wed 03/06/2020

Nneka, ULU | reviews, news & interviews

Nneka, ULU

Nneka, ULU

The new musical voice of Nigeria knows how to get her message across

Many hip-hop artists go on about “respect” ad nauseam, but perhaps you need to be outside the Western consumerist bubble before such language can be turned from mere solipsistic hot air into a heartfelt plea on behalf of a continent. May I point you in the direction of a YouTube clip in which a surprisingly camera-shy Nneka shares a Nigerian proverb with the interviewer: “One day the bushmeat go catch the hunter,” she says in pidgin English. In other words, one day the prey of the hunter will catch the hunter. This proverb’s specific resonance to Nneka is only hinted at by the twinkle in her eye and the way she playfully wags her finger. But it illustrates the fact that this young German-Nigerian singer-songwriter knows that you don’t get your message across by ramming it down people’s throats.

Music has never been the ideal medium for conveying socio-political thought, but Nneka - despite the occasional over-long introduction - is clearly on the right track, as last night’s captivating performance at ULU demonstrated. The song that got her noticed in the UK, and helped her to win the MOBO this year for Best African Artist, is a tense collision of old-school soul and futuristic hip-hop call “Heartbeat”. Nneka has jokingly complained that her concert audiences only like this Top 10 hit for its sing-along chorus and they are nonplussed during the verses in which she rails against the evils of political corruption. And so it’s no surprise that the mostly student crowd are quick to start punching the air while chanting, “Ca-a-a-an you fee-ee-ee-eel my hah-ah-ah-ah-heart is be-e-e-eating,” along with the chorus.
But before we get to this finale there were plenty of subtler yet equally compelling aspects to Nneka’s show. For one thing she is refreshingly unpredictable in her attire. With her generous afro squashed down and bisected by a centre-parting into two neat buns, and her grey cardigan and chequered grey dress ensemble, to be frank she looks a little like a black Mississippi grandmother or schoolmarm, circa 1850, as re-imagined by Vivienne Westwood. But one can only admire such a non-sexual look when every other female singer on the planet still thinks it’s necessary to expose the maximum amount of flesh to shift the maximum number of units.
Then there’s the fact Nneka chooses to play a set in which only a few songs are from the album her record company is presumably keen on her promoting.  Less surprising perhaps, is the fact that she is a rather petite creature. But let’s face it, many pop stars have tended towards the diminutive, and there’s little question that pop stardom beckons whether she likes it or not (she already counts Lauryn Hill and Lenny Kravitz as fans). But it’s hard to say whether this would be a dream come true or her worst nightmare.
For Nneka’s songs are both grippingly catchy and rather dark and intense. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on her music, the next song rolls up and confounds expectations. One number will almost fit into an R&B ballad template and the next will be a hip-hop/reggae hybrid.
“VIP”, we are told by the singer, was influenced by Fela Kuti. It’s a cunning recasting of this familiar acronym, but in Nneka’s world VIP means Vagabond In Power, and the audience delights in providing their response to her call, on the call-and-response chorus. Finally, after the necessary hit single moment mentioned earlier, we get an encore of “Focus” which is an intense political diatribe set to a grinding rock guitar riff.
So is Nneka the new Lauryn Hill or the new Erykah Badu (as some critics have claimed)? Well, she’s as a good a vocalist as either. But on the strength of tonight’s performance and her genre-defying new album No Longer at Ease (the title comes from Chinua Achebe's novel of the same name) she could just as easily be the new Bjørk, the new Bob Marley or even the new Prince, so mercural yet single-minded is she as a musician.

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