It is passionate melancholy reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Maria (You Were the Only One).” It is the unquenchable and sustained vibrato of Randy Crawford’s “Street Life.” It is a soulful echo of the Biafran war. It is the love child of Lauryn Hill and Sade. It has been known to resonate across European festival fields. This week, it penetrated the hearts of every music lover in Vienna, Virginia’s Jammin Java tavern and New York City’s Mercury Lounge. It is the voice of Nigeria’s Nneka Lucia Egbuna.
Since around the age of 19, Nneka has been synonymous with politicized lyrics, big hair and European festivals. The deeply dimpled Nigerian-German road warrior princess has enjoyed the pleasure of private tour buses and marque billing alongside names like Nas, Damien Marley and Lenny Kravitz.
But like a gift and a curse, the breakout success of 2010’s Heartbeat EP would send her shining star on a collision course with belief. Her aspirations were torn asunder by the U.S. recording industry implosion, and fumbles on the part of The Label to successfully break the Nneka brand in America.
Appearances on Late Show with David Letterman, industry buzz and a major record label weren’t enough to break her wide. Disillusioned by the experience, Nneka returned to her adopted Paris, and later her native Nigeria, to heal. Now seasoned by the road, Nneka is back on her own dime. EBONY caught up with the songstress during her American tour to support her latest, My Fairy Tales.
EBONY: Why did you record a concept album, My Fairy Tales?
Nneka: I decided to release something in between waiting for the major record label. I said to them: you know what? Instead of you guys keeping me on hold, let me release this project by myself. I had already done a lot of tracks that had an association to Africa and around the diaspora sound as a theme. So I decided to stick with that and build a couple of more songs. It’s very Afro-oriented. Reggae, afrobeat, highlife vibe.
EBONY: Do you feel this concept album is more you?
Nneka: I’m always me. On every record.
EBONY: There’s always the pressure of a record label—the way a major can urge you to be more commercial, to broaden your sound, to make you pop. Did you ever feel that pressure?
Nneka: If you’re an artist they produce, then you’ll have that problem. That is not me. I came with my own stuff in the beginning. I said, “this is it.” They only signed me because they thought I was unique.
When we became very popular with Heartbeat, we reached the States. The record company in the States began to try and manipulate things. Which I understand, because it a product. But I didn’t understand that. Why be attracted to something because it is unique, but then try to manipulate it? That’s what I didn’t understand. It just doesn’t make sense.
They wanted Heartbeat to be more radio friendly. They tried so many things, putting many different people on the remix. But the song was fine as it was. We did a mixtape.
They gave it out for free. I said from day one: let’s sell this J.Period mixtape, not give it away. They gave it away for free while the record was out. In 2012, as an African artist, it got 80K downloads. During that same time, they dropped a lot of people. They were restructuring. They even dropped Alice Smith. They lost interest in pushing my project.
EBONY: Now that you’re on the other side, releasing My Fairy Tales independently, do you see the record label point of view?
Nneka: It depends on what your focus is and what triggers you.
EBONY: What triggers you?
Nneka: It’s the love. It’s the passion. It’s nice to get a good check. But that’s not the major thing. For me, the major thing is that I am 100% there when I’m doing what I’m doing when I’m onstage and recording. I don’t ever want to look back at any moment and say to myself [that] I felt uncomfortable with who I am.
EBONY: After all that, why did you decide to go back to Nigeria?
Nneka: It’s my country.
EBONY: You could be in Paris chilling.
Nneka: Nigeria is my home. I like to be there. Making my Egusi [soup]. But more organic, not so much oil.
EBONY: You remind me more of a rock star than a neo-soul artist. Do you ever think to yourself, “If I have another hit song, it could change things”?
Nneka: On this next record, I have those songs. It’s almost the time. I don’t need to sell my soul. I’ve found a different way. I’ve been there, the last two years, torturing myself. My mind. Believe me, I was miserable. I’m not going to lie. When Sony [US] came in to hear the record, they flew into France. To my face, they were like, “We really like this record.” It’s really nice. I removed myself from music. I detached for a year. Removed people from my life. Moved to Paris. Worked with new producers.
When we finished, I invited Sony. When they came, they were really optimistic. Oh boy. A week later: “Hey, we think this. We think that.” Even my manager started shifting his position to theirs. I thought to myself: What is wrong with all of you? You raise somebody’s hopes.
So I said to myself, you know what? I’m out of here until further notice. I’ll be in Africa. That’s when I went to Nigeria and lost my way. I did Nigerian Idol as a judge. What was I doing there? I was totally out of my mind. Freaking out of my soul. I preserved myself for one and a half years. Then as soon as I got to Nigeria, I became Babylonian. That is when I wrote “Believe System.”
To cut a long story short, I have been to the place where I thought: OK, I need this hit or that sound. I’m not going to do that anymore. Just wait. And this way is more comfortable. And it will all work out. Trust me.
EBONY: In Europe you do big shows. Is it odd to come here to do a small show? Which do you prefer?
Nneka: I like both. But OK, it is kind of stressful being in the van. In Europe, I have the big sleeper bus, and the toilet, and you can go off to your own section closed off from the rest when you want. Here, it’s 30 hours on the road. Sometimes the food is not OK. Riding in the van, there’s someone behind you. So you can’t recline your seat.
But I have my own way to stay focused. I work out every day. I exercise. I swim. I meditate. I breathe. This tour was put together to push this LP. I like the States and working with this band. In Europe, the sales are better than the last release with Sony.
EBONY: Will the success of this album help to convince Sony?
Nneka: Oh no, I’m done with my contract with them. I’m just giving them the option. There’s no obligation. It’s actually on me to agree to have them to release the record. Or I can do it myself. Which is hard. But I know I will be effective.
EBONY: Your next album is finished?
Nneka: Yes, I have three. In storage camp. Mixed, mastered. In three and a half years, what do you expect a woman to do? It’s like being pregnant and not bearing the fruit. But you keep on having sex. Imagine having sex for three years and you’ve been going at it and you’ve reproduced, but the babies are just there inside of your belly. This one, this one just slipped out. And it’s the smallest one.
EBONY: Tell us about these albums.
Nneka: I’ve been working with DJ Farhot, the guy I always work with. I’ve learned how to do my own stuff, so I’m also producing. I’ve worked with Kezar Jones, Pat Williams.
EBONY: Who would you like to work with?
Nneka: I’d like to work with Lenny Kravitz. I like him. He’s like a daddy. I like Pharrell. He’s very charming with what he does. Very intelligent, good businessman.
EBONY: How do you feel about the outcome of the Nigerian elections?
Nneka: I was surprised. My father is very Biafra and we speak about these things. As an Igbo, I was very surprised that [President Muhammadu] Buhari was elected. But he has probably lived a certain karma. He’s older and wiser, and now he’s ready to make things better. It seems like Boko Haram has slowed down. He seems like a humble man. And that’s what we need to learn: to slow down. We like to rush.
So I hope things might get better. But I have stopped waiting on our leaders. That’s how we are born to think. We have been forced to fear the system. But unless we change our ways and the way we see each other, we won’t move forward.
Suede has spent a decade between the America, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.