Effervescent, down-to-earth, passionate about her music, and with many hit singles and globally acclaimed albums, award-winning German-Nigerian artiste, Nneka Egbuna, could be said to be changing the world with music, laced with timeless messages and socially conscious lyrics. One of her hit songs, Heartbeat, was sampled by Drake and Rita Ora. She has also performed across different continents alongside some of the biggest acts in the global music industry, such as Nas, Damian Marley, Lenny Kravitz, among others.
In this exclusive interview, Nneka, who won the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) award a few years ago, talks about how she ventured into music and her life as a German-Nigerian.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How would you describe your current style of music?
Nneka: My current style of music is Nneka. It is soul, its spirit and it’s real. But it’s also a blend of Afro, reggae, hip-hop, a little bit of rock, and a little bit of everything; it depends on how I feel about a track or what the intention is.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is the first album you bought?
Nneka: The first album I bought with my own money was ‘I Wish’ by rapper Skee-Lo
Sam Umukoro Interview: Which song changed your life?
Nneka: There are many songs that have affected me positively, like one of the songs I wrote, Heartbeat. It took me to the next level; gave me more publicity and fame. I got to see the world and was signed up to record labels in America. That changed my life.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Have you ever suffered from stage fright?
Nneka: I never had stage fright; I was never afraid of people but I was afraid for myself. Back then, I had a health challenge and I would always get sick when I was on stage. So I had to overcome that problem, I knew it was going to be fine. I like to be myself on stage, that’s why I don’t mind lying down on stage. Then, I would ask myself if I would be able to deliver a good performance if I wasn’t feeling well physically, and that was a very tough time. But I never had stage fright.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What led you into music, was it for the fame or money?
Nneka: Well, it was for the love. It was also for the fact that I could identify and see myself in a different way through music. Music has always been a part of my life, something I felt I needed to express myself with, to help me discover my identity. Germany gave me the opportunity to express my talent and creativity because of the space and time that I had to find and do more research on what I love compared to Nigeria, where I would say I didn’t really have that opportunity to get to know myself as an artiste. And then, my father was an architect and my step-mum was also into catering, which is a creative venture, but at the same time being creative with your mind was not necessarily supported because the kind of society we were living at that time. The focus was more about ‘how do you earn money?’ It was for you to finish school, have good grades and so on. So I guess that was the priority for many parents, and at that time I lived in Warri, Delta State.
It was when I only stepped out that I felt like I didn’t even know what I wanted. But to be honest with you, when I got to Germany, I was accommodated at an information facility where everyone there had to pick up a hobby and I felt connected to music; that was where my love for music grew. That was where I began to get to know myself and express myself. I was a very reserved person before I started music and I was simply doing music for the love of it and not because of the cash flow. Now obviously there is cash in the industry. And then I also needed that cash to finance my studies because when I left my father’s house, I was on my own. So I had to take care of my education on my own. I had two jobs; I was doing music on the side and studying at the same time. Most of the revenue came from doing music. So, I would say music helped me get my degree.
Sam Umukoro Interview: If you could collaborate with any artiste past or present, who would it be?
Nneka: I’m not a good collaborator. But I would like to be around some artistes, not necessarily to collaborate with them but to gain from their vision and knowledge, which I did from Lenny Kravitz. I didn’t have to collaborate with him, although I collaborated with him on set but not on a track. It’s the same with Nas and Damian (Marley). I would have also liked to collaborate with Bob Marley and Fela.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What has been the most memorable event in your career so far?
Nneka: Touring, being able to stand on a stage and have more than five people listen to you. During my first performance, there was hardly any audience because nobody knew us. That was still cool because I would always give my all in a performance even if there were only three people there. So I would say performing on stage is definitely the most memorable for me, not just one time¸ but every day, all of the time.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Which person, living or dead, do you admire the most and why?
Nneka: I admire Jesus Christ; I admire people who go out there and have no fear of humans, dying or failure. I think the fear of death is the strongest. From the accounts in the Bible, when Jesus Christ knew he was going to be prosecuted, I think he was afraid though, that was why he cried in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said, ‘take this cup from me.’ This scenario happens to me a lot when I’m on stage, people think that it’s just entertainment but to me what I’m doing is bigger that entertainment.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What will be the ideal way for you to spend a day without music?
Nneka: There’s no way to spend a day without music. If I could, probably I’d be in the water the whole day, but because I don’t want to get my skin wrinkled, I’d have to come out, get some sun and go back in. Let’s be frank, it’s not like I do music or listen to music every day, I also study sometimes, read a book, educate myself and put my mind into something else. However, since my answer to your last question was that music is in everything, so I would say literally that music is going to be in my head even if I’m doing something else.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Nneka: Don’t take anything personal.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Where is your favourite place in Lagos?
Nneka: My house.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Aside from your house, do you have a favourite relaxation spot?
Nneka: I like going to the beach, any one of them.
Sam Umukoro Interview: British singer and songwriter, Rita Ora, sampled one of your songs, Heartbeat. Where were you when you were contacted?
Nneka: I was on tour and I found out that Drake had initially sampled it before Rita Ora.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did they seek permission from you or your record label?
Nneka: Well, we found out about Drake’s sample of Heartbeat later and we got in touch with him. He just loved the music and decided to make use of it but he did not release it officially on his album; it was kind of a mix tape and that helped me get a lot of promo.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did he give you credit?
Nneka: Sort of. He also wrote the Rita Ora track; it came from that Drake’s mix and he got in touch with us before releasing it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did you get credit for that also?
Nneka: Yes, we got credit for that and I was on stage with her too.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How was it like being on stage with her?
Nneka: It was cool and different, but it was not my audience. Rita Ora’s audience is totally different but it was awesome. It was a big stage, about twenty thousand people at once, and they appreciated it. I guess half of the audience didn’t know who I was, but it was a beginning.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You’ve performed with Damian Marley and Nas, and have also been on tour with them. How will you describe that experience and the artistes themselves?
Nneka: It was awesome being in the centre of these two men, being chosen as a woman and as a woman to represent Africa. It was not just about music, the tour was called ‘Distant Relatives Tour’ and we wanted to symbolise with that tag that we were all connected regardless of where you are coming from – white, black, yellow, that it doesn’t matter who you are, we are all one. That was the message and I liked that fact.
I was overwhelmed that they approached me and mingling around them for about two months was also inspiring. The band was very intact, professional and it was kind of hard to get a hold of the guys in the first week, we couldn’t really communicate but then I insisted on communication because I felt like, ‘why would I go on a tour and speak a message and at the back of it all we are not connected? I used the tag to reach out and know them better. That’s how I met Nas, a very quiet and extremely intelligent guy. I don’t know if I should describe him as an ‘introvert’ with his thought. Damian, on the other hand, was also very reserved, he didn’t allow everybody come close to him. I met them two months ago and it was awesome. We got back together after such a long time and it felt like being with family. We hugged and had a good conversation, it was nice.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You were also on the David Letterman’s show, was that the turning point for you?
Nneka: To be honest with you, I didn’t know David Letterman before. I only knew that there was this guy called Harrad Schmith in Germany and he is also very popular, he’s like a German David Letterman and even looks like David Letterman. It was later I found out that this was the David letterman people had been talking about. I had never really followed up with his show before then. And yes, it gave me a lot of publicity, especially in Africa.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You were born on December 24, what was the most memorable Christmas you’ve ever spent?
Nneka: I was at your house and that was cool, remember? (laughs). That was a cool Christmas because there was no stress, and it was one of the best Christmas I’ve had. Before that, okay, in Germany, it was whenever I had a get together with friends and received lots of gifts. My friends would come and they showed me love and it was cool. I have this friend called Sevi, she’s Ghanaian-Turkish, and she always gave me gifts on Christmas day whenever I was in Germany. And her gifts were always very bizarre because her gifts were not like ‘here’s a clock for you’ or ‘a phone for you’, but she would make a tee-shirt by herself. She’s very creative with her hands. I was always very excited like ‘what idea is she going to come up with now?’
Sam Umukoro Interview: I know you live across different continents so to speak because you’re constantly on tour. You spent some time in France recently, what was the trip all about?
Nneka: I was supposed to return to Nigeria after a show I had in the US earlier in the year. And before I left Nigeria, I was attending a French school. So, I decided to continue the studies in France, which I did. I went back to school, I was among other students and it felt like a normal life. The most important thing I’ve learnt there was to get back into the normal life. It’s not that easy when you are out there as an artiste and you are the focus of attention. So, it was nice interacting with people and learning how to be patient. You know, when you’re out there doing your artiste-thing abroad, not in Nigeria, everything is done for you most of the time. People do stuff for you, the kitchen is ready, and food is ready and things like that. But here I was, going to school, interacting with people and respecting their opinion. You can’t just say ‘A’ and it’s going to be ‘A’ for everybody, you can’t do your diva moves; you need to have a sense of empathy. And that was what I learnt, how to communicate, how to have patience, how to accept and tolerate other people. This is also because it was not just about studying French; we were also studying politics and literature. So that was what I was doing in France, and of course, playing shows and recording.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is your most valuable possession?
Nneka: I like to take my bible with me everywhere but I can’t say that’s my most treasured possession because sometimes I don’t even read it. I can’t answer that question.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So what do you value the most?
Nneka: The fear of God.
Sam Umukoro Interview: And probably your guitar and voice?
Nneka: (Thinking) I wanted to say that initially but it is the fear of God because there’s no way I can do what I’m doing without that and I’m happy I have that, knowing that everything comes and goes. If the Supreme wants it that way, whether you have a voice, a guitar, your holy bible or computer, there is always an end, but the fear of God is always constant and for eternity. It cannot be taken away from you.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is your advice to young people who want to break into the music industry?
Nneka: Stay, be sure about yourself, be sure about your talent before you do anything. Do not sing because you see your neighbour singing, do not go into music simply because you think it’s cool or it would fetch you money quickly. I believe music is sacred, it keeps us alive. Everything we do is music: talking, cooking; there’s music in everything. It’s like a constant prayer said from the beginning of life to the end of it. So one has to practice it sacredly and do it with love; also be 100 per cent sure about yourself, because if you go out there and you’re just 80 per cent sure of yourself, it’s not going to work.