling triumphant. Music that’s really intense makes you feel wrapped up in something, like a sense of rapture. I want to bring that element of church to my music. It’s healthy for your soul. Come and be as you are, who you are is okay. Just listen to that music and that message, get that in your head, and go about your week. Then you’re not treating people badly, because you’re comfortable with yourself.
Yeah, there is a sense of release. Do you still go to church?
No, but I would. Church brings community, and some people are really lonely. It helps to have others who want to do right, and to be around people who are like-minded. I would go back to church, just to be around that energy of community. For the positivity, and to help others. I’m down for that.
What other experiences give you that sense of rapture?
I would say three things: performing, drugs, and falling in love.
I was thinking of two of those. I don’t perform.
Falling in love, or making love, or the act of showing somebody love. The feeling of losing yourself in another person. The first person I fell in love with changed my whole life. He was my religion for a long time.
I remember the first time I did acid. Acid is like getting a second opinion from yourself. It’s a different opinion, but it’s still your opinion. It’s not someone influencing you, which is super tight. It has helped me see that we’re more alike than we are different, and that changed me. That really influenced my music. Let’s find those common denominators and focus on those, not on what separates us.
And then, of course, performing. I can’t even explain it. I feel like I’m possessed. When I’m offstage I’m goofy, but when I get on stage, I’m another person. There’s a sense of power. When I see the effect of my music, that experience makes me feel empowered and I transform. I’m my higher self when I’m onstage. I’m coming from a place where I felt weak and helpless, and then entertaining crowds of people who are all reciprocating that energy. It’s like they’re holding up a mirror. It’s given me confidence.
“I’m not disposable, and I’m not just a pretty face. I’m here, and I’m offering an intimate part of myself.”
Are you in love now?
I am in love. It’s been a challenging relationship, but if it’s not challenging, what’s the point? He makes me grow. He makes me want to be my best self. We’re in a long distance relationship, and in order for it to work, I have to have traits like patience, compassion, and a still mind and heart. Even if it doesn’t work out between us, I feel like I will leave as a more patient, more compassionate, more understanding person. Love is a very transformative experience. It’s rapturing.
Can you remember your first acid trip?
Yeah, it was with my ex. Up until that point I’d been super religious. At the time, I was feeling super insecure about myself, and I just wanted someone else to validate me. I was setting the standards really low with the people I was letting close to my heart. So, I was on the beach and I saw a shooting star. The first thing I wished for was love, and I was like, “This is so cheesy.” It felt sad. There’s so much more in life than just having someone to love, or to validate you, but everyone wants that, whatever. Then I felt like something was telling me, “Go to the water.” I went to the shoreline, but not close enough, because it was nighttime and I was scared. I went to see where the water washed up and I stood there and thought, “I’m going to wait here until the waves come up to touch my feet. The waves are going to come meet me where I stand.” I stood on the shoreline for 15 minutes, and eventually the waves came over the hill where I was, kissed my feet, and went back down. It was a poetic moment for me because it symbolized how you don’t have to lower your standards to find love. You can stand where you are and someone will come to you. Believe that you deserve it, and that you’re worth it. Maybe there’s not someone pulling all the strings behind the curtains, but I will always remember that moment and I carry it with me.
Was fashion something you were into growing up, or is that an aspect of the music and the performance?
When I grew up my dad was more concerned with me being wholesome than with me being cute. I learned to resent things I couldn’t be a part of. I didn’t get to look at fashion, so I just ignored it and never paid attention. But as I’m getting older, I enjoy fashion. It’s important to feel confident in what you’re wearing. People can tell. We did a show at Art Rock Festival and I picked out my outfit and I loved it. I taped my nipples down and when I got on stage I was feeling so scandalous and saucy. Your clothes have a lot to do with how you feel and I think as a performer, it’s important you’re rocking something fire. You give your best if you feel your best, and if you look your best, you feel your best.
It seems particularly important to be confident as a female artist.
People try to minimize what we do as female artists. I read a review of my Field Day show and the journalist went into lengthy sonic descriptions of DJ sets. I’m not trying to knock what DJs do, but I’m making this track from scratch and all he could say about me was that I seduced the crowd. That’s all he had to say. People see women as pretty things to gawk at and don’t appreciate all the work that goes in. It feels like we’re more replaceable and we just fill a role. They don’t see us for what we bring to the table on our own and that can be hurtful. I spend six months alone in my room working on my music, and I’m running around the stage for 45 minutes trying to give life to thousands of people, and all they can say is I seduced them with my body. I didn’t seduce anyone. I didn’t draw them in by being sexual. They came to see me because they know what I do. We’re not just sexual things to look at. We do work and we have messages. It’s overlooked so much and I hate that, but I can’t change it.
“Music that’s really intense makes you feel wrapped up in something, like a sense of rapture. I want to bring that element of church to my music.”
How do you think these attitudes could change?
By women being more transparent about what they do. I try to let people know how much I work, not by bragging but by saying, “I put a lot into this and you can’t just take me out, put another girl in my place, and expect the same results.” When female artists sign to labels, they want to transform you into the next so-and-so. When I met L.A. Reid he was like, “You’re the next Whitney.” I was like, “No. I’m Abra.” I’m not the next anything.
And it comes mostly from men in the industry?
Yeah, it’s men. They think they run shit and it’s like, “No, you don’t.” I don’t know about everyone else, but I always call people out, like that guy who wrote the Field Day review. I call people out when they say things like that. I try and show people how much I put into this. You can’t just write me away by putting someone else in my space. I’m not disposable, and I’m not just a pretty face. I’m here, and I’m offering an intimate part of myself.
“I can get on Twitter and run my mouth and talk my shit and be like, “Nope!” Even if I come off as brash, or the angry feminist, whatever!”
Y’all may run the Earth and work the Earth, but we’re closer to the unseen. We have our ear up to the unseen. We can see things that y’all can’t. We have a sensitivity about us that is special and you need to appreciate it. I feel like the world is changing. Especially with the internet, you can’t control what everyone is hearing. I can get on Twitter and run my mouth and talk my shit and be like, “Nope!” Even if I come off as brash, or the angry feminist, whatever! Maybe some other girl isn’t going to have to deal with this nonsense later. No one is going to be like, “Oh, she seduced them.” If you’re seduced, it’s on you.