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If you’re new to the sounds of Nneka it’s about time you re-evaluated where you’re hearing your music. For the thousands worldwide who are in the know it seems after two albums the best is still to so come from the Nigerian Hip Hop/Soul sensation.
Personally like so many I was hooked to Nneka’s accented vocals the day she dropped the The Uncomfortable Truth EP back in 2005. The dominant horns and clap of self-titled single ‘Uncomfortable Truth’ ringing in my ear I knew instantly a fresh talent had emerged, offering more substance and beauty than the current drone marketed pin up dolls singing revamped soul.
Later that year she released her worthy debut Victim of Truth independently, before being signed to Sony Music and dropping the magnificent No Longer at Ease in 2008. It was an album that received critical acclaim, award nominations and won her a MOBO award for Best African Act the following year.
Unfortunately I’d have to wait yet another year to finally meet the petite and striking singer/songwriter to give her my congratulations.
Sneaking ten minutes that turned into an easy thirty before her London gig at Scala I eventually get my chance to meet the fresh-faced Nneka. There that afternoon during sound check, as she sipped on warm water and Beatnik’s Paul Bence snapped away she intimately gave us a run down of her astonishing life so far.
Born to an Igbo Nigerian father and a German mother, who she states has no connection with her, Nneka grew up with her father and stepmother in Warri – a beautiful and rural community in the Delta region of Nigeria. And although in her late teens she briefly yo-yoed between living in Lagos and Hamburg, It was having lived two thirds of her life in Warri that had the biggest effect on her early humility.
Both her albums The Victim of Truth and No Longer At Ease are a winning creation of African beat mixed with a heavy dose of roots culture genres like Soul, Hip Hop and Reggae. Talking of the plight of the Niger Delta and the corruption in Nneka’s homeland, No Longer at Ease is the most vocal of the two about injustice, combining her political and personal feelings in perfect song.
“Everything about Nigeria is inspiring.”
Patriotic Nneka smiles. Amongst accusations of inequality, poverty and political corruption that riddle the country she relishes the opportunity to highlight in a prominent but clear Nigerian accent her homelands best quality – its people and their love.
“Amongst the poverty the happiness within that calamity and chaos is beautiful.”
A young and naive Nneka at first she didn’t enjoy the attributes of the capital, Lagos.
“I left Warri for the first time when I was 16. I thought even then Lagos is like being abroad, it’s not Nigeria.
“There were Skyscrapers, roads, traffic lights, casinos, night life. I came from a village and I never knew these things existed. “
“I saw White people for the first time, despite the fact I’m half white, I never had that relationship to the white side. All these things blew we away when I moved back.”
“Lagos didn’t have the biggest impact on me though. It was the way I was raised -simple and strict. The people of the Delta appreciate life more then the negotiations and money hungry environment of Lagos.”
It wasn’t until she migrated out of Nigeria that her political conscience was truly awoken however. At twenty she left one continent for another, settling in Hamburg, Germany. Here she built a long-standing friendship with local beatmaker DJ Farhot and while juggling a degree in Anthropology begun to be a regular force on the Germany Hip Hop scene.
“There was time I was playing a lot of gigs hustling, nobody really new anything about that. And I decided to take my break”
The reason why she left Africa for Europe is one she not comfortable sharing.
“It was never my decision. It’s a story I’m not able to talk about.”
But on reflection she identifies how the contrasting culture of German society awoke a new love for her homeland and her greater political awareness
“I wouldn’t say I was very politically active whilst I was in Nigeria. I thought about these things – but I think I didn’t have enough knowledge to understand what was going on. I knew from intuition that the way we lived there was so much going wrong (in Nigeria) – That it wasn’t freedom. I knew they should be more to it.”
“So when I went away I had the opportunity to get outside of Warri, going outside of Nigeria and seeing Africa from a different perspective. Understanding who I am and understanding where I was – when I was – where I was”
For most of the interview her stance has been relaxed, arms open with one hanging behind the chair. But now she sits up and leans forward keen to emphasis her biggest passion.
“Then I gained an identity outside of Africa. I never new I had colour until I felt prejudice in Germany. All these things, triggered me to be more conscious about what Africa is, what is Nigeria all about.”
“There is so much we can learn from each other but that’s good thing about the western world. Westerners know how to keep libraries, you know!
African history is in the white mans land. We don’t know anything about ourselves. We sell our history because we are ignorant.”
“I live in Lagos now” – she travels between her home in Hamburg and Lagos. “But I am from the Delta and that’s where that boy came from – Erick”
Nneka reverts back to our brief fun off the Dictaphone earlier that day discussing recent events.
That boy in question, Erick , is one of many brilliantly charismatic real life characters in a recent three part BBC documentary called ‘Welcome to Lagos’.
A series that lifts the lid on the life of everyday Nigerians in one of the worlds most populated capitals, overcoming poverty and hardship with humour and shocking determination.
“Like Erick’s song man”
Nneka giggles as she recalls the heart-warming story of budding rapper Erick. Living on a rubbish dump he patiently saves all his money to record his demo and continue searching for that illustrious dream to be a music superstar.
Amongst the laughter though it’s clear his story hits a nerve. Being from the same region, Nneka’s own tale can relate to Erick’s struggle but more importantly his dream – from bare beginnings to worldwide fame.
“People of the Delta are tough, we know how to be happy with little things, but at the same time people know how to hustle.”
And how Nneka has hustled.
Here amongst Erick’s undoubting self-belief in the face of daily prejudice, poverty, long working hours in appalling conditions, humiliation and exploitation we find the real roots of Nneka’s music.
Take her critically acclaimed Hearbeat for example. Her greatest selling record to date, it was inspired by theses very topic’s.
“Ever since pre-colonial times. People of the Niger Delta have always been deprived of their resources. They have always had to prove themselves more then any other tribe of Nigeria.”
“So we have all those resources in our area yet we are not given the opportunity to use them. People come, exploit and take without giving anything back.”
Heartbeat was filmed in Warri and though the emotional video may say otherwise the song is actually an uplifting offering.
Within it, like so much of her music, Nneka’s words arouse political idelness. A sensitivity fans globally have fallen deeply in love with.
Yet for all the worldly poetry and political protest the obvious fact still remains. If you want to get someone to listen as Nneka does, you have to start with a great beat. Soulful harmonies, seductive Afrobeats and rhythmic percussion intertwine with Reggae, Soul and Hip Hop influences drawing the listener sonically.
“If all I showed was that unhappiness, poverty, oil spillage no one would listen.”
Broadening her accent she raises and opens her hand revealing slender fingers decorated with huge traditional rings.
“You must dance with the devil to win his soul…. When you have him you can then show him you’re true colours.”
While current critics may make obvious comparisons to Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill, she has become one of the few artists to make it cool to care. And for that reason alone she belongs in the same sentence as Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan.
With a new album on the way and a huge tour schedule pending it seems it’s only really the beginning of a promising and exciting musical dominance from one of Africa’s most prolific musicians.