Nneka describes herself as somewhat of an accidental musician. “Nobody else in my family sings,” she said in a lilting Nigerian accent. “I always liked singing, but it was never anything major. Just a hobby.” She taught herself to play guitar and percussion, and says she is still learning. “I’m good enough to accompany myself, to support my vocals.”
But when she immigrated to Hamburg, Germany as a teen, she found herself “living in an information facility, where you have lots of youths; orphans, drug-addicts and ex-drug addicts, asylum seekers and foreigners coming in. The intention of putting youths in that facility was to motivate them to be creative and find alternatives instead of doing negative stuff.”
While there, she met other young people who were into rap, including a deejay from Afghanistan who she began to work with. “We just started putting our heads together and mixing it up,” she said animatedly, waving her hands and gesturing. “It was a long process, a very long story.”
Her latest release, Concrete Jungle, on the Epic label is her first US release, but her third CD. While she has a dedicated following worldwide, her work is far more familiar to Europeans and Africans than to American listeners, yet she has a number of videos out on YouTube that have gone viral.
Somehow, though, word got out about her talents, and she has traveled with Lilith Fair, the all-female showcase of musicians on the summer tour circuit, and recently came off of a successful “Distant Relatives” tour with Damien Marley and Nas that covered Europe and the Pacific including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, winding down in April in Lisbon, Portugal.
In between her prolific music-making, Nneka found time to star in “Relentless” an independent film by Nigerian filmmaker Andy Amadi Okoroafor, which deals with the consequence of wars on the psyche of the contemporary African, starting with the Nigerian/Biafran civil war into which the main character, Obi, was born--one of the first in a long list of conflicts that has distorted Africa.
Citing influences like fellow Nigerian icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nina Simone, Mos Def and Lauryn Hill, Nneka has found her entrée into the American music market rather painless. Spending the last two years working stateside, she said “The reception here has been quite good. I have been touring a lot, with Damien Marley and Nas and also with Lenny Kravitz. We did a lot of collaboration--with Talib Kweli, etc…It’s been easy. But my crowd is more underground, and I like that. I am an edgy person.”
Despite her international appeal, Nneka is firmly rooted in Nigerian culture. “I love Nigerian music…King Sunny Ade and Sonny Okosun,” she added. “I like to mix Afrobeat with hip hop.”
While she realizes that making inroads into the American market may require relocation, she says “If I want to really penetrate this market I will have to be here for a while. I might come for maybe six months and then go back (to Nigeria). But I am not going to live here. Hell no! It would take my soul away I think!”
Nneka’s next shows take her back to Europe, but she has promised to return to the DMV area with a full band. Now with her latest CD blowing up, thanks in part to the release of a remix of her song “Heartbeat” featuring Nas, it will be hard to keep this rising star underground for much longer. Fore more information, and a sample of her sounds, visit http://www.nnekaworld.com.