Having met singer and conscious musician Nneka before her concert at Fabrik, a music venue in Hamburg, we talked about her home country – Nigeria, the political power of music, the opportunities of travel and the inequalities inherent in conceptions of nationality and national borders.
Photography by Juliane Giersch
“Hello Hamburg, it’s been a long time. It’s been a while since I’ve played in Europe,” Nneka greets the audience in the packed venue. Being just back to her second home Hamburg after having spent some months in her home country Nigeria she continues by saying: “I want to show you my thoughts through this music,” before filling the space with her voice and sounds, a blend of reggae, soul, afrobeat and hip hop.
Nneka Egbuna educates and informs her audience about contemporary global, political and social issues with a special emphasis on those concerning her home country Nigeria – almost like a melodious news presenter. Not only are many of her lyrics political but she uses her captivating stage presence for short speeches that put her music into context. Nneka fills the space with an aura. After the concert it’s not only her, the audience leaves inspired by but ones own thoughts that were triggered by her performance. Thoughts, that go far beyond evolving around one singer or one place. Thoughts, that motivate to stand up, to take everyone around with you, starting to make a change.
Your lyrics regularly speak about political topics and you don’t hesitate to spread political messages during your concerts. What do you think about the political power of music?
I think music is very powerful. It draws attention and the type of audience you have access to is way beyond the official, strict presentation audience type of vibe. It goes beyond borders. Music doesn’t necessarily even has to be understood, language wise, it’s a feeling. You could use words, you could use melody, you could use frequency, you could use energy to communicate, all at the same time. That makes music more powerful than politics, as far as I’m concerned. Or makes music become part of politics, or politics become a part of music.
Do you think people can understand political situations through music?
Yeah, definitely. You could use music to educate people on what is happening around the world. And make it easier for those who think they know already to become more softened towards certain problems. Not every issue has to be solved via conferences or war.
How does travel influence you personally and your work?
I think to travel is a great, great opportunity. I would’ve never ever have thought I would have this chance what I’m doing. Just reminding yourself of the advantage you have. Take everything in. It is beautiful to meet different people, experience their culture, their traditions, their type of music. Be open to learn. And involve that into your music. Into everything.
What does nationality mean to you?
Nationality like German, English…?
Yeah like your passport.
Having a red passport [the German passport is red] is definitely a great thing. And having a green passport [the Nigerian passport is green] is amazing as well. But you can’t do much with it. Laughs. You know when they see a green passport… okay checkpoint. So it sounds awkward but that’s just how it is. Nationality. We’ve got into a stage were we can’t do without it. We’ve created borders, we have countries, we have languages. I think at this stage it is part of our identity. But that doesn’t mean I agree. Or that doesn’t mean I think it’s an awesome idea. There is this passport I really want to have. It’s an international passport and I want to apply for it. [The World Passport is a travel document based on the idea of world citizenship, issued by the World Service Authority, an organisation founded by Garry Davis in 1954.] Mos Def has one. Being a citizen of the world. Not necessarily having to belong to any place specifically is a great idea.
Would you prefer it to be another way?
Obviously! It would be awesome to go back to peace and love and let’s all go naked. Awesome, let’s do it! It would be cold… Laughs.
Would you say there is a difference between how your work is understood in Europe and Africa?
I don’t see a massive difference. These days. I just did a couple of concerts in Nigeria and they were quite attentive, they embrace my style of music now more then they would have embraced it five years ago. For the fact that my music is not for entertainment purposes alone but also to enlighten people on what is happening in our country politically, raising awareness for social and political issues. Using music in that kind of way has become something that Nigerians do these days. I think that has definitely changed, perceptions and the way people see conscious musicians. Though Europe I always kind of felt, from the beginning, I didn’t have that problem of disconnect, that people look and they don’t want to have anything to do with you. With Africa it took some time, unfortunately.
What changed that? What changed people to be more open?
I think it’s an identity. Mentality wise we’ve kind of gone to a place where we are less suppressed and we’re more outspoken to what’s going on and we’re not just pointing fingers and giving our politicians the responsibility alone, or the VIPs and the elite class. But we know that we need to be part of the puzzle hence people are more expressive. They are a lot more free. I think many Nigerians or Africans now, everything that is going on in the world or especially in Africa, people are fed up with being in that bondage, in those mental stripes. People are not afraid to break free.
Artists like Fela Kuti and Chinua Achebe radically changed the image many Western countries had of Nigeria and its culture. You continue this legacy with your work. How do you feel in the role of an ambassador of Nigeria?
You just have to have something good to say. Something way deeper than just entertaining people and the legacy I want to be part of is a legacy for god. Because I believe in god and I do believe that my music or I should believe that my music touches hearts and motivates people and encourages women. I’m definitely happy to be part of life and to be chosen to do a certain job that only I’m chosen to do. And everybody should know their purpose and should be happy to be part of life. Though there are a lot of things that will distract your attention. A lot of emotions and people and experiences that will block you. But it’s all about staying in tune.
Why do you think people feel an urge to isolate themselves from others on the grounds of nationality, religion, class, gender and so on and how do you think humanity can learn to unite?
Takes a deep breath. Most countries are very comfortable with the way they’ve been. They don’t like change. The situation of immigrants coming to Europe for instance. To them it’s life-threatening, job-threatening… People are just not used to an earthquake so to say. I think even if you isolate yourself nationally, there would one day always somehow be some impact from the outside. Whether we like it or not. And that’s exactly what has happened now. The comfort and your isolation is only possible because you are feeding off another nation. The comfort of Europe or the West has a lot to do with the discomfort of somewhere else. Of Africa. For the fact that we’re all connected. No country is really on it’s own. Even if it’s something like Ethiopia, where they are very isolated in a way… In the end you can’t really remove.
Because it all exists on one planet, right?
Exactly. And it’s quite selfish. Anyway, cut long story short how can we change it? It’s easier said than done but by not taking our colour too serious, by not taking our egos too serious, by realizing that we all have fundamental similarities. Differences as well, but that doesn’t make us better people than others. And time and chance happen to us all. I read about it in the Bible, the day before yesterday. Whether you are black, whether you have an Afro, whether you have travelled or you’ve not travelled, whether whatever, in the end your time is your time and your chance is your chance. Hence why there is no sense in separating ourselves. This is the time we have to be in this world, alive, feel. I don’t know if there is another life. The Buddhists say you have to go through seven lives and then you go to Nirvana, in Nigeria we say you come back, you incarnate. Christianity says you die you go to heaven or hell. All I know right now is the now. Which is the present. Now you’re here, I’m here, I’m sitting here you’re looking at me, we’re here. This is the moment we have. This is the moment we need to unite. Why should it just be about me? Why?
Yeah, no reason. It doesn’t make sense at all. And interviews as well. Interviews shouldn’t just be questions, interviews should be more like conversations because I’m the only one talking now and I don’t get to know anything about you.
You can ask me questions.
You flew in all the way from England?
Me talking. Us talking.
Interview and pictures were exclusively conducted / taken for Overview Magazine. The interview published here is a shortened version of the initial interview published in Overview.