Pride in her heritage is easy to hear

Boston Globe, January 31, 2010

The best African act category at Britain’s prestigious MOBO (Music of Black Origins) awards last year was a heavyweight affair. Among the nominees were such global pop icons as Femi Kuti, Oumou Sangare, Baaba Maal, and Amadou & Mariam.

And the winner was … Nneka.

The waters are parting for Nneka Egbuna, the 28-year-old Nigerian singer with a slight rasp in her voice and a singer-songwriter’s full gamut of quirkiness, earnest politics, and candid emotion.

In the past few years she has become a presence in Europe, living in Hamburg and releasing three albums on a local label. One yielded a hit single, “Heartbeat,” a soulful cri de coeur set to a hypnotic pulse, with a video shot on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria.

Her arrival this side of the Atlantic, however, has waited. But now Nneka is making up for that with a two-barrel blast. “Concrete Jungle,” her first US album, comes out Tuesday. It gathers some of the best material from her work so far. And “The Madness (Onye-Ala),” a mixtape by reputed DJ J.Period, comes laced with Fela and Stokely Carmichael samples and guest verses from the likes of Nas and Talib Kweli. Touring behind these releases, Nneka visits the Middle East in Cambridge on Thursday.

On the line from Lagos, where she has moved back after close to a decade in Germany, she admits surprise and some unease at her growing fame.

“It was not my plan to get an award!” says Nneka (pronounced NEH-kah). “But it is a good thing to win an award. It opens more doors to affect an audience. If I am able to tame myself, I can only use it as a positive.”

In conversation and her songs, Nneka projects a kind of self-awareness that goes past vulnerability to some other, complicated place. She’s not a confessional artist, but she wears her fears on her sleeve, as well as her remedies, which include conscious politics of the Fela variety along with unabashed Christian faith.

Music may be her craft, but a music career was never the plan. She was studying anthropology and archeology at the university and making songs on the side. “A record company got interested,” she says. “I gave them all the tracks that I had. My songs developed spontaneously; I wasn’t trying to make an album.”

Born to a German mother and Nigerian father, Nneka keeps parts of her history private, including the circumstances of her abrupt move to Germany at age 18. “I can’t tell that,” she declines politely, save to confirm that she spent the first months confined in a facility for refugees and asylum seekers.

She alludes to other tribulations she encountered once settled. “Before I went abroad my eyes were open,” she says. “When I got abroad, I ate from the bad apple, the one Eve gave to Adam, and that poisoned my mind. I lost myself in some ways.”

But she found herself too: “I became more passionate about being African. Living in Europe gave me my identity, made my proud to be Nigerian.”

Once, Nneka says, she was ashamed of her accent and would affect American speech instead. Now she rocks her Nigerian accent with pride, and she sings in English, Igbo, and Nigerian Pidgin, the rich street language. “De ting wey not fit kill you wey go mek you strong,” she sings on “Kangbe” – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Her story and her sound, with its Afrobeat, hip-hop, and soul influences, put Nneka in the lead of a new generation of cosmopolitan African singers that includes fellow Nigerians Asa and Ayo. They are picking up where Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu left off, only with roots set firmly on the African continent.

Nneka shrugs off any comparison. “I think it’s a coincidence,” she says, before conceding that perhaps a greater awareness of the diversity of African music is allowing artists like her to find a global audience.

But J.Period, whose documentary-style mixtape follows the style he has used for other artists including Hill, sees Nneka and other young Africans – like Somali rapper K’Naan -bringing something important back to American music, especially hip-hop.

“Music has been this thing that copies itself over and over to make money,” J.Period says. “There was a time when hip-hop was about speaking the voice of the community, positive things. Then it got watered down. But far away, those elements resonated in Africa in particular, and it’s now coming home.”

Nneka, ever the accidental star, says there is no guarantee she will keep making music. She continues her anthropology research, and recently visited Yoruba shrines in the countryside. But for now, she finds mission in song.

“By the grace of God I am still loving it,” she says. “I still believe I have a lot inside of me to let out. And there are a lot of people who are suffering, and I want to be the person who can speak for them.”