Nneka: the AWDF Ambassador for the Arts
There has always been musical (and political) cross-pollination between Ghana and Nigeria. It existed back in the day when Fela Kuti was as influenced by the politics of Nkrumah as he was by the music of Ghanaian-based Sierra Leonean artist, Geraldino Pino, and it continues today, visible in the popularity of Nigerian songs on Ghanaian radio and – to a lesser extent – vice versa.
As such, it was not surprising when the African Women’s Development Fund – an innovative organization at the cutting edge of social justice and women’s rights philanthropy in Africa – named Nigerian artist, Nneka, as their first ever Ambassador for the Arts, under an innovative new programme to use the arts, culture and sports as a tool for social justice.
The thirty-one year old half-Nigerian, half-German singer (who sings in English, Ibo and Nigerian pidgin) has established herself as an international musical force. Singing about everything from love and corruption to the politics of her native Niger Delta, she has won or been nominated for awards from Channel O, MOBO and Museke amongst others; shared the stage with a host of stars including Damien Marley and Nas (who featured on a remix of her track, “Heartbeat”). Her song ‘Kangpe’ even features on the soundtrack for EA Sports FIFA 2010 video game.
During her recent visit to Accra for AWDF’s Arts, Culture & Sports programme launch, she sat down with DUST Editor, Kobby Graham, and answered a few questions.
DUST: In your personal opinion, what is the single biggest issue facing the African girl-child today?
Nneka: “I would have to think very deeply to answer that question. Every person has her own cross to bear. [You] cannot compare the weight of one woman to another woman. I cry myself as well. Why I have decided to work with AWDF is because while I’m carrying my cross, I have a little less weight on my shoulders to bear… I’m okay, so maybe I can help [someone] carry [theirs] in the process of living life. Pain brings people together. But I can never carry your cross for you. In the end, we all have to strengthen ourselves and empower one another. I have my own history as well. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s why I’m doing music. That’s my own way to channel that energy into a different direction. But there are many problems that I have not met before. It is about being selfless to a certain degree. Dropping the ego. That’s why I like what AWDF is doing.”
DUST: When you talk to young people about politics they say, “Oh God, I don’t do politics…” You have however been able to merge politics and popular culture quite well. Does your politics stop your music from spreading? How well do young people receive it?
Nneka: “I think the youth are becoming more conscious about being involved. When I was growing up, politics was just a subject you were learning, far away from your personal life. You just crammed the states of Africa and the governors, but we were not close to what was happening. If elections come we elect, but our problems don’t change due to the kind of leaders that we have (unfortunately). But this is changing, partly because of the African diaspora or those who are coming back home to bring the change that they have been raised in. We have been able to identify where we went wrong and change that way of educating ourselves. Youth are becoming more outgoing towards politics… more courageous; women as well.
“I don’t think about difficulty of pushing music. Someway, somehow there will always be difficulty. People won’t allow you to perform somewhere because they think your message is too harsh. I have once or twice had problems with the police or secret service wanting to arrest me. But people invite you for a reason. So if you like me… na you sabi now. Abi? Why you now want to block my road. I will do it: I won’t yab you. I will yab myself first. Then I will yab everybody. Then I go. It’s normal. That doesn’t stop me… that’s what triggers me. Roadblock? Okay, let’s go!”
DUST: African parents are not renowned for their support of children going into the arts. How encouraging were your parents of your art?
Nneka: “I left my father’s house in Nigeria at quite a young age for an African person. From there on, I was cut off from family entirely. Music is what sustained me. I found music a long time ago but I never saw her until I went away from Africa. So basically, everything I’ve done up until now is without the support of my family. Now that I have moved back to Nigeria, of course I had to reintroduce myself to my father. Tell him, “this is a part of me and how I weave my stories. Just to let you know.” I have my degree, so nobody can hold my yab oo.
I know God has sustained me to do [this]. I know other musicians from intact family backgrounds who have problems with their parents. But I always tell other artists that you can have love for music but you must always deliver to Caesar what Caesar wants. It is important. Educate yourself and have an alternative in life. You can’t just walk one way. One day your voice will be gone. One day you can’t travel. Anything can come up.”
DUST: You have benefitted from being able to make music both in and outside of Africa. Is there anything you see abroad that you think could be utilized over here to foster a better arts scene?
Nneka: “Sound engineering is the most important: audio. Whether in media, making soap operas, programmes… it is very important. Mastering and mixing. Then there is the other aspect: the marketing of albums; creating institutions and labels that promote artists, and protect their rights. Piracy is a big issue here, especially in Nigeria. It’s not almost legal. Alaba is in the ghetto. It is a big pirate market. All you have to do is sell your record to one of the Alaba people, they will give you money and then you serve up your rights. Whatever they earn from your record is their earning. You don’t get anything. That’s how the big artists… some artists get their stuff done. I’m trying to set a label [and] change that: do the right thing. It’s difficult. It’s the longer, narrow way. But you have to be the change.”
To hear more about Nneka and AWDF’s Arts, Culture & Sports programme, visit their website: www.awdf.org