We must eradicate colonial mentality
In January this past winter, my husband and I ventured out into a blizzard-like storm howling through Philadelphia to see Nneka Egbuna perform songs from her new album Concrete Jungle. Her opening words that night still ring in my mind: “I am not here to entertain you. I am here to show you love.” Nneka’s music was vibrant; her lyrics boldly inspiring. This was clearly a woman of tremendous depth and talent.
Nneka Egbuna’s career is on the rise. In October 2009 she won Best African Act at the MOBO awards. In January 2010, she appeared on the David Letterman Show. Then Nneka joined NAS and Damien Marley on their Distant Relatives Tour. Nneka’s newest song, Viva Africa! , was chosen to be part of Listen Up! the official FIFA World Cup 2010 album. And now, Nneka has been nominated for awards in two categories Indigenous Artist of the Year and Best/Neo-Soul Act of the Year for the 5th annual Nigerian Entertainment Awards to be held in New York September 18, 2010.
Allure: Welcome back to Philadelphia, Nneka, I appreciate that you’ve taken time from your busy tour schedule to talk with me today. Congratulations on all of your breakthroughs.
Nneka: Thank you very much. In reality, I don’t take them too seriously. I mean, the music is more about the content. If I see that people understand the message that is the most important thing. Then I am happy. Winning awards, of course, gives you more publicity, a way to approach getting a bigger audience people that you would not have had the opportunity to reach if you hadn’t won an award. It is a good thing, but I do not allow these things to distract me.
Now you have three CDs, Concrete Jungle in addition to Victim of Truth and No Longer at Ease, a contract with Sony, and you are touring Europe and the U.S. When you started singing, did you ever dream that your career would take off this way?
The funny thing is that I was never into music. I did sing once in a while in church, once in a month. I always felt everyone else could sing better than I did.
Being a musician had never been my goal as a child or something I wished I would become. Funny wise, music found me.
The first time that I stepped out of Nigeria, it was the year 2000. I went to Germany. Germany is the extreme opposite of Nigeria. In Nigeria I did not have the opportunity or the space to think of what I would like. Your mind is working faster than that. It was more of a hustle thing. That was my life.
I came to Europe and I said to myself, “Listen. Now you are on your own. You need to work this out. You have chances here in Germany that you would never have gotten in Nigeria. You have to open your eyes, take advantage of them.”
I didn’t know the language. I was not with a family. I was on my own, living in totally different surroundings. I went to a reformation facility where they had an orphanage for children, drug addicts, nonchalant children that cause serious problems for their parents, asylum seekers. They brought me into that same place. We were all there trying to search for where we are heading in life.
I tried to learn German. I have always been somebody who appreciated education. I went to school to do O levels and A levels and then to study anthropology. I must say that music found me in that situation. I needed something to hold on to. That is where I started discovering my passion for music. I was on my sacred journey. I was offered this opportunity by God.
Now that I am doing my music, it is a mission for me to understand life better, to understand human beings better, to understand the future aspect of our existence and where we are actually heading to, to understand what nature has to do with this whole entity.
How did your parents react to the direction you were taking with your music?
I didn’t really grow up with my parents. I left the house at age nineteen, which is early for Nigerians. So they had nothing to do with my career. It is not like we were not talking on the phone. I tried to maintain contact, of course, when I went to Nigeria once in a while. I never had told my father what I was up to.
Three or four years later, my father read an article about me in the newspaper in Nigeria. I brought him an album and I came back home. Then he said, “Ok. Good. Do music.” Then he asked, “And what of your education?” I replied, “I have my Masters. See my Masters Degree here oooo?” He was happy.
I have read that you said you sing to speak the truth. Can you tell me about the truth you are trying to portray in your music?
Truth? I wouldn’t say THE truth. I would say MY truth.
I mean, who am I to say THE truth? It is my perception of the truth, the things that I see things that we all see. I speak about a lot of social issues . . . political issues . . . critical events . . .about Nigeria especially since I moved back. I see that most of the problems we had before I left the first time are still the same. There is still corruption. There is still the plight of the Niger Delta. There is exploitation. There is still suppression. There is still a massive traffic jam. There is still oil scarcity and there is still no refinery to refine the oil. It is just the same wahala.
I am a big fan of your music. To me it is refreshing that you say things other people don’t want to say. Is that the way you have always been or is it something that you grew into as an adult?
I have grown into it. The first time I was outspoken I received serious lashes. Now, I think, I have so much in me that I was not saying when I grew up as a child in Nigeria. “Respect for adults” is not actually respect. “Respect” is fear. And that fear grew roots and became a tree eventually inside of me and could not come out.
When I went to Europe, this tree of fear came out of me. I became more free to express myself. Now that I am heard, now that I’m seen, it wouldn’t make sense that I would stand on a stage and sing shallow, superficial lyrics. I wouldn’t be fulfilled. I need to give my experience. I need to show the world and people who may be going through similar experiences that change is always destined to come. Life is polarity, the ups and downs. It has to be like that. That’s why I am sitting here today. I couldn’t just sing, “Baby, baby” a thousand bars, in a song.
Music seems like a deep calling for you.
Nneka: It is, and I am still trying to understand it because I still feel very much like a child even though I am twenty-nine years old. I see how people react after a concert. I see what people say. I see women naming their children after me. It’s really funny. It is not about me. This is what I want people to understand. It is not about me. It is about love. That is the major issue.
Whether you are important in politics, whether you are into religion, whether you are a teacher, or whatever you are, as long as you derive pleasure from what you are doing and you do it with passion–you do it with your heart then it can only be good for the people. It is all about living your passion, you know. And that is what contributes to the world and other people. So this journey here is about my truth. It is about love that I might not have received the way I should have received it. It is about all the ways that I feel. I actually use music as an alchemy machine. It is like putting the heat in and transforming it into love.
What would you like to have people say about Nneka and what she did while she was here on earth?
There is a song I wrote, a new song that says, “You can kill the messenger, but you can’t kill the message”. I am just a vessel that is used for that message. When my time is gone, it will be given to somebody else. It is not about me; it is more about the message.
What change would you like to see your message bring about, particularly in Nigeria?
We must start realizing that it is not only the responsibility of the government to bring change. Of course, the government has to invest in certain things in culture, in infrastructure, different things. But elections are coming up, and we must start voting.
It is especially important that my age group and people like me who have gone out of Nigeria, people who have seen the world outside, who have been given the chance to see Nigeria from a different point of view we must invest what we have learned into our community.
Nigerians are very focused on what is happening in America, in the West. We have forgotten how it is to preserve our culture. Nobody speaks the language anymore. I am meeting a lot of Nigerians at present who have moved back to Nigeria and are trying as much as possible, even if it is a little, to bring change. You have people who are opening cultural centers and places where you can access knowledge and books . . . libraries . . . artifact preservation . . . cultural preservation.
What is your vision for Nigeria?
Well, we must eradicate the colonial mentality that we carry around, especially the inferiority complex that we have in our thinking since colonial times. When a black man sees a white man, the way we stoop today! We would not even stoop to our fathers like that! We have to start realizing that everything we need lies within our easy reach. WE have the resources. WE have the potential.
It is going to take awhile. It’s a journey. It’s even more than a life journey. There has to be some kind of revolution that would happen. From my point of view, the only way I can help is through my music. It is going to be . . . it is . . . a musical revolution. Music touches the hearts of people from people who are in power to the lowest class.
We had the Niger Delta Peace Concert, where you had a lot of people, a lot of politicians, a lot of government officials from different states in the Niger Delta: River State, Delta State. They were all there, and I used that opportunity to speak my mind about what is happening in the Delta and how we can change by, for instance, starting with fighting against tribalism, which is the biggest problem in Nigeria. The problem is more than just a surface. It goes way back.
So you had all these politicians there, and I got good feedback from the River States governor, Governor Amaechi, who came back afterwards. And he said, “Yes, I am happy that there are young people like you who have the courage, even though it may be very dangerous, to be that outspoken.” I saw the reaction of the people, that they needed a voice. They needed somebody who would start the movement. People live in fear. But I know that if one person says, “This is it. This is how it is. Let’s move,” then everybody will follow.
In your song, “Wake up, Africans,” you talk about the need to move beyond blame. What will take the place of the blame?
It’s all about realizing that we are part of a system. We are connected. We can make a better Nigeria, a better Africa, a better world. You have to understand that we have to stop separating, erecting walls between white and black, saying, “This is yours and this is mine,” placing all these borders. We need to remove the separation. That is easier said than done. It has to start inside here [in the heart], and then we take it to the next level.
What words of encouragement would you offer to children and to adults who are in the everyday struggle of life?
God helps those who help themselves. We always call God. We use religion as a way out. For instance, you have a traffic situation, traffic congestion at a crossroad, let’s say. You ask a child, “What should we do to make this situation better so that traffic flows?” The child will tell you, “God will help us.”‘
I believe in God. But the way we are using God to stop us from thinking logically, that’s another big problem.
Are you saying that, instead of seeing that God has given us the tools, the where-with-all to make the change, we are waiting for Him to send “a boat” to come to save us?
Yes, some change from “up there.” God helps those who help themselves. Help yourself and God comes in. God has given us the power, whoever or whatever God is. You have sense, common sense, to read in between the lines of books and the bible. Just read in between the lines and add what you know, compare, and then react. When I was living in school, the way I learned was just to cram everything, memorize everything: the definition of a chair? a piece of wood with four legs. Just take it like that. You don’t add. You don’t think. You just take what your reference says. We rely on references, conditions from other people. Nobody is thinking anymore. It is high time we start fueling our own motors, instead of using knocked out ones, or old ones.
By Patricia Omoiqui, Allure
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