On January 1, 2012, the Nigerian government effectively doubled gasoline prices from $1.70 to $3.50 per gallon when it discontinued fuel subsidies. Weeks later, 10s of thousands – with most living on less than $2 a day – began a nationwide protest, now called Occupy Nigeria.
Days before she left to promote her third international release, Nneka visited the protests in Lagos. Though she wrote Soul Is Heavy before the unrest began, the album still resonates; for much of it, Nneka is both singing prayers for and rapping her criticisms of Nigeria. Boasting guest spots from Ms. Dynamite, Talib Kweli and the Roots’ Black Thought, Soul Is Heavy leaps from gracious thanks (“Shining Star”) to anguished cries (“Restless”) to steely name-calling (the Kuti-inspired “V.I.P.”) – proof positive that she wondered her efforts would ever yield results, and if her fellow countrymen would ever see justice. “I feel sometimes as if Jah is playing chess with us,” she said.
eMusic’s Christina Lee talked with Nneka about what she witnessed of Occupy Nigeria and why she and her touring band were nearly arrested two years ago.
What inspired Soul is Heavy ‘s title track?
Obviously, I am not the voice of myself alone – I am the voice of many, and when I try to tackle these things, I’ve tried to understand what our history has led us to, our purpose. So “Soul is Heavy” was inspired by different events that have happened in my life, as well in the history of Nigeria. I mention Jaja of Opobo. I mention Isaac Boro, Ken Saro Wiwa. I have tackled issues of corruption, religious oppression, conflict. We mention these issues to be able to deliver a solution, tackling a revolution as Africans, as human beings. I mention the United States as well; with that connection between the Western world and Africa, what we need is togetherness. The idea of that song is unity.
You also say that you don’t know how much pain it takes before we start to work for an answer.
Maybe we were born without understanding what the limit of pain is. Religion always talks about how pain is the power of creation. You don’t have to go that far to be united or to fight against the system. Occupy Nigeria happened in my lifetime, with people together regardless of tribes and class, together in one place, having one voice – and that is exactly what we need. We need that togetherness. We need to stop the tribalism, religious conflict and the abuse, abusing ourselves, and give each other the blame or the responsibility for our particular condition, you know? I think that is something positive about this movement.
What was it like to navigate the protests?
It was a very peaceful demonstration, probably about 5,000 people, and every day it became bigger. The movement is not the problem; the problem is corruption. We do not trust the government. The money that’s going to be saved from moving the oil subsidies, [Nigerians] feel is supposed to go to other sectors: the health sector, the education sector. This has been said many times before, and we cannot believe this has not been fulfilled.
International news sources have taken notice of how Nigerian musicians have taken a stance while bearing Fela Kuti’s influence, yourself included.
I think the global reaction has also evolved. What’s happened in the past as well as here in the United States has also had an impact on us. The name “Occupy” – that’s something that I just found out today started in the United States. So I want to take an example of what is happening around and having an influence on us. We’re in a place right now where people are tired of living in fear, frustration and oppression. We are tired of people not speaking, and the voice of many, together, is the voice of power, the voice of God.
What are your goals for ROPE, the youth arts organization you co-founded last year?
We’re doing a couple of workshops in East Africa, and we’ve started the American promotion tour. We are going to communities and teaching, and I’m identifying income to help support [students] in the long term. I think education’s one of the biggest problems of Africa, and in the long term we’re providing scholarships and figuring out how students can contribute to his or her society by means of what he or she learns in full. We’re using the arts to assist and make it easier for us to access these communities, but I’m also trying to provide scholarships for other places aside from art – like biology or medicine, something where you can give back in a strong way. I mean, music is strong and art is strong, but you know what I mean.
You’ve said that you never intended to be a singer-songwriter. Does this lifestyle feel more purposeful to you now?
For now, the only thing I can do is do my music and have ROPE and try as much as possible to do what I can do, but it’s not as effective as I want it to be. I need to give more time. I want to give more, and I want to be more practical. I don’t like it when people do stuff for me, because I feel like I’m not doing anything at all; I have to dirty my hands and be involved. I think I need to take myself away for a little while, maybe for a couple of months – just stop touring and get away from being the center of attraction and live my life. I want to reconnect to myself and also re-educate myself. It’s been a while since I had classes and I’ve had to sit down and fail an exam – just fail. I want to listen. I don’t want to always be listened to, because I’ve been talking so much. I feel like I have nothing more to say, because I feel like everything’s been said, you know what I mean? I’m always trying to educate myself, to be able to put more energy into the foundation and to bring more life into my music. But for me to be able to connect with people, I have to go back into myself. I want to be personally involved. I don’t want to be this kind of delegate for other people. Maybe I need support, but I need to do to the work. I need a team to be as passionate as I am about issues, educating, politics and speaking out your mind, where we know how much we sweat.
Can you tell me more about the concert at [Nigeria's] Port Harcourt and how the police tried to interfere?
It was at the Niger Delta Peace Concert. The Niger Delta is an oil-rich area of Nigeria, and so the people have experienced a lot of turmoil caused by the exploitation in those parts of the country, due to oil extraction companies such as Shell. You have oil spillage, gas spillage, and people who are left to live in those disastrous conditions, so [the concert] was about cleaning up the delta and addressing the government and those companies.
We had these international acts as well as Nigerian acts, and I felt that most the acts weren’t really addressing the issues of the Niger Delta. This song I wrote called “V.I.P.” (“Vagabond in Power”) is a song inspired by Fela, Femi and Seun Kuti. Fortunately for me, it was the last song of my set, so I had a small part of the song left before police came on stage. They wanted to shut my entire the rest of my performance down, because of the message I was giving out to the people. This is a song that I bring and involve the audience in, and I make them sing and repeat what I’m saying. Singing in an open-air concert, singing, “Vagabonds in power” – it was very intense, very strong, very spiritual performance. They had already arrested my manager backstage, so we had to flee.
So if you could describe Soul is Heavy in its entirety, what would you say?
I would say it’s very simple, and it’s conscious. Music-wise, obviously I would say it’s a mix of African and contemporary elements with a blend of funk, Afrobeat as well as soul and hip-hop. The soul is heavy, the soul is tired of keeping things inside. I have to cry out, and that’s the only way I can do that – by not making my cry not sound too harsh, through music.