Nneka is electric, no she is eclectic. Better put, she is like a dynamite ready to explode on the world stage. Regarded by many as the next big thing from Nigeria, she recently grabbed headlines when she won the MOBO 2009 Best African Act Award. My joy knew no bounds when she agreed to this interview soon after she arrived from Glasgow .
However, before you read the excerpts of the interview, I should make a disclosure; Nneka is my friend, and maintaining the objective distance between a journalist and subject is difficult, but with a friend like Nneka it is futile. Nevertheless, what you are about to read is a no –holds- barred interview that would crush the last bastion of nonbelievers that the likes of Nneka represent the renaissance of Nigerian music.
SU: How does winning the MOBO award feel like?
NNEKA: Definitely something that I did not expect, I would say that now that my music is being acknowledged worldwide, I’ve not even broken into the UK market. This is just my second month, I just brought out my second album in the UK and for the fact that I’ve gone that far winning a MOBO awards, I was shocked, surprised that my music is acknowledged as something more special that I thought it could ever be and that kind of definitely overwhelmed me. It was difficult accepting an award to be honest with you because I myself would not rate myself that high. I wouldn’t give myself an award if I were to choose from a bunch of artistes. So, it’s like, wow! I still have to understand why I got that award. It’s a blessing, I think.
SU: When you recorded your album and this particular song that won you the award, were you certain that you had a groundbreaking work, considering the people that were nominated with you?
NNEKA: Not at all, considering the people like Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, Femi Kuti, Baba Maal, who are actually African legends that I’ve seen perform before and I look up to and know they’ve been into this biz more than double my age years. It’s like I’m being disrespectful towards these people winning that award…
SU: Are you saying your album wasn’t good enough to win?
NNEKA: No! I wouldn’t say so. I just wouldn’t have thought I would go that far. I know that I won the award because of Heartbeat, a track that has given me a wider audience, opened doors to the European market. Before Heartbeat, my audience used to be 80% black audience whether in Europe or Nigeria . Then, when Heartbeat came out, I started getting more feedbacks from the other side, worldwide. So it’s like for the fact that Heartbeat is also very outstanding when it comes to the musical elements I used to create that song; this up tempo drum and bass, not strictly African, a kind of reggae-ish rhythm and then at the same time Rocky in a way sound; I think that has kind of given me more publicity applicable to the Pop market. What people should understand is that that song doesn’t necessarily represent my style, it’s just one style from many styles, you know. It’s like Heartbeat is just a little part of Nneka’s style, yeah.
SU: In one of your interviews, you said you’re influenced by the likes of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Apart from Saro-Wiwa, what are the other influences you draw from the Nigerian environment that affect the way you write songs?
NNEKA: Many things, the way I grew up, especially my personal experience, my family, at the same time, my school, people I met, the work I did living and growing up in Warri and of course, my movement around the world, living Nigeria and going to Europe, having to cope with a totally different mentality, despite the fact that I am half-German, but being confronted with my White side for the first time and having to digest it more or less, or get along…So basically, I would say my independence is what has made me who I am now and has triggered me to write those lyrics I write. Okay, of course, the present state of Nigeria is something that is always very inspiring (laughs), not only in the negative aspect when it comes to corruption, electricity or tribalism, but also of course the positive sides of life that people are confronted with these problems on a daily basis but they still can smile, they still know what it is to live and be happy. That inspires me.
SU: Is there a thin line between you as an entertainer or Nneka as a revolutionary considering your politically charged lyrics? Do you see yourself first as an artiste that is using music as an instrument of social engineering or basically you see music as a means of entertaining people?
NNEKA: Exactly. I couldn’t stand on stage without having any proper depth, content with depth. It’s like I would be feeding the masses with stupidity and ignorance if I would just stand there and sing about shallow superficial, shake-your-ass vibes. I’m not trying to judge anybody, but that is what I stand for. And for the fact that I’m very passionate about what I do, I’m a very passionate person in general. And also because I’ve been through certain things in my life that has carved me into whom I am today, I think it is necessary than I stand and encourage people who have, might have gone through or are going through the same that I have gone through and give them hope or speak about issues such as the Niger Delta or change in general. I see myself as responsible to do that.
SU: You have a degree in Anthropology and Archaeology and obviously also well read, judging from the depth of your songs, which book would you say actually has made a big impact on you?
NNEKA: Khalil Gibran, The Prophet. It’s about life and basically every aspect of life, love, happiness, pain, togetherness, hatred, religion, politics, commitment and even sex. You should read it. It’s just basically this kind of book that teach you how to live your life, how to accept that we are vessels of both negative and positive, polarity must be for us to exist. In other words, we have to accept that we are made of both negative and positive…
SU: Back to influences, what influenced Heartbeat the award winning song from your album? Was it a personal experience or somebody’s experience?
NNEKA: Heartbeat is a very personal and at the same time political song. It’s about Africa, Africa has been exploited right from missionary times and through colonialism, it is about us, not being able to get rid of that colonial mentality, maintaining that mentality and basically we hurt ourselves. So it’s like Africa is taking its own air.
SU: Now, talking about depth of lyrics, we are not trying to pit you against anybody in Nigeria , but, critics have always complained about the depth of lyrics in Nigerian music, especially Nigerian popular music where recently a debate raged on about this lack of depth in current popular music among some critics. What’s your take on new sound, new Nigerian music, that is, popular music, from the Dbanjs, Tuface and DJ Zeez of this world?
NNEKA: When it comes to depth, zero, isn’t it? It’s mostly entertaining music except for
NNEKA: Yeah, I mean I don’t really like, mostly entertaining music
SU: But some of them say that is what they are there for, to entertain, they are not really concerned about…
NNEKA: If you are entertaining, that doesn’t mean you should start copying because everything sounds alike lately. A lot sounds alike. Let’s be real. You have this same beat every time, and sometimes you just don’t even know the difference anymore. Like, I don’t even know who is who anymore, and I wouldn’t say that I’m not attentive. But anyway, when it comes to lyrics-wise, oh boy…
SU: So, how would you rate Nigerian popular music compared to other music from the world?
NNEKA: There is also crap music from the States. I think it’s that we’re just too focused on what is happening outside Nigeria in America in a way, especially when we’re doing videos, flashy cars and women, drugs, chains and golden teeth. But that’s not who we are. It’s like we’re stealing or taking someone else’s identity and wearing it. What we are is way different than that which we reflect to the world. So, basically, musicians, like Seun for instance, that’s real music, as far as I’m concerned. This guy raises issues that are real. Femi is the same. People like Asa or Keziah of course, he’s brilliant. Tuface is like kind of in-between. He does talk about serious, social issues, but he would put a serious topic on a danceable beat, you know. I don’t want to condemn the entire thing. It’s okay that we do entertainment music, but it’s not just all about entertainment. Listen to the type of music man, you have small kids, three-year, four-year olds singing “I want the koko, do you want the koko,’…For heaven’s sake, that’s like a child having sex at the age four and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I think we need to change that, definitely. Musicians should start thinking of what befits, what they give the people. Most of them are between 20s and 30 they should know. But, they, we have to take responsibility.
SU: You were involved in a movie and that is another part of you. Forgive the comparison, but we’ve seen Beyonce crossing over to acting, we’ve seen other musicians doing the same thing, from Will Smith crossing over from a rapper to being an actor now. Do you see yourself toeing that line too someday?
NNEKA: I don’t see myself, I did it because the director is a good friend of mine and I read the script, I loved it and then eventually, while reading the script, he gave it to me and asked me for my advice, how I liked it. I then realized I could identify with one of the characters in the script. Anyway, I gave him a feedback and then he came back telling me, yes, he thinks that I could be the main character.
SU: And what role was that?
NNEKA: Her name is honey and she is a prostitute, an intelligent prostitute that doesn’t look like one and is willing to change her lifestyle. So, with some of her characteristics I could identify. But that was not the character I wanted to play, it was some other smaller character, because I didn’t see myself as the major issue of the movie. But it turned out that Andy Okorafor, the director, chose me.
SU: Relentless, that was the movie
NNEKA: Relentless, that is the movie. And it was worth it going through all that experience. But I notice that I don’t have enough patience to slip into a character or personality that I am not. I am very sensitive and when people tell me to do something like more than 15 times, the same thing, I just lose it and my passion goes away very fast, you know. So, if I do something the first time, I do it with so much passion, that when you tell me to do it again, it wouldn’t be the same; it wouldn’t have that same fire. And that was my problem with acting. So, I don’t know if I would go back there. Maybe when I’m acting some milder, like maybe a witch or some witch doctor…, I don’t know.
SU: You’ve won an award. You have albums that are doing well. You are opening for The Roots in the US . I know The Roots is in one of your favourite groups. How did you feel when you were invited to open for them in the US and when is the tour going to take place?
NNEKA: The tour is taking place, I think, in middle of November?
SU: Is it like a dream come true playing with one of your favourite hip hop group?
NNEKA: Man, QuestLove on drums, that’s some serious issues. And then Black Thought, the rapper, who I always was in love with, you know, that’s like big time, that’s heavy (laughs). But I think he’s old enough to be my father, so I wouldn’t even go there. Their style is amazing. And I’ve always kind of wanted my sound, I felt my sound was similar to the routes, like having this live band and then the digital stuff, mixing digital stuff and a live authentic sound together; I always wanted to make that happen in my music. So, I think I would be learning a lot being on tour with these guys. I would learn a lot.
SU: Right now, most people see you as a role model. You’ve won an award. You have an album that is doing well. You have your videos enjoying heavy rotation. What’s your advice for aspiring musicians?
NNEKA: It’s important that you use your heart, whatever you are doing, whether you are an artiste or a doctor or an orange seller or wheelbarrow pusher; it’s important that you involve your heart in everything you do. And if you go to a place, when you know that you are not there, a 100%, then you have to get out, no matter how much energy it takes here and how big the sacrifice would be. Sounds crazy. I think the Bible says, do not break bitter breads, always break bread with love so that people are content and that’s what I’m saying. Love what you are doing and do not allow anybody to change you, if you know that you’re with yourself at that point in time, a 100%, always maintain it. Be rooted.
SU: A lot of women think sex sells, especially some female singers…
NNEKA: It does, though
SU: Then how come you’re not toeing that line, you’re not shaking your booty, you’re not doing all that stuff…?
NNEKA: I can’t. I don’t want to. It would make me so sad.
NNEKA: Cos I would feel like, you know like when Jesus was in the wilderness, and the devil said, ‘you are hungry, man, why don’t you just turn this stone into bread?’ And that is exactly what I would be doing. I would be eating that bread like a mad person. It’s better for me to starve that to go that way…
SU: Doing raunchy videos and selling sex?
NNEKA: Yes, that big wide road to hell, man, please, no. I’m not judging anybody oh. Like I said before, polarity must be. So, they have to be for me to identify myself and vice-versa. So, maybe at the end of the day, when Judgement Day comes, maybe good is bad and bad is good, you know, I don’t know. Maybe black is white and white is black or grey. Maybe everything doesn’t even exist. I don’t know. Just live your life… as long as you don’t hurt anybody, as long as you respect someone else’s dignity, respect the kids, respect your parents, respect your loved ones and the ones you don’t love. That’s what life is about. And of course, be good to yourself because God lives within you.