“Music is the number one thing that makes me happy. ‘My Body’ was a song that started as a jam — like most of my songs — and I didn’t know what I was writing about yet. But all of a sudden I found myself saying, ‘Trust is my body.’ It was not a conscious thought, those words just came out. And then as I was writing the song, I felt like I had tapped into a particular personal sexual experience where things went pretty south in terms of what I was comfortable with. Someone crossed a line with me, sexually. It felt really invasive and disrespectful. When it first happened I almost wrote it off, but over time it carried more and more weight. So this [song] was the acknowledgement to myself of how much it really had impacted me. I feel largely at peace about it now.
AKUA wears the Balconette in Black.
I grew up in London, Ontario, Canada. Neither of my parents are from Ontario — my mom is from the East Coast, Nova Scotia. And my dad is from Ghana, West Africa. In Canada, race is very covert. Everyone thinks they’re post-race. Not minorities — minorities know they’re not post race. But the white people I grew up around think that racism isn’t a thing anymore, and that we evolved and landed in this place where everyone loves each other. It’s very well-meant, but it’s also very hurtful — racism is so institutional and expressed in such blatant ways when you are a minority, so if you can’t even talk about it, it can be really isolating. Whereas here [in LA], I’ve been able to have a lot of therapeutic conversations about [race].
As a child I was probably most aware of my gender first, because that’s the one most imposed on you — boys sit over there, girls sit over here. My race wasn’t something I wasn’t really aware of until I had my first experience with racism. And then it became this stark thing: you’re different. I remember feeling self conscious at times as a kid that my dad was an immigrant, he had an accent. He wasn’t the ‘baseball’ dad — he was this Ghanaian dad who liked sardines. [Laughs] It’s ironic because those are things I’m super proud of now, but as a kid you just want to fit in.
I think as you get older, a lot of women are also just trying to fit in, to be accepted and embraced by whomever they’re attracted to. I remember in my adult years a friend once said out loud, ‘I never thought men were attracted to me because I was brown.’ I don’t know if I had ever acknowledged that to myself, but hearing a friend say it was like, ‘I definitely remember feeling that too.’ And I don’t mean to make it seem like race, for lack of a better term, colored my whole experience growing up. I think all my friends were very insecure in lots of similar ways. Race was just an additional thing I carried. I played a lot of sports and I was a dancer all through high school and a little bit in college, so that was something that was important for my identity. Using my body in a more physical way. That was a source of pride for me — to see my body being used for other things, as opposed to just being an object.
AKUA wears the Plunge in Blush.
What it took was time. Having different partners that helped me realize, ‘Oh, there are people attracted to me in this way.’ Learning about bodies and sex through experience, and then just growing up, becoming more confident, and putting a lot more emphasis on brain instead of body. There is a lot of liberation that can come by simply getting out of your adolescence and coming into womanhood. You get to the point where you can’t even imagine anything was ever that important. You evolve as a person and hopefully gain confidence through other avenues. And if the people in your life really love you, they will love you for all parts of you. That’s romantically and not. It’s vulnerable in general to put yourself in someone else’s hands. Whether you’re perfectly primp or you let yourself go, it’s still vulnerable territory. And if you’re able to be vulnerable and be like, ‘look at all my imperfections,’ it helps the other person you’re with realize, ‘OK cool, it’s also fine if I’m not perfect.’
Still, confidence is often an issue for me. I’m a black woman, a woman of color, and in that sense, those two things are always working on my identity. That’s where the term intersectionality comes into play. There’s being a woman, which is one form of oppression that we share as women. And then there’s being a person of color. That’s not necessarily something I always thought about, but it’s where I sometimes feel I need to untie the two and recognize there are these different forces happening. In my mind, I’ve just always been working toward being a more confident person in body, mind and spirit. I traveled a lot in my twenties. I did a few semesters abroad, and I used to sing with Solange in her band, so when we toured, I saw a lot of the world. I think that equipped me with a certain perspective and empathy. I also studied international development. During that time [in school] I was feeling very humanitarian driven, thinking a lot about other places in the world, people other than myself. And traveling was very humbling. It made me feel very grateful, it matured me and gave me a pretty open worldview. All of those things contribute to being a well-rounded person. When you feel confident in your outlook and the way you want to live your life, that can speak to the way you physically present yourself. If you’re confident in mind, it can help you feel confident in body.
I also had a big hippie stage while I was in school. I stopped shaving my legs, stopped shaving my armpits, and at the time, it was very much a statement. Like, ‘fuck the system, fuck these forces on me.’ That was a pretty distinct period. It felt very radical at the time. It felt like an exercise, an experiment. ‘Would people fuck with me if I presented myself this way? Am I still attractive to other people if I don't embrace these common beauty norms?’ I learned in that moment, when I was rocking hairy legs and armpits, that it was women who shamed me, not men. Men were kind of like, ‘Oh cool, whatever, that’s how you’re rolling.’ And women would be like, ‘Ew, why are you doing that?’ It bugged me because it was just me being natural, and I was punished for it. It’s funny to be in a yoga class where there’s a dude next to you with hairy armpits, and you’re there with hairy armpits, and yours are turning heads and his don’t mean anything at all. I think that was my most political body moment. Now, I don’t really think about it at all. Back then, I needed to sort of tell myself that it was OK to embrace what is natural to me and not feel shame for that. Because the shame is what feeds the system.
Entering my thirties, there was almost a weird regression moment in terms of my body image. I was finally free and thought everything was chill, and then all of a sudden I turned thirty and it was like oh damn, your body changes again… I felt this new form of insecurity where like, my skin was not as tight. [Laughs] Wrinkles, grey hairs, things just come up. I had to cultivate a new form of mental security and armor. Especially because there is a way you’re received in general as a young person that’s different from when you’re older. You don’t appreciate it when you’re young. But the insecurity that came with age was something I didn’t anticipate.
Now I think I’ve got a better grip because ultimately, it just can’t carry much weight. There is too much other shit to think about. When I was young it felt like my whole world, whereas now it’s like yeah, physical appearance is one of the many important things to me, but I’m also thinking about the music I make, why I’m making it, I’m thinking about caring for the people around me, I’m thinking about making money… [Laughs] All these things that have not as much to do with how I feel about myself physically. I’ve had some health issues, and those kinds of things make you think about your body really differently. Less as object and more like, wow, I really need this vessel. If you love what you do, you want to be able to continue to do that on the best terms. General self care, and just putting your internal well being as a priority, is what really matters.”
Photographed by David Cortes. Interview by Anna Jube.