“I want to be able to elevate the world. I want to be able to elevate wherever I go. ”
These are the powerful words that would encapsulate my conversation with singer-songwriter, creative chameleon, and Nigerian-German sage/prophetess that is Nneka. She embodies innovation and creativity in a way that demonstrates the power of an African woman: utilizing her talents, straddling many worlds, overcoming challenges, and making it work. Nneka’s work as a singer, musician, and activist is not just to entertain, perform, and educate, but also to elevate.
Nneka is a worldwide soulstar who has toured and worked with the likes of Nas, Damian Marley, Angelique Kidjo and Femi Kuti. Yet her humility and rootedness is something she has come to be known for, in addition to her afrobeat cum hip hop cum reggae style of music that is often fashioned with potent and spiritual lyrics around social justice and freedom.
Known to fuse multiple genres and sounds, it is no surprise that Nneka expresses various starting points for her songs. “It differs every time. I don’t have a specific process that I always use.” Her inspiration can start from a drumbeat, pre-made loops and rhythms, a lyric, to seeing a situation on a train that provokes her to write. However, what is most interesting is not just the starting point of her songs, but the physical and mental space in which she writes. “I mainly like to do stuff alone. Being alone and being silent kind of helps to draw more inspiration.”
She strikes a chord with me when she mentions the importance of silence and solitude, so I push further, asking her thoughts on how solitude and self-care speaks to innovation and creativity. “I think it is vital to be aware that some of the stuff that we put out into the world is being put out because, you know, there is an intention behind it, right.” She warns against egotism as a basis of creation and instead suggests a series of introspective questions to evaluate the source from which one’s work emerges. “So taking the time out to just ask myself these questions: What are you doing this for? Why are you doing this? Where have you set your inspiration from? Where are you searching the energy to do this? Is it coming from a peaceful place? Is it coming from a negative place? Is it coming out of frustration? You know, all these things. You just need to rebalance and figure it out.”
She continues, “and yeah, I want to elevate the world. I want to be able to elevate wherever I go. I should be, or I want to be, or I am…light. So yeah, take the time.”
Nneka talks about the challenges of moving and adapting to the language and culture of a new country (Germany) and some of the micro-agressions she had to endure. “You know, comments like, ‘how come you speak German when you are African.” All this became the foundation for her desire to know more about her rich heritage. “Even though I had lived all my life in Africa, I just went into their archives and I said you know what I need to, for me to be able to say anything about Africa, I need to know who we are.” She also mentioned that this was around the time she started wearing her Afro out, and letting the decadent texture of her Nigerian accent loose. It seems this intensified connection to her homeland was later reinforced by her decision to return to, create in, and nurture her career in Nigeria. “Just understanding that it is ok to be who we are. It’s ok to accept who we are. You don’t have to fly borders or run away from here when we actually have everything. ”
The rest of our interview touches on her decision to start her own music label, Bush Queen and her non-profit the Rope Foundation, both initiatives she emphasized centered on being able to create platforms to support and empower others, whether it be artists, youth, or women. She then casually mentions her involvement in the West African female supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique which includes the likes of Angelique Kidjo and Mariam Doumbia, a collection of women musicians from West Africa that use creative expression to highlight, as she says, “the state of women in Africa.” Les Amazones d’Afrique has been getting rave reviews from various publications like the Rolling Stone. She focuses on the objectives and motivation of the group. “You know, access to education, the role of women in these francophone countries are deprived of proper education because we are women… it’s cool to be able to come together and support women in Africa via NGOs to help these women with these problems.”
Nneka’s innovation lies in her multidimensionality. From her songwriting to her sketches, Les Amazones d’Afrique, her boutique record label and nonprofit. She is able to weave a multitude of talents, lived experiences, continental backdrops, sonic landscapes, rhythmic genres, and the respect of both younger and older generations, into a beautiful and expanding model of artistry that uplifts, and indeed elevates.