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Exclusive: Nneka Talks Music, Message, and Spirituality

At Coachella a few years back, the ever-feisty M.I.A. asked a packed house of sweat-soaked admirers, “Where my leaders at?!” Good question. Surprisingly few artists today have stepped up with the decisive political or spiritual message that M.I.A. was asking for.

Recently, 27-year-old Nigerian tour de force Nneka — who already has a loyal following in Africa and Europe — made her US debut at Joe’s Pub in NYC, which she followed with a few shows with the Roots. And while it’s still too early to compare her to political/musical messengers like countryman Fela Kuti or Bob Marley, she’s becoming a formidable figure in global music. She calmly rocked the room with her soul-filled voice, championing a strong message of love, unity and political justice from her forthcoming album Concrete Jungle.

As soon as the lights came up, I wanted an interview — even though I’ve only done three in the nine years since I co-founded Flavorpill. A few days later, I sat down with Nneka, a captivating figure who shared some lessons on music, life, spirituality, meditation, and love.

Lesson 1: Don’t be a hypocrite.

Nneka: I have struggled; I mean in the first place, standing on the stage and singing about change or singing about false prophets or bad politicians, pointing a finger. There was a time where I would just point the finger and I would forget to look at myself. And, for me, to be able to make a change in the world, you have to be part of that change. You have to be honest with yourself, because if you’re not honest with yourself, and if you’re not in touch with your spirit, then you’re not able to make any change at all. I believe in the spirit world, and that everybody’s connected. There’s not just this one. And not just what we hear. There’s something beyond that. And that is what makes change possible. So that is what I’m talking about. If that is numb, or speechless, that world, then nothing works automatically. I [have] caught myself lying many times, saying things and not practicing, speaking about jealousy, and at the same time, I am hitting on somebody else.

And the sickness is the healing. That is what I’ve learned. If you are aware of your sickness, your mistakes in other words, your illness, then you know what you need, what medication you need to heal. And that is actually, that is what we need in this world. We know what is worrying us, that’s what we say in Nigeria. We know what shackles us and that is exactly what we need to heal, to grow, to progress.

Lesson 2: Take what you’ve learned back home.

FP: In this chaotic time in the world, is change really happening?

Nneka: Yes, especially through the fact that a lot has happened in the last two years in the world. Even in Nigeria, in Africa, people are becoming more conscious of, “Hey, you know, it’s high time that we stand on our feet.” We have everything that it takes to make this continent a better place. And I see that there are many people right around my age, especially people who are into poetry, or literature or music, and of course people who have also traveled out of Africa before and spent some time overseas. And when they come back home, mostly those people, I notice, bring change back home, to make a change back home. And I think it’s positive, I think, in the world as well as musically, people are becoming more conscious of the fact that, listen, if I’m standing on this stage, you can’t just feed the masses with ignorance and stupidity. So, there are a couple of artists that I have met lately, even Nigerian artists, who are now more conscious about what they say and feed the masses with. You know, normally Nigerians are very into entertainment, and — not only Nigerians alone, but Americans, as well. They like to sing about the party, forget your life, forget your soul — which is good, I’m not saying not to enjoy your life — but it’s also important that you don’t lie to yourself, that we don’t lie to ourselves. I think that change is taking place.

Lesson 3: Always be present.

Nneka: Sometimes when I’m on stage, I know that people are having fun, but then the real thing is not being transmitted. And then I’m a bit angry with myself, and at the same time angry with my band, because when I see that they are not in touch with themselves, with their spirit, and we’re not with each other on stage, then I know that there’s going to be blockage in the transmission, spiritually. Although people are jumping and screaming “Oh awesome!” But then I’m like, “Hey, no way.” So it’s important that I do everything with my heart — that I stand on stage, that I do my music from the depth of my heart, for me to be able to transmit that message of love.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to pause and regroup.

Nneka: Sometimes it’s very bizarre, what happens on stage. I just stop. I just stop, and sometimes my band does not understand me, because they are professional people, if you notice they are all in their forties and upwards — except for the keyboarder who is like, my age. And sometimes he himself does not understand me too. I just go like, “Stop, stop now. We need to connect, we need to.” So I take a break, I go into myself, briefly, in five minutes, and I explain to the audience what is happening. And then I make them aware of what I think they should receive. And sometimes it works and sometimes it does not work. Like when I’m on tour, two months on the road and at times I get very tired, performing. And sometimes you just, you just do it. I don’t like that feeling, where I just have to do what I have to do. It hurts me to do music like that, you know? It’s like a job. And in that rare moment where music becomes a job, that is like pressure on your head, then I don’t want to do it. I need to take my distance to find, or to rejuvenate, you know, to go back to where we started. Regardless of whether you’re a musician or someone cleaning the streets, or drives a bus or a teacher, president, etc you have to passionate, you have to believe in what you do, it has to be something that’s important to you, otherwise it’s just a job. And you poison people by not being happy with yourself, not being happy with the job you’re doing. It might look good from the outside, but inside is scattered and poisonous. It’s like baking bitter bread. It’s from the Bible. Do not bake bitter bread. You have to do it with love. If you’re not feeling it, you drop it and you go and look for something you can be passionate about.

Lesson 5: It’s good to question your beliefs sometimes.

Nneka: I used to be a very strong Christian, talking about religion and institutions. I used to be a born again Christian, and I used to be very, very strict. Until eventually, when I went to Germany for the first time — I realized I suffered in my religion before that, kind of. I would deprive myself of living — certain things, you know. Getting to know myself, reading in between the lines of the Bible. I would just read the Bible the way it is and that’s what I would take and just finish. I would never ask myself any questions. Until I had the freedom to understand that I can question the Bible, read in-between and use the wisdom that I have, or that I have acquired to find something new, to find something that is easy for me to live with. I mean, believing in God is not that easy, but it should not be a burden. So I’m getting to know about religions like Islam; I really love Buddhism and Hinduism. I’ve had a lot to do with African traditional religion as well, which I think is the most reasonable one to me at present. But at the end of the day, all religious directions, whether Hinduism or Buddhism, Islam, or whatever, at the end of the day they’re like different rivers that flow into one big ocean. Sometimes we go in another direction, I don’t know. It’s all about love. At the end of the day, what counts is love. And we all know how to love, no matter where we’re coming from, no matter what we have been through. Since we have a conscience, since we have an ego, since we can see I and you, since we have the skin that separates us from one another and that brings us in touch with one another, and we know what is good for us, we know what is good for the world, and we know how to love. So I think the most important thing is love. Love yourself because if you don’t love yourself you can’t love anybody.

Lesson 6: Don’t doubt yourself because of the time it takes to change.

Nneka: It’s difficult to [snap] to change the world like this in the blink of an eye. It’s impossible. You could basically also ask me why politics doesn’t make the world a better place. Like, why can’t we just live without war? And all I can say is to speak for myself. You always have to do everything you do in love and honesty. All the answers to the questions you are going to ask me today is love. It will sound so stupid. It will sound so unreasonable. But if you really go deeper, then every answer to every freaking question that anybody would ask you is love. It’s easy, so easy. Even I’m realizing it now, again. And fear, that is the biggest enemy of human beings. The most important thing is that you remove your doubt and that you trust. So, like yesterday I was drinking this Yogi Tea before I went to bed. And I felt like my day was, I wasn’t really filled, despite the fact that I had performed that day, I was not really content with myself, I’m like what have I done today? Why am I here? And I doubt a lot. I doubt myself a lot, I doubt God at times a lot. I’m not aware of it but I became aware of it yesterday again, before I went to bed. And I don’t believe in the small messages in Yogi Tea — but I had this tea bag, and no, I don’t normally drink tea before I go to bed — but it’s written on the satchel: “You will never find happiness if you continue to doubt.” And it’s true. It’s true, man. I’ve been living in misery because I always doubt myself. And because I doubt my potential, I doubt the fact that I can change something, I doubt the fact that when I stand on stage I know – hey you’re standing on the stage now. And you can give, you can change by doing it with love. Do not doubt yourself, as long as you do it in honesty and in truth, then it will be of an advantage to the people, it will make a positive impact on them.

FP: So, what happens when we become these fearless warriors?

Nneka: We have to build an army. I need you, you need me, we need each other. We cannot fight without ammunition. I mean, what soldier goes to war without a gun? And that is when that change can take place. I mean change in a positive way.

Lesson 7: Listen to others first.

Nneka: My music is the most sacred aspect of my life. Where I’m at now is learning to listen to people. That’s the most important thing to me, now. Not to listen to myself, always. And not to think while other people are talking to me. Thinking of the next — you know what I mean. So calm down, listen, and do not think of what to contribute to the conversation. Listen first. That’s where I’m at now.

Lesson 8: Stay connected.

Nneka: Just let go. They say, in Nigeria, a hand is only useful with its five fingers. If one comes off, then it’s a problem for the rest. I mean it will work, but it won’t be as fast as we should be. So we have to be connected.

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