Across the street from an ice cream shop and next door to a health food outpost for Berlin’s Brooklyn castaways, Ah Mer Ah Su and I sit slumped into a couch in Neukölln’s cavernous music venue, arkaoda. It’s in this nondescript venue, accessible through the back of a bar, that Dice Festival, an event “designed to support the work of female, trans and non-binary artists and professionals in the music industry,” has set up shop for three nights of performances by the likes of FAKA and Lyzza.
It’s an ideal fit for the Black transwoman singer, songwriter, and producer whose voice has been described as “Nina Simone meets Anohni” and whose tracks cover everything from mental health and drug use ("Klonopin") to white privilege ("Meg Ryan"). Yet, as sobering as her lyrics may be, it’s her catchy, cute melodies that lift the music into dancehall-ready bops. It’s no wonder that she was a presence at the festival last year and, this year, she’s been tasked with performing a medley of tracks and been asked to speak on a panel about intersectionality and tokenism in the music industry.
Her return to Berlin comes a year after the singer made the culturally-packed city her home base as she toured Europe for her debut EP, Rebecca. Now fresh off the release of her full-length album Star earlier this year and, more recently, a new single covering The Knife’s track “Heartbeat,” she is riding high.
As she finished up her sound check and settled into the green room ahead of her panel and performance later that day, we talked to Ah Mer Ah Su about crying over Feist, uplifting trans narratives, and why Caitlyn Jenner needs to give “some of that white guilt coin to the girls.”
OUT: How’d you get involved with Dice Festival?
Ah Mer Ah Su: Last year I came to Berlin for two months and did shows all over Europe. Some people had seen me perform and later in the year, when they were doing [the festival] they contacted me wanting to bring me. I did that festival and this year, [I] did it again — it was really exciting.
Dice is all about supporting female, trans and non-binary artists. How did it feel to be so involved with an event like this so far from Oakland?
I like it. I’m used to going to other places and doing these sorts of things. In Australia this past spring, I did a lot of shows with other people of color and judged a ball with the community there. It’s cool to pop into different communities. It’s a global trend of people wanting to uplift our narratives right now, which is great.
It’s also so much easier to connect now online. What has your experience been in meeting with these communities all across the world?
For a lot of my youth, I felt so isolated. Because of the internet, in rural places or places that may be less accepting can find their niche communities.
You’re on a panel for Dice about intersectionality and tokenization in the music industry. What has been your personal experience with that?
As someone who creates music that’s not necessarily just party music, I’ve found that I’m given even less space than others because people really want to see black girls twerking or rapping.
Fulfilling a stereotype.
Yeah. If you’re not doing that, there’s so much less coin. That’s really interesting. What I tap into is that the people who listened to [my album] need it, and that’s what’s important. I can’t focus on being upset that I’ve been ignored in some spaces.
People often want music they can just party to.
Yeah, which is fine. I love an escape. When I made this album, I tried to make some of the songs more of that.
Photography: Xavier Villaluz
So many narratives about trans people and LGBTQ people, in general, are usually sad. Like, okay we can have fun too. We’re having just as much fun as straight people — we’re having more fun than straight people.
Exactly. The girls can shake their asses at the club. I was trying to make some music for that purpose but with stories underneath it. Everything has a real story to it. Every single song I’ve ever written.
Yeah, and your voice lends itself to that. I’ve heard people compare your voice to Anohni and Nina Simone. Is there any artist you think you sound like that nobody has compared you to yet?
Some of my songs are super inspired by Feist. Nobody ever says Feist. I’m the biggest fan of hers. If I could work with anyone, it would be her. I would literally cry.
You just did a cover of “Heartbeats” by The Knife. Is there a song that you absolutely want to cover but haven’t had a chance to yet?
It would be funny if I covered something by Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston and did it in my own style. That would be cunty but I don’t even know, girl. It’ll be a surprise.
Re-record the Titanic soundtrack.
You were in Berlin last summer. A lot of criticism I heard before I moved was that it wasn’t very racially diverse here. What was your experience with that?
I think the people I know are pretty diverse but I’m always in that scene. If you were a different person, you could come here and not see the diversity. The black community here is a bit more separate. Specifically, because a lot of the black folks that are from here or raised here are often African immigrants and their communities are very separated.
I feel that when people move here from the United States or another country, the expat communities tend to be very tight.
I’ve definitely experienced anti-black racism, especially from the Turkish community in Neukölln. There’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia, but I still wonder if maybe I should move to Berlin. You can tune it out so much easier here than in the U.S. There it’s super aggressive and here you can move on easier. I do think white supremacy is a global issue and there are certain places where it’s more in your face. Honestly, I prefer that. I would rather racists be in my face versus going to a party and being surrounded by people and not realizing that they’re white supremacists because that’s what the tea is in Berlin sometimes. You can go to a venue and have no idea.
One good thing about moving away from the U.S. is that you can get away from the news notifications that are almost always about Trump. It’s a lot for your mental health.
I have to be off of Facebook for my mental health. I have only my fan page so I don’t have to see anyone else’s posts but my own and even that sometimes is a lot. I can’t live in this world that is such an echo chamber. I think politics can be very performative, especially on Facebook. We’re spiraling together and I don’t really want to spiral right now, actually.
What coping mechanisms do you have to get through the day besides cutting yourself off from Facebook?
Social media I take really long breaks from. I don’t ever watch the news and if I do, I try to watch news outside of the U.S. because American news feels like propaganda.
I mean, it is sometimes. Especially on Fox News.
Honestly, I have to say that whole We Won’t Be Erased moment that happened last week felt like propaganda to get people to vote. When people were saying all this stuff about Trump and trans people I was like, y’all this is literally nothing new. Having federal protections doesn’t actually protect the majority of people. It’s literally for people who want to take things to court and who usually takes things all the way to the judicial system? It’s not trans women of color.
It goes to women like Caitlyn Jenner who is suddenly disappointed in Trump.
Right! Bitch, you made your bed now lay in it, girl. If you want to change your tune, fine sis. But give some of that white guilt coin to the girls so they can fucking survive. It’s astounding to me how many girls have Go Fund Me pages. Can the girls just get a coin or have positions of power so they’re making money?