Q&A: Sierra Leonean singer Heyden Adama

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Credit: Candice Ghai Photography

360°Sound caught up with singer/model/actor Heyden Adama. A native of Sierra Leone, Adama spent her childhood in the war-torn West African country before being adopted by an American family and moving to the United States when she was 12. Adama attended high school in Washington state and later returned to Sierra Leone when she was 20, which is when she launched her music career. She quickly notched huge hits in her home country.

Now living in the Seattle area, Adama has been recording Afrobeats music for over a decade. In this exclusive interview, Adama talks about her love-themed compilation Dis Kind Love, new breakup song “Inside Me Mind,” the growing popularity of African music, and having to ask her producers to turn down the autotune.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

360°Sound: Tell us about your new album, Dis Kind Love.

Heyden Adama: I just put some old songs and new songs together and completed an album. It’s kind of hard to do albums nowadays, you know? I had a lot of loose songs just lying around. I think I did that because it’s an end of an era for me. Most of my songs that I write are about love and boys and all of that. I put this compilation together because it’s my last lovey-lovey songs. I took all the songs that have to do with love that I’ve recorded over the years and put it together.

I’m going to start doing a lot more not lovey-lovey songs. [The new standalone single] “Inside Me Mind” is about my ex-fiancé who literally took everything and left the country and married somebody else with my money. From now on, no more love songs, at least not like I’ve been doing.

What’s your strategy with releasing music?

I’m just doing music because I like it, to be honest with you. Where I’m from people don’t seem to care much about the arts anymore. They only like foreign music. They like other people’s stuff. I’m doing this for me because I enjoy music. Music is like my stress relief. It’s what helps me cope with this crazy world that we live in. I’m just doing it because I love it. And I’m good at it.

African music has grown tremendously in popularity in the United States in recent years.

It really has. It’s mostly Nigerian music, though. Nigeria has gotten ahold of the world. And they refuse to share. You know how it is, once a style of thing is going on in the world, everybody just seems to follow it. Nigeria is really big, and my country is really small. They don’t open the avenues for other artists to thrive. There are really, really talented artists in small countries in Africa, but they’re not getting the recognition because Nigerians are like Americans. They don’t like sharing.

Once they have the stream, they want to keep it in Nigeria, and that’s beautiful. I really love that. I wish my country was like that because I think we have a lot of talent as well. There are like 7 million people in my country. Nigeria has hundreds of millions of people. It can’t compete.

What music do people listen to in Sierra Leone?

Nigerian music. They would rather pay for Nigerian music than actually pay for their own people’s music. It’s really frustrating. Many of my musician friends [in Sierra Leone] are just doing it because we love it, and we’re pushing. Maybe one of us will make it out and represent the country because we’re very proud of our Sierra Leoneans.

Our country is beautiful. Our people are stubborn. There are a lot of things happening for such a small nation. But they don’t seem to like the art. They don’t appreciate it as much as Nigerians tend to do. Nigerians are very proud of who they are. They keep their dialect, and they love their music. My country is always influenced by other people; they want to be anybody else but themselves.

How did you first get interested in music?

I was born in Sierra Leone. I got adopted when I was 11, and I came to the U.S. when I was 12. I went to junior high and high school here. And I’ve always liked music. I’m from a war country. I got adopted after the war. I lost a lot of people during the war. I ended up in a displaced camp where I met my adopted mom. She lives in Washington and went to Sierra Leone. My mom actually has one of the biggest orphanages in Sierra Leone.

I’ve always liked music. Music has always been my escape, even during the war. It gets your mind off of what is happening around you. And it saved me, honestly. I think it keeps me from going crazy, especially being a female in the world.

I got into it [professionally] in 2010. I think I was 19 or 20. That was my first time going back to Africa since I got adopted. I have a friend who had a studio, and I just went to him and said, “I really like music; I want to record.” We recorded a song. I started getting calls like, “Oh my gosh, your song [“Fit in Gbet”] is all over the radio.” Everybody’s like, “Your song is huge.” They just went wild. A record label reached out to me, and we ended up doing like three songs before I left them and started my own label.

Talk about how your songs come together. I understand you’ve worked with a number of producers.

Depends really. Sometimes I will write some stuff. My language is always changing. The dialect is Krio, which is the local language. There are so many different languages happening in Sierra Leone, and Krio is like the general language that everybody can understand.

Most of the time, if I have a concept in my head, I will write it down. And then when I go back home [to Sierra Leone], somebody would help me put the more recent slang into it. Like every year there’s a new slang.

Most of the music that you hear, especially recently, I’m the one recording and producing. And when I’ve happened to be in Africa, I will work with some producers. But that’s very rare, because in Sierra Leone, I guess my name is really big over there, and the producers don’t work with me as they would other artists. They expect a lot of money from me. I’m like, “I don’t have that kind of money.” I’m not making that kind of money out of the music. My country doesn’t buy music. They don’t have streaming platforms like we do. And most of it, I’m just doing it because I like it. They seem to think I’m just this extremely rich person.

I have a producer in Nigeria, a 16-year-old kid who goes by Killah Bass. I will send him a concept, and then he plays a beat around it, and then I record and send it to him. He masters it. I’ve been doing that for the past five or six years with him.

Is that autotune you use on your vocal tracks?

I don’t mix, and I don’t master. I just record and send it to them. My country is very, very big with autotune. It’s very difficult to get people who master your tracks to get them to reduce the autotune. This is one of my biggest problems working with African artists, especially producers. I’m like, “The autotune is too much; you gotta reduce it.”

I don’t know if they don’t know how to do it properly to just make it sound good without the autotune so heavy. But they think it sounds great. So even if you tell them to reduce it, they just don’t seem to know how to mix it properly. It never works. Like I have to send my tracks more than four or five times to reduce the autotune.

Interesting. So you’re always wanting less autotune?

I don’t like it very much. It made me feel like I can’t sing, and I’m like, “Dude, I can sing.” I can sing live. I play the guitar. I’m always doing shows out here. I know I can sing. I’m not trying to be vain, but I practice a lot.

Which song has been your most successful to date?

“Nobody.” And [my fans in Sierra Leone] will not let me live it down. Everything I make, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s not ‘Nobody.’” I’m like, “Dude, come on, get over it. ‘Nobody’ was 12 years ago” [Laughs].

How would you say you’ve evolved as an artist?

I’m more in control of my art. I create more on my own, which I’ve always wanted to do. I have more control over what I put out. I get to write more of my stuff. And I get to tell more of what I feel. I may not have the fanbase that I did before because there’s no record label behind me. As much as I love Sierra Leone, I don’t have connections with the radio stations like my old record label did.

“Nobody” hit in like two weeks. At that time, I was one of the fastest growing artists in the whole country. The song came out and in two weeks, everywhere you turned you could hear it on the radio. I’m pretty sure I’m never gonna get that kind of hype again because I don’t live in Sierra Leone all the time to be promoting it. I have my art, and I get to create what I want to create and when I want to create. That’s all I want.

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