Afra Amba / DJ & Jewelry designer
Named a “promising young talent” after her very first professional deejaying gig at the age of 17, Afra Amba was soon commanding crowds at major events like Mysteryland and Sensation Black. But a combination of stress and unresolved personal issues soon saw her seeking refuge in drugs and alcohol, and taking a hiatus from music altogether. Once on the mend, sheer chance would intervene once again to reveal a new outlet for her imagination: jewelry making, resulting in her second professional career. The biggest lesson from her experiences, though, had more to do with how she saw herself than with business: “I used to be shy and timid, but I began to learn how to approach life without fear,” says Afra.
Interview Daphne van Langen
Translation Siji Jabbar Photography Jerome de Lint
Which song do you never tire of? Ooh, tough one ...
It was meant as an easy opener. It isn’t, though. I love music so much and there are so many styles that I like, that it’s really hard to choose. I’m listening to a lot of Nina Kraviz at the moment — she’s a Russian techno DJ, and I love the way she combines really powerful beats with very minimal numbers. But I may well be into something else next week.
Describe your childhood? I grew up as an only child, in Amsterdam city centre. My dad played viola with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and also worked as a dramaturge and theatre director. There was always music on at home — classical, but also Kate Bush, The Beatles, Eminem, soul music — and it formed a significant part of our life as a family. My mum’s an actor, and met my dad at drama school. I had a wonderful and secure childhood, and have lots of fond memories of the three of us watching films together at the weekend while lying in bed and munching on snacks. Really cosy times.
What were you like as a child? Extremely shy — which I find amusing now as I’m nothing like that anymore. I was bullied at school for my tendency to daydream. I was also dyslexic, so I struggled to keep up and was easily distracted. It’s a pity, but if you’re not considered quick-witted as a kid, everyone treats you as fair game.
Are you upset at the memory? No, it’s not that. I just don’t want it to come across as more significant than it actually was. The experience also shaped me in positive ways. However clichéd this sounds, it made me stronger.
I remember saying to myself when I left primary school: I’ll never let that happen to me again. I flipped a switch and toughened up — became quite lippy.
What do you most have your parents to thank for? They’ve been extremely supportive of my creative pursuits and believed in me. They also taught me to express my emotions. Whenever I got back from school, they would always ask how I felt, how my day had gone. And I think that’s really important, because kids are very sensitive, but when you’re that young you don’t really know how to talk about what’s going on inside, nor even that you’re allowed to talk about it. My dad taught me to let my imagination run wild. We used to perform sketches on the way home from school each day: I would play an abandoned orphan, weeping on the kerb, and he would play my rescuer. Very dramatic stuff! I was quite theatrical as a child: the product of an actor and a director.
Ever consider becoming an actor yourself? Yes, and I took acting lessons in my teens, but I was too insecure to perform. If I was comfortable in a setting, I could be outgoing and theatrical; but I didn’t feel that way in that particular setting. I ended up attending a school in Den Dolder for kids with learning difficulties. I learned much better in small groups, with more guidance, and with exercises that involved lots of repetition. Even so, I didn’t finish high school. It was obvious to my parents that a standard education wasn’t for me, so I was allowed to drop out, provided I got myself a job. I enrolled on a course for aspiring makeup artists, and my only official qualifications to date are my swimming and makeup artist certifications. [Laughs.]
You were fifteen when your father was diagnosed with cancer. How do you deal with something like that at that age? It was a truly awful period, because your teens are already emotionally difficult, aside from whatever else is going on. And I was a daddy's girl. But my parents handled it really well: they involved me in the whole process and were always open and honest with me about the disease. In the end, my dad opted for euthanasia, and I was there when he went. After he died, I was cushioned by the protective care of my parent’s circle of friends. It was around this time that I began to get a clearer sense of who I felt most comfortable around, and who not so much. Two of my mum’s friends, Michiel and Lily, took me under their wing, and became almost like second parents, near enough that I knew I could count on them without question.
Did you also have close friends nearer your own age? Growing up as an only child, I found I preferred the company of adults. And having such an intense emotional experience at so young an age put me one step ahead of my peers. I remember that as a sixteen year old I used to hang out with people in their twenties, such as the girl who used to babysit me, Karlijn, became a good friend, and I was allowed to go out on the town with her.
And thus began your nightlife experience. Yes. Karlijn worked at Stereo Sushi, a bar that had DJs on vinyl decks, and soon enough I was into electronic music, and quickly became a big fan of DJ Miss Kitten. It was a revelation to me that you could deejay like that and I was dying to do the same, so I began asking the resident DJ for tips. Then one Wednesday night, I got my first proper lesson, and I loved it. I picked it up fairly quickly. Next thing, I dipped into my savings to buy a mixer and a pair of turntables. Since I was born, my mum had been putting aside money for my education, but now that higher education was no longer on the cards, I was allowed to dip into the account to buy records, and I was soon practising all night in my attic room.
How did you get your first professional gig? After my dad died, my mum could no longer bear to stay in the home they’d made together, so she moved out; but I stayed — I was 17 at the time — and a friend moved in with me. A friend of this friend was doing her internship at the renowned Studio 80, and got me a one-hour slot. I was so nervous, standing there all flushed and stressed out behind the decks. But it went well and brought me some attention as a “promising young talent”. It was my entry into the world of professional deejaying, and I was soon performing at major events like Mysteryland and Sensation Black.
Yet you didn’t quite break through completely, and eventually stopped performing. What happened? I was in a relationship with a fellow musician, who happened to be 13 years older than me. I looked up to him, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was looking for a sort of protector. I’d fallen out of love with him after one year together, but stayed with him for another four because I needed the safe haven that he represented. Anyway, he thought he was helping me with my music, but in reality he was being controlling, which had the complete opposite effect: his tips made me very indecisive and insecure, and I lost all pleasure in deejaying and in music. I wasn’t really ready for the limelight, either; I wasn’t yet comfortable in my skin. I knew I had the talent for it, but I couldn’t handle the pace and the pressure. I needed to first process a particular personal experience, namely the loss of my father.
How did you do that? By admitting that I wasn’t okay, and that I’d become dependent on cocaine and alcohol. It was normal in the entertainment industry to down a bottle of wine after your shift. I was young, insecure and didn’t give a shit about anything, and music gave me access to a world that offered easy escape: sex, drugs, rock 'n’ roll; I indulged and went too far.
Fortunately, it didn’t go on for too long, and I was already in therapy by the time I caught myself, which helped. My mum got involved, too, and I told my friends what I was going through. I cleaned up my act fairly quickly; and I was diagnosed with ADD — coke and speed had had a calming effect on me, which tends to happen with people with ADD. But thanks to my medication, things began to settle down. I grew calmer and was able to structure my days in a way that made everything run smoothly. I also broke up with my boyfriend, which felt liberating. It was like a fresh start, the start of a new phase.
Was that when you began to grieve? No, that came much later. I moved four years ago, and it wasn’t easy: this was our family home, a shrine to my dad, and I really didn’t want to leave. But I had to. Cees van Ede, a friend of my dad’s, wrote a book about his memories of my dad and my dad’s final days. I read it and a dam broke: I wept uncontrollably, and spent hours in the bathroom screaming into a pillow. I had to let it out. I’m so grateful to that man.
You turned to making jewelry in 2014. How did that come about? Purely by chance, actually. I’d been looking for something to buy myself, but couldn’t find anything I liked. So you could say that it was born of necessity, for selfish reasons. I considered enrolling on the jewellery course at the crafts school in Schoonhoven, but my dyslexia had left me with reservations about educational institutions. Eventually, Michiel, my surrogate dad, introduced me to Kaja Hasnaoui, an Amsterdam-based jeweller from whom he sometimes bought stuff for Lily. Kaja showed complete confidence in me from the moment we met. I became her apprentice and was allowed to experiment, use her workshop and buy materials at cost price. I can never thank her enough for that; I wouldn’t be here today without her. What she did by taking me under her wing is quite rare in the industry.
How did you benefit from this apprenticeship? I got her individual attention, which meant direct communication and more focus. I learned by doing, which is how I learn best. Reading doesn’t really work for me; I need to see and imitate. Nonetheless, I still lacked confidence in my abilities as a jeweller. And then the day arrived when I had to set a stone in a ring. Stone setting is a delicate and nerve-racking task: it’s quite easy to break the stone, which means starting all over again. So I asked Kaja if she’d do it, as I was too scared to do it myself. To which she replied: “Afra, you just have to get on with it; besides, I can’t spare the time and I know full well that you can do it.” That was the turning point, the confirmation from my teacher that I was ready to go out into the world as a jeweller. So I went ahead and did it, in a state of complete stress and with sweat dripping from my armpits. I was so proud of myself when I finished that I almost wept.
You knew there and then that this was it; that you were now ready to earn your living as a jeweller? No, far from it! I’ve never had ambitions to start a company or label. It all happened organically. I basically had a tiny workspace that grew into a studio. I began by making pieces for myself and to sell to friends. People liked what I made and my commissions grew from there.
And thus emerged your label. How did you go about setting this up? I have my friends and my close network to thank for its establishment, without which you wouldn’t be interviewing me today. One friend built my website, for free; another designed my logo; then I heard from yet another that I needed a lookbook. I had someone take some really good pictures of my work, which I began posting every day on Instagram at regular intervals. Next thing I knew I was getting orders from abroad. Purely through Instagram! You can really attract international attention if you approach it the right way.
How exactly did you do that? Through a combination of common sense and the right hashtags. I studied what other brands were doing, talked to experts who help companies to maintain their visibility and just tried things out to see what worked.
What’s been your worst rookie mistake? [Sighs.] I allowed myself to fall for “influencers”. Nowadays the word almost makes me want to puke — beautiful people whose only talent appears to be the ability to Photoshop their beautiful selfies. Actually, a few of the collaborations weren’t a complete waste of time; but there were also “influencers” that took the jewellery and didn’t post a thing. It taught me to trust my instincts, as I hadn’t felt comfortable with the practice in the first place but had gone along with it because my orders were down.
African culture seems to be one of your greatest sources of inspiration. How come? It’s hard to explain the affinity; could be that I have a bit of Africa in my blood. I’m a quarter Surinamese, which, strictly speaking, isn’t African, but there is a connection. I don’t research the history or tradition of African jewelry to make my designs; instead, I proceed by intuition, and by associations generated by terms like “women’s empowerment” and “pride”. A piece of jewelry can reflect or enhance an emotion. I feel empowered when I wear my jewelry. It has to do with the shapes: the arrows, triangles — archetypes. They’re simple, but refined. I deliberately chose a dark-skinned model with a shaved head for my lookbook, because my work achieves its greatest effect when worn by people with that look. Aja, the model I chose, is now a friend.
You work only with fair trade sterling silver and 14-carat gold. I think precious metals are the most beautiful materials. I like to keep things as pure as possible, and gold is such a wonderful metal to work with: it’s softer and shinier than silver, and it doesn’t tarnish. Working with gold made me a bit twitchy in the beginning, simply because it’s so precious. But now I just make sure all the particles fall into a receptacle as I work, and after half a year I typically have about a couple of gram’s worth. We mustn’t waste gold. We’re running out of it, and if we’re not careful there’ll be none left for my grandchildren’s generations.
How did you find suppliers you could trust? Initially via Kaja, but I’ve since built up my own network. I attend trade shows and pretend to be someone important. I buy in bulk and bluff a bit, play the part — ever the actress. I’ve become quite businesslike, believe it or not. Running my own business brought that out in me.
What would you like your jewelry to say about you? My goal is to live fearlessly. I used to be shy and timid, but I began to learn how to approach life without fear during my last serious relationship, which was with a guy called Joris. He was a complete eccentric who wasn’t afraid of anything. He could walk unannounced into a restaurant kitchen to shake everyone’s hand and compliment the staff. It was through him that I learned that it was okay to let others see who you were. And I think some of that is reflected in my jewellery.
What qualities do you need as a jewellery designer? I think you need to be willing to experiment and take risks — it comes back again to living fearlessly. It’s one of the reasons Amsterdam feels quite boring at the moment, and why I love to visit Berlin. There, a guy doesn’t have to be gay to feel it’s okay to appear in public with a row of earrings dangling from one ear. I just love it when people feel free enough to experiment and think unconventionally.
Would you like to actually move to Berlin? I already spend a week of each month in Berlin, for inspiration rather than to socialize. Berghain is particularly good for this; it’s the most famous techno club in the world, and they have a very strict door policy. You don’t get in if they suspect you’ve merely come to gape at people. The place attracts the most extraordinary looking people — from transgender people to half-naked clubbers — it’s got a very arty and creative vibe, and they play my kind of music. I find it a bottomless source of inspiration. You can club from Saturday night till Monday morning if you like, and some actually do that, but those days are behind me. Nowadays, I usually just head over after a hearty Sunday-morning breakfast, and head back home completely recharged around dinnertime.
You’ve begun deejaying again. What qualities do you need as a DJ? And are there any similarities between your two passions? Regarding similarities, absolutely! You need to experiment and take risks as a DJ, too. My sets are so varied and unpredictable. A fellow DJ once said to me after one of my sets: “Awesome music, great segues, but you need to stick to one style.” I considered this a compliment, as I don’t want to have to stick to one style, neither in music nor in fashion. If I feel like pairing a skirt with sneakers one day and heels with a suit the next, that’s what I’ll do. And if I feel like mixing a very deep acid number with happy house, that’s what I’ll do, too. Why restrict yourself to one thing when you can delight people and keep them on their toes with the unexpected?
What advice would you like to have had early in your career? Good question … let me think. Ok, on the one hand, nothing, because I’m happy with the way things have unfolded, and I don’t regret anything. However, on the other hand, I could probably have made my life easier if I’d learned to reveal more of myself much sooner.
What advice would you give any autodidacts that are hoping to follow their dreams? It’s a cliché, but if you follow your heart and passion, nothing will stop you. So if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, you needn’t worry about anything; you can conquer the world. I really believe that.
And which of the two represents your primary passion, your label or your music? That’s a bit like asking a mum to choose between her two kids. Music is a passion and making jewelry gives me peace of mind. I lose track of time when I’m doing either, but in different ways.
Explain the difference. Making jewelry is almost meditative. Your mind empties out, and you’re in a sort of zone where you can really concentrate and focus. When you’re peering through a magnifying glass as you work on a link, for instance, there’s no room to think. With music, on the other hand, you’re on a sort of sonic journey through a variety of moods. A piece of music can conjure a whole movie in my mind. I don’t have that when I make jewelry.
Would you say you’ve got everything more or less in balance now? Absolutely. I need to make jewelry so I can make music, and vice versa. I’m usually here during the week from nine to five, which is nice; and the days themselves are quite varied: sometimes I’m visiting shops or out of town; other times I might be at the studio the entire day, or talking to clients about special commissions. I like the variety and the stability; it gives me a sense of security. The music is more of an adventure. When I’m due to play a set, I get butterflies in my stomach. It truly is my first love.