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Pop music is a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ world. A starburst of YouTube notoriety and then oblivion. Or at least it is for most.
But when your journey has been as long and extraordinary as Nneka’s – when you’ve travelled 10,000 miles and are still only just starting out – then instant celebrity is the last thing on your mind.
When your heart is as big as your Afro, when your talents stretch from teardrop soul-singing to freestyle rapping to a first-class degree from a top Continental university, when you’ve got so much to say about so much, then you are in it for the long haul.
Every year since her musical career took off in 2005, this Afro-German warrior princess has built on her successes, stretched her muscles, widened her range.
Her debut album ‘Victim of Truth’ – an inspirational mix of hot loops, black consciousness and 21st-century soul music – was garlanded with praise by the British media. ‘As good as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,’ said the Sunday Times.
Now, as the UK prepares for the long hot summer of 2009, its soundtrack has arrived: ‘No Longer At Ease’, a second album every bit as lush and visionary as her first.
It’s a record on which brains, beauty and beats collide.
It’s a record that has already made its mark across Europe and beyond.
It’s a record that Lenny Kravitz and Lauryn Hill both heard and said: ‘I want this girl opening my show!’
It’s easy to see what got Lauryn and Lenny so animated. Nneka’s music has still got a big splash of Bob Marley in the recipe, a measure of Nina Simone and a lick of Eryka Badu.
But this time around there’s more of the best ingredient – Nneka herself. Holding it all together is the emotional focus of her beautiful voice, located in a place somewhere between yearning and rage.
The daughter of a Nigerian father and a German mother, Nneka Egbuna was born in Warri, Oil City in the Delta region of Nigeria at the height of its new found wealth in the mid 70s.
For nineteen years she soaked up the sounds and rhythms of one of the most musical nations on the planet, a country where expressing yourself through song is just a part of everyday life, a country that has music in its very DNA, where the influence of giants like Afrobeat revolutionary Fela Kuti is never far away.
But at the age of 19 this modest and hard-working young girl made the big decision to leave behind the African way of life. To further her education, she moved not just to Europe but to Northern Europe, to the industrial seaport of Hamburg in Germany. For the young Nneka, it was a dramatic change, and there remains an intangible quality in her voice that speaks of being a long, long way from home.
“The cultural differences between Germany and Nigeria were extreme,” she says. “The way they dress, the way they carry themselves, their religion. So many things that were important to me are not important to them. For two years I was overwhelmed.”
But dramatic changes can produce dramatic results. Where back home a gift for singing and melody were no big deal, in Germany Nneka’s striking looks and vocal talents began to get her noticed. The fact is, there ain’t many Nigerian soul singers in Hamburg. “They saw me as ‘somebody’ in Germany, and I found that very shocking. Back home in Nigeria it’s: ‘OK, you sing. Anybody can sing. So what?’ ”
For all its innate musicality, Nigerian culture perhaps prizes education higher than any other achievement, and while Nneka was making her first demos and beginning to make waves as a performer, she was determined not to waste the stack of A-levels that she already had under her belt. Enrolled at Hamburg University, she continued to study for a degree in anthropology – no mean feat when you’re in demand at clubs and festivals from Paris to Lisbon, from Vienna to Madrid.
Nneka’s raw yet distinctive style of songwriting and harmonies soon brought her to the attention of top acts touring the continent across a wide range of styles. She opened massive shows for Jamaican dancehall bad-boy Sean Paul; then she did it again, this time for even bigger crowds with global hiphop crossover stars Gnarls Barkley. Add Lenny and Lauryn to that list and you get an idea of the sheer reach of the Nneka sound. It’s a sound that places her right at the centre of the new revolution in African contemporary music today.
While love, hope and optimism form the bedrock of all Nneka’s recorded work, there’s a steeliness to her new material, the engagement of a highly developed mind on some of the tough realities of modern politics – both personal and international. It takes no little courage – and insight – to write a song like ‘Africans’, which tells her people to stop blaming their colonial past for their problems and take responsibility for themselves. To then go back and sing it to packed houses in Nigeria – where the military rule with an iron fist – shows an extraordinary depth and strength of will. But that’s just what she did, making a triumphant return to her home country on tour with MTV-Award-winning Nigerian rapper 2-Face.
Yet, like the woman who wrote it, the song ‘Africans’ is not dry and hectoring – it’s a soft and elegant melody, a piece of music that doesn’t need to shout but instead seduces. Backed by the production of her longtime collaborator DJ Farhot, whose dubby soundworld she has inhabited since those early demo days in Hamburg, Nneka finds the perfect foil for the raw emotion that she brings to a vocal.
It’s a testament to the strength of Nneka’s talent that her success so far is based on word of mouth, on the quality of her albums and the intensity of her live performance. She is not a big-label product, forced down people’s throats by marketing dollars. Her audience now numbers hundreds of thousands across two continents, for Nneka now divides her time between homes in Lagos and Hamburg. Those listeners are people who have tracked her down, because there will always be a demand for music that does more than just entertain, but touches something universal. As she puts it herself: “I do it in a sweet way – but I sing to speak the truth.”
Entry credits: Nneka, Facebook.