Almira Zaky’s earliest musical memory was jamming out to R&B music in the car when she was six years old with her friend and friend’s mom. “It just came so naturally to me,” she says. During one ride, Zaky was singing along to every lyric of Mariah Carey’s discography. “My mom was in the car as well, and [my friend’s mom] looked at my mom and was like, ‘I hope you know that your daughter is going to become a singer.’ ”
In middle school, Zaky, who is of Indonesian descent and grew up in Herndon, joined a youth community organization called “Indonesian Kids Performing Arts,” where she performed all over the Washington area, such as at the Embassy of Indonesia and at the Cherry Blossom Festival. But it wasn’t until her college years that her solo music career took root. At Virginia Commonwealth University, Zaky helped to book artists, including Travis Scott, Masego, and GoldLink, for the school’s homecoming events, which proved to be fruitful for her music aspirations. “Before I knew it, I was connected to DJs, producers, studio owners, artists, and managers,” Zaky says. “I was able to use the professional experience that I had as the booking director toward my own music career.” She landed singing gigs at H Street’s Pie Shop, Union Stage at the Wharf, and at Union Market venue Songbyrd.
Last month, Zaky, 24, released her debut EP Learn To Love, an album heavily influenced by ’90s music and early-2000s R&B songstresses. “They are super unapologetic. They’re super bold about what they speak about,” she says.
And just a few weeks ago, Zaky represented Virginia on American Song Contest, a singing competition show that pits states and territories against one another to earn the title of America’s best original song. She performed “Over You” on March 28 and, although she was eliminated, she has a chance to return in the competition’s redemption round, which takes in consideration her song’s streaming numbers. In the meanwhile, she plans to release more music and tour. We caught up with Zaky to talk about her time on the show, her music career, and what’s next.
It’s been a week or so since you performed and learned that you didn’t make it to the next round. How are you feeling now?
Honestly, I’m just so grateful for the opportunity. I am just filled with love and support because I was able to leave it all on the stage. That was really my goal going into this, just being able to share my story on the big stage. Being able to rep my culture, rep Virginia and everything that I embody within my own artistry.
How was your overall experience on American Song Contest?
I have friends all over the country now. Before this, I never knew anybody from Kansas, North Dakota, or the Virgin Islands. They kind of feel like family to me, and we kind of all refer to each other as like summer camp friends. Overall, I think it just taught me so much about myself: how I perform under pressure, how to really get my fans and supporters excited for something like this, and how to make it feel like it’s something for everyone. Now I can say I’ve performed on live TV, which is something that a lot of artists can’t say until later on in their career.
Tell me about your performance, which incorporated your Virginia upbringing and your Indonesian heritage.
Being Indonesian Muslim is so important to me. So that’s what we incorporated into my outfit: the henna on my hand, which was traditional for Muslim women to wear on big days, like their wedding day, Ramadan, or Eid—obviously, this is my big day in a different way; gold is a very big color in Indonesia; and the headpiece plays a role [in the outfit] because I’m Muslim.
With the choreography, there’s traditional Indonesian dances where Indonesian women will dance while sitting down or kneeling on their knees and use a lot of quick hand motions. That’s why my dancers had that type of choreography. The whole concept of my stage design was almost like we were shipwrecked as sea goddesses and mermaids because in Indonesian mythology, there’s a lot of sea goddesses, and that’s why there was a water hologram on the floor.
The song [“Over You”] kind of gives off that ’90s and early 2000s-reminiscent vibe. It pays homage to the people that have come out of Virginia and made history in the music scene–Pharrell, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Pusha T, just to name a few people. They have really shaped and shifted the culture in R&B and hip-hop music.
Did you get to meet the other artists who represent the DMV? Would you collab with them in the future?
I actually got to meet Nëither my last week when I was there and I’m really excited for him to rep DC and the DMV. I did not get to meet Sisqó yet, but Sisqó is a huge name in R&B. So hopefully one day I’ll be able to do a collab with both of them. They’re both very talented artists, and I know they’re just gonna do amazing in the competition.
Are there any DC-area venues that are on your bucket list to perform at?
Definitely the Capital One Arena. I grew up going there for so many different concerts, so I would just love to perform there one day. I would love to sing the National Anthem at a Washington Commanders game. The Anthem is a big one as well.
Do you have any dream collaborations with artists who were born or raised in the DMV?
I mean, literally like everyone, but if I had to choose, Pharrell, Timbaland, Chris Brown, Ari Lennox, and Missy Elliott. I would also love to work with Cordae, IDK, and Wale.
What’s next for you? Where do you hope for your career to be in a year or so?
My team and I are working on a lot of different things. You can definitely expect more music. You’ll definitely see me perform with bigger artists, at festivals, and hopefully getting a tour together by fall time.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.