We hear a lot of stereotypes about Gen Z, but 22-year-old and self-described “old soul”, HAWA, seems to find herself outside most boxes that people try to put her in. From her upbringing in Guinea, to her entrance in the musical universe by way of the New York Philharmonic, to her love for Tracy Chapman, her story as an artist is one that’s not seen too often. For HAWA, it’s just her life.
HAWA was born in Berlin but spent most of her early life growing up with family in Conakry, capital of the West African country, Guinea. While she may have been young, this experience played a significant role in shaping her perspective– particularly noting that the people she grew up around were strong and independent, providing the opportunity to witness Black success early on. At age 9, HAWA’s mother made her leave for New York to avoid being affected by the region’s deep-rooted inequities, like all the women in her family had generations prior. Nevertheless, she remains steadfast about her African identity.
At age 10, with no prior knowledge of classical music, HAWA received an opportunity to join a music composition program with the New York Philharmonic that marked the beginning chapter of her remarkable ascension. While many play their first shows to empty rooms in sparsely filled clubs, HAWA’s immense aptitude for writing music allowed her to perform with the Philharmonic at prestigious institutions like the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. At 15, she decided it was finally time to focus on her own sound, ultimately ending her time as the orchestra’s youngest ever composer. At 16, she scraped together a few cheap cables and a microphone intended for EA Sports video games and learned how to record her first tracks before formally upgrading her setup. A year later, she finally uploaded a song clip to Instagram– at the time a private account with around 200 followers– that was met with a lot of interest from her now Creative Director, eventually making a connection to land a deal with 4AD. This was a big turning point for HAWA and her family– her whole life her parents believed music was more of a hobby than a career. Being signed at 17, she explains while poking fun at her mom, meant that she officially couldn’t become a doctor and therefore couldn’t be shown off in Africa.
Candid and playfully sharp, two things that can be said about both her personality and discography, HAWA has made her presence known after a handful of singles and a critically acclaimed debut EP, the ONE. She takes pride in the fluidity of her own sound and enjoys when people can’t ascribe a singular genre to her, traversing effortlessly between Rap, R&B, Afrobeat, and beyond. She retains a firm belief in “sweet and simple”, rarely going beyond a 3-and-a-half-minute song length. Her compositional roots, naturally, have led to a desire to refine her skills as a producer. While she values the musician-engineer relationship tremendously, her evolution as a musician is pushing her to embrace being able to do it all. “There is shit in my head that no one will be able to understand, and I have to get it out.”
This notion comes to life on her debut album, Hadja Bangoura. Named after her late great grandmother, the record occupies a space of healing for Hawa, a soothing balm made as a vessel for Hadja’s spirit that only grows wider through her and Tony Seltzer’s layered production. She maintains this on singles “Gemini,” “Progression,” and “Trade” – a sampler that journeys through everything from the people that got her here, to the toxic traits about herself and others that came to surface in a pandemic-induced moment of stillness, to her general sense of desire. “Being a Gemini,” she says, “is a process of getting things you can’t have, and then not wanting them.”
Despite being at an age where one is normally figuring life, let alone music, out, HAWA remains cool and calculated. On talking about success and goals, she speaks about them definitively rather than hypothetically. Grammys, building empires, generational wealth, stability for her future family, a return to Africa – that’s all just part of the plan. Sweet and simple, she wants people to take away one thing from her music, “HAWA is good and knows what she’s doing. I just want respect in this industry.”