November 07, 2012

Seventeen-year-old Amy Kabba paces the stage of an East London dive in short-shorts and vertiginous ankle boots, working the crowd to perfection with perky between-song banter and a swagger that could fill arenas. Running through her set, which includes the Jamaican-inflected, booty-winding hooks of “Ride or Die” and the two-step-influenced summer jam, “Find a Boy,” she stirs a melting pot of pop. Kabba, who performs as A*M*E, knows her songs are good—a track she co-wrote debuted at number one in Korea, care of K-pop girl group f(x)—and with a T-Pain collaboration already in the can, she has her sights set on chart conquests of her own.

Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Kabba and her family fled the country for south London when she was just eight. She describes her former neighborhood as a village within a city. “I went to collect water everyday, our toilets were a hole in the ground, we all showered in front of each other. It was a really tight-knit community,” she says. “It was great growing up there, so different. Coming from somewhere war-torn just gives you a drive.”

As much as she appreciates her past, Kabba has fully embraced her adopted home. Immersing herself in both the school choir and ’90s pop, she found a kindred spirit with fellow 17-year-old producer MNEK, and together the pair laid down tracks in a makeshift bedroom studio. But it wasn’t until she was scouted at a school talent show that Kabba piqued the interest of Take That’s Gary Barlow, who runs Universal imprint Future Records.

Since signing, Kabba has been singular in her pursuit of pop, releasing a clutch of online-only singles, touring with British supremos Jessie J and JLS and jetting off to Sweden to write with producers Quiz & Larossi (The Pussycat Dolls) and Carl Falk and Rami Yacoub (Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears). “I go into sessions with experienced writers and take it like a lesson,” she says. “I’ll bring a pen and a pad and try to learn from them because I’m not just a singer. I’m an okay writer, but I think they could help me become really great.”

All these experiences, plus the behind-the-scenes graft of studio sessions, photoshoots and rehearsals, are detailed in Kabba’s candid online video series “Diaries of a Pop Princess,” as well as an eponymous print and online zine featuring makeup tips, quotes from her favorite TV shows and a tongue-in-cheek advice column authored by an imaginary Agony Uncle, Ken Kofi, whose avatar is a Ken doll trussed up in colorful Ntama, a traditional African wrap. As she sees it: “My fans should almost feel like they’re my friends. They can see that I’m a normal teenager.” As much as Kabba’s tastes skew adolescent, her songwriting boasts a knowingness that belies her years. “In my head I’m this 20-year-old woman. I don’t know whether it was the war or coming over here, but I felt like I needed to be grown-up. Plus I’m really small. My mum’s always like, Amy, you’ve got to be larger than life because you’re so tiny!” There’s plenty of room for growth, but Kabba’s already formidable at four-foot-11, and she’s only just starting to hit her stride.