Words and Interview by Priscilla Djirackor.
Although she’s been a widely acclaimed artist for quite a while in Europe and Africa, Nneka is just beginning to get the attention she ought to receive in the US. The Nigerian-German singer and songwriter became better known in the western hemisphere about two years ago, after she toured alongside Nas and Damian Marley on the Distant Relatives Tour. Nneka Egbuna has since released two albums (Concrete Jungle and Soul Is Heavy), dispensing her healing sound – blending soul, reggae, hip hop and folk – to distant shores from Paris to Rio.
Having performed with the Roots, Lenny Kravitz among others and having recently wrapped a US bicoastal tour for her fourth album, the Warri, Nigeria-born artist is currently preparing for a sojourn in South America. As politically charged as she is culturally aware, Nneka shared some of her thoughts about the US, her love-hate relationship with her homeland, the VIPs (as she defines them) and the future of Africa.
Soul Is Heavy is your fourth album, but only the second to be released in the US where you are quickly becoming well-known. Tell us a little about your first impressions of the audience and how you feel the perception of you has changed here since the Distant Relatives Tour.
I must say the turnout has been great. We have toured the States twice this year, with an acoustic set and a full band set. I have the impression that people urge to be themselves, and that the type of music we make helps them do so. The music carries a lot of weight, honesty and truth, and can even be painful to hear at times but this is what we keep running away from. I must be true to myself within my music or I would be a liar.
Your music is politically and spiritually charged. How would you like to impact people with your work?
It’s left to the world to decide what to do with my music. We exchange energies daily. Take what is good for you. Give what is good for you. Then only can we all truly live life.
What would be the one song you’d pick from Soul Is Heavy that most accurately gets your message across?
It would be “Soul Is Heavy” which is the title track, and due to the message I decided to title the entire album after this track. It’s the story of the strife and grief of the people of Nigeria, the tribal conflict between the Igbos and other tribes especially the northerners, the religious problem of Boko Haram [a fundamentalist Islamic group known to strongly oppose man-made laws and modern science, and responsible for thousands of deaths in Nigeria]… And the connection to America. It’s also about finding solutions for a better world, which I think means unity regardless of the color of our skin or our heritage.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you compose?
It varies. At times I have a beat first and then I write. Sometimes I have a melody in my head and I pick up the guitar to develop the song. Other times I just write without any melodies, and I end up using those lyrics when I think I have the appropriate instrumental that would bring out and depict the emotions of what I have written. I think it’s important to learn instruments, whenever one has a little space. Be eager to learn and love your instrument. I have to discipline myself a lot because I get easily frustrated.
What was the inspiration behind Soul Is Heavy? What did you intend to achieve?
Soul Is Heavy is extremely raw and undefined I must say. Most of the tracks were composed by me while I was in Nigeria, and some of the tracks were eventually also recorded in Nigeria. It was a different approach. Some people say it sounds less African than ever. I guess that’s the vibe we picked up though it was recorded in a very dark place, in my Lagos one-room apartment. I wanted it to be close to the ears, close to people’s hearts, and nothing in between. I had traveled a lot before recording this album and had to process all the things I had taken in, especially the difficulties on the previous tour and also my love-hate relationship with Nigeria, the unstable political state, the constant kidnappings and the killings because of religion. In addition, I also wanted to express myself as a producer. I have learned that you can’t be a master of everything; you can try, but respect the presence of people around you because they are there to complement you.
Nigeria, as many other African countries, has to deal with the big issue of corruption. Immense wealth and resources, yet people are starving. You refer to a certain class of VIPs in an eponymous song (“Vagabonds in Power”). Who are they and how does your music contribute to changing the situation?
We are all part of the VIPs, though Fela would address this song to our political leaders and the western world. I support this view, but I also see us being part of the problem. Responsibility has to be taken and we need to understand how powerful our contribution to the change we want can be. I have several issues performing this song. I almost got arrested when I addressed the issue of the Niger Delta and oil when I was on stage in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Facts are facts. People need to be helped and supported. If we lack the necessary institutions and infrastructure, many of us will remain illiterate and ignore the power of our voice. I use the stage to address these issues and share the little knowledge I have in empowering people.
How do you feel about being compared to Fela Kuti?
I look up to Fela. Out of the frustration and helplessness, I ended up not becoming a militant blowing up pipelines but a musician. We live under a fake reality where people are so afraid. Then we bring in God, who supposedly will punish us for us standing up for our rights. God loves us. Why should he punish us? We have misunderstood the whole concept! But back to the question, I am a fan of Fela, Bob Marley, Gandhi and Thomas Sankara. I’m even more a fan of people who chose to be selfless and speak out for the masses.
How aware of your work are Africans?
I’ve toured Africa this year. We did an East African tour: Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Rwanda. We have also been to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar and Mayotte. We did some shows in Ghana, a couple of workshops with young women in the arts. Africa knows my work and it is dear to me to spread this love in my hometown.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
I don’t really know, but I would do something that I will do with my heart. I never really decided. I just went with the flow.
What should we expect in the near future? Any collaboration in the works?
I am working on a new record. And yes, I’m working on some collabs… but I still want to make sure I got them before I mention them.
For all the young, creative Africans out there who, like you, believe that “Africa is the Future”, what is your piece of advice on how to make the dream for a better Africa true?
What should the new generation be doing and what mistakes should they avoid?
Take advantage of educating yourself. Be attentive. Take in what you think is good for you. If you ever get rich, use your material wealth wisely and do some constructive work with it.
Thank you for your love and support.