By: Jim Welte
"Hi, how are you?"
Americans hear this greeting several times a day, from co-workers in the hall to the clerk at the corner store. It's assumed to be a swift nod to your presence, not an earnest question, and we don't think much of it. But the off-handed solicitation came as a bit of a shock to Nneka Egbuna (pronounced NAY-ka EG-boo-na) in a shop in New York City in late 2009, and served as yet another peculiarity of the Western world for the Nigerian singer, whose U.S. debut, Concrete Jungle, hit stores February 2.
"The guy hadn't even looked at me in the face before he said it," Nneka recounts. "At first, I was very impressed that he wanted to know how I was. I tried to respond, but he never waited for the answer, just went about his business, never looking at me. This guy had absolutely no interest in how I was. That was so strange to me. That's not how I am. If I ask, I'm asking because I want to know. Let's connect."
Such a cultural disconnect could serve as rich fodder for an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but instead it's a starting point for the 29-year-old singer's arrival on the American music scene. Although she's been recording and performing in Europe and Africa for six years, Nneka is in the midst of discovering the idiosyncrasies of American audiences. But, it takes about five seconds in the presence of the shy, petite singer to realize that Nneka isn't about taking pot shots at American quirks. Although her music – a potent mix of hip-hop beats, soulful social commentary and a diverse stew of rhythms – takes aim at capitalism's "uncomfortable truth" for people in the oil-rich Nigerian Delta and the African continent as a whole, she possesses a spiritual depth that seeks to move beyond the horrors wrought by colonialism and capitalist squall.
The devastation of Haiti offers an obvious example. While acknowledging that what occurred in the earthquake-ravaged nation is mind-blowingly horrible, Nneka doesn't take the easy opportunity to bash the U.S. for its sporadic concern over the pre-quake troubles of its Caribbean neighbor.
"Everybody says, 'You ignored them, and why does it have to be in your face for you to deal with it?'" Nneka says, "but that is an easy judgment. You cannot always point the finger. It is horrible what happened. I can't imagine how those people feel. They probably believe that God has forsaken them. But there has to be negative for there to be a positive. Polarity must be for our existence."
More than at any other time in her adult life, Nneka has reason to give people the benefit of the doubt. Born and raised in Nigeria, she moved to Hamburg, Germany, where her biological mother lives, at the age of 18 to seek a degree in anthropology. While studying humanity, she was occasionally on the receiving end of a bitter dose of it, and struggled with her bi-racial identity as a light-skinned African woman.
"Germany taught me a lot about myself in the sense of coming all the way from Africa and then being there in Germany all by myself," she says. "Life was not a bed of roses."
In the course of her schooling, Nneka began to dive more deeply into music, which helped her reconnect with her Nigerian roots. She hooked up with DJ Farhot, who has been her producer ever since, and scored a record deal with the independent Yo Mama label after she walked into their offices and played them a few of her tunes. She became something of a cult star, invoking comparisons to Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu with an African twist, and even recorded a song called "Halfcast" about accepting "the inescapable death of the white me." Concrete Jungle is a collection of songs from her two previous European releases, and it shows off her gifts as a singer, songwriter and occasionally a rapper.
Nneka has since moved back to Nigeria, and no longer has any doubts about her identity as a black African artist. "Nigeria is home," she says. "Living in Germany, I became more passionate about being African and proud to be Nigerian."
While living in Nigeria is no picnic, it has more caché than ever in the Western world due to a veritable explosion of interest in and attention on African music and culture in recent months. The election of the first-ever President of the United States with African roots certainly helped raise interest in and awareness of the continent. But few could have anticipated the breakout success of the Broadway musical Fela! about the life and music of the Nigerian icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Long regarded as a legend by fans of the Afrobeat music style he invented, Fela's incredible life story is now circulating through the masses as the subject of a hit play that boasts the likes of Will Smith, Jay-Z and Beyoncé as its producers.
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The Roots' drummer ?uestlove sent out an email to his star-studded address book after seeing the play off-Broadway in September 2008, calling it "the best musical ever created," and, "There is no option. I expect death to be the only reason why you did NOT see this production." He quickly signed on as an associate producer. A year later, the Broadway premiere was attended by a who's who of African-American stars.
Everybody is more outgoing towards Africa right now, it seems. It's definitely a good thing. There are reasons for hope.
Nneka has since seen it as well, and was an admitted skeptic about Broadway's treatment of such an eccentric African star whose music she reveres. "I was quite impressed, and it's connecting all sorts of people under one umbrella," she says. "And the audience was mostly white. I was shocked!"
Nneka has noted a similar openness in her few stops in American cities so far.
"I have met a lot of black Americans who don't know anything about Africa itself and its history, but on the last tour here in the States I realized how much they want to embrace their history and especially their African roots," she says. "I have also noticed that Americans in general are more outgoing towards African music right now, which is great. People's perspectives are changing towards the positive and that makes the connection easier."
That's partly a generational thing, she notes, and that broader view will only improve as kids grow up under an African-American president. "Everybody is more outgoing towards Africa right now, it seems," she says. "It's definitely a good thing. There are reasons for hope."
Despite several years of success in Europe and Africa and the talent to take her music as far as she wants, Nneka doesn't come off as a ready-made star. Not surprisingly for a mixed-race singer with such a diverse backstory, she seems comfortable in that gray, complex area between black and white. She's in love with the music and the message.
"My favorite aspect of it is when I'm working on a new song," she says. "Something new always gives me much joy, and maybe even pain that is joyful at the same time. It's the expression and the emotion that is vital to me."
But the dissemination of that message, whether political or emotional, is not always as joyful. She's admittedly not a born performer, but says that when she connects with an audience it's authentic and emotional.
"It takes me a while to warm up sometimes," she says. "It's not just about showing up and making a good impression. You cannot forget your heart and your love. I have to connect with myself and my spirit to be able to connect with the people. I have been able to achieve that at some shows, but not at all of them. [When it works] people are very attentive and are able to embrace the message and the music."
That was the case in November 2009, when Nneka stepped onstage at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco looking like it was the last place she wanted to be. She was stricken with a terrible cold on a brisk, foggy night and had come close to canceling the show, an opening slot for the New York City-based Brazilian act Forro in the Dark. With a thick scarf and multiple layers wrapped around her, she didn't put on a front. She was ill and exhausted.
For the first couple of songs, she leaned heavily on her tight, four-piece band, and her voice, raspier and a bit wispier than usual, faded at times. But when she sang the song "Come With Me" accompanied by only her own acoustic guitar, a transformation occurred. She dug deeply into the lyrics: "No, you cannot take my experience away/ No, you can't take my soul away/ No, you can't make me go astray/ because I know where I stand." As Nneka poured herself into song, the attentive audience perked up and latched onto her every word. Artist and audience were in unison.
By the latter part of the short set, during a stirring rendition of the song "Heartbeat," Nneka was in full flight. She impelled the song, her breakout European single, with a vocal cadence that mimicked a heartbeat, backed by a double time drumbeat. At the end of the set, she was beaming, probably relieved to have gotten through and likely aware that she'd done a lot more than that. An emerging artist, uniquely talented but not yet fully ripe, had make the connection she longs for and blossomed onstage.
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