Brooklyn native Amma Agyapon, known better as Amma Whatt, is a rising star who has been on the music scene for awhile—from working as a background singer supporting other artists to making it to the finals in Hollywood on American Idol. After years of building her craft, she has declared this moment her own, releasing her new EP MAYBE independently to critical acclaim.
“Most of the project is just raw vocals, guitar, and beat-box,” Amma describes her new project. “As a writer it was important to me that the lyrical story be the focus. MAYBE is a preview to the LP I plan to release in 2013.”
In this exclusive SoulTrain.com interview, meet Amma Whatt, poised to take soul music to the next level. She tells how she got her unusual name and gives advice to aspiring artists on how to pursue a music career. Get to know her!
SoulTrain.com: Amma, thank you so much for sharing with the SoulTrain.com family today. First of all, tell us about your unique name. How did you get it and what does it mean?
Amma Whatt: My name Amma is a day name from the Akan people of Ghana, West Africa; it means girl born on Saturday. My parents are very Afrocentric, and my siblings and I all have African names. Believe me, nobody in public school in Brooklyn, NY cared about my name’s special African roots! I would say “I’m Amma”, and they’d reply, “Amma what?” “Amma be right back?” “Amma fightchyu?” and so on. My last name is pretty hard to pronounce, so when it was time to pick my social media moniker I went with Whatt, and It just stuck. Now, I love how people like to play with my name.
SoulTrain.com: You have a new project that is out that is simply fierce. Tell us a little bit about it.
Amma Whatt: My debut EP MAYBE can currently be found at www.ammawhatt.bandcamp.com. There will also be a second release of the project through iTunes to make it even more widely available. MAYBE fuses sounds of R&B, hip-hop, acoustic-alternative, and world music. It’s a collection of songs expressing where we often find ourselves in the cycles of love, relationships, and new beginnings.
SoulTrain.com: What people don’t realize is that this is your first CD after many years of singing as a soloist, supporting artist, commercial singer and in other capacities.
Amma Whatt: Although I grew up performing, and soloed a lot throughout my career, I hadn’t truly made the choice to be a recording artist until 2010. Songwriting, vocal production, and background singing are such vital support to a recording artist, and it’s been great experience for me. All of the behind the scenes roles I’ve played prepared me to eventually tell my own musical story. I took these two years to develop myself musically. There are a lot of great singers, but I wanted to be more than just a girl who can sing. I took this time, and I’m still working to process what makes me different from every other singer, and enhance it so that I can make an innovative contribution to the world of music.
SoulTrain.com: Who have been some of the indie artists you wanted to model your approach to recording after? Who are some vocalists or musicians who have been vocal role models for you?
Amma Whatt: My main recording style was developed through the years I spent with Big Drawz Music Group. As a Grammy-nominated team of female songwriters, they really helped groom my recording methods. My vocal role models? Ella Fitzgerald, Miriam Makeba, Phoebe Snow, Anita Baker, Vinx, Nicholas Ryan Gant, Lalah Hathaway and many many more have had a hand in inspiring my style.
SoulTrain.com: You mention someone as being a role model who you wound up working with on this new project. You have on your new CD a song that features soul-jazz singer Vinx. What was it like working with Vinx?
Amma Whatt: My late father, Kweyao Agyapon, was a world-traveling percussionist like Vinx. He would play “Rooms in my Father’s House” often, and my family would dance around the living room to it. Fast-forward to 2009. My god-brother told me about Vinx’s [annual] Songwriter’s Soul Kitchen retreat. Soul Kitchen is a collective of artists, producers, musicians, and industry professionals that Vinx would bring together for workshops, clinics, jams, and of course song-writing sessions. I jumped at the chance to learn from someone who made such an impact in my musical memory. Eventually I toured with Vinx in Europe as a member of the Groove Heroes, an experimental funk band based on improvisational creations. I was known as She-I-Joe, aka Shelonious Funk! We actually wrote “You”, the song on my EP that Vinx features on, for the Groove Heroes tour. Vinx is definitely my big brother/uncle/mentor/friend that I’m grateful to have.
SoulTrain.com: As an indie artist, what do you think some of the special challenges have been in getting this project finished and in the hands of the buying public?
Amma Whatt: Well I loooove music, but it ain’t free to make. The obvious challenge for independent artists is financing the production of the music itself. To offset costs, I built a studio in my home and recorded all the vocals there.
Although they didn’t fund the production of my EP, the Fund For New Work Grant I received from Harlem Stage was essential in helping me cover production and performance expenses in general. I encourage all indies to seek out grants and sponsorships to support their work.
Getting the music into the public’s hands requires time, diligence, and business acumen that can be a little scarce for the creative mind sometimes. I’ve had to do a lot of research to learn what’s needed, and I’m still in the process of building a team to help me accomplish the indie dream.
SoulTrain.com: Is there anything in particular that you want your audience to feel, do or spark once they hear your music? Is there a message in the songs that you write and record?
Amma Whatt: This is going to sound a little strange, buy I try not to write my songs with intention. I channel the song that wants to be born, and just let it be that. I want people to relate it to whatever their reality is. I’ve written happy-go-lucky love songs that have made people uncomfortable because of their experiences with love. I’ve written sad songs that somehow give people a sense of triumph over their own adversities. You just never know. Whatever folks feel when they hear the music, it’s a good thing, as long as they feel something.
SoulTrain.com: For this new project, you had people supporting you in all areas—from conception to production. Tell us about those folks and what has been the driving force behind keeping you committed to performing and staying in the music industry and why?
Amma Whatt: Everyone who has ever hired me in the business has contributed to my growth and experience leading up to now. I’ve been truly blessed to have so many people assist and support me over the years. Of course my family and friends, co-writers, co-producers, technicians and guest artists made MAYBE what it is!
My mother Oloriwaa is a strong creative force in my life. She has triumphed through hardship, and is the most talented woman I know. My dad, who was also a performer, was my most diligent advisor. I’m constantly driven by their example. They have always encouraged my creativity, and pushed me to excel in the arts. On my hardest days, I remember their words of encouragement to keep me going
SoulTrain.com: As you look at your career from when it first started to now, what has changed and what are you most proud of?
Amma Whatt: At this stage in my career, I’m a lot stronger in my knowing that I have a purpose. I make plans and have goals like every other artist. But the truth is that none of us really knows where this journey will take us. However, I have faith in the fact that I’m here for a reason. I know there is a purpose greater than me lying in wait to be fulfilled.
SoulTrain.com: As a creative, what advice would you give to someone first starting out to aspire to be a recording and performing artist?
Amma Whatt: I would advise the beginning artist to tap into what makes them unique. There is nothing like an individual. Although what you create may not be for everybody, those who get it will love it. That, in conjunction with maintaining and growing within your craft, is a special combination.
Outside of the music itself, is the other 95 percent of what it takes to make it [is] the music business. The rules are changing; the formulas are changing. Everyone is trying to be ahead of the curve on the best way to break an artist. In many ways, the majors are on the same playing field as the indies. So any new artist needs to understand where they fit within the industry’s ever-changing construct, and make it work for them!
SoulTrain.com: Ten years from now, what, if anything, would you like to be doing as a vocalist? Any achievements you would like to have reached?
Amma Whatt: In 10 years, I would love to be established worldwide as a performer that can get on any stage and make you, your kids and your mama-nem laugh, cry, dance, sing, and shout. I hope to have a strong body of work that encompasses my roots music, includes all the folks I’ve wanted to work with, and dares to be innovative and contemporary. I would like to have begun the process of building a school for the arts in a community that is lacking musical and cultural enrichment. Most of all, I’d like to be alive and healthy, sustained by my art, and changing the lives of folks around me for the better.
SoulTrain.com: So, as we come to the end of the interview, and since you are on SoulTrain.com, tell us what episode of Soul Train you enjoyed most and who was on it…we’d love to hear it!
Amma Whatt: Hands down, my favorites episodes feature Patrice Rushen, Sly and the Family Stone, and Vanity 6!!
SoulTrain.com: Classic acts—all of them! Is there anything that you’d like to tell our readers about yourself that you haven’t shared yet?
Amma Whatt: I would just like to express how grateful I am for everyone who has supported this project. I hope to continue to grow as an artist, and represent the rich legacy of soul music. Thank you so much SoulTrain.com!
SoulTrain.com: Thanks again, Amma!
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a writer based in Maryland. Visit her at http://www.KhadijahOnline.com.