Nneka: The Interview!
The Wrap Up’s Afrobeat columnist, Nonny Orakwue, recently caught up with Nneka, the critically acclaimed Afrobeat artist, MOBO-winner and current face of Reebok Europe, on the back of her recent European tour surrounding the release of her 'Soul Is Heavy' album. Check it out as Nneka talks about African stereotypes, touring, working with Ms Dynamite and Chase & Status, and more...
The Wrap Up: Since the release of your first album, ‘Victim Of Truth’, a lot of comparisons have been made between yourself and Lauryn Hill, but how would you describe your sound?
Nneka: Simple, complicated and dynamic.
TWU: You grew up in the troubled Niger Delta region of Nigeria and later moved to Germany as a teen. How has this experience influenced your music?
Nneka: It has obviously had an impact on me as a person, as well as musically, culturally, mentality and identity-wise. Listening to the type of music I grew up with, like King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti and experiencing different things and conditions and hardship, as well as the good times in Nigeria, has definitely carved me into who I am. I think I have become a very strong person. If you’re able to grow up in Nigeria and go through certain things, you’re able to tackle anything around the world because you’re able to live wherever, if you can survive in a city like Lagos or Warri or Niger Delta, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, going to Germany and being introduced to the other side of me, the side that I didn’t know before – I didn’t grow up with my biological mother so obviously being confronted with that and the German culture, their mentality and not understanding the language – my journey was not the normal story. I didn’t go to Germany to study, it was something else that made me leave Nigeria, I had to flee at that time, so all of these situations have made me become the kind of musician that I am today. I think it has also encouraged me to encourage other people that have been through a similar history to be strong whatever they’re going through in their life, especially women, especially people who live in polygamous homes and if you experience a lot of violence in your childhood. It also has an impact on how you see things in life and how you treat other people, so all of these things are issues that I talk about in my lyrics and my music.
TWU: It appears that people are taking more and more interest in Afrobeat artists like yourself, 2Face, D’Banj and others. What do you think has caught their attention?
Nneka: I think a lot of people in Diaspora (a common term used by Africans to describe other Africans who live outside the continent) are trying to relate to their home and we might be a good bridge to introduce such people to their African side. Like, when I go to the States or London, I always had the impression that I don’t do this ‘typical’ pure traditional music; and for some people to relate to Nigeria or to Africa, it’s easier to have a hybrid. Concerning the other people who listen to our music, like white people or Europeans, I think that people are just becoming more conscious of Africa. Africa is not just a place that is suffering or what the media paints as a place of HIV and corruption, there’s a lot more coming out of Africa and people are becoming more aware of that. Africans are obviously making that stereotype change by spreading a positive message around the world and that is exactly what I want to achieve. A lot of good things come out of Africa and a lot of the resources the West is dependent on come from inside Africa, so it’s just a reminder and probably they are embracing that reminder.
TWU: Right now, you’re on tour across Europe. What three items can’t you live without?
Nneka: My bible is always with me, on the left side of my bunk bed and my earplugs are always in my ears because of the bus. We’re sleeping on a tour bus, so sometimes it’s loud, so I wear the earplugs to get a better sleep and obviously my band members, but I can’t consider them as items. Erm, I need at least one sweater in case of the cold.
TWU: You mentioned that you’re a hybrid of sounds and your current album, ‘Soul Is Heavy’, is exactly that – combining soul, jazz, electro, reggae and rap. What’s been the reaction of African audiences and does it differ from international audiences?
Nneka: I’ve noticed that the last couple of years, especially when I perform in Nigeria or in Ghana, the reaction is quite similar to what I get in London or what I get in the States. In Europe, it’s a whole different thing! It’s the language barrier, but people still respond. For instance, in France, they’re very attentive and they listen to the message and sometimes I introduce the songs on stage or I explain what inspired me to write a specific song. They listen and they try to understand and then they applaud. In Nigeria, there was a time when I really had a hard time bringing my music across. People didn’t understand the style and thought to themselves, ‘Who is this half-caste trying to play guitar?’ Nobody wanted to listen. It was really tough. I was on tour with 2Face and I had to blend in with other Nigerian artists to make people aware of what I was trying to do. Everything changed when I got known in the States and then when I won the MOBO Award in England – the whole thing hyped my image up. Nigerians now appreciate my music more than they appreciated it three years ago, which is kind of sad that I had to go the other way round, just like Fela had to gain his own publicity outside Africa before he was recognised and acknowledged, same for Asa and the same for Keziah Jones.
TWU: So far, what do you consider the highlight of your career?
Nneka: Being able to touch and connect to people. That, for me, is a very big thing. For me to touch one person is enough.
TWU: On ‘Soul Is Heavy’, you’ve worked with Ms Dynamite, and Chase & Status previously remixed ‘Heartbeat’ from your last album. How did the collaborations with these UK artists come about?
Nneka: Well, the Chase & Status collaboration wasn’t my idea, what happened was a bit of politics. The UK market didn’t believe ‘Heartbeat’ was strong enough to breakthrough and so they always look for remixes and people you can collaborate with to hype the record up. They introduced me to Chase & Status because they had worked with a couple of other African artists. I heard what they’d done in the past and kind of liked it, but wasn’t sure, and then I said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try and I’ll see what the result is.’ At first, I wasn’t keen on what they did so we had to make a few little amendments here and there – I didn’t want them to remove the message – I kind of thought that there was too much electro stuff going on, so we put our heads together to make it sound like an Nneka/Chase & Status thing and that’s helped me gain access to a different type of audience, especially in England.
TWU: So, how did the Ms Dynamite collaboration emerge?
Nneka: Ms Dynamite has been to my concerts a couple of times, we’re friends and I’ve seen her shows a couple of times. A friend of mine introduced us to one another and I love her stuff. I approached her and said, ‘Listen, I’m doing my next record and I have this track. Take a listen and see if you can hear the vibe.’ I heard her voice on the track in my head and I thought, ‘This is Dynamite!’ She’s a very humble person and that is what I can relate to, she’s been out there for a while doing her thing and she still maintains local fans. It was the same spirit I had with Black Thought; he made ‘God Knows Why’ sound awesome.
TWU: Do have any plans to work with more UK artists?
Nneka: Yes, I have some plans, but I won’t say right now.
TWU: Which artists in the Afrobeat scene are you feeling at the moment?
Nneka: Right now, I like Antibalas and Keziah Jones – who’s kind of a mix of Afrobeat, blues and funk.
TWU: Finally, what does 2012 hold in store for Nneka?
Nneka: Hopefully a tour with my band. I want to tour in the States, as well as in West Africa and South Africa.
Stay up to date with Nneka on Twitter – www.twitter.com/NnekaWorld
Words: Nonny Orakwue (@MisssN)
Online editing: Joseph 'JP' Patterson (@Jpizzledizzle)