Soul is Heavyby Lindokuhle Nkosi / 05.03.2012
Nneka Egbuna rarely smiles. Not in press shots, not in her interviews, not in her videos, rhythm or her lyrics. Her music speaks of tension, of delicate balance pulled so tight it threatens to snap, explode at any given moment, and most times, it does. In the wailing of her voice, are the cracks of belonging, but not fully. Of an incomplete militancy, deliberately void of aggression. Of faith and distrust. Of hypocrisy and victim mentalities. Of the broken nature of the world. She recognises pain. She is conscious of privilege. Of the delicate balance of greys. Like Fela Kuti and Chinua Achebe did before, she uses the art form that chose her as socio-political soapbox. Rooted heavily in soul, afro-beat and reggae; her music also holds many references to hip hop.
When she sat down for this interview, Nneka was exhausted. She had just returned from the Sauti Za Busara Music Festival in Zanzibar. She is a singer, rapper, songwriter; but it’s easier to identify with her as an activist. It pours out of everything she touches. Her song “Heartbeat”, featured on the Fifa 2012 game, sounds, at first listen, the plea of a desperate lover. The song is about the warped love-hate relationship between Africa and the West. The exploitation and the resulting neediness and dependency. Growing up in the oil rich area of Warri, this is something she knows a lot about.
“It was inspiring, both in a negative and positive sense. Warri is a very tense place, due to the diversity of tribes, and also the oil. There are a lot of conflicts and wars in the area but people still tolerate and co-exist. There is peace and there is wahala, all this has made me to be the person I am today. I took it all in, I mean I was not as aware as I am now but we all knew what was going on. This is one of the facts that have triggered my becoming a musician. You sing your pain because you don’t know where to go with it. All you have left is to cry out through with your voice.”
Her love for Africa is strong. While she now splits her time between Germany and Nigeria, she feels intricately intertwined with it. Everything for her is inter-connected. Delicately purled and looped in a complex ugly weave. Pain is pleasure is privilege is plight. Everything is everything. “They are all part of life which we have to accept. Without them all we would not be alive. Africa is the beginning, the treasure, the mother and father of the prodigal son. Africa is growing and evolving.”
In the track “Africans” she targets the continents perpetual victim mentality. Their comfort in playing the part of the dispossessed. “You keep pushing the blame on our colonial fathers… Why do we want to remain where we started, and how long do we want stop ourselves from thinking.” She is unapologetic about this stance. “We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our condition, y’know. We need to be more involved in our politics, economy, and, in general, walk on our own.”
I notice in her, jarring contradictions. Complete absorption and involvement punctuated by the random distractions of her mind. On the one hand, she is hard-handed, stern and decisive. Take for example, her opinion on Boko Haram. “People are agitated and need change. Just like the Occupy Nigeria movement started ‘cause people want to speak their minds… Boko Haram though, they are causing chaos and it is scary. I mean, we always had elements of religious friction between Christians and Muslims, but to have a subsidiary group of so called Taliban in Nigeria… I mean, we, Nigerians, believe it is politically motivated and not religious. We have seen some terrorists bombing their own brothers, the killings in Jos, the inspector general of police being attacked, the bombing of the UN building… so they are a threat to the Nation… we need to stop the division.”
While she is adamant that Africans contain within themselves the ability to carve and claw out their own destinies, she also dabbles in vague abstractions and non-specifics of a “bigger than me” mentality. The duality of leaving everything up to God; but keeping a firm grasp on the reigns and basically, well, doing everything yourself. She sees herself as a messenger, a medium. A channel for orders and words from a higher power. And at the crux of it all, when it’s all boiled over and spilt out of her, the message is to ‘take it upon yourself’. The time for just observing and intellectualising is over. This is the new stage of our evolution. The fifth, sixth, seventh wave of resistance. And Nneka is standing in the frontlines, armed and able. “I am concerned and I feel the pain of a many who are longing for change, who want to be heard. I use my music to raise awareness on political issues and social conditions, and I believe in that it can change a lot.”