"That’s the problem I have with human beings. They run away from me. Because they don’t understand me"
Expatriate. Activist. Fragile. Political. Singer-songwriter. Rapper. Nigerian-German Nneka contains multitudes, the personal and the political interwoven into an irreducibly complicated whole. In a recent visit to the MTV Iggy studios, she talked to Siddhartha Mitter about her latest album, and why, “in the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks."
It’s been three years since Nneka Egbuna moved back home.
At 19, she had moved away from Nigeria to Germany, her mother’s country, where she studied anthropology and began her music career. But after releasing two albums and getting a little shine on the European circuit, she knew it was time to return.
Now 31, Nneka makes her permanent home in Lagos, Nigeria’s turbulent metropolis.
Lagos is where she gets her energy, where she engages in politics, where she composes songs that weave in and out of the rich Pidgin patois. It’s a place where the power goes out and the police are corrupt and vast amounts of money are made, legally and otherwise, while migrants pour in from the hinterland to scoop up the crumbs.
It’s a raw place, and it’s very Nneka—blunt, vibrant, uncompromising.
The city lends itself to metaphor, and so, given all this, it’s no surprise that Nneka finds a life lesson for humanity in the epic traffic jams that infamously snarl circulation in Lagos, turning the simplest errand into a multi-hour ordeal, breeding frustration and aggressive behaviors of all sorts. As she sees it, the futility of those maneuvers in gridlock tells us something about our souls.
“It could move,” Nneka says. “But we are all rushing, rushing—and then we get to the bottleneck. And then we are all standing still and asking ourselves questions. And that’s our biggest problem. We don’t listen to one another, we don’t complement one another. Because we are stubborn, we are egocentric.”
Is she speaking of Lagosians? Nigerians? All human beings? Or about herself? The best answer is “Yes.”
Because Nneka’s songs toggle back and forth between the personal and the political, the local and the universal, in a way that only the rawest, most self-searingly lyrical artists can pull off. Everything is in play—God, government, love, sexuality, aspiration, self-doubt. It’s all in the title of her new album: Soul is Heavy.
“The soul is heavy,” Nneka says. “In the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. If there were no pain, there would be no inspiration. So it’s coming from a dark place, I would say. But I like the dark. I’ve understood that within the darkness, you can always take something from it. And that is what has made me create an album that is, I think, positive; that uplifts people, gives them courage and hope.”
She might be serious, but she’s not depressed. Slender and a little bit shy, with her mixed-girl light complexion and her exuberant Afro, Nneka breaks into an easy smile as she gets comfortable.
Her eyes widen and she raises her voice to make her points, the volume going up especially when she shifts from standard English to Pidgin, which she does often, daring the non-Nigerian listener to follow along. (It’s fun, and it’s easy.)
Her lyrics are trenchant, not plaintive, laced with allusions to Nigerian literature or the songs of Fela Kuti. The hip-hop and reggae passages mark her belonging to the fraternity of global funk. The guest artists on Soul is Heavy—Black Thought from the Roots and the British MC Ms. Dynamite—show she’s got good taste in friends.
American audiences met Nneka in 2010, with Concrete Jungle—her US debut, which actually compiled top songs from her European releases, Victim of Truth and No Longer at Ease (the latter named after a Chinua Achebe novel). At the same time, a fine mixtape by DJ J.Period wove into her songs spots by the likes of Big Boi, Jay Electronica, Nas, Talib Kweli, and an artist to whom she’s inevitably compared, Lauryn Hill.
Compared to the already excellent Concrete Jungle, Soul is Heavy is, if anything, thicker—a denser sound, heavier beats, an even more confessional voice, and topics that cut straight to the heart of things, where Nigerian proverbs, Biblical allusions, talk of corruption and arrogant men interweave with personal affirmation. The songs were written at different times, she says, but most were composed in Nigeria, by herself on her guitar. They reflect her life now, including what it’s like to work in Nigeria on a day to day basis instead of returning to visit like an expatriate.
“One or two tracks have to do with going back home, trying to tackle how to get along with the system without being able to speak your mind,” Nneka says. “If you speak your mind, anything can happen. I’ve had a couple of incidents speaking my mind. Saying something, when I think it’s not right—whether it be in a traffic jam, whether it be to a policeman who is trying to be dominant, trying to prove that he owns the authority; and of course performing and having a political opinion.”
Once, she was performing at a festival in Port Harcourt, the main city of Nigeria’s oil-producing Delta region (she herself grew up in Warri, not far away), and agents of the State Security Service interrupted the show and threatened her crew with arrest after she started singing “Vagabonds in Power”—her version of a sharply critical political theme first coined by Fela Kuti.
In that region, where Nigeria’s oil wealth is generated amid acute environmental damage and the memory of hanged political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (whom Nneka also name-checks in her music) remains strong, she was pushing the line.
“I’ve had that trouble twice, where the SSS came to harass me on stage,” Nneka says. “I’ve had issues with politicians trying to shut me down. Put it all together and it’s a lot of elements that have made this album become what it is, and me as a person become what I am. It’s never easy for anybody.”
Nneka’s activist streak recalls Fela, of course, but where the Afrobeat titan owned a hyper-masculine, even macho, self-confidence and bluster, Nneka, who is essentially a singer-songwriter, is aware of and interested in her own fragility, and doesn’t hesitate to work it out in her songs.
This puts her in an uneasy place—too emotional and reflective for stereotypically political music, and too angry and engaged in the world to make fun, light, pop. That would be a predicament in the music business anywhere, and it certainly is in Nigeria, which is currently avalanched with local good-times, blinged-out hip-hop and R&B that ranges from brilliant to awful.
But she says she couldn’t simplify her identity if she tried—even if this means being, on some level, always misunderstood.
“I cannot remove the one from the other,” she says. She softens her voice, and for a moment she sounds almost sad: “And that’s the problem I have with human beings. They run away from me. Because they don’t understand me. I can talk to you and say ‘love,’ but actually I’m talking about the system. A song like ‘Do You Love Me Now,’ you would think it’s a relationship issue. And it might be inspired by a personal experience, but I always take it to the next level, and bring in the political aspect. It happens naturally. ‘Do You Love Me Now’ is a track that has to do with how the system has manipulated, made us no longer have an identity to function within the system.”
Again: soul is heavy. And Nneka’s used to being pegged as the intense woman, or worse: “Yeah, complicated. Yes. Or crazy, oh yes.” And yes, there was a time when it got to her. These days, not so much. She feels more free, and less pressure to fit in or be perfect.
“I had to take myself back,” she says. “I’m still trying to liberate myself from it. There are some things that we can change, and some things that we cannot change. Solomon was not a perfect man, in the Bible. But he was given wisdom above all others. He had his commas in his sentence, but God chose him. Most of the people who made names in the Bible, they had flaws. All of them, actually. And that’s fine.”
Early this year, Nneka experienced a moment when she and fellow Nigerian artists from across the spectrum—hip-hop, R&B, Afrobeat, indie singers—all came together with activists, joining huge demonstrations against an ill-timed increase in fuel prices that crystallized mass frustration with the Nigerian government’s corruption and lack of accountability. She was due to travel a few days later, but she says she would not have missed those protests for anything.
“It would have been horrible if I had not been there,” she says. “I had to see it and be part of it. I had never experienced anything like that in my entire life as a Nigerian, when people of different tribes, of different classes came together, to start raising awareness on togetherness and unity. And to express their opinion about the system in general.”
There, alongside Fela’s bandleader sons Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, Fuji/hip-hop singer Ade Bantu, singer-songwriter Keziah Jones, reggaeman Ras Kimono and many more, she felt a solidarity that confirmed that her own journey was not so solitary after all. And more importantly, that for all its ills and frustrations, Nigeria was moving forward.
“It’s an awakening,” Nneka says. “It’s like we’ve tasted from the apple of wisdom, and now we know how it tastes. It tastes sweet.”