Nneka: The Soul Dynamite
She stepped onto the stage twenty minutes to eleven and performed ecstatically for a full hour with a few interludes here and there. Decked in a white African top, brown pants, a blue jeans jacket and a Kitenge sash tied around her waist, she unleashed soul, pure and undiluted.
Written by Elizabeth Namakula.
“Take, swallow, digest and be inspired,” were her words as she kicked off the show. And on that promise, she delivered.
The real magic was in the way she felt her songs and the music. She was clearly absorbed in her songs and not easily swayed. There was no begging the audience the way some artists do, the crowd in the garden of the Goethe-Zentrum just warmed up to her. The audience was mixed, Ugandans and Europeans. Yet this wasn’t a problem for her, it was the connection she made at the soul level with her audience. Colour didn’t matter very much.
A neighbour to my right complained because she just couldn’t understand the music style of most of the curtain raisers. Well, until Nneka sang. She mourned and in her small and little ways, you had no choice but take her in. It was amazing just the way she held her audience spellbound. Amidst the smoke, her soul filled and nudged.
Her songs talked of war and tension in the Delta region, the place she was born and bred: “This region made me. It has had an impact on my life. Instead of turning to the streets, music became an outlet for my pain,” she had said earlier during a press conference at Speke Hotel, Kampala.
So she took all her pain, that Thursday night, infused it into song and rapped about the oil rich Niger Delta; telling of corruption, capitalism, poverty and war.
Watching Nneka sing, she was a different person from the clearly agitated, irritated, uneasy and simply jet-lagged Nneka who talked to journalists at the press conference as though talking to over-demanding children. In her slight Nigerian accent together with hand gestures that said; please get over with this very quickly.
Now, there was no urgency in her performance, just passion and energy. Different indeed from the woman who said “I don’t think that far” when asked what legacy she wanted to leave behind.
“Mother is supreme”
The name Nneka is derived from the Igbo language meaning ‘Mother is supreme.’ She is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a German mother. Nneka liked the experience of singing from an early age in her school and the church choir. After relocating to Hamburg, Germany when she was 18, she decided to pursue a singing career alongside attending University. She has been doing professional music for the last eight years.
As a young singer, Nneka first gained public attention in 2004 while performing as the opening act for dance hall reggae star Sean Paul at Hamburg Stadtpark in Germany. After that she was given the green light to record her first album. Now with three albums down the road; Victim of Truth, No Longer at Ease (The title from Chinua Achebe’s claimed book) and the recent, Soul Is Heavy, she looks set for big things. All this has been as result of working closely with Hip hop beat maker DJ Farhot, a producer living in Hamburg.
Even though Nneka sings more than she raps, she considers herself a hip hop artist, names this style as her primary music root and also cites it as the source of her inspiration. She says rappers such as Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, and Talib Kweli have been key influences on her music alongside soul giants like the late Whitney Houston and African musicians like Fela Kuti.
Even though listening to her, she comes across as sounding like Tracy Chapman. Her diction is littered also with Bob Marley pronunciations. So hers, you could say is a mix of hip-hop, soul, R’n’B and reggae. The message in her songs is loaded with moral and biblical references. This is as a result of her deep spiritual aspirations born at time when as a teenager she searched for her identity in all the wrong things.
Looking back on this period, she says: “Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself. For me, it’s about life, Jesus, pain and pleasure.”
Identity seems to be a big issue in her life as well, even though it doesn’t come across as such in her music. She downplays it by saying: “If you think of yourself as inferior, you attract that energy to yourself.”
Cream is my colour
This didn’t deter the eight year old – self-titled – MC Flower at the press conference when she asked Nneka whether she was indeed an African: “Why is your skin white?”
“I am neither white nor black,” Nneka replied.
The little girl refused to be persuaded and persisted, saying she was still confused. Nneka dissuaded her by saying: “When you mix yellow and brown, what do you get?”
“Cream I guess,” the younger one answered.
“Well, that is my colour.”
Awards and hit singles
Nneka is a Mobo award winner for the Best African Act in 2009. She was also nominated in three categories for the 2009 Channel O music video awards which she didn’t win. In January 2010 she appeared on the famous ‘Late show with David Letterman’ in New York before getting her USA tour underway.
Her track Kangpe, off the album No Longer at Ease, was featured as the soundtrack on the EA sports FIFA 2010 video game. In June 2010 she won the reggae category of the Museka online Africa Music Awards 2010 with her hit song, Africans. She also won the award for Best Indigenous Artist in Nigeria at the Nigerian Entertainment Awards 2010.
All these accolades to Nneka mean two things; approval and acknowledgement, which motivates her to do more. However, with such an international and national profile, why the need to work with artists from East Africa?
“We need to improve African music by bringing in fresh ideas from those who have gone abroad. I find Europe more organized when it comes to marketing music, but piracy in Africa is killing our music.”
The finest female voices in Uganda
One can rightly say then it was the reason for the themed ‘Nneka in concert with the finest female voices in Uganda’.
The finest voices included; rocker Irene Ntale, Keko the rapper, Tshila – one of the top twenty unsigned artists according to the BBC, and Ife Piankhi – a World musician.
At the press conference Keko, the Channel O award winning rapper, said when asked what a show like this would mean for her: “It is an opportunity to open to myself to as many sounds as possible.”
The show that was scheduled to start at 8pm. Dmark banners donned the entrance and the checkpoints were made busy with many people streaming in. Soft rock and hippie music emerged from the encased public speakers. The audience sat on the white plastic chairs. And when there were no more chairs, some happily chose to sit on the ground in front of the stage – that glittered with far-flung stars – and slowly sipped their beers.
By 8:30pm the place had almost filled up with the audience eager and expectant. Fifteen more minutes and Ife Piankhi took to the stage. She doubled as an entertainer and the emcee of the night. Dressed in a purple African dress and head-piece, creations by Stella Atal, she held some pages intending to read from them and reached for the microphone which proved unreliable. She managed though to tell us that the show was to have many textures, sounds and movements.
A girl with ambitions
The mesmerizing MC Flower took to the stage and rapped, ‘Abakyala mwebale okujja, ba single women mwenna.’ (All the women thank you for coming, even the single women) When later asked what she wanted to be, she said: “An astronaut, a lawyer, the best female rapper and the queen of pop.” The audience warmed to her for being smart and daring.
It was then Ife Piankhi’s turn. She said she was a juju woman and the audience mistook her to be a witch. She invoked, calling on spirits which she later said were African people. She called her own performance simmering. The next song she did was a jazz number named ‘Too hot’.
“….I need to put the fire out,” she sang. Her voice came off as sounding tired and overused. She failed to engage the audience, even though the song was slow and melodious. Towards the end she remembered the audience but it was too late. When she sang ‘Am burning up’, the audience was like ‘So what? Burn up!’
Irene Ntale came on but rather than divulge straight into rock, she started off with simple soul accompanied by a guitar and showed off her engaging vocals. She had every ear pining to hear the next note. ‘It’s the politics’ was the song done in rock and loved by the audience.
Groovy sounds, attitude and swag
Next was Tshila. When she stepped onto the stage, straight away all the attention shifted to her attire with some in the audience saying, ‘That dress!’ It was a loose African yellow dress, brownish at the hem and worn with leather boots. Accompanied by the Cassava Republic Band, she tuned her guitar on stage, taking too long and coming off as taking the audience for granted.
Yet, when she started to sing, all that was forgotten in a minute! She gave us a live groovy sound, rapped in what is called ‘Luga-flow’, and showed off her prowess in being able to sing in different languages; French, lusoga, luganda, lugwere, English, lugisu. She is a truly gifted young lady. The BBC rightly included her in its twenty unsigned artists.
Then it was Keko’s turn and she took us away from soul, rock and world music to grooving with a little bit of attitude and swag. And then it was Nneka.
The concert was sponsored by Dmark, Events Warehouse, The German Embassy, Goethe-Zentrum Kampala, Orange, Alliance Française, Brand Revolution and the Nation Media group. The Ticket to the show was a mere 5000 shillings.
Nneka is on the last leg of her East African tour, having already been in Kenya and Rwanda, with more shows in Zanzibar.
Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda. Her short story “A World of Our Own” was recently published in the Femrite-collection “World of Our Own”.