The rapper-singer known as Nneka is the first to admit that becoming a musician was something she never intended to happen. Those who have heard her body of work are no doubt glad that it did.
It is a musical calling that the 31-year-old artist, born Nneka Lucia Egbuna, says she’s come to accept. “It’s something that I do out of love and a lot of passion,” says Nneka over the phone from Germany. “I enjoy doing it for the fact that I create and can be creative. So it’s been going very well. It’s a blessing to do so. It humbles me. Plus, there’s being on the road and being able to create new things, new music and touch the hearts of people at the same time.”
Nneka is currently doing the touring thing across North America — in particular Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver this month — and most recently was on the road with the likes of rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley. Nneka notes that she learned a lot from being around them as she continues working on new music. “Working with them was an overwhelming experience,” she says. “Especially from seeing them on television and admiring them from a distance.”
The daughter of a Nigerian father and German mother, Nneka was raised in the Delta region of Nigeria before moving to Hamburg in her teens to attend university. In 2003, she began immersing herself in the world of music by collaborating with producer DJ Farhot. Always one to write rhymes and poetry in her diary, it was at this point that Nneka’s love of hip-hop truly blossomed.
Nneka’s latest album, Soul is Heavy, is actually her third studio album but it is perhaps her official introduction for North American audiences. The album — a mix of hip-hop, afrobeat and soul — has drawn comparisons to the works of Erykah Badu and most notably Lauryn Hill, for the way that Nneka both sings and raps on the album. The title track, for example, features none other than Talib Kweli and is as hip-hop as it gets, speaking truth to power over a soulful beat.
“It’s about the state of Nigeria and what has led to the kind of people that we are today,” Nneka says, of the song. “All the trials and tribulations: the tribalism that is happening; the corrupt leaders. We need to understand that we are many, we are different tribes and speak different languages but we still are able to unite as a country. That is the biggest problem — we do not see ourselves as one.”
Citing artists as diverse as Fela Kuti, Whitney Houston, Bob Marley, Mos Def and Lauryn Hill as major influences, Nneka notes she doesn’t truly consider herself a “hip-hop head” in the traditional sense.
“Hip-hop has always been a constant, the beginning of everything,” she says. “[But] I still would not consider myself a hip-hop head because there are so many people and things that I don’t know about music and hip-hop in general. I started writing rap lyrics before I began creating melodies. Everything I do came out of rap music. So I would write in my diary and focus on rhymes. In my case it has to be conscious, it has to have a message and [be] connected to what you’re thinking.”
Having a multicultural background and living in various locations has served to inform her social consciousness and awareness, Nneka notes. Through her music, she speaks on social issues and the need to change perceptions — particularly on how some perceive the African continent.
“Stop believing those stereotypes,” she says. “Go online, that’s why we have Google. Read and educate yourself. These days, most everyone have access to the internet. So do your proper research and then you will know that Africa has way more to offer than negativity. There’s so much that we have. We have culture, we have educated youth, we are far more than the media has portrayed. But I think that this is gradually fading away. From my perspective, in the last five years I’ve seen people are getting a different perspective and perception of Africa. So Africa is getting more of what it deserve[s].”
See Nneka live in Montreal on Oct. 22, Toronto on Oct. 23 and Vancouver on Oct. 28.