Award-winning Nigerian songstress, Nneka Egbuna talks to EveGal about her music, life and inspirations...
By Naliaka Wafula
In person, Nneka Egbuna is much smaller than she looks on TV. On this day she is dressed in comfortable jean dungarees, a black T-shirt and army green high tops. He face is devoid of make-up and her trademark Afro has been pulled up to the side. She has clear skin, which coupled with her petite frame makes her look even younger than she is. Nneka Egbuna
As the press conference begins, someone mentions to Nneka that she will have a curtain riser at her show, she stares back blankly, perplexed by this very Kenyan term. " What is a curtain riser?" she asks her backing guitarist, "Sounds like grass cutter" she adds in her trademark Nigerian accent. The journalists who overhear this exchange burst into laughter and she smiles and mouths an apology. Without even trying the Nigerian songstress has managed to break the ice.
"Once you make it, you get claimed"
At 30, Nneka has achieved what many young African artistes wish to have achieved. She is signed to Sony Worldwide, has three internationally acclaimed albums, won the British MOBO award and toured with everyone from Lenny Kravotz to Nas and Damian Marley. Currently she is on a quest to bring her music closer to Africa heading to Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania’s Sauti Ya Busara festival but her first pit stop is Nairobi courtesy of the Goethe Institut. Word of her visit spread rapidly over social networks and blogs and by the time she arrived arrangements had been made to have the show moved to larger place. Nneka seemed quite surprised if not a little chuffed by this revelation, "A bigger place? She asked incredulous perhaps still quite surprised by how popular her music has become. It has not always been like this. "When I started out I had to force people to appreciate my music" she says. She recalls performing in front of university students in her early days and getting heckled. "Nigerians are very direct, they will tell you to your face if something bothers them," she says, smiling ruefully. She recalls sitting on stage alone strumming her guitar as people wondered loudly what this halfcaste girl was doing on stage and could she please leave. "But you know what they say, prophets are not known in their own backyard, it is only after I won awards like the MOBO that’s when people begun to claim me… Nneka? She Naija girl o!" she says adding that her music is now well received in Nigeria.
"I am both black and white, so what? So was Bob Marley and so is Barack Obama!"
Born to a Nigerian father and German mother, Nneka was brought up in Warii, Nigeria by her father and stepmother. Warii is an oil rich State in Niger delta, a place that seems to have had its fair shares of conflict but still produces talented individuals like comedian Basket Mouth and herself. " Warii is a very special place," she says. "The people there are exceptionally loud and colourful, the pidgin spoken in Warii is unlike any other pidgin spoken anywhere else in Nigeria,, it’s a language that is, how do you say ... metaphoric," she says . She recalls being brought up in the bustling city which she says is an unlikely mixture or rural and urban. She also saw first-hand, the poverty and conflict brought by the greed for oil money. "These chaotic surroundings shaped my music," says who Nneka who supported the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ movement.
At the age of 18, she moved to Hamburg, Germany. The experience was hard at first and for some months had to live in an immigrants asylum. "I did not grow up with my white side(mother) so the culture was all new to me. it was not easy. I couldn’t speak German and had to read a dictionary everyday," she says . "Being in a different place.. I had to get used to that and it gave me the opportunity to get to know myself as a person." Nneka continued to hone her musical skills and used the money made from small gigs and a side job cleaning toilets to pay for a degree in Anthropology. During this time she hooked up with hip-hop producer DJ Farhot and released the EP Uncomfortable Truth. Her follow up album, Victim of Truth was a critical success that brought her music to international attention.
After a while, she decided it was time to move back to Nigeria. "I felt like I had to take it back to Nigeria, it was like I had been on a pilgrimage," she says.
"I realised I just cannot stop being Nigerian," says Nneka who now shuttles between both Lagos and Hamburg.
"I do music to maintain my sanity"
Nneka’s very distinct voice and sound usually has people scratching their heads trying to place her. She sings in English, pidgin and Igbo. Her song titles sometimes bare names like Suffri (Softly) and Kangpe (Strength), sometimes she raps, other times she sings dirge like interludes that move your soul. "I have never been able to put my music in any type of category, you could call it afro soul, hip-hop, eclectic, a mix of western and African, when I do it I do not think of what genre or what it should sound like, it just happens," she says. When creating her music Nneka says that the words come first then the melody. She uses her words to create awareness about the turmoil and suffering of the world and to spread love. Nneka is big on conscious lyrics: " The mouth is a strong weapon, we have power and we need to know how to channel our energy to the people around us," she says.
This distinct and unapologetic sound has seen her headline music festivals across the world and tour with music heavy weights like Femi Kuti, Gnarls Berkeley, Bilal, Damian Marley, Nas and Lenny Kravitz. "It was a pleasure to work with them, I learnt a lot and gained humility. Lenny Kravitz is amazing and the way Nas and Damian Marley relate with their crews is inspiring, by the end of the tour we were like family, she says. While in Nairobi, she linked up with singer Eric Wainaina to record a rendition of his song Other People’s Lives.
Nneka has also dabbled in acting with a role in the Nigerian film Relentless although she admits that she is not really an actress. "I was doing a friend a favour. I played the part of Honey, a prostitute, a very nice prostitute, I could identify with the character," she laughs. She admits that she has not completely ruled out acting in future.
One thing she is very emphatic about is not being forced to change especially when it comes to her music something that she says the music industry terms as an ‘adjustment of guarantee’.
"Nobody can ever force me to do anything, it’s about me oo! If I want to do opera on African riddim I will do it," she states. She is also very sure that she will not follow in the footsteps of West African musician Youssou N’dour by taking up politics. "No politics. Music is killing me already. That would be like giving myself to the dogs!" she says adding jokingly "Anyway, I would probably be a dictator."
When she is not in the studio writing songs, Nneka, a vegan by choice, loves to paint and use her music to reach out through ROPE, a foundation she started with Sierra Leonean Ahmed Ner to assist child soldiers and youth from impoverished backgrounds.
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