University News

Q&A: Nigerian singer Nneka calls to ‘Vagabonds in Power’

By
Senior Staff Writer

The Herald sat down with Nigerian -German singer Nneka, who is visiting campus as part of this year’s Achebe Colloquium. The Colloquium, which will take place today and tomorrow, features panels and discussions centered on the theme “Governance, Security and Peace in Africa.” Nneka will perform 8:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

Herald: Are you excited about the concert?

Nneka: I am more excited about the conference, about what all these people want to talk about and how this will benefit us in Africa. This is so far away (from Africa). I want to see what impact this conference has on us and the students, the future leaders of tomorrow. What and where are we heading to? What is the intention? What do we get from all this talk? What are we really achieving from this? That’s my major concern.

Have you visited any other American universities?

I’ve performed at Berklee (College of Music) twice. It’s always very interesting and challenging. They all study music, and I’m like, ‘I never studied music!’ I learned guitar myself – I’m very not professional. A lot of eyes on you, watching you. But I guess that’s my head. If you’re too self-conscious, things don’t work out.

Do you have a set ready for the concert?

It’s just me and the guitar. I still have to see. I’ll go with the flow.

Can you talk a little about your sound?

I think it’s very versatile. It’s a blend of African music influence and Western contemporary sound. It’s music with a conscious background – I merge different elements from different cultures into my music. I use my music as a platform to raise awareness on critical social issues.

Your second album, titled “No Longer At Ease,” is the name of a novel by Professor of Africana Studies Chinua Achebe. Can you talk about that connection?  

I was at my sister’s house in Lagos. She (suggested) something like “Plight of the Delta” – I said that sounds too violent. I slept over one night, (and I thought of) this title “No Longer at Ease.” I didn’t remember it was one of those books that I read in school. 

The story of “No Longer at Ease” applies to my life story. Obi (the protagonist) is living abroad – supposed to study medicine. But he moves back to Nigeria, trying to fight against corruption. In the end of the day, he ends up not being able to fight corruption without being corrupt himself.

This is like my own personal story. I tasted the apple of Eden – the European world, knowledge. I wouldn’t consider myself completely corrupt, but I have to be a little corrupt to understand what’s going on. Every Nigerian has some element of corruption in him or herself. Without corruption, you cannot survive. Coming back to Chinua Achebe’s works, it’s very rebellious. Rebellious in a positive way, and I think I am able to be the voice of the many who do not have the courage to speak out their minds or the opportunity to speak out their minds. We are taught to believe that respect is fear. Or we are taught that fear is respect. We have to live in fear to respect the system – we’re stuck. That’s exactly why we’re breaking through. That’s why I’m no longer at ease. Clearly, I’ve never been at ease. I hope the next album will be a bit lighter. 

And you currently live in Lagos?

Most of the time I’m on the road, but that’s my base.

You said that you speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

I speak for those without power to speak out their minds.

They say (Nigeria is a) democracy, but you don’t really have that freedom to practice democracy. As soon as you open your mouth, you speak your truth, there will always be turmoil. People who have spoken the truth – they’ve been hanged, like (Nigerian writer) Ken Saro-Wiwa

There is always this trouble you get when you speak the truth – even on stage, you get harassed. 

Can you speak about your own experiences with this kind of turmoil?

I’ve had my own personal problem with authorities. I was in Port Harcourt in Rivers State, a port town in the Niger Delta. I was there for a concert. They called it the “Niger Delta Peace Concert.” They had invited international and local artists to come and perform where there had been a lot of agitation and violence due to oil to calm things down. So I was there to go out with all the international acts. And I had the impression that no one was talking about the problem that we have. I wanted to make my set a different one. I, as a Nigerian, am able to connect with the audience, evoke them to understand what this whole concept and concert is about.  

I have a song called V.I.P. – Vagabond in Power – inspired by Fela. I explained the intention of the song (to the audience), which was about the state of the Delta. The song could only be possible if the audience would interact with me. I would respond in between saying “they are liars,” “we are liars,” “we have to change.”  It was a call and response. It invoked a very heavy vibe on set – over 15,000 people singing along. 

Then the authorities came on stage to arrest us. They had already arrested my manager in the back. They took the sticks from the drummer. They started on the guitar player, but I didn’t know what was happening. I saw the way the crowd was reacting (and I thought), “What’s going on?” I realized when I looked at the big screen. 

 We had to flee. It is not as funny as it sounds now. 

Do you think the political quality of your music was influenced by your childhood in Nigeria?

I grew up in Warri – the oil city of the Delta. I was more concerned about my own problems. That’s how most of the Nigerians are. It was when I stepped out of Nigeria that I realized how important Nigeria was to me and how important I was to Nigeria. In Europe, I read, I see. I experience racism for the first time. It is when I traveled (that) I became more concerned. I was proud to speak English with an African accent. Proud to leave my hair, not have to stretch it. Not have to bleach my skin to be whiter than I am already. Traveling really, really, really educates you. That’s when I had that urge to go back home and use my music as a means to educate myself and my fellow Africans. That’s when I decided to move back to Nigeria, five or six years ago.

Did you start your career with a political message?

I’ve always had a tendency – maybe
it is because of the name I have. They say your name is your destiny. I could never be that easy. I don’t feel like singing “love me, love me, baby, baby” would bring us anywhere. I came across people who enlightened me, fellow artists. (I was also influenced by) what I studied – archaeology and social anthropology. (There is such a) Eurocentric way of analyzing history. It was hard as somebody who was born in Africa. It’s good cause it educated me, too. 

I was having discussions with fellow students. I met a lot of crazy activists. Some who were in exile. Some of them were just too theoretical. Some just go crazy reading books – are you still living in reality or are you living in the book alone?

You have one love to your knowledge, one love to your references and quotations and all of that, but hey! This is life! This is now!  

You said you will always be political, but you also mentioned you want your next album to be lighter? 

(Laughs) As in the title. At least let the title be lighter! Even if the content is heavy. Let’s camouflage the heaviness. Maybe it will be easier to embrace the devil, make the devil fall in love with you. If he hears the heavy song he doesn’t want to dance with you. So we lie, we lie to the devil.

Do you think Nigeria has made political or social gains in the recent years?

It’s not all negativity. We are understanding our own individual responsibility. Participating in elections, even if (with) the candidates that we have, we can’t really tell anything about them. (People) know how important it is to raise your voice. A lot of Nigerians in the diaspora are coming back home to invest their experiences, their knowledge – building institutions. I’m glad I moved back. There was a while where I felt that there was a giant dark cloud over the continent of Africa. We have better roads now. Electricity is still not very stable, (but it is) becoming stable. 

I am not a professional analyst. I don’t like to be involved in politics. If people see you at a conference with the governor, they say he is financing your career. I want to make clear – everything that is happening here is out of love, passion, devotion. I’m not getting paid to be here.

What do you think Brown has to offer in terms of this conference? 

I like the fact that they’re opening the door for a random artist like me, (so I) have a chance to share my music, my message. Combining the dry theory of academics with music is a good way to transfer knowledge to students. It’s a good way for them to be able to process information in a less rational way. It’s easier to digest. I like that.