Helen Epega: Nigeria’s First “Song Queen”
Helen Epega says the word “boring” the way people say “death.”
“I can work with a band or orchestra of up to 50 or 20 people I think it’s quite interesting to me because but it’s not boring.” She says sipping her Chapman. When I ask her about her mythical hair she laughs, loud enough to draw the attention of onlookers and says she isn’t wearing it today because she was blowing bubbles with her daughters earlier. Helen Epega is no stranger to attention. The founder and lead singer of The Venus Bushfires, Helen has performed what she describes as her “cinematic Afro-folk music” everywhere from the Netherlands to Brazil. Having written music for Christian Dior, PlayStation and Disney Helen decided to write for a Nigerian audience and produced the first opera in pidgin: Song Queen.
“I told the director at the Tete-a-Tete festival what I’d written and he gave me a slot. I had no funding, no cast, no crew and six weeks till the performance.” Helen says with the ease of someone used to bending the world to their will. “It worked out. Someone will achieve your goals, why not you?”
Helen Epega’s beauty, wit and talent seem inconsequential to her drive. The Guardian Life talks to the Song Queen about art, obligation, stars and nappy changes.
Why the name The Venus Bushfires?
When I was in Benin City in 2008 visiting my grandmother, they’d burned the land. And I asked my mother why they did it and she said to clear the ground. Within weeks all the plants shot up really quickly and I realised when a bushfire occurs, it is a possibility for birth. I also used Venus because she’s the goddess of love and I’m an amateur astronomer, I love the stars. Together the name is a celebration of balance, of love, the earth, the sacred, the profane and mother nature. It’s a celebration of life.
Your mother was a writer and your father was a medical consultant. Where did the music come from?
Every Sunday we used to do family talent shows and in a room of seven, it feels like an audience. My siblings used to boo. We got used to entertaining one and other. Also, my dad wanted to be a guitarist but his dad said no. I always thought growing up, being Nigerian, my parents wanted me to do medicine or something like that but my Dad looked at me when I was about 12 and said this is not for you, we’re going to do a different plan for you and make it work.
Opera is a white-dominated space. Have you faced any racism?
Not to my face. It’s been a very empowering experience because I’m doing something very unusual being a woman, being young, being black, being African and being based in Lagos. This is maybe not too immediate when people think opera, but the reception at each performance has been fantastic.
The hang drum I’ve heard is your favourite instrument, what’s the craziest song you can play on it?
Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush.
Your website describes you as a singer, writer and performance artist, do you live for the crowd or the art?
The art. I could have done more shakey shakey bum bum music or I could have dressed less conservatively. There’s a certain pressure for women to dress and make certain types of music but I dance to the beat of my own drum so I refuse to be pressurised in that way.
What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on stage?
Forgetting my words, that was my fear when I was younger. But it happens to me so often so it’s not a big deal. If things like that happen, just laugh, if you stop the show is over. Most of the time people will carry you if you forget the words people will sing them for you.
Who has been your best audience?
It changes but one that really resonated with me was The African Drum Festival in Abeokuta. The audience had never heard me play. I was very different from the other performers. The audience kept looking at me like who is this girl with the hair? But you could just see the difference when I started performing, in their faces, in their eyes and I knew they could feel what I felt and I felt a real connection there.
Your main inspirations are Fela Kuti and Can, two very outspoken political figures. Fame, some argue comes with responsibilities. Do you think artists have an obligation to use their power to stand up for global issues or do you believe it’s a personal choice?
I think it’s an obligation. If you’re blessed enough to have an audience and people are looking up to you for inspiration, why not inspire for the better? A lot of people see it as a smash and grab but I’ve spent too many resources, time, my youth and wisdom for this craft so it must be used for something greater than myself. If you have a mic, it’s to speak to someone other than yourself.
What do you think is the most powerful aspect of music?
The ability to communicate with people who don’t speak the same common language. I perform in foreign countries and you aren’t speaking their language and they aren’t speaking yours but they look at you like they understand and for me, that is the most powerful thing that this world has. Especially in Nigeria where we have so many disparate groups. When someone sings and nobody cares about the tribe and what you do for a living, the language, that’s pure magic. I believe music can stop all wars.
We can’t end this interview without talking about your hair, what inspires your gravity-defying updos?
Trees. I wanted to be a tree when I was young. I loved climbing trees. I’m also inspired by a lot of Oriental aesthetics and culture and I love bringing lots of different cultures together. For example, it is fun wearing a kimono with an African fabric. The hairstyle came from that but it’s also the shape and feeling of balance. It’s almost like Clark Kent and Superman when I style it. I’m someone else and I can say anything I want to say. I’m still me without it but I’m quite aware that I don’t have my cape on.