Nneka: It’s Not About Entertainment

There is something strikingly confident yet vulnerable about Nneka. Born in Nigeria on Christmas Eve 1981, the singer moved to Germany in 2000 for reasons she is more than hesitant to disclose. She completed a degree there last year in Anthropology and Archaeology – subjects she chose out of “the urge just to study something… I didn’t want to study Archaeology, I just took it [and] eventually I gained interest while studying.”

With only a year and a half to learn the German language from scratch before starting her degree, Nneka’s pride in passing quickly shifted to contemplation on how best to make use of the qualification.  “I’m trying to see what I can do with it…” she muses. “I think in Nigeria I could make use of it. We don’t really have Anthropology as a subject in universities, I think two or three offer it as a discipline, and people are very [condescending]… because it’s kind of esoteric, they think it’s not real and it’s not like studying engineering and stuff like that. People are more focused on making money.”

“But I was thinking of going into excavation and excavating sites because we have a lot of historical sites and artefacts that have been found. French people come and do the excavation, take these artefacts and exhibit them in foreign countries and earn money from the things that WE own.  If we had more sense or more interest for this thing that we own – our history, basically – then I think we could gain more. The Germans, the Frankfurt University, they are doing these excavations in the North West and they are taking [our] artefacts abroad and praising themselves for discovering these artefacts, and that’s it.”

The loneliness evoked by the culture shock of moving country at the age of 19 was the catalyst for her music. Before moving to Hamburg, she’d had no intentions of becoming a singer. Nneka explains, “The mentality is a bit different [in Germany]. German people think really out there, they’re really organised, they’re very punctual, straightforward, extremely organised, and they are cold. I don’t want to be too harsh but they’re not really outgoing, you know? So I had to get used to that. And the fact that I came alone to Germany and I couldn’t speak the language was a really big challenge for me.”

“Not understanding made me kind of isolate myself for the fact that I didn’t feel comfortable with not understanding what people were talking [about] around me. It kind of also triggered my interest to learn the language and I learnt it even faster.  Due to loneliness I noticed what I was capable of doing, which is making music. Music kind of found me in that loneliness. That is why I started. I used to write before but I never really made use of my lyrics or what I wrote until I got to Germany and started singing them.”

That pain and loneliness inspired her to write her first song.  “I knew I had to do something that was good for me. Due to my experience back home in Nigeria I don’t really trust too many people around me. I needed something that I could believe in that would not hurt me – a god in my music, more or less. Something I could believe in and at the same time a therapy. Which was music, for me.”

This elusive experience in Nigeria comes up again. It feels important to ask again.  Hesitantly, she begins.  “It was definitely cool growing up in Nigeria because if I hadn’t experienced what I experienced I wouldn’t be this forward and strong. So it carved me, it carved my entire character and it put a lot of morals that even stand in my way sometimes, morals in my head that sometimes deprive me of being worldly. Sometimes it was good, but sometimes I noticed due to those morals in my head I would restrict my movement and my freedom – which is not good.

“I kind of learnt, when I moved to Germany, I learnt that I didn’t have to stick to those things that people told me in Nigeria. I did them because people did them and the system was like that, so I needed to get to know myself and think for myself. And combine that with which I learn, to that which I had to believe in, to see what I’m really all about.”

She exhales. Laughs.

“It’s all kind of junkyard…”

The personal context she chooses to keep private, she continues, refers to complexities in her family – a polygamous home with seven brothers and sisters and two wives. “We had some ups and downs, you know, some heavy issues… The respect that I gave to the people, or to the norms of the system, it was no more respect it was fear. When respect becomes fear then it’s not real anymore. I’ve learnt a lot.”

Nneka exudes a strong sense of identity. Her album title, No Longer At Ease, refers to her environment rather than being comfortable with herself. “It’s towards the system,” she confirms. “I am not at ease with what is happening around me. I dedicated this one to the Niger Delta where I come from.

“There are two or three songs on the album where I am talking about the oil problem in Nigeria and what Shell the oil company has been doing in Nigeria for the past 50-60 years. I always explain it on stage. I’m trying to raise awareness on this topic especially towards fellow Nigerians because many Nigerians aren’t aware of what’s going on back home.”

Performing at Cargo, London last year, she owned the stage without the aids of hyper-sexualised dancing or provocative outfits. The sheer force of emotion in her voice – described by some as ‘a mixture between anger and pain’ – held the crowd’s full attention.   “If anybody told me to change I would not do music anymore. As long as this is something I do for my heart, this is something I love, like being married,” she insists. “It’s something that comes from the depths and if anybody should come and tamper or tell me to change, it would be like faking my personality, slipping into a role, and I cannot play a role because I would take too much energy to be fake. Therefore, I just have to stay myself.

“I can’t be anybody else, I just can’t; and that’s how it is. I mean I do dance on stage every now and then but I’m not like, flashing. I know people pay to come and see me, and I appreciate that, but it’s not about entertainment.”

Her stage show, she says, is neither for her nor for her audience.  “It’s for God. It’s for the spirit of this air that brings us together, which is always present when one or two or more are gathered. And that’s it. It’s not at all for myself. It used to be for myself when I did it alone, and did it for therapy and stuff, but now it’s for us. It’s for the spirit of god. Which is all of us.”

With a few exceptions of socially conscious soul from previous decades, soulful music nowadays tends to focus on romantic love as a theme – but Nneka’s album is particularly concerned with social and political matters. The lead single, ‘Heartbeat’, is targeted at “the Nigerian leaders and the western world and what the western world is doing with Africa, and what Africa is doing with itself. It’s about people using the name of love in vain, people using sweet words for their own self-profit, to gain attention and at the end of the day they do not really practice what they preach. People who fake their smiles just to have you, just to have your energy, people misuse you basically. It’s political song and it’s also very personal.”
[audio:http://soulculture.com/Nneka – Heartbeat.mp3]

The weighty subjects of corruption and abuse of power are more natural for Nneka to vocalise than the typical ‘love stuff’. “I think I tend to identify with those songs that are more complaining,” she laughs. “Because I don’t know what love is, to be honest with you! Sometimes I’m confused. I’m still searching for what love is, and I cannot really talk about what I do not know.

“All I can talk about is how I feel and what I think is right and not right. And I’m not too free with expressing those kinds of feelings – man and woman ting – I’m not really good at doing that except for if I’m in my room! I don’t know how to put it. I’m not good at doing that on stage or even on a track, I can’t even sing “I love you” – its difficult for me to say I love you because it’s heavy. To me it’s meaningful.”

Our conversation draws to an end and I ask for her final words for our readers: “That I’m grateful, that’s it. That I’m grateful I’m doing something that I never thought I would do. And if you do what you do and that which you love 100% from the depth of your heart, then it’s good like that.

“Don’t let anybody change you, don’t let anybody tell you anything that you have to be somebody else. That’s it: be yourself, but do not forget another man’s dignity. Do not hurt another man’s dignity [or] another man’s space because you are being yourself or being free. Do not over exaggerate, that’s what we say in Nigeria.”

We say our goodbyes and I’m left reflecting on Nneka’s rather profound final statement.  People usually say, “buy my album”.


Nneka’s sophomore album, No Longer At Ease, can be purchased from the iTunes store by clicking here.

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