Born: Jan. 23, 1999 – Harlem, New York City, N.Y.
Favorite Alums: Jordin Sparks, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson
Musical Influences: Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Yebba, Drake, Childish Gambino.
First Idol Experience: “I don’t remember an age when I didn’t know American Idol. You’d watch how [the contestants] went from somebody who was just auditioning to somebody who is performing on a huge stage and having all of America love them. I thought, ‘I want that to be me one day.’”
Growing up in Harlem and also in New Jersey, Wé Ani’s earliest memory of music is listening to the soundtrack to the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz and then watching the movie. “We had it on VHS. I’d put it in and then I’d hit rewind as soon as I figured out how to hit the rewind button and then I got introduced to The Wiz and I thought, ‘I didn’t know they could do other versions,’ and it blew my mind. So I started diving into a lot of different artists and I knew that music made me feel amazing.”
Later, she became aware of her own vocal talent. “I knew I could carry a tune, but I didn’t think anything of it. I was a little naïve because I thought everybody could sing. I thought in order to be a superstar, you had to do everything, because Whitney [Houston] acted and she sang and she cut a rug on stage. Beyoncé did the same thing. Michael [Jackson] did the same thing. So I thought I’ve got to dance, I’ve got to play an instrument, I’ve got to act. When I was 11, people were telling me, ‘You sound like a grown-up when you sing.’ And I said, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’ My singing voice was really deep and my speaking voice was even higher [than it is now].”
When she was 12 and in middle school, “I was going through a really tough time and I didn’t have anybody. I didn’t have any friends or anything. Luckily I had my family with me, but I had music and that’s when I stumbled upon Queen and I listened to their albums so much. I started singing from a place of desperation, thinking, ‘I have to get this out. If their music can make me feel like that, maybe I can write something that can make somebody else feel a little bit better too.’” That’s when she wrote her first song, “Isolation.” “You wouldn’t think it was written by a 12-year-old. I was listening to a lot of emo stuff, a lot of grungy, strong, aggressive music. I was mentally in a dark place but I was trying to be encouraging for other people.”
In high school, she performed in musicals, including Man of La Mancha, 42nd Street and Celebration. At the same time, the teenage singer was doing homework and also going into New York City to sing in bars. “My goal was to get these adults who were in a bar on a weekday, trying to drink and watch some game, to turn around and watch me.”
Did that happen? “Yes. I’m really hard-headed and stubborn. I wanted to give people a good time.” She wasn’t paid for singing in the bars, but when she was 16, she performed at the Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse through an afterschool prep program and was handed a check for $50. That led to performances at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress and the Apollo, competing four times at that famed venue, winning first place in the adults category twice, even though she was still only 16.