By TONY OGAGA ERHARIEFE
The first time I met her was in 2003. That was before she began making the hits. What struck me about her that first time was the large guitar in a large black bag back-strapped to her petit frame.
Dressed in clinging denims and an unbuttoned blue top over a white T-shirt, she looked so delicate I was scared she’d snap into two from the weight of the massive guitar her petite frame bore. Strangely, I felt the guitar was probably a burden she had to carry around because her destiny was somehow tied to it. As we spoke, I noticed that she was shy, avoiding eye contact and smiling, displaying rows of white teeth.
That was eight years ago.
Today, the singer known as Nneka has come a long way. With four albums to her credit and making Forbes magazine’s list of Top African Celebrities alongside 2face, Asa and D’banj in 2010, Nneka has gone on to win several awards including Best African Act (MOBO) and has also emerged as one of Nigeria’s most formidable music exports in recent times.
As the interview progressed, Nneka spoke with the confidence of a woman who truly knows her onions. Born Nneka Lucia Egbunna on December 24, 1980, to a German mother and a Nigerian father, she is a singer and songwriter who grew up in Warri, Delta State. After graduating from secondary school, she relocated to Hamburg, Germany, to pursue not just her music career but also a degree programme in Anthropology at University of Hamburg, Germany.
She has shared stages and collaborated with the likes of Sean Paul, Lenny Kravitz, Nas, Femi Kuti and Nester Marley, and has also toured Europe, Asia and America. To date, her albums include Victim of Truth, No Longer At Ease, and Concrete Jungle. She was in Nigeria during the Christmas season and performed at various venues including Freedom Park and Ayo Bankole Arts Centre, Surulere, Lagos, where TS Weekend caught up with her. In this interview, Nneka talks about her career and other interesting issues. Excerpts:
Your style of music is not mainstream. Tell us the challenges you have faced building your own sound and coming this far?
The major thing is being able to be yourself and being authentic. You must be yourself and go out there to a world where there is too much of flashing and superficial life styles; I am talking about that shallow way of life. Many people are wearing masks, camouflaging their true identity just so they could be accepted by the world.
It takes a lot of courage to maintain this reality, which is the person I am. I will not lie to the world and myself because I am a realistic person. But I am not pessimistic. In my music, I think that I am able to stress the issues that we face as human beings and find possible solutions to the problems that we have. Music for me is a platform to access the minds of many people especially those in power. People that on a normal day I couldn’t approach, the stage has given me the opportunity to meet and I have met all sorts of people including those you will never believe. The music is also an easier method of softening hardened hearts especially those in power. Instead of writing a piece and standing on a podium and delivering a dry speech, I would rather sing and dance and make that devil fall in love with me in order to make change possible.
Outside of Nigeria you’re very big but here people don’t know you as much as they know Asa. A while ago, MI joined you on stage for a performance. Are you trying to use him as a springboard into the Nigerian market?
I have been here way before MI and even Asa. I remember when MI was not big and I came to his show at Bogobiri. Then he was not known but he was a very conscious artiste and that’s why I could identify with his music. He is more than what people think. He is a very deep and conscious artiste. The same goes for Asa. I don’t use people. No matter how big you’re, whether D’banj or Booby Brown, I wouldn’t collaborate with you just because I think you might be of benefit to my career. I would have to first identify with your personality in the first place and then identify with the content of your music before the issue of a collabo comes up. So, MI came to my show because he wanted to come. He is my friend. He also came for my last show with Keziah Jones. The last show I had a while ago, Ikechukwu and D‘banj also came along. I did not invite them but they were there because they are my friends.
I have listened to your music and realised that there is a lot of soul, Afrobeat and reggae in it but you insist that you play hip-hop. Where is the hip-hop in your sound?
Hip-hop is the basis of my music. I started as a rapper. I actually was a rapper before I started singing so, I rap and sing.
Your style of music is not the conventional stuff we hear everyday but you have been so fortunate to come this far. How have you been able to handle success these past eight years?
On me being different from the mainstream, I would say this is what pleases me; I am quite selfish in that regard. I make music for myself and then give it out to the world. I will never give you medicine that is not good for you because I will quench before you quench so, it’s a spiritual process, which has taken root. There are some artistes you hear for a while and after that they are gone. My role models are Sade Adu and Fela Kuti to mention a few. These are people who maintain very high standards, people who have longevity in the industry; people who for a life time you could listen to and be inspired. Maintaining my standard has a lot to do with my belief in God. I believe that without God I wouldn’t be here. You don’t know how much I tour. I tour over 300 days in a year all over the world. Sometimes, I earn money sometimes I don’t. For three straight months, I am in a bus traveling on rugged roads, staying in run down hotels. Sometimes, I don’t even sleep and then I come back to Nigeria and you see people doing karaoke and they are cashing in N5 million! (laughs).
On this show, I am not earning a penny but I love my country and I love to spread my message. Of course, it is important to earn money to take care of my family but it’s not the major thing. I think love is what keeps me going. The music makes people happy and I feed on other people’s happiness and that’s what makes me to continue doing this kind of music that I am doing.
What would you say has been your most challenging moments?
When you don’t get enough gigs; it could be very challenging.
Let’s look at the young girl who came into music eight years ago and the confident woman before me today. You were very shy back then when I first saw you in 2003 before you relocated…?
I am still very shy. But I think with time I am getting used to it. If you ask me certain questions, I won’t be able to answer (laughs).
When you were performing, I saw the female version of Fela. Don’t you think you intimidate a lot of guys?
I don’t look at men in that light. I try to allow a man to be a man. It is important that you allow a man to be a man. A woman can never take the place of a man. Being on the road with men sometimes make me forget that I am a woman until I come back to Nigeria and that’s why I always come back; that humbles me because it brings me back to my position. Even if you see a man’s weakness, you have to treat him well so that you can get what you want from the man; you know its trade by batter.
What’s your ideal man?
He should be God fearing.
Are you planning to settle down any time soon considering the fact that you have been so successful?
I am not planning to settle down.
So, who is the guy in your life for now?
There’s nobody in my life for now.