Nneka: Born Identity

Everybody is more outgoing towards Africa right now, it seems. It's definitely a good thing. There are reasons for hope.


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.

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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[Published on: 3/11/10]

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