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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