Meet Era Istrefi

Meet Era Istrefi



Photography: Fadil Berisha

Styling: Blair Berisha

Text: Natasha Stagg

Era Istrefi is coming for the States. Known in certain circles as the Albanian Rihanna, the Pristina, Kosovo native made her first trip to New York City last fall (her first stop, the V Magazine offices, of course), barely escaping the press at the airport on her way out. As stealth as she was, during the identity process, a security guard recognized Istrefi, a photo or two was snapped, and the rumors ensued. What is Era Istrefi planning to do in America? asked the tabloids. She’s used to having to hide her whereabouts, her bright blonde (and now lavender) dreadlocks making her more recognizable from a distance than even her sister, the massively successful Nora Istrefi, who is six years Era’s senior. Some of the attention the 19-year-old pop princess receives comes from a spillover of Nora’s fans, but their styles, both musically and visually, differ greatly. Istrefi is the first to point that out. “She likes that commercial music,” Era says about her sister over tea. “It makes her feel good. Me too, sometimes, I like some commercial songs, why not? But me…Maybe I am more of an introverted person. I like spiritual music and spiritual places.” While in New York, the singer came out of her shell for a photo shoot with friend Fadil Berisha, as part of this exclusive. In reflective latex and blood red lips, Era, with years of advice from a sister—who too has weathered a shaky public eye—under her belt, truly transformed in front of the camera. She may be “introverted,” but the petite, naturally striking teen was born to bask in the spotlight.

Where Nora’s Albanian-language hits are more commercially viable in the Middle East, Era’s mix of new and ancient beats (she names Rihanna and Lana Del Rey as her biggest inspirations, and mentions she includes traditional instruments like the çifteli), her reggae and rap influences, and a sampling of English words throughout her mostly Albanian songs, has positioned her as having a more global sound—and that position comes with its risks. Breaking out as an non-English pop star whose influence is mostly American has never been easy for anyone, as it’s unlikely the English-speaking public will immediately relate to this type of act, and on top of that, the choice to mix and match cultures can isolate fans at home. With the quick and unanchored travel of music and images online, the stigma of unpatriotic pop is fading away, but it isn’t invisible quite yet. For her music video for “E dehun,” Era Istrefi was finally talked about in the international press last year, but mostly because the video depicted the half-nude Istrefi dancing in a church. “It wasn’t supposed to be a church in the first place,” she argues. “I wanted two spaces. One white and glorified, pure. And the other one I wanted to be darker. I kind of wanted to explain to people my two-sided personality. And the church part has been misunderstood. It wasn’t my intention to put religion in my video. It was all a misunderstanding.” Either way, outrage ensued, mostly in the comments sections in news articles online. “That church started being built in the time when Kosovo was under heavy Serbian suppression,” explains Istrefi’s manager, Errold Belegu. “It was unfinished, just an abandoned building. Actually, the [outrage] was never in Kosovo. It came from Serbia.”

But controversy isn’t the only thing that has people talking about Era Istrefi. Clearly, her personal style reaches beyond her hometown, too, and although she may look like just another culture-clashing pop star, her look, in its consistancy and extremity, easily represents a young person truly dedicated to her own right of self-expression in the face of mediocrity. Millenials everywhere relate not only to her music’s message, but to her aesthetic, which, she says comes from both the Pristina marketplace and the internet, a clever integration of classic Middle Eastern grace into a classic Rihanna-style no-fucks-given attitude. And the numbers don't lie: her Instagram account, @strefie, had just reached 50k when she was visiting, and is, after the release of her fourth official music video, just above 61k. Even if she insists she has no qualms with haters (“Yes, I get negative attention on social media, quite often, but I don’t say, These people right here are my haters, I say, These people have issues"), the very small sample of similarly dressed stars coming from her region proves that what she’s attempting, especially at her young age, is an incredibly bold move. And she’s just getting started. “Being a pop star in Kosovo feels great, but being an English-language pop star must be greater, because you have the opportunity to reflect on many, many, more souls. Albanians are a little bit more judgmental, but they will know me. I believe that they will understand my true intentions. [Overall,] I see the world as a small, lovable place.”

After travelling back to Pristina, Istrefi, with new perspective, checked in again with V just before her music video for “13” was released. “My trip to New York was…trippy,” she laughs. “Everything seemed so futuristic. Maybe many people there don’t realize this, but compared to my country, New York is like, 100 years ahead. Turning back home, I was fully inspired. I didn’t want to leave the city, and it felt like I had woken up from a beautiful dream when I got home, but my dreams seemed to be closer.” She has obviously been at work since her getaway, on “13,” which she says is inspired by a lost love, and on “a lot of songs with different producers and artists. More so, I’m working and practicing on live performances, and my social media feeds.” She’s also working on her English. “I want learn to speak it without pauses. I have so many things on my mind that I want to talk about!”Click through the slideshow above to see an exclusive VMagazine-com editorial, and to watch Era Istrefi's latest music video, for "13"

Credits: make up Isabel Perez


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