We Africans love a good name, but it’s not enough for it to sound pretty. A name must mean something, declare something – be it the circumstances of the child’s birth (and as the last child of four whose name means ‘we are finished’ I know what I am talking about) or their parents’ hopes for the child’s future. That Nigerian soul singer Nneka Egbuna bears a name meaning ‘mother is supreme’, however, only goes some way to explaining who she is. A supremely talented, Mama Africa type she surely is, but the 27-year-old Hamburg based artist – the progeny of a beautifully flawed union between Africa and the West, both musically and personally – is also a social activist, anthropologist, truth-seeker and unintentional style icon. Not bad for a young who calls herself a ‘simple Delta State civilian’.
Nneka first came to the world’s attention in 2005 following her debut release Victim of Truth. With her untamed afro, scratchy alto and message of social consciousness, she was heralded as the new Lauryn Hill. There are similarities – least being that both have had the honour of being fired from sneakers outlet Footlocker – but in their (understandable) attempts to fill the gaping, Lauryn-sized hole left in popular music, early commentators missed that what Nneka does, and what she brings to the game, is completely unique.
Since releasing No Longer at Ease last year, her impressive, Chinua Achebe-inspired sophomore album, Nneka is finally being accepted on her own terms. Working with Hamburg-beatmaker DJ Farhot and acclaimed French producer Jean Lamoot, she’s produced a gritty, urgent and intelligent work which marries hip-hop beats with African sensibilities to memorable effect.
But it’s been a long road. Born and raised in Warri, one of the major oil cities in the turbulent Niger Delta region, Nneka is the youngest of four siblings born to a Nigerian father and German mother (although her parents split and she was raised by her father). “Growing up in Warri was not easy. The Niger Delta is the oil region of Nigeria so you have a lot of tribalism, a lot of fights and war outbreaks, but you learn to live with it. It’s only when I stepped out of Nigeria that I realised just how much the people are going through. Just how much I had to go through.”
At the age of 19, she swapped working in her stepmother’s restaurant (‘I can cook pounded yam and egusi stew very well,” she laughs) to study Anthropology at the University of Hamburg. Music became a means not only to finance her studies but also to survive the radical cultural transplantation. Unlike many of the artistically inclined, however, Nneka (who only graduated last year) always viewed formal education as a blessing rather than an impediment: “It actually inspired me. Having a degree certificate makes me feel more at ease. Coming from Nigeria, everybody can do music but if you have the opportunity to have an education, you must take it. My dad brought me up that way. Coming all the way from Africa to Europe and not having a degree would be a disgrace.”
Nneka initially struggled to adjust to life in Europe – the foreign language, the food, the culture, the ostentatious lack of faith grating against her own Christian beliefs. But eight years on, she has come to appreciate having her feet in two worlds: “There are so many things I have learnt from you people; you have acknowledged my music. But at the same time I needed to find for myself, what I can tap from your society and your mentality and your way of life.”
Duality is also a theme that Nneka explores in her music, particularly with reference to her mixed heritage. In the song ‘Half Caste’ Nneka strikes out against all those who think her light-skin makes her a stranger in her own country: “For fuck sake I’m Nigerian,” she raps, and one listen to her pidgin English and her wildly, melodic intonation lets you know she reps the green-white-green all the way. But in many ways Nneka’s particular brand of Nigerianness is a little foreign. In a country flooded with American-inspired R&B and hip-pop, her raw, uncut soul stands out like a fully-lit building during a NEPA power cut. But like fellow Europe-based compatriots Ayo and Asa, Nneka is part of a group of young artists who strive to connect their music to something deeper. “Nigerians love entertainment. They love drifting away from reality because they already have enough problems without hearing about them on the radio.”
She laughs out loud remembering a situation that occurred while touring with the popular Nigerian singer 2Face Idibia. “I did a couple of dates with 2Face last year and on the first night in Benin City, they booed me out! I was sitting there with my guitar, singing about love and corruption, blah blah blah, and these guys where like ‘Come out! Carry your guitar, waka!’ and I was like ‘man, you guys. You need to listen to this!’ But they didn’t want to know. They just wanted to have fun – to drink and be merry. And there is nothing wrong with that but if everyone is so focused on his or her wellbeing, nobody really cares for his or her neighbour. That is the problem of Africa. There is no togetherness.”
Nneka doesn’t have a problem with the pop takeover of Nigerian music: “It is not bad to love somebody like D’Banj or whoever, but I think there is so much more we can do when we face our reality and realise that we have to be united for us to succeed. When we do that, nothing or no-one can come from the outside to misuse and abuse us.”
But doesn’t carrying the hopes of a continent through song feel like a burden? Lauryn Hill was held up as the voice of an entire generation and look what happened to her. “To be honest with you, I need to do this. As well as coming from place of love, my music comes from pain. If the world was just positive and holy, I don’t know if I would be doing this. But it’s not like I am just singing about Africa’s problems. I am not saying everything is horrible. I am saying things should be different. There is optimism within the message that I am carrying. I am not just complaining. I want things to change and I want to be a part of that change.”
In case you missed our post on Nneka’s Heartbeat video, check it out here.
Then do yourselves favour and cop the smash-out Chase and Status remix here.