Sunday, April 25, 2010

A singer gives voice to Nigeria’s anger


Nneka was about to launch into the final chorus of “Vagabond in Power (VIP)” when the secret service arrived.

She had already stirred up the crowd in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil city, with a few barbs aimed at the political class and Royal Dutch Shell – both frequent targets for animosity in the Niger Delta, where most people have little but violence and despoiled creeks to show for decades of crude extraction.

“There were 15,000 people singing,” the half-Nigerian, half-German singer recalls, sipping water in a corner of Bogobiri, a Lagos bar that serves as a hub for many of the vast capital’s artists and musicians. “It was heavy, heavy energy.”

December’s “peace concert”, organised by a local newspaper, was a world away from the flash Glasgow venue where she had collected the 2009 Mobo award for best African act three months earlier, a recognition of the eclectic blend of soul, reggae, hip-hop and African styles that has won her acclaim across Europe and, lately, the US.

Nigerians have a long history of wittily disparaging leaders who have too often failed them but the authorities are not accustomed to such large-scale denunciations. As agents started to hassle her crew at the back of the stage, she finished the song and made a hasty exit.

Nneka Egbuna regards giving voice to her people’s anger – mainly in pidgin English, their lingua franca – as her calling. “Dem come fish our water empty / Dem come chop our oil plenty,” go the opening lyrics of “Niger Delta”, from her second album No Longer at Ease (her recent first release in the US, Concrete Jungle, combines tracks from her two albums released in Europe).

A 28-year-old who has spent much of her adult life abroad, Nneka’s readiness to sing the truth to power places her among a generation of Nigerians whose frustration at the mismanagement of their country is starting to bubble over into mobilisations ahead of next year’s elections.

But unlike many of the so-called “re-pats” who have returned from lucrative jobs and expensive educations in New York and London, Nneka’s path has been gruelling. Cleaning toilets in Hamburg while she worked on her music was a time of excitement compared with what had gone before.

The low point was when she fled her Nigerian father’s house in Warri, the delta’s second city, at the age of 19. She “had to get out of the madness at home”, she explains, without elaborating. Without a passport, she made it to Hamburg, home to her white German mother. It took a month in a grim detention centre to convince immigration officials of her German lineage (a previous effort three years earlier had ended in deportation).

“It was hell,” she says, but adds: “We always have this mentality as Nigerians: if you grow up tough here, you can make it happen anywhere.”

She spent the next three years in a house for women with nowhere else to go run by the Catholic church. She picked up German and made male friends who introduced her to hip-hop. She jammed.

“I was a bit shy ... scared to sing my thoughts.” Gradually, though, a powerful voice emerged from her elfin frame. One day she got word that a local producer was looking for a female vocalist to record in a makeshift studio. It was DJ Farhot. He introduced her to the work of politically charged American rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli and would go on to be her closest musical collaborator. By 2005, Victim of Truth, her debut album, was ready.

“I tried to find an identity in music,” she says – and it shows. The lyrics are laden with race (to be explored), sex (to be enjoyed) and God (to be adored). She leaps between genres. The British trip-hop of Massive Attack sounds a strong influence. “Halfcast” from No Longer at Ease has echoes of Roni Size’s sophisticated drum ‘n’ bass. Other, softer songs have a flavour of Tracy Chapman’s plaintiveness. The voice by turn recalls Lauryn Hill or Nina Simone or Skin from 1990s UK rock group Skunk Anansie.

A recent show in Lagos (in Nigeria she plays with local musicians rather than her regular band for western tours) had a distinctly bluesy, improvised feel. “Heartbeat”, which reached number 20 in the UK charts in 2008, lays strings and rolling drums over a spare piano riff to create an infectious bounce.

If the styles are jumbled, they reflect Nneka’s roots. Even what she calls “the black side of me” is not straightforward. Her father was an Igbo, the main tribe of eastern Nigeria which has produced the novelists Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi-Adiche and whose attempted secession in 1967 sparked a horrific three-year civil war. But she was raised in Warri among the Urhobos, one of the Niger Delta’s patchwork of ethnic groups. She grew up only a few rungs above the poverty that is endemic in the delta despite its oil riches.

It was only after she ran from what she hints was a traumatic adolescence that her Nigerian identity came into focus. “Living in Germany Africanised me,” she says, reliving her anger at being called “nigger” for the first time on the streets of Hamburg. “I became more revolutionary.” She used her studies for an archaeology degree to probe Nigeria’s ancient history.

The western influence may be strong in her music but the Nigerian spirit is pervasive. “The music is like pidgin English – colonial and traditional together,” she says. “It’s half-caste music.”

“Vagabond in Power” borrows its title from Fela Kuti, father of Afrobeat and scourge of military dictators past. Many of Nneka’s lyrics share his subversive mischief. Fela’s abiding popularity is testimony as much to his genius as Nigeria’s failure to overcome the widespread corruption he attacked. Yet Nneka is not a keeper of the Afrobeat flame in the same mould as Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun Kuti. Neither, though, could she be classed with the emerging Nigerian rappers who rhyme about the cash and cars beloved of their superstar American counterparts. Perhaps the contemporary she most resembles is Paris-born Asa, Lagos’s folky singer-songwriter.

Critical adulation abroad was not instantly replicated at home. “For the first couple of years when I tried to push my music here, it was like: ‘Who is this oyinbo [white] person? It’s not Nigerian.’” Her popularity has grown since, although many still regard her as “niche”.

An urge to be acknowledged in Nigeria drove Nneka to move to Lagos two years ago after six years in Germany. Her next album, she suggests, will owe more to traditional music than to the sounds of the colonisers.

There is another reason to be around. From the stage in Port Harcourt, she says she sensed the fear of people who have known repression under the old generals and, more recently, during violent, rigged elections. That fear, coupled with a readiness of a highly religious country to entrust the future to God alone, has stifled public outrage, she believes.

That might be changing, as pro-democracy protests build anew. “People are becoming more conscious,” Nneka says. “It’s a silent revolution and it’s coming in camouflage – under music.”

Nneka appears at the Scala in London on April 28; Tour details from

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