nneka stands strong

June 01, 2012

words by: Kennedy Ashinze

GT: Introduce our readers to your band. 

N: We have different nationalities, we have a Cameroonian on the bass, and his name is Ngolle Pokossi. Then we have a Brazilian on guitars, Mo Pinheiro. Garry Sullivan is on drums, and for this tour, we have a substitute keyboarder, James Simpson. Our main keyboarder, Nis Koetting, couldn’t make this trip.

GT: When you play in Nigeria, does your actual band go with you or do you have substitutes?

Sometimes they do. I think we did two shows in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, with this present band but I also have a local band, so it’s much easier to go around. Most of the time, we need visas for the guys and it can be difficult sometimes. Our drummer is from the Bronx and we have a German—they all need visas, so it gets expensive.

GT: You mention DJ Farhot quite often as someone you started music with. What were the early days like?

Farhot is from Kabul, Afghanistan. I met him in Hamburg two years after I got there. We basically started out together before he became a producer. He was just a guy trying to do beats and I just came with my own vibe, trying to learn my guitar, write rhymes and sing.  We used to meet up, hang out and chill and we basically grew together and got creative together. I met a couple of other artists as well. We were all living in the ghetto area at the time, mostly black folks and foreigners. Farhot was living outside Hamburg and I would come from where I was living, in a facility with orphans, drug addicts, kids, to where he was living with his parents. So we’d just do our thing and make music. Eventually, when I got the record deal, I insisted on involving him since we were close friends working together all this while. We are still friends, we work together and appreciate each other’s ideas. When we work, he appreciates what I bring to the table. We’re comfortable, he doesn’t tell me what to do or insist on anything. It’s just free.

GT: Your 2009 mixtape with J.Period, The Madness (Onye-Ala), how did that come about?

I had been hearing a lot about J.Period and what he had been doing, and the way he approached me was very simple, very down to earth. We went to the studio and had about four days or so. We put our heads together and thought about the artists to bring on board. Most of the contacts he had already from previous work he had done. I even got to meet most of the artists who were on the mixtape. They were invited and some came out to the SOB’s gig I did. The mixtape helped me a lot in understanding the hip-hop culture in the US.

GT: What does it feel like to perform in Nigeria, what kind of reception do you get?

Performing in Lagos is always a good thing, the audience is outgoing and connected to my music. When I went to Port Harcourt—there was a Niger Delta peace concert I was doing and we were touring with a couple of other artists, and that was a bit challenging to a certain extent. But at the same time, I realised my music was not as unknown as I thought. I used to think one had to be very traditional to connect to people’s minds. But as long as you speak a little Pidgin English here and there, and you don’t act like somebody that’s above others, you’ll be fine. I noticed in Port Harcourt and the International Music Festivals I was involved in, while in Nigeria, those were shows where the people really needed to hear the message in my songs. I made a short speech before I started the song Vagabond in Power, and I realised how truly scared people were. In Nigeria, you are taught to respect your elders and all, but your respect is really not respect as it should be, but fear. You basically live in fear and there’s no way to express yourself. Even if you had the opportunity to express yourself, you wouldn’t have the courage to, because of that fear instilled in you as a child. And that is the problem with our community, even within our families. I’m not saying we should now push aside tradition and how we were raised. But the truth is, in my case, I never could look my father in the eye. If you were talking to your father, you would be looking at your toes, you know what I mean? You don’t even know who your father is. It is only now I’m finally getting to know my father, which is actually a shame because he’s almost 78 years old, and I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know if that has to do with tradition or some complex imposed on us but it’s not good and we’re still maintaining it. I don’t know where that comes from, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that’s the way our forefathers lived and wanted it.

GT: There is a thin line between fear and respect, which gets blurred from time to time. So you do raise an important point.

At the Port Harcourt concert, when I sang my VIP song, I remember it being a pretty serious and intense atmosphere. A lot of people, about 10,000, they were all singing along, Vagabond in Power. It was so serious and intense that the SSS (State Security Service) came to throw us off the stage. They came to harass us and wanted to arrest us, and eventually they threw me offstage. To the glory of God, VIP is a song I always play last, because I know I will have gotten my whole show in before I get kicked off.

GT: In the past, you have spoken about how Nigerian artists have to get approval or validation across the Atlantic before they get recognized at home, which I thought was an interesting point. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, you know how it is. People like Fela Kuti, Keziah Jones, Seal, Sade, Asa, and many more - their music had to be acknowledged outside Nigeria before our own people acknowledged them. I don’t know where the root of this actually lies. But you see other artists like 9ice and 2face, they are considered local Nigerian artists and don’t really have a big name outside Nigeria or Africa. The question then becomes, does that mean once you get validation from your own people back home, you have to remain local? I don’t know.

GT: In between touring, recording and your crazy schedule, how do you relax?

I’ve not had anything like that in a long time. I don’t know how to connect to people sometimes, and I’m not that social. I’ve had some serious issues talking to people and being normal. When I was in Nigeria, I had a week or so off by myself and I found out it’s difficult to become normal, to go out and sit down and have a chat or even be in a relationship. It’s difficult. All that stuff is so far out to me.

GT: Are you okay with that?

I don’t know. I’m getting older, so I’m not OK with that, really.

GT: Can you tell our readers something people might not know about you?

Well, I love to cook.

GT: Really? What kind of stuff?

Nigerian dishes. Good food. I like to cook good food.

GT: What are your favorite dishes to cook? 

My favorite is Egusi soup, stock fish and pounded yam. The real pounded yam.

GT: Nice. We believe in the Nneka movement so thank you for your time. It was fun and insightful.

Thank you too, and take care of yourself!

Color images c/o Delphine Diallo. Black and white images c/o Nneka.

You can find out more about Nneka, her music and projects here: 

The Ken Saro-Wiwa project: PlatformLondon.org/RememberSaroWiwa