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Meet AWEN, a singer, songwriter and performer who packs the strength of her roots into the power of Afro House

A journey from Law to global dancefloors. Read an exclusive interview!

  • Words: Mia Lunis | Photographer: Kevin Couliau
  • 30 November 2023

France and Senegal are intertwined in the DNA of the singer AWEN who carries in her essence much more than flags, but the power of an inspiring voice in the necessary breath of Afro House.

Culturally rich, the artist's history is also intertwined with Celtic mythology, AWEN is a magician, a spirit that delivers glimpses of the future, some still believe it to be the muse of creativity, something that is not lacking in the singer's trajectory.

If we could go back to the past and have some vision of the future, we would certainly say that the fate of the classical music student would have captured the ears of House Music enthusiasts and today everything is confirmed before the attentive eyes of her audience.

The singer also worked as a lawyer and found herself torn between her artistic career and law, but soon after her father's death in 2016, the artist got back on track and what was a project became a life plan.

As a basis, Nina Simone, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye served as inspiration and were already there, whispering in AWEN's ear what she should embrace, acting as her Celtic muse from which her name originated.

In 2019, the passion and need to share her journey imposed itself on her career, causing AWEN to begin composing, delivering to the world yet another creative facet that has been fueling global dancefloors.

The first release was in partnership with DJ and producer Floyd Lavine, with the track “Kusimama” which translated from the Bantu language Swahili, spoken in some countries on the African continent means “Stand up”, something that inspires a call to rise up and We face life head on.

With great courage, the singer contemplated several illustrious partnerships with names such as Caiiro, Enoo Napa, Daniel Rateuke and Adam Port who remixed the cult track “Your Voice”, leading the artist to perform it live at Coachella in 2023.

With more than 70 performances around the globe in 2023 alone, AWEN continues to inspire thousands of artists and the public, singing, performing and enchanting everyone with its message, let's dive into the history of AWEN.

Hello AWEN, it’s a pleasure to talk to you and learn a little more about your story. You were inspired by great names in music such as Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, among others, do you remember the first time you heard not only these other names that gave you the initial click and opened your desire to sing?

As far as I can remember I’ve always sang, but my earliest and strongest musical memory, as in when I discovered that I enjoyed translating emotions through my voice was when I listened to “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill”.

I was struck by how she effortlessly told a story that was heavy and relatable at the same time. At that time, I didn’t understand the words very well but her voice acted like a universal translator.

That’s when I experienced the power and musicality that is carried in every word and it’s when I found out that I could use my voice as well.

In a way, your career as a singer was already calling you from a very early age, what led you to work as a lawyer?

I was a good student in high school but as many others I struggled to find what I wanted to do in life. When I was 17 my mum gave me Nelson Mandela’s memoir and throughout the book he would explain how it was important for the young generation to understand the rules of their systems in order to avoid certain traps.

I guess this idea stayed with me and I got quickly convinced that the most useful knowledge I could ever acquire at University was how our legal system works. And it was the right choice, my brain has been shaped by my legal studies in a way that I still find useful on a daily basis.

It also gave me many opportunities to sharpen my writing skills as I wrote a Ph.D Thesis and many legal articles. Somehow it was also a creative experience.

You lived in Hong Kong for a few years and already carried with you a rich cultural background from your family. How was the adaptation in the first years living there and what did you extract from the artistic culture there for your compositions?

I always say that Hong Kong is where I truly found myself. The first years were made of a lot of work and work related travel as I was working for an arbitrator and we had hearings all over the globe.

It’s also when I began to read more and more about mental health and when my journey into self-discovery intensified. Hong Kong was the perfect place for that because most people I met there were on a very similar path.

We were a community of high achievers who were working insanely hard but struggled to find a purpose or a meaning to our lives. The beauty of Hong Kong was really the freedom that we had to experiment things culturally without anyone judging.

For instance I created a concept of “Tribute” event where me and my band (5 musicians and 2 other singers) would pay tribute to artists such as Nina Simone, Ray Charles etc. We would rearrange songs and try to always be creative.

From our first event onwards we were not only sold out but people would really anticipate our tribute night with excitement.

I don’t think we would have been so successful so quickly anywhere else in the world. Of course things have changed a lot there since Covid.

“As far as I can remember I’ve always sang, but my earliest and strongest musical memory, was when I listened to ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’”

After your father’s death in 2016, you returned to France and had abandoned your current job at the time, what really motivated you to take courage and pursue an artistic career?

I had tried the safe route of a regular job and all the perks that came with it: money, stability, a sense of belonging etc. But it didn’t work for me and I slowly became deeply unhappy with my life. I was always missing something.

My partner played a big role in this choice too as I think he started believing in my potential before I did. I had no contact in the music industry and I didn’t really know where to start so I applied what I learned from my previous career:

I identified the things that others had done in order to start their career and I worked very hard, relentlessly. What quickly became clear was that the fact that I could sing, write lyrics and create catchy toplines gave me a strong edge.

I decided to use it to my advantage so that every collaboration, every release would be an opportunity for me to understand not only the artistic landscape but also how the business worked.

Vocals are an essential part of house music, even more so in afro house which gave me an advantage.

Once you truly understand your position in the world it’s much easier to navigate and turn most situations to your advantage, this is the ex-lawyer in me talking ;)

You describe yourself as an Afro House witch, using part of your ancestry in your art and also bringing important themes into the context such as feminism, which is your main message for women who live in countries that still restrict their freedom as a whole?

One of the reasons that pushed me to embrace this artistic journey was precisely the fact that I am aware of my privilege as a woman of color born in Europe.

I feel like I have a duty to live this life to the fullest and make the best out of the freedom that was given to me as a result of the place I was born.

So what I can say to them is that you are not forgotten. Women all around the world are fighting for their rights, they are fighting to survive and to provide for their families.

They cannot be erased because without them there is no civilization, there is no culture, there is no love, no empathy, no history, no growth.

They are the beginning of everything, the true source of everything. If anything they should be supported and cherished.

I hope that one day we can all enjoy the same level of freedom, in the meantime I will keep writing songs honoring them because they are the most meaningful source of inspiration.

I also try to purposefully work with more women in the music industry and just show support whenever and wherever I can.

Historically women have always come together to fight oppression, I still struggle to understand why is it that now that things are slightly improving in the music industry we don’t come together and support each other more often.

I know that we are all busy with our own career but we are also incredibly lucky to be on this path and to have people listening to us and caring for what we have to say so let’s use that power to lift each other up and make an impact.

If we don’t do it for ourselves we should do it for all those women who don’t enjoy the same privilege that we have.

The 2021 single “Unstoppable” brings a strong message of overcoming and hope, tell us about the creative process of this track and the work together with CandyMan.

This song as well as “Behind The Rain” and “The Storm” for instance relate to your previous question in a way.

I often try to infuse messages of empowerment in my songs because it’s my way of giving strength to the people that will listen to it, wherever they are in the world and whatever they are struggling with.

That’s also why I love being a songwriter. You get to speak to your audience and create an intimate relationship with them. They can lean on your music whenever they need it.

When I wrote Unstoppable there was a lot of racial tension in Europe and in the US following the death of George Floyd.

It was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and also kind of a wake up call for many of us that we should never take progress for granted and there is still a lot to achieve when it comes to equality, inclusivity, diversity etc.

To make this track with an upcoming artist from South Africa with such a strong message was also a way to bridge the gap between the continent and the diaspora. We have very different experiences and yet a lot in common on many levels.

The lyrics of the track are a call for action, an invite to stand up and join the march for equality. I performed this song in front of over 20k people in Nancy a couple of months ago and it felt deeply special.

“The beauty of Hong Kong was the freedom we had to experience things culturally without anyone judging”

How did Adam Port’s invitation to remix “Your Voice” come about? What was the best thing about this experience for you, both professionally and in your personal life?

The remix by Adam Port was the result of true serendipity. He heard the track for the first time almost two years after it was released and immediately connected to it.

When he reached out to remix it I was super excited. It felt like stars were aligning in a way no one could have anticipated. It gave me a lot of exposure of course.

The growth that came after that was also due to the fact that I added djing to my performance (as opposed to signing only).

The concept works very well and allows me to create a deeper connection with my audience. Also I love seeing people discovering the rest of my songs, they usually come for Your Voice and end up discovering that I released an album and many singles outside of that big hit.

You performed this track live at Coachella, how did it feel to be in front of an audience at one of the biggest festivals in the world? What changed for you with the experiences you seek to bring to your next presentations from this event?

I always say that I enjoy performing in front of a big crowd much more than in an intimate setting and that’s because the energy is unparalleled. Coachella felt like an introduction to the world for me.

Since then I have performed at Brooklyn Mirage for 7K people, Nancy (20k+), and also many smaller venues around 1 to 3k all around the world.

Each performance is different and I take each one very seriously because I am preparing for what comes next. I know there will be other opportunities to perform for huge audiences like that so I want to be ready.

Do you remember the first time you went on stage? Where was your first performance and what was it like?

Growing up I went to classical music school so I was part of an orchestra, a choir and I was also taking dance lessons, so performing on stage has always been part of my life. I love it, the stage feels like home to me.

Even when I get jitters they pretty quickly turn into a profound excitement to experience that unique feeling that you get when you become one with your audience.

When I was younger I would always get the solo parts whether it was as a clarinetist (I played clarinet for over a decade), a singer or a dancer.

The live performance is probably my favorite part in what I do.

“Vocals are an essential part of house music, even more so in Afro house, which gave me an advantage”

How do you see the proliferation of white artists within Afro House?

This is a tricky question because I think we are all enthusiastic about the rise of popularity of Afro House in the world.

It brought recognition to a lot of POC artists as well as a more sustainable source of income which is - at the end of the day- key to allowing us to keep creating.

Now at the same time we see a lot of artists labeling themselves as afro house artists without really knowing what it means and the culture behind it.

But to be honest that’s not where the real issue lies. What triggers me is when I see white artists take advantage of their position of power and exploit POC artists.

I can give you three examples so that everyone understands what I’m talking about and also become aware that although those behaviors are common they are not acceptable.

First, it is not okay to put your name on a track if you did not produce it just because you helped found a label or because you are “managing” the said POC artist who actually produced the track. It is even worse to put your name first and let the POC artist as second artist!

Second, it is not okay to rely heavily on POC vocalists / musicians / remixers to make your music sound special and be the only one benefiting from the exposure and money coming from all the shows you would have never gotten without their input.

The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is a fine one, always check your privilege and ask yourself: why do I feel entitled to act the way I do?

Third (and that one is for the industry), it is not okay to rely exclusively on racially biased algorithms to make charts that are supposed to recognise the most promising artists or the best artists in general because in 2023 we all know and are well aware that those algorithms always favor white male artists.

Finally: please dig deeper when looking for upcoming POC artists, there is more out there than the handful of people that we see everywhere. The umbrella vicious cycle must end, when one of us wins not all of us wins unfortunately.

Now that I have said all this, I would like to add that I/we POC artists also have a role to play in protecting our culture. As a vocalist I decided recently that I would make my best effort to purposefully work with POC artists and female artists.

There has to be a decision making process behind this because most opportunities at the moment come from white artists and I still want to work with them don’t get me wrong, but there should be a balance so that I don’t become part of the problem.

With that mindset, I also try to show support to POC artists on social media and in my sets. For instance, at my Monumental Tour show in front of 20k+ people I exclusively played tracks that were produced or co-produced by POC artists…it’s one way to show appreciation and there are many more.

We artists have to do our homework and find what works for us individually.

How have you balanced your personal life and performed more than 60 performances this year alone?

Being the mum of a three year old boy it’s been very challenging at times. But the more I grow the easier it gets to arrange for my family to follow me on tour.

My partner works with me full time as manager and artistic director so that helps a lot.

I don’t think this lifestyle would have been sustainable for us if he had had a 9 to 5 job because I really need my family with me as often as possible.

My mum helps a lot too, it’s fair to say that AWEN is also a family business :)

AWEN, it was a pleasure talking to you. Finally, would you have anything new to tell us exclusively?

I am very excited to announce my upcoming release with Xinobi on Cercle Records.

We shot a beautiful video clip at ADE in Amsterdam and I can’t wait to share new music in 2024.

“I often try to spread messages of empowerment in my songs because it’s my way of giving strength to the people”

Follow AWEN on: Instagram | Facebook | Soundcloud

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