WU Exclusive: 32 Questions with NnekaBY Valerie Ellois, December 3, 2010
Nneka Egbuna, Nigerian-born songstress and self-proclaimed revolutionary, rocked tracks off her American debut album ‘Concrete Jungle’ released by Decon Records to a full house at Highline Ballroom back in August. With big brown eyes and plentiful curls, Nneka delivers an evocative performance which confirms her assertions that music can be a righteous vehicle for social awareness and change. Nneka‘s prescription for Africa, and more specifically Nigeria, breaks things down into expansive yet simple terms such as love, God, and conscious education. Mesmerized by Nneka’s siren-esque demeanor, both playful and witty, the dedicated Monday night crowd was granted a transcendent experience with Nneka, barefoot, commanding the stage. She kept the crowd guessing with a dramatic, slowed-down intro to her hit track “Heartbeat,”creating a pulsating crescendo into the main chorus bringing the crowd to their feet and a few tearful ovations.
In an intimate discussion with WU, Nneka describes her rejection of worldly possessions and aesthetic trappings and alignment with her musical, spiritual self. She conjures the musical conviction of Fela Kuti, an inspiration of hers, as she proudly discusses her identity and the painful experiences of racism that shaped her path toward political activism and bringing awareness to the crisis of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta. Whimsical and complicated, Nneka is bursting with a talent that is impacting the world. Read on for our in-depth interview with Nneka herself.
Nneka was recently nominated as ‘Best Female’ at the MTV MAMA Awards 2010, click here to cast your vote!
Check out this recent performance at Felabration 2010 at the Shrine in October. (great tshirt, eh?!)
World Up: We At WU are big fans of your mix tape with J. Period can you talk about how it came about?
Nneka: I think I was performing in NY, and J. Period came. That’s how we met, and somebody suggested we work together. He had heard the album I recorded in Europe, he’d been following my work and suggested I work with certain artist on remixing the tracks that I released outside the States. Since he’s a very passionate and humble human being, somebody that is very down to earth, I felt I could relate to him and I could imagine that if we put our heads together and worked on this project, the outcome would be fresh. So that’s what we did.
WU: Concrete Jungle is comprised of songs from your catalogue of work. How were the tracks selected? How was it tailored to American audiences?
N: I had released three albums in Europe prior to Concrete Jungle. What I did was take a couple of tracks from the first album Victim of Truth and from the second album No longer at Ease. I still felt very connected to those tracks emotionally and spiritually. I also chose songs that had a connection to one another and the message we chose that for the album I wanted to release in the States. Eventually, I came up with the title Concrete Jungle—the album has a lot to do with the relationship between the Western World and Africa, and the necessity of Africa for the existence of the West; so it’s a very political album as well as personal and religious to a certain extent.
You’ve explained that the title Concrete Jungle came about when you first came to NYC and saw all of the buildings and skyscrapers. What sort of musical or literary allusions are you making with that title? Does the concept have positive or negative connotations for you?
It is both—you have to have the concrete to be able to identify what the jungle is, and vice versa. It’s about polarity, and finding the equilibrium between the concrete and the jungle—equilibrium between extremes in life: black/white, happiness/sadness. There’s more than just the skyscrapers, like I mentioned before, many American people don’t know much about Africa and you have a lot of brothers and sisters—black Americans—who don’t have a connection to their roots. One intention I had was to reintroduce Africa in an easy way, to build a bridge between their understanding and the perceptions they’ve had. Africa is not just about AIDS/HIV, poverty suppression, oppression, corruption, it’s more than that. It’s not all just ancient and primitive. I’m trying to build a bridge between the west and back home, a comfortable bridge that takes you back home.
So what do you want black/African Americans to take from Concrete Jungle?
It’s about perseverance, but it’s also about connecting African people to people here. What’s between us is just land and oceans, k to know? I’ve noticed when African people see Americans and Americans see African people they can’t really identify with each other, apart from their skin color. There’s this tension, a fear that some of the western black people in the Diaspora don’t want to be identified with Africa, which is a shame—it’s basically about changing that perception.
What’s unfortunately been imposed on us is that people are different and can’t even interact amongst you. I was reading the book “Last speeches of Malcolm X,” and he said, “It’s just in our minds, ya know? They have manipulated you to a certain degree, you don’t even know who you are anymore. They have manipulated you to the point where you don’t want anything to do with the origin, the beginning. You’re scared of it, you’re scared of your color, you’re scared of your tradition, you’re scared of who you actually are.” That picture has to be irradiated. People have maintained this colonial mentality for too long, not just Africans alone but black Americans. It’s a big, big topic
What has it been like touring with Nas and Damian Marley?
Its been very positive getting to know Damian and to see how he interacts with his band, how he makes music, how he and Nas came to together for their project Distant Relatives all in the name of love not just to sell records. I’m dumbfounded every time I listen to that album; the words, the time and patience that were taken to express. I’m glad I was chosen as the only woman to represent Africa, to be the link.
Many Americans said they never expected to see a black president in their lifetime. Is there a wish for Africa or Nigeria that you would like to see in your lifetime?
Oh Yes. There’s a lot. I mean, there’s so much plight back home. Unfortunately we have bad leadership. Most of the problems that we have come from the fact that we don’t have proper leadership. I wish, of course, with my contribution that this will change. The only way I think we can change that is by investing in future generations. Educating them and giving them love, because that’s one thing that we don’t know how to do.
As an individual of mixed race, how do you identify yourself?
I AM mixed.
In America we still live by a one-drop rule, where if you are any part black you are identified as black.
Which is a good thing. I like when people say you’re black. By African tradition, I am black. I am Nigerian for the fact that my father is Nigerian. I used to have a problem with identifying with the white side of me because I never had any connection until I was 20. So, now after getting to know more about the German side living in Germany for a time, it changed my perception of Africa and myself. I learned a lot, I’m still learning a lot. I have reached the point where I am comfortable. I am comfortable that I have both sides in me. I can say to a white man “so and so and so,” and I can say to a black man “so and so and so,” and nobody will say I am a racist because I am both. So, it’s a good thing. Obama is mixed. Bob Marley was mixed. Malcolm X was mixed, and they’re all left handed on top of it. So that’s what’s up.
Are you left-handed?
Yes I AM.
You mentioned that when you moved to Hamburg you didn’t speak the language and this was difficult for you. What languages do you speak now?
English, Creole, German and French. I understand Hausa.
You’ve recorded music in both English and your traditional language. How does the language you’re using affect the process and the end result? Is it easier for you in one language?
English is the most popular, as the majority of the world understands it. I think to be able to create change; you have to be able to speak in a language that people understand. I’m not saying that artists who speak in their traditional languages are ineffective. For me, it has to be in the language that many people understand.
So is the music that you create in your traditional language meant more for people who speak that language?
No. Most of the songs I perform are written in pigeon English. What I do is write at least one or two lines in English, the hook is usually in English or pigeon English so you’re able to understand what the song is about.
How would you say your move to Hamburg, which is relatively homogeneous, as a young adult affected your African identity and your music?
A lot of negative experiences led to that. A lot of confrontation. Racists and all that. I didn’t know that I had color when I left Africa. I didn’t know I am what I am. Nobody ever called me oebo (white) in a derogatory manner when I was in Nigeria. When I came to Europe people start calling names. That kind of pushed me. I had to protect myself, that’s when I started educating myself on where I was from. It was the urge to identify myself and strengthen that identity in a foreign land; I started letting my hair grow. I went into being more of a revolutionary so that is basically what happened and that is where the whole political point of view came in.
For many immigrants—particularly African immigrants—it takes that experience of leaving and being educated elsewhere to be able to come back and really affect change. Is that how you see things eventually changing in Africa?
I think so, yes. We have a lot of responsibility, especially those who have been given the opportunity to learn. My education was 80% free in Germany. If you’re given that opportunity, why not make use of it to benefit other people? I do music, and the only way I can contribute to the world is by doing it with my heart, investing my knowledge and what I have learned into the music and giving it to the people.
If there’s any way we can change Africa, we have to start by looking at ourselves first and not just saying it’s bad leadership alone, or the Western World alone, suppressing and exploiting. If we change our mindset to see ourselves as responsible and accountable, then things would change.
How do you feel about micro loan programs as a way to increase personal responsibility and economic development in Africa, while limiting reliance on foreign aid, which can lead to corruption?
I think it’s a brilliant idea. I seriously think about being involved. It’s a brilliant way to help people and reestablish.
You definitely advocate for personal responsibility; your song “Africans” gives a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps prescription for the continent. Do you believe that institutional change is possible in Africa?
It’s easier said than done. It’s tough. But yes, I believe that everything is possible as long as you believe in it. IF you believe in it, then you must also work towards it. We have to start from grassroots educating the masses. The person that hocks oranges on the street or sells fish in the market, those are the people that have to change their mindset. It’s not all about “myself, myself, myself, my ego, building my house, getting money, buying my car.” IF we stop that egocentric manner of thinking, things would change.
In Lagos the major issue is traffic jams. That’s because everybody wants to go first and get to his or her destination first. Everybody is “me, me, me,” pushing through and its a bottleneck. Nobody can go forward because everyone is all about himself or herself. If we all drop the ego, I think a lot can change and it would be more difficult for the West to manipulate us.
You’re often seen toting a guitar around. When did you get your first guitar?
Four years ago.
Did you teach yourself?
Do you play other instruments?
I play percussion, the drums, but I haven’t had the courage to play on stage yet. I know I’m good, but I need to be more focused and confident.
Nigeria is a very religious country and you seem to be both religious and very spiritual. Were you raised in a religious home?
No, I was not. But now my father is a very strong Christian. They all talk about God and they can quote the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, but who am I to judge? I can do the same, but it’s about the heart, that what I believe. It’s about your heart. That’s the most important thing that you don’t live life for yourself.
The funny thing about Nigeria is that we are so religious but yet there is so much calamity happening. The same people that go to church every Sunday and Wednesday are the ones who are the most corrupt in that society. I believe Christianity has been misinterpreted in Nigeria, Africa in general. Christianity has been used to brainwash a lot of people. I’m not saying Christianity is wrong, because I myself believe in God. I believe there was Jesus. I believe because I know how close I am to the Word and how the Word has influenced my personal life and has changed and given me perseverance to endure certain situations.
But, it’s all about how you read the Word. If you’re able to read between the lines and actually use common sense, you have to combine your own personal logic and what you read. This is one thing that we Christians don’t do. Find your own spirituality, your own individual deity that rules you.
Do you have a favorite scripture reading?
I like Psalm 51; it’s a prayer for forgiveness. It says, when I commit a certain sin, God always puts my sin right in front of my eyes.
You’ve described yourself as a vessel for God’s message. Since you’ve been performing Concrete Jungle for a while, can you describe the evolution of your performance and personal meaning of the songs? Do you find your performance to be a sort of recitation, a prayer-like experience?
Every time I perform these songs, it’s like consulting a higher power, like an oracle. I drift. It’s transcendent to a different space and frequency. I need to be able to be used as that so-called vessel to touch the hearts of people. It’s not about me at all; it’s not about my face or my looks. That’s only a means of getting to people’s minds. If I would stand on a podium on a stage and be more of a dictator, or read presentations, and quote books, references of heroes of the past, revolutionaries of the past or activists, I don’t think I would be able to make an effective positive change. Music, for me, is the softest way to approach the heart of the devil. He will fall in love and before you know it, you’ve got his soul.
You seem to speak about it as if you’re truly just a vessel, and these other worldly things compromise the purity of what you have to offer.
That is it. Perfectly expressed. I always beat around the bush.
You give the impression of being someone who is very cerebral and in his or her own space a lot of times, would you say that’s true.
Yes, it’s true. It’s very true. Sometimes I go back to Nigeria just to slap myself in the face and say “Wake up! There’s just so much going on, you can’t be focused on yourself.” It kind of refreshes me and brings me back. If you’re in that space, your own space, for too long you won’t grow. You aren’t of any use to anybody.
When can we expect some new music from Nneka?
Soon! By next year, by the grace of God, we’re working on an album for Europe and for Africa. I don’t know if it’s going to be released in the States yet, but you’ll be able to get it online.
Any collaboration you can mention?
I’ve spoken to artists, but it’s not yet concrete.
WU is a non-profit organization that utilizes international hip hop to promote social awareness, particularly in youth. What do you feel is the role of music in social change?
Music is one of the best ways to approach the hearts of people who are in power, those who carry the reasonability for, and well-being of, the people. The so-called V.I.P.s, parents, and of course the future generations.
Kids, man, they take a lot in. They take too much in at times, TV, the music they listen to, things they hear, computer games, it’s important that our music has a positive impact, and a message for kids. I’m not trying to put myself up, but I’ve met parents that tell me their kids listen to my music and that I’m contributing to that child’s education. That makes me so happy.
There’s crystallized book education, then there’s worldly knowledge, which you seem to have in abundance. Did you feel you had to get a formal education before your family would accept music as a career for you?
I insisted for myself that I get a degree. The only way I could get one was also by doing music. I had to finance the studies partially. Since I wasn’t getting support from my family, and I was living in Germany at that time, I had two part-time jobs, and the music, which helped me buy those books.
You always have to have an alternative. You can be passionate about one thing, but most of the time the thing that you’re passionate about doesn’t bring you money. That’s the totem, that’s the physical you have to remind yourself you’re living in this world, you have to function. There’s a system, and you have to function within it.
If you keep yourself out, even God doesn’t like that. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. You can’t just say, “I’m a musician, I’m passionate, I love what I’m doing.” Or, “we’re chillin’ and we’re making music,” and then you can’t feed your children. Sometimes you have to slap yourself and say, “I have to go work at McDonalds to earn money, because this is the world, this is where you’re living.” You have to face it.
The only reason I ask this question is because your father found out about your music career from the newspaper, is that true?
Kind of, yes. The funny thing is that when I was living at home I didn’t even realize I was that connected to music. When I’d wash the cars in the morning, I’d sing, or when I’d sweep the compound and cook and everything, I’d sing. I did feel like that was the only outlet to breathe at that time, to get away from the madness and pressure around me.
I wasn’t conscious of it until I stepped out of Nigeria. I was totally on my own and didn’t have that pressure. I got to know myself better and I cut contact to Africa for two or three years, then I started feeling guilty. Daddy got to know about the music after I had already blown up in Europe and I felt kind of guilty, not letting them know.
Where does the guilt come from?
I don’t know. People say, “why should you feel guilty? You should be happy that you even became something. You could have also ended up a prostitute on the streets.” I think maybe it’s because he raised me. He brought me into this world. I went back and apologized. He was like, “I hope you educated yourself at least, went to school did something.” I told him I have my degree and he said he was very proud. He is proud now.
How do you feel your music is received by your home country?
It’s better now. There was a time when I almost gave up. There’s so much piracy and then there’s nobody really interested in hearing music that is critical and deals with political issues. People want music that entertains them and takes them away from their reality and the day-to-day stress.
My music is very artistic and people were very discouraging. Coming to the states, releasing the record here, and getting publicity in Europe helped me get acknowledgement back home. The Mobu awards, being on Letterman, and CNN, all of that helped. On CNN I talk about the Niger Delta, which is an issue nobody has raised in years! Now that the gulf problem occurred with the oil, everybody is talking about the Niger Delta. Raising that issue was for the Nigerians living there, and it helped them be open to my music.
Sometimes I wonder if people who are surrounded by all of this pain, as you’ve described, do they want to hear more about it? Is your music a painful reminder to them, or they see you as someone who can bring change?
I believe that is it. People look up to the States. Back home, everything that comes from the states is, like, immaculate. And if people see them talking about the plight that is happening back home, and somebody who has lived in the area is talking about it on CNN, that definitely goes across the world. But also, you’re seen interacting with the oppressor. You’re sitting in their office. That’s what I was doing in CNN. Our politicians were listening. Those who interact with Western companies, ya know, take me more seriously all of a sudden. This Ambassador wants to have some chat with me, dinner with so-and-so, they see me now, they want me to something for the children in the Niger Delta.
All of this gives me more courage, and makes me think we’re getting somewhere. I’m doing it with my heart, I’m not doing it for the papers. I’m not doing it for the fame. This is what I’m here for, ya know? To give love, to educate where I can with the little knowledge I have. I’m here to do this, and then die, take me after that. That’s what I’m here for. I’m filled.
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