Hawa on Her Journey From the New York Philharmonic to the Telfar Runway

The rapper and classically trained composer opens up about finding her sound and the personal stories that inspired her upcoming album.

Photography by Justin French

Hawa wears a Burberry coat with detachable vest, skirt, and pants.
Hawa wears a Burberry coat with detachable vest, skirt, and pants.

When I reach Hawa via FaceTime from her apartment in New York’s Kips Bay neighborhood, the classical-musician-turned-rapper is peering out from below the brim of a trucker hat emblazoned with the words “Booty Hunter” in a kitschy Western font. When it comes to women, Hawa is an open book: An upcoming, yet-to-be-announced album is about repeatedly failing at monogamy. But when it comes to music, the 20-year-old is an avowed perfectionist—no surprise, given that she joined the New York Philharmonic as a fifth grader and never lost a single of its young composers program’s contests. Her 2020 debut EP, The One, built on that precision with an intricate soundscape and clever, boasting lyrics. For W’s annual music issue, the musician opens up about her journey out of the classical sphere, the significance of performing in Italy, and playing her old stuff on the radio on a whim.

The fashion world fell in love with you after your performance at the Telfar show at Pitti Uomo in Florence last year. What was that like?

I thought it was a beautiful thing. Going to places where you don’t usually see Black people—or, to be more specific, Black Africans—shows that the talent that we all have is breathtaking. It made the point that we should all be taken seriously.

Where are you from?

I was born in Berlin and grew up in Saint-Tropez, France, and Central Africa. We were in Conakry [the capital of Guinea], where my grandpa was the prime minister. It’s kind of like upstate New York—a lot of trees and woods and rivers and all that. And then I came to the Upper East Side in New York City.

You used to model, too, right?

Yeah, back in me young days. Being a model is cool and all that—you get to be around beautiful women all the time, which is always a plus. But I want people to come to me as a musician first and a model last.

You’re known as a rapper, but you have a background in classical music. How did you get started as a musician?

When I was like nine, they gave me this letter when I was in school, and I was like, Fuck, man, I’m in trouble. You know when you get an envelope, and they say don’t open it until you get home? So I opened that shit right away. And it was an invitation to the New York Philharmonic Very Young Composers.

What was your level of experience before you got the letter?

I didn’t know anything about classical music. All I knew was TLC and Destiny’s Child. When I was probably 10, they put me into this program at Lincoln Center where advanced composers taught me how to compose. I became a professional at the age of 13, and then by 15, I was over it. With classical music and jazz, you can only express yourself to a certain degree. I’ve always wanted to be an urban, quote, unquote, “musician.”

Do you ever listen to your old stuff?

I was doing this radio show in Paris, and they asked if I still had any of it and wanted to play it. It was this hip-hop R&B station, so they’re playing me rapping and singing, and then two or three minutes later, they just hear a bunch of classical music. I was shocked—it holds up!

Tell me about your album.

It’s about me cheating. It’s true to life. I try to change, but...I’m a repeat offender. I’ve been in the books a couple of times. [Laughs] I’m about 86 percent done with it, and very proud of what I’ve been doing so far. Every song that I put out, I try to make sure that if I’m not the only one doing that type of music, there’s very few.

Hair by Mideyah Parker for Dark and Lovely using Protective Styles; makeup by Ernest Robinson for Pat McGrath Labs; photo assistant: Shen Williams-Cohen; fashion assistant: Julia McClatchy.