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Now, to this week’s column…
I discovered Nneka’s music while geeking out over the artist roster for a music festival that I didn’t really attend. In the Spring of 2010 I managed to be in Austin during South by Southwest without a wristband to the showcase performances, but researched all of the bands and artists performing anyway. Just in case. One of these was Nneka, a Nigerian-German soul singer who I couldn’t watch but quickly took note of.
Nneka was born in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region to a Nigerian father and a German Mother in 1980, and lived in the West African nation until she was 19, at which point Nneka moved to Hamburg, Germany to study Anthropology (!) at university.
Also, she’s a powerful singer-songwriter who has been blending R&B, hip-hop, reggae, afrobeat, and funk for the past ten years or so.
Nneka’s music could draw easy comparison to K’naan, but to link two African-born hip-hopping singer-songwriters seems a bit insensitive to the wide scope each artist’s discography covers. Nevertheless, Nneka’s songs pulsate through intense samples, bouncing drums, and hard-edged guitars. While incorporating both the musics and lyrical contents of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Sly Stone, and Mos Def, Nneka weaves a sound that is both familiar and hard to define. Over all of these diverse sound palettes soars the singer’s voice, which is at once soft and pointed. The degree to which Nneka’s voice can shift from soft crooning to a diva-blasting scream is startling. When she raps it still seems she is singing, and when she sings a rhythmic articulation that feels like rapping. The control that Nneka has over her voice and the somehow understated way she often belts out her lyrics is surprising, to say the least. Nneka’s voice simply is, and its versatility is what gives the singer her unique sound.
Nneka has thus far released three full-length albums, in addition to several compilations and EPs. A highlight of these is 2010’s Concrete Jungle, which packaged a diverse sampling of hit tracks from the artist’s first two LPs (2005’s Victim of Truth and 2008’s No Longer At Ease) for her introduction to American audiences. Headlining Concrete Jungle is “Heartbeat”, a neo-soul stomp that rises into emotional pleading at the chorus. Concrete Jungle also includes the ska-infused “Suffri”, the guitar-driven rap-rock of “Focus”, and a track sung partially in Igbo in “Kangpe”.
Perhaps most notable, however, is “Africans”, a soul song in reggae clothing that appears midway through the compilation. Like many of Nneka’s songs, “Africans” advocates self-empowerment and love, but in this case takes up the cause of the African continent’s place in the world. The song calls for the global community to take notice of Africa and Africans’ place in the world, but also for Africans to stop being victims and “wake up”. On an album of strong messages and plaintive calls to action by the singer (really this applies to both Concrete Jungle and Victim of Truth, on which “Africans” originally appeared), this track stands out as important both musically and lyrically.
Nneka’s latest album, Soul is Heavy (2011), strikes a few more upbeat notes while delivering to the listener more of the soulful reggae (or reggae-tinged soul, as the case may be) that is expected of the singer. On tracks such as “Sleep” and “Shining Star” the music builds upward in a progression that matches the inspirational tone of Nneka’s lyrics, while the lead single from the album “My Home” begins as a reggae number that morphs into a swinging R&B backbeat. The savvy with which Nneka continues to blend these genres is astounding, and despite the diversity of instrumentation, melody, tonality, and tone in her music everything blends well into the corpus of the singer’s work.
Nneka is still touring and performing behind Soul is Heavy, and actually taped a performance on BET’s “106 and Park” program today (her segment will air on March 6th). A North American tour continues through the end of March before moving to the U.K. and mainland Europe into the Summer. Despite appearances at multiple large music festivals and on a number of American television programs and radio stations, I still don’t know of anyone else who has heard of Nneka. While no one is listening to Nneka right now, in my opinion the Nigerian’s soulful blend of R&B and reggae with hip-hop elements topped by truly emotive vocals simply demands that more of us listen.