Nneka… Afro-fusion Queen Returns With Love Supreme
Her eyes burned with passion as she clutched the microphone tightly. Holding her chest, while swaying back and forth, she soaked the air in the sweetness of her soul-stirring vocals.
Carefully clandestine beneath the dim lighting and musical instruments on the stage, she allowed her voice command attention first, before stepping out into the spotlight and holding the several thousand gathered that Saturday (June 12, 2010), at the Tabernacle Venue, in Atlanta, United States, spellbound with renditions of her golden hits. And within minutes, Nneka dazzled the crowd at that Distant Relatives concert headlined by the global greats Nas and Damian Marley, entrenching her fame as one of Nigeria’s most vivacious voices of her generation.
For over two decades, Nneka Egbuna, spread her fame across the continent, as well as in Europe where she has birth roots, as one of the most vocal and eclectic Afro-fusion singers out of Africa. The Nigerian-German chanteuse sprung from the oil-rich climes of Warri, where she would spend her childhood absorbing influences from her myriad of experiences with rife tensions, inequalities, and poverty-fueled frustrations worsened by the stark corruption at the time. And these would later inspire her music to become as politically-charged, intimate, spiritual and educative, as she began professionally recording and releasing music, while living and schooling in Germany, in the early 2000s.
From her first-ever performance in 2004, where she opened for the dancehall veteran, Sean Paul, at Hamburg Stadt Park, in Germany, to touring with Nas and Damian Marley six years later, Nneka’s fusion of Dancehall-reggae, Jazz, Alternative Rock, Afrobeat (not Afrobeats), and Hip-hop clearly marked her as one of the most vibrant veterans in the Nigerian music industry. Opening for several other global greats such as Femi Kuti, Bilal, Gnarls Barkley, among others, appearing in several Nollywood flicks, as well as composing the Viva Africa theme song for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, among others, Nneka’s prestige shone brilliantly across the continent.
After her last record in 2015, the singer snoozed from the spotlight in a six-year hiatus that became the longest in her career. Nonetheless, after over 10 compilation sound pieces, including five studio albums, the 41-year-old chanteuse has returned to the microphones, with a 13-track studio album dubbed, Love Supreme, that shines as a perfect comeback record, as well as one of the most profoundly intimate sound pieces of her career.
Catching up with Guardian Music, the multi-award-winning singer delves into a tell-all on her struggles behind her stretched absence, experiences with creating this new record, being an advocate for societal change, her current favourites in the industry, as well as having an inseparable love affair with Egusi soup.
Congratulations on your comeback. Why did it take that long?
I DID create a lot of music in between 2016 when I dropped my last project, My Fairy Tales, and 2022. It is just that we had some conversations with the record company and they were not ready to release it at that time. I think I have done more than two or three records in between that were not released. I did work; we were working and performing and touring.
With the situation in the world in the past two and a half years, we have not been touring. But I was creating a lot of music. However, I did kind of take a break in between, let’s say a year, where I just slowed down and focused more on, ‘why am I doing what I am doing?’ I was asking myself what the intention was behind all of this. I was asking myself these questions; ‘What am I doing this for? How am I doing this? With what mindset am I doing it? Is this what God wants me to do?’
I did have a lot of doubts while trying to release those records in between. I started doubting myself, my creativity… even the people I work with starting doubting too. So, I think the doubts and the distrust in oneself also led to a phase where I had to zone in and be able to trust myself again and what I love doing.
So, did you arrive at an answer for yourself?
I remembered a day where I was taking a long walk in Hamburg, Germany, during what I call the isolation period of the world; I don’t call it lockdown. It was one morning and I put my headphones in; I listened to all the stuff I had recorded in between and this was what the record company didn’t want to release. And I really liked the stuff; it kind of empowered me. My music gave me strength and motivation. And it almost seemed like it was not really my words; it was almost like a voice that was outside of me, motivating me. I said to myself that I like what I do.
I remember when I was recording most of the songs, and I remembered the vibe and energy that I had used. And I just loved it; it was very positive. It was good. And I decided that everything in the world was happening for us to remember who we are, and what our essence is. And, for me, it reminded me to stop doubting and to stop being so faithful about what people say about me, and what the record company says, and just do what I love.
When you know from your heart that you have baked this bread with love and compassion, then it must be delicious for the world; it is like Mama Put. It is not like Burger King or McDonalds where the guy working is frustrated and just has to do the job. I know how much Mama Put energy I put in it and I know that it must be sweet. And I said, ‘Okay, I am going to record more, and just create the records.’ And I released it on my label. I am still signed to Universal, but this record was released under my label, Bushqueen Records.
Which of the old songs made it here?
There were some new ones too, and there were some older ones. There are some that haven’t even been released yet; they are just a lot.
Love Supreme is an interesting narrative. Why that direction?
The word ‘Supreme’ is just everything; it encompasses all our emotions, all sides of our being. And, for me, I seem like there is so much that has been said before, and so much I had said in the past, and I just felt like if I am going to say anything now, I have to go within. Going within doesn’t necessarily mean superficially going within my ego; it means going within the body to remember whom I am. And when I do that, the world remembers who they are, because we are all connected.
So, I see myself as a smaller version of the universe. And everything that is within me is within this universe. And I am a reflection of you and vice versa. That whole unity among mankind, among the energy that we have, that bonding, is what this whole record is all about. It is very political; people might use the word esoteric, or that Nneka is more personal now. But I know that being personal is being religious, political, economical and all of those things. It sounds kind of vague and in the sky, but yeah it is true.
This album is very vocal, like your previous release. Did you ever feel you wouldn’t have achieved that vibe?
No. How I sound? No. That insecurity phase was what I mentioned before. That phase came and left. On the Yansh track, of course, people were like ‘are you sure? Nobody sees you as someone who talks like that!’ Another thing that happened during this Isolation Period was that I got more in tuned with my body and myself. And the way we grew up in Nigeria, we were very disconnected from our bodies, as we institutionalised religion. I am a follower of Christ, yet, I would say that there is a way that institutionalised fundamental religion had its impact on the way that I treated myself as a woman growing up.
So, the isolation period created a space where I could tap into my femininity, womanhood, and my humanness, and just be vocal about my sexuality. It is okay to say Yansh. Why not? I was able to appreciate and connect to this body, using certain words even if they are ironically used like Yansh, but being able to say those words without feeling guilty for using those words.
You maintained your whole reggae-dancehall vibe. Do you have any favourites from this record?
Honestly, I love Love Supreme. I loved the beat and the simplicity of it; it is just very spacious. The vocals have a lot of space to just flow on top of the nice beat. But then, recently, I was listening to Walk Away, and I also like it; it motivates me. The words, and having that conversation with God… every single track on this album is kind of a conversation with God.
What were your most intriguing moments while recording this project?
I was painting a lot. If you look at the cover of the album, it is one of my paintings. I was spending a lot of time drawing. While drawing, sometimes I wouldn’t listen to any music at all. Or sometimes, I would listen to Alice Coltrane; she is the wife of John Coltrane. This is kind of jazz slash meditational music. Her husband, who has now transitioned, has a very interesting love story with her. He was also a very popular jazz musician. He started creating music, towards the end of his life, for design, for the supreme or God. One of his records is called A Love Supreme. I, interestingly, didn’t listen to that record fully, and I didn’t make a conscious decision to use it when creating this album. By listening to Alice, I kind of channelled some weird connection to John Coltrane. So, that was one.
Also, I got to meet people spontaneously. There was this guy who I met one day when I was doing Yoga at the park. He introduced himself as a producer. I listened to his stuff, and we went to the studio and recorded Love Supreme; although he shut down the studio a few months after to become a schoolteacher. He also didn’t really think that we were going to move forward with the project or that the song would go anywhere. So, we kept postponing meeting up to finish the song. In the end, I collected the files and finished up the track myself. It was really interesting that it worked out.
You still sing so much about corruption. Why?
Oh, because I do believe that we are the change that we want to see. I am not just saying it because it is a nice sentence to say. It is a fact. I have been back in Nigeria many times. I remember when I first moved back to Nigeria, I was really frustrated about many situations. At the end, I caught myself being part of the problem so to say. It was almost like I was fighting against myself. You want to change something about corruption, then don’t be corrupt; when you arrive at the airport, join the queue like everyone else, for instance.
With the story about getting my passport, which I posted on Instagram, that was another issue. How do you get your passport here? People would just pay N40,000 or 45,000 and get it within a day or two. I wanted to get that experience of how it is, seeing the inner caucus of things, removing all the shine shine (glimmer) and just being part of that.
So, it is about practising what you preach?
Not necessarily for people to see, but also for myself. I care, and it is not just about Africa alone; it is about the world situation. It is about collective insanity, and it is not peculiar to Africa. It is all of us together, creating an illusion of our reality that is non-existent. That is the meaning of one of the songs on the album called Maya. Maya means, in Sanskrit, illusion or life, a distorted perception of the self.
Who are some of the newer artistes you like?
I don’t know all the names, but I really like Wizkid, especially his last record. It is awesome. I kind of like one of Burna Boy’s records, specifically African Giant. I also like Tiwa Savage’s last record. It is a bit eclectic, and it is kind of cool. Then, of course, among the non-mainstream artistes, I like Falana, Brymo, among others. These are people I also personally know. Then, I like Tems, not all of her records, but she is really good.
Have you considered working with some of them?
I have worked with a lot of Nigerian artistes, but it is mostly in the past and with old school people, like Tuface, 9ice, Ugochukwu, and others like that. Those are the boys I was touring with when I was in Nigeria for my first tour.
I have worked with Burna Boy before he blew up. In fact, Burna Boy opened a hook for me, somewhere in Victoria Island. I remember him being very young and slimmer at that time. Then, MI Abaga too, that is my guy. I have worked with his brother, Jesse Jagz too. They are awesome.
Now, it is just so difficult to work with all these people. I don’t know. You go drop plenti moni to do collaboration. Unless na personal conversation, but dem go suppose like get dat conversation first. These days, you have to pay people to do collaborations and I am like I don’t know.
What gives you the most fulfilment when you make your music?
Most importantly, it is about where I am with my mind when I am doing it. Like I said earlier, if something is meant to move, it will move. Energy goes where attention is. When your attention is on beyond the sky and stars, then that is where your energy is going to flow.
This record is different, because it fulfills me, maybe because of Love Supreme. I feel like I felt every single song while making it. So, of course, when people listen, that only shows me that the energy is right. Also, touring and watching people sing your song is a beautiful thing to see and hear. The most important part is when people are motivated, and connected with themselves; when they find God within themselves through your music. When people find healing that was already there through your music… that is sublime.
What’s your most memorable concert ever?
Touring with Nas and Damian in 2010. It was awesome. The whole experience, especially with what happened backstage, was interesting.
What happened backstage?
We were all touring for about a month with buses; everybody had a tour bus. In a tour bus, you have a sleeper section, a bathroom, and if your bus is luxurious, you have a shower. If it is more luxurious, then you can do the ‘big job’ in the bus. By ‘big job’ I mean, you could take a shit. The less luxurious buses didn’t have that, and so you could only urinate in them. You had to wait for the bus to stop to find convenience elsewhere. We cooked and ate in these buses.
Now, Nas had a luxurious red bus. Damian also had an amazing epic white bus. And I was representing Africa. The whole tour was called Distant Relatives. There was Damian from Jamaica, Nas from America, and Nneka from Africa. And we were all brought together like we were all related. Perhaps, because I am not as popular as these guys in America, we had to follow them at the back in our own bus.
We had this ghetto black bus. Our bus was so funny and old school. We called it the Ghetto Bus. You could not even switch off the engine, I don’t know why. We always kept tanking and wasting energy. Our bus was also like our toilet; it was smelly. It was the Ghetto Bus. You could see the difference. I remember one time when Nas invited me into his bus; it was like a ‘Pimp My Ride’ or ‘Welcome to My Crib’ situation. It was amazing.
When you are not making music, what do you do?
I eat and sleep. I love cooking; I love making Nigerian dishes in a healthy way. I like to learn a lot about other things, from food to health. I also went into fitness. I trained to become a Yoga teacher. So, that kind of stuff; fitness, swimming, reading etc.
Your favourite Nigerian dish?
The one I always end up cooking quickly and easily is Egusi soup; Egusi soup and the real pounded yam. Not Poundo, but yam wen you go put for inside mortar pound am well.
What inspires your fashion style?
I just go with being comfortable. I love colours. I love simplicity. You could make something elegant from something simple. I like African fabric; I try to mix it into my style. There are inspiring fashion designers that have come out of Africa. There is so much stuff these days.
Finally, if you could talk to your younger self right now, what would it be?
I would say, ‘love yourself, Nneka; because only so can you truly love God and others.’ I would say, ‘it is okay to go through certain things. It is okay to have had a difficult life experience. It doesn’t define who you are. It is a life experience. It is there, but it is not who you are. And it is okay to be afraid, but bear in mind that most of the fear you have is what they told you to be afraid of. It is the conditioning. Most of it is not real.’