The daughter of a Nigerian father and a German mother, Nneka Egbuna was born in Warri, Oil City in the Delta region of Nigeria at the height of its new found wealth in the mid 70s.
For nineteen years she soaked up the sounds and rhythms of one of the most musical nations on the planet, a country where expressing yourself through song is just a part of everyday life, a country that has music in its very DNA, where the influence of giants like Afrobeat revolutionary Fela Kuti is never far away.
But at the age of 19 this modest and hard-working young girl made the big decision to leave behind the African way of life. To further her education, she moved not just to Europe but to Northern Europe, to the industrial seaport of Hamburg in Germany. For the young Nneka, it was a dramatic change, and there remains an intangible quality in her voice that speaks of being a long, long way from home.
“The cultural differences between Germany and Nigeria were extreme,” she says. “The way they dress, the way they carry themselves, their religion. So many things that were important to me are not important to them. For two years I was overwhelmed.”
For all its innate musicality, Nigerian culture perhaps prizes education higher than any other achievement, and while Nneka was making her first demos and beginning to make waves as a performer, she was determined not to waste the stack of A-levels that she already had under her belt. Enrolled at Hamburg University, she continued to study for a degree in anthropology – no mean feat when you’re in demand at clubs and festivals from Paris to Lisbon, from Vienna to Madrid.
While love, hope and optimism form the bedrock of all Nneka’s recorded work, there’s a steeliness to her new material, the engagement of a highly developed mind on some of the tough realities of modern politics – both personal and international. It takes no little courage – and insight – to write a song like ‘Africans’, which tells her people to stop blaming their colonial past for their problems and take responsibility for themselves. To then go back and sing it to packed houses in Nigeria – where the military rule with an iron fist – shows an extraordinary depth and strength of will. But that’s just what she did, making a triumphant return to her home country on tour with MTV-Award-winning Nigerian rapper 2-Face.
Yet, like the woman who wrote it, the song ‘Africans’ is not dry and hectoring – it’s a soft and elegant melody, a piece of music that doesn’t need to shout but instead seduces. Backed by the production of her longtime collaborator DJ Farhot, whose dubby soundworld she has inhabited since those early demo days in Hamburg, Nneka finds the perfect foil for the raw emotion that she brings to a vocal.
It’s a testament to the strength of Nneka’s talent that her success so far is based on word of mouth, on the quality of her albums and the intensity of her live performance. She is not a big-label product, forced down people’s throats by marketing dollars. Her audience now numbers hundreds of thousands across two continents, for Nneka now divides her time between homes in Lagos and Hamburg. Those listeners are people who have tracked her down, because there will always be a demand for music that does more than just entertain, but touches something universal. As she puts it herself: “I do it in a sweet way – but I sing to speak the truth.”