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Music Interview: ‘Nneka’. Words by Jareh Das

Nneka Nneka Nneka. I keep championing this fearless and talented Nigerian singer but having seen her in Belfort and now in Cargo, I can reiterate my initial awe of her incredible voice and powerful message. Having met Nneka earlier during a fly-by lunch break interview and familiarised myself with more tracks prior to this gig (thanks spotify), I was ready to really enjoy this evening's performance put on by Afro Pop Live & Shakara at East London's somewhat intimate Cargo gig venue. Advised by the promoters to turn up early (lots of press interest and UK radio air play you see), I arrived to a packed out venue and caught the opening act Afrikan Boy who drew quite a crowd due to his charming persona and cheeky smile. Hits like 'LIDL' got the crowd going and when he got off stage a storming set by DJ Edu (BBC1 Extra) & MC-Ing by TY Chijoke brought the roof down. Nneka wasn't due to come on for another hour but due to support act being held up by flight delays her scheduled slot get brought forward and everyone piles into the venue as she graces the stage to a cheering fan base. The thing that is most appealing about Nneka (Interview below will explain) is that she is confident but not arrogant, she seems to have little time for becoming an ultra produced soul sensation, gets on with making great music and delivering a positive message. She is very proud to promote her Nigerian-ess and often invokes this into audience participation thorough out the course of the evening, which is brilliant. Songs like Kangpe (which she explained means I'm cool/Strong) symbolised solidarity and became epitomised as a greeting next time attendees visited her next concert i.e. one can just envisage at a gig 'How are you (or rather How You Dey)?', reply: 'I Dey Kangpe (meaning I'm Cool)'. Half Caste is somewhat autobiographical, but really divulges the issues mixed race children may sometimes have with their identity (explained further in interview below) but the message I find, is really about finding ourselves and being lost in migration, as regardless of being mixed race once a person emigrates, it is often difficult to relate back to the place of migration. Mid way through her performance Nneka speaks passionately about V.I.P's aptly renamed as Vagabonds In Power a kind of protest to all the exploiters in the world today. Africans is a sort of cry for help about Africans need to wake up and stop laying the blame wholly on colonisation. Nneka's hour and a half long set concluded with the rapturous anthem Heartbeat. Everyone left the gig with smiles on their face as well as being reminded of the poignant message of remembering Saro-Wiwa and really remembering we all have a part to play in righting the wrongs of this world we live in. I had had the pleasure of interviewing Nneka very briefly prior to the gig and here's an insight to Nneka's world:

Run Riot: Hi Nneka. Thanks so much for taking time out to see me aboard your tour bus for this impromptu interview (I had dash from work and rush back in 45 mins)
Nneka: No problem. Nice to meet you.

Run Riot: I'm from Nigeria (turns out our parents live in the same estate) as well and it's really great to have you promoting such a positive message, where did you grow up in Germany/Warri, Nigeria? Listening to the lyrics of Half Caste as this seems autobiographical? What's the story really?
Nneka: Oh small World. OK cool, well I grew up in Warri, and Half Caste is a song I wrote but isn't strictly about me. It's more half way. When it comes to the part where she is having an identity crisis and not being accepted in Germany and not knowing her African side, that's what I've noticed with many mixed race people that have grown up abroad that they have a lot of problems with their African heritage or getting to know their African heritage because for example their parents are divorced, or because their father came back to Africa after he received his papers, you have all this negative stories. So most of the kids don't consider themselves as Africans and at the same time aren't fully integrated into the white community. So you see many of them have problems, some start taking drugs and start doing nasty stuff. Basically that song deals with that kid of person with these kinds of dilemmas and half of it is my story.

Run Riot: I don't really know a great deal about your background but presumable it didn't always start with music? How did all begin? And any achievements outside of the music?
Nneka: Talking about things outside of the music, well I've finished my studies (She studied Anthropology & Archaeology). I'm able to go back home and say this is what I've done, and my dad is cool and it' not just music (my dad feels everybody can do music) so that keeps me at ease. There are many things that I would love to use this knowledge I have gained studying Archaeology & Anthropology back home in Nigeria. The discipline isn't really widespread and you really only have two universities that practice this in their department. In general, this perception that we Nigerians have this perception that preserving our culture is something that we have to learn as people always say our history isn't written and is all oral literature. This is not true as there is so much that has been written down and so many artifacts to be found and need excavating. Most are being found but sold to European countries, so I'm trying to find people with the same ideology back home to see if we can do something.

Run Riot: (As a Nigerian) I often find there is a lot of stigma associated to the arts, it doesn't fit into the usual deemed academics like Law, Engineering m Accountancy etc. How do you hope to overcome challenges in the promotion of Archaeology in Nigeria?
Nneka: I've gotten to know a couple of people who are interested in this and quite influential and academically knowledgeable of the field. We’re getting there, even if it means opening a museum or cultural centre where kids are educated on their true history.

Run Riot: Are you more a political with your music and would you pursue a political career as I notice you are describe as a philanthropist and often speak out about Shell/Niger Delta issues, is this an avenue you would pursue?
Nneka: I would not consider myself knowledgeable to go that far at present as I would have to have proper (how do I put it?) education, a degree. All I can talk about is that which I consider... every body has a conscience, everybody know the limits of their freedom, as soon as you practice your freedom and it starts hurting someone else's dignity then you know that it's not right. So that is all I represent, the limits of your free doom...Love. Everybody can talk about that because you know, you've experienced it and you have a conscience.

Run Riot: Your touring extensively around Europe and there's quite a buzz about you at the moment with lots of radio airplay. In terms of your career direction would you rather have a more commercial mass appeal or rather be limited to a more underground fan base?
Nneka: I don't really care. It's all about spreading the message and enough people should be able to identify with the message and I'm fine. I don't have to become popular or a big star that's not my aim, but if God takes me there then it's better for people to hear the message as it’s not about me or my face.

Run Riot: Well that's it Nneka, thanks so much.
Nneka: Thank you.

Nneka is charming but resistant in being classified as a commercial pop star/soul star. She is passionate about delivering a positive message and is fiercely proud of Nigeria and this is apparent in her music as well as oeuvre. What's refreshing, having met and seen her perform is that she's gutsy and determined and has a golden voice to add to this. Her music is fun but powerful, satirical as well as slightly political but at the end of the day it really makes you stop and think. I hope for her to become a major star but as she quite rightly put it she really doesn't care about fame (which is rare and great at the same time). Nneka is really promoting a unique and positive message and really raising the baton for talented singers out of Nigeria and with peers like Asa and Ayo, female Nigerian solo singers are definitely the ones to watch. Not that I'm biased or anything....

To and Fro by Nneka is released on 22 August 2009

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