Nneka Egbunaʼs is a voice that wants to be heard beyond itself.
Her voice, charged, untiring, pours out of her small frame, and strikes again and again at the psychological and socio-political erections around the things she cares about: her home country Nigeria, and the dignity, uprightness and resilience of people wherever they may come from.
The strength of her voice borrows from an awareness of what it takes to confront the reality of her homeland. Music of the soft and sweet sort will not do. So, she listens to her country, even from afar, like a physician taking auscultation, listening for where its organs beat wrong, for where its heart falters. And then she looks out, searching for models, and from everything she gleans, she brews music that seems to operate under the logic of a question: How does one sing for a country that continues to defeat its name?
Like Fela before her whose Afrobeat music borrowed from jazz, western classical music, street lingo, and the bare bones of social reality in Nigeria, she makes music too that is enriched by its eclectic influences. On close listening, one cannot but hear its Biblical undercurrents, its reggae-infused beats and voice inflections, its weldings of English and Nigerian Pidgin, its local colour and rhythms which echo Fela, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, all of whom brought forth, from a serious engagement with their worlds, musical styles that not only contained the experiences of those worlds but also enlarged them.
Engaged in a similar task, polyphony becomes a tool in Nneka’s hand as she seeks to open a space of entry where her listeners see not only what a country is but also what it can become. Her sounds are, at once, filled with melancholy and celebration, with tenderness and aggression. They are polyphonic in several senses: as a sonic medium and as a metaphysical one. Her sounds, in the environment of the music, can feel like several voices chanting, each spurring the other on. They convey in a medley of sound and sense her message. And that is what most of her songs are—messages. These messages are directed at both men and country—the two often conflated in her music—and they resist providing a pat consolation.
“In Uncomfortable Truth,” she sings:
You talk about peace
Put it in your mouth
The same mouth you use to declare your bombs…
Love, ainʼt what you are talking about on TV
Love, ainʼt what you practice it to be
…Let us make a change…
As impassioned and as bluntly honest her lyrics are about the sad state of her country and people in general, there remains a stubborn holding on, a tough believing. Her songs, especially in the albums No Longer at Ease and Soul Is Heavy, show an unwillingness to take the easy paths of escapism or self-delusion, both of which can be interpreted as guises for despair—there’s nothing else left, so all we can do is either turn away or lie to ourselves. Her songs echo hope through denunciation and protest, a polyphonic approach again through which emerges something haunting.
Now, in a bid to appropriate all the voices available to her, to expend in one breath a wide sonic register, some of her songs can, in a few places, sound as though she is jarred by the music, as though the songs, in their bid to be robust, are working in dissonance with their beats. While a few of her songs—in an album like Concrete Jungle, for example—may not evince seamless technical assembly, the lyrics stride out, fearless and trenchant. “Suffri,” from that album, shines in this regard, her words an uncowering mix of wish and anguish: Oga fulfill my wishes to travel to distant places/But allow my soul not to perish for me to be dressed in laces.
As her lyrics suggest, her music possesses a rough surface. It can seem untempered, and may sound, to hasty ears, like a composition lacking in musical discipline. But the style and texture bear testimony to the conditions from which the music is born, and it is suited, as a mode of address, to those conditions. This is the quality that has earned her songs and albums positive descriptions and reviews in Billboard magazine which described her album Concrete Jungle as a dense yet buoyant mixture of hip-hop beats, reggae grooves, African-pop riffs and future-soul vocals.
This quality, of fashioning dense buoyant sounds, one can safely concede, is what has earned her international repute. In the eclectic blend of the music, diverse peoples hear themselves, hear their own rhythms and aspirations. Her songs, by her rigorous commitment to imbuing them with a richness of sound, are lifted from the merely provincial to the universal. And so it becomes a deserved recognition when her voice is raised in acclaim for a world event, the 2010 FIFA World Cup; when it plays as a soundtrack for a word product, EA Sports FIFA 10; when it rings across cities everywhere, Hamburg, Lagos, Paris, New York, Amsterdam.
Albums that tour the world and songs that ignite global passions are good, but even if Nneka’s music hadn’t achieved all of these, they would still be deserving of our regard and critical attention, for they invite us into a space where we hear, even amid the gloom, how irrepressible we are, how it is possible to continue to press on with hope, whether as a person or as a nation. Also, by singing for her country and of her own reality, she invites us to see our individual as well as our collective worlds and in so doing discover our respective ways of singing with voices that are just as rich, trenchant and unflagging.
Photo credit: The Guardian Life
Joseph Omoh Ndukwu is Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in Saraba, Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Praxis, and elsewhere. He tweets @Joseph_Omoh_.