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‘I Am Woman’ Singer Emmy Meli on Overnight Fame, Writing a Self-Love Anthem and Accidentally Starting a TikTok Movement

Emmy Meli
Courtesy Emmy Meli

If you’ve opened the TikTok app in the past month, chances are you’ve heard the song “I Am Woman.”

“I am woman/ I am fearless/ I am sexy, I’m divine/ I’m unbeatable, I’m creative/ Honey, you can get in line,” Emmy Meli croons in a rich, raspy tone over a simple yet catchy drum beat. When the 21-year-old singer-songwriter posted a video of herself singing the hook on Oct. 19 to her 5,000 followers, she had no intention of it blowing up or starting a global trend — but TikTok had other plans. By the next day, Meli says, the video had racked up hundreds of thousands of views, and a TikTok movement — in which women compiled photos of themselves matching each adjective — had been born.

@emmymelimusic

“I AM WOMAN” I write the best sh!t when I ain’t trying hahaha #fyp #singer #iamwoman #original #myfinALLYmoment

♬ I AM WOMAN – ❦ emmy meli ❦

“I literally posted it at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and then I went out to a bar with my friends and I really didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t even check my phone the whole rest of the night. The next morning, I woke up and my friends were like, ‘Emily, wake up. Look at your TikTok.’ The explosion had begun,” Meli tells Variety of the video, which now has over 27 million views and half a million videos made to its sound. “And then I was like, well fuck. I have to write the rest of the song now.”

The hook had come to Meli in a dream, in which a black cat was scratching at her. “When I looked it up, it said [that’s] indicative that you’re having trouble embracing your femininity and stepping into your personal power,” Meli explains. “So that kind of stuck with me, and I just made these little mantras to say to myself every morning, hence the ‘I am woman, I am fearless.'”

At rehearsal with her band later that week, Meli started freestyling her mantras as lyrics, but it wasn’t until she returned home that she realized it could be the premise of a song. So she found a simple drum beat on YouTube, set the mantra to music, and the rest is history. With the trend taking off — it’s been used by models and influencers like Ashley Graham, Olivia Ponton and Loren Gray — Meli was now under immense pressure to write, record, mix and master the rest of the song.

@theashleygraham

We are anything we want

♬ I AM WOMAN – ❦ emmy meli ❦

At the time, the Long Beach native was still working a job at a golf course, and took advantage of a slow day working the snack window to pen the rest of the lyrics. “I wanted to continue off the ‘I am’ wave that it was going toward because the song started with a mantra and I wanted it to end with a mantra,” Meli says. “I wanted the whole song itself to be like an affirmation for people, because originally I wrote it to inspire myself everyday.”

The song’s final form starts with the hook and segues to Meli speak-singing a few verses over layered harmonies, before going back to the chorus. It ends with an explosive bridge and final repetition of the hook, with additional vocalizations floating over top. Instrumentally, the original drum beat from YouTube was spiced up with guitar, snares and a glockenspiel, giving the song a shimmery effect. Meli released the final version on Nov. 20 and watcher her numbers continue to grow exponentially — the song now has over 25 million plays on Spotify, boosting Meli’s monthly listener count to over 6 million.

@lorengray

hyping myself up on this lovely thursday

♬ I AM WOMAN – ❦ emmy meli ❦

“I really think that is why TikTok just does something astronomical for musicians, because if your song becomes a trend on there, there’s literally no way that people aren’t hearing it and paying attention to it,” Meli says. “While I was working so tirelessly to finish this song… I had so much more music out on streaming platforms already that people went straight to my Spotify and were like, ‘This girl is really cool, her music is actually sick.’ So that was awesome for me too, because now people are listening to these awesome songs I’ve had out for years.”

In her words, Meli has been “singing since [she] was born.” Inspired by her dad’s love for artists like Minnie Ripperton, Betty Everett, the Temptations and the Beatles — as well as her affinity for Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy, Rihanna, Natasha Bedingfield and Fergie — Meli developed a classic, soulful vocal style. Her rasp and power has even drawn comparisons in her TikTok comments to Winehouse, who Meli grew up idolizing.

“When I was a kid, she was my best friend. I used to sit in my closet with my iPod Nano and listen to ‘Frank’ and ‘Back to Black’ on repeat. She literally raised me, she taught me how to sing,” Meli says of Winehouse. “I think because our vocal ranges are the exact same, like we’re both mezzo sopranos, it was just easy for me to sing. She was always so vulnerable and personal in her songs too, so it just became ingrained in the way I sing. So people comparing me to her? I’m like, ‘Guys. You don’t understand. I could never be her.’ But it is an honor to be placed in even a similar category as Amy Winehouse.”

Although Helen Reddy isn’t on that list of influences, the late singer-songwriter had a massive No. 1 hit of the same name with a similar women-empowerment theme that made it one of the most ubiquitous pop songs of the early ’70s. Only time will tell if Meli’s anthem will have the same effect for a new generation, but it’s looking promising.

Now, Meli has signed with Sony Music’s Disruptor Records and is hard at work on her debut album. And even though the process of going viral overnight has been overwhelming — Meli has had to limit her time on social media to 20 minutes per day for the sake of her mental health — she says the reward has outweighed any challenges.

“People don’t really talk about what it’s like for your entire life to get flipped upside down in 24 hours, and you’re just supposed to figure it out. You’re presented a choice: you either step up to the plate or crumble under the pressure,” Meli says. “The biggest reward is definitely getting to see everything that this song has done for other people. The reason I went into music was to inspire and to create something that nobody had ever created before. I want to help people love each other. I want to bring people together — and that was the biggest dream come true. Not to be morbid, but I could literally die tomorrow and feel complete in my purpose here, and that is something not everyone can say.”

As for her debut album, Meli’s goal is to give people what they’re least expecting. “The project that I have coming out is not going to be what people expect from me, but it’s going to be beautiful, personal and intimate and a little bit on the slower side for some of the songs,” she says. “I’m really just excited to show the world everything I have to offer. Because while ‘I Am Woman’ is an amazing song and is indicative of my talent, I have so much more to show.”