Capitalism, poverty, and war aren’t usually concepts that fuel musical genius but a 34-year-old Nigerian singer, named Nneka, has turned these topics into passionate lyrics. Her music draw attention to taboo issues from her homeland, but while the rest of the Europe, especially Germany, was embracing Nneka’s talent, Nigeria wasn’t aware of who she was or what she was singing about.
In several different interviews and on her personal web pages, Nneka has often talked about how it was hard to get recognition for her voice in her homeland of Warri, which is in the Delta region of Nigeria. She was surrounded by a lot of indigenous music there. In Nigeria there are a lot of musical festivals, feasts, and local events that provided a sound that has inspired her music today, but at the time, the music immersed land made it hard for her to stand out as an artist, but when she moved she finally found her voice.
In an interview with CNN, Nneka said, “When I went to Germany and being in a place where you have no connection, you are confronted in a totally different culture, tradition, mentality…You’re here on your own, you need to function and that’s where music came in.”
She started writing and singing her own music as a way to get comfortable with her new environment and people loved her sound. In the biography on her Facebook page, Nneka said, “They saw me as ‘somebody’ in Germany, and I found that very shocking. Back home in Nigeria it’s: ‘OK, you sing. Anybody can sing. So what?’” But the audience in Germany obviously didn’t think her talent was something to say “So What” about.
In 2003, Nneka started working with hip hop beat maker and producer DJ Farhot and the following year she opened for Sean Paul gaining herself some public recognition and the green light to record her first album, Victim of Truth, which came out in 2005 and was released in not only Germany but in England, France, Netherlands, Nigeria, and Japan as well. Her popularity rose in 2006 with her performance of her song “Gypsy” with a group of dancers from Münster on the German TV channel WDR. She released her second album in 2008 and in 2009 she went on her first tour in the United States. That same year Nneka even won an award for “Best African Act” at the Music of Black Origins awards.
Nneka was taking Europe by storm, but the story behind her success was the one of her homelife in Nigeria. She grew up surrounded by tribalism and poverty as well as shortages, blackouts, and intense class division. In an interview for Zen magazine, an online Africa-based magazine that features fashion, travel, and African heritage, Nneka said, “All that [economical hardships] has a lot to do with why I am the way I am, despite the fact that I have now been able to travel a great deal, and see the world from a different angle.”
It’s this perspective that makes Nneka’s sound unique. She doesn’t just sing to entertain the masses, she works to enlighten them within the realm of the hip hop genre. The interview with CNN quotes Nneka describing her sound. She said, “My music is very versatile, very mixed. I have different influences: afro beats, hip hop, reggae, raga, soul, hip hop, a little bit of rock, and of course the indigenous African or Nigerian influence,”
When listening to her music, you hear all these different elements not only in the drums and the rhythms, but also in the topics that she sings about. Songs from her albums My Fairy Tales and Soul is Heavy deal with the history of her people and the poverty that they are suffering from. They urge and inspire people to take notice of their environment and to feel connected to one another. The feeling of hope is evident in all of her songs. Just listening to them, you get the sense that she is urging people to take on the challenge of changing their situations together. You can tell that she wants a better life for them but that she believes change happens from within.
To CNN, Nneka talked about her homeland and she said, “I noticed that many people are becoming more conscious of their surroundings and more conscious of investing their money in proper institutions and infrastructure… So it’s like we’re getting there, but it’s taking time. It will take generations to make the people of Nigeria also understand that it is not just the leaders alone that have to take responsibility, but we ourselves.”
Its refreshing to see such a successful and talent artist take responsibility for her homeland and to work tirelessly to inspire change from within. They may not have known who she was when she was first getting started, but her music and her lyrics will continue to sing the truth surrounding Nigeria and promote change and hope for a better future.