The Dictionary According to Nneka
by Sidik Fofana
It’s a brisk, autumn day in Harlem and Nneka is walking down 125th street with a guitar on her back. It’s only her third time in New York City and a small camera crew is taking road shots of her performing songs from her sophomore album Concrete Jungle . Though she is singing her heart out, it’s her sight and not her voice, which blesses Manhattan’s Black metropolis this afternoon.
See, Nneka notices things. Things that the average Harlemite would take for granted. She notices the mango butter incense evaporate from vendor tables on the sidewalk. She notices the graffiti piece of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in front of Puppy’s Leather Outlet. She notices the fish markets and the soapbox preachers on Frederick Douglass Blvd. The neighborhood, in turn, notices her too. “More than ten people came up to me—I’m not lying—when I was walking through,” she says still shocked at the cordiality of Harlem’s citizens. “I felt everybody looked me in the face and I received smiles.”
However contagious Nneka’s optimism about Harlem is, it’s probably her energy, and not so much the congeniality of the people, that attracts so much attention. After all, the 28-year old German-Nigerian singer is sitting on top of the world these days. Her third album, and first major U.S. release, Concrete Jungle, has attracted major media attention. Spin magazine recently selected her as an artist to watch in 2010 and on February 3, she is set to perform on the Late Night Show with David Letterman. The press buzz has made the good gigs come easier like the time she opened up for The Roots at the Highline Ballroom or the time she warmed up the stage for the one and only Lauryn Hill. So, yes one would think Nneka would be very approachable at this point in her life. Harlem picked up on Nneka’s sunshiny aura. A toothless man accosted her and encouraged her to keep making music. A saxophonist invited her to jam with him in front of the Apollo. Another man, a rapper named Black Jesus who claims to have known the late Tupac Shakur, wanted to record with her. “He gave me his number. He was selling his album,” she says but she thinks he was just trying “to form.”
Form? Yes, “form” is the first word of Nneka’s dictionary. It means to try to talk to or get with a girl. It is the Nigerian slang equivalent of the American “to holla”. Years of bouncing between Europe and Africa have bestowed the 28 year old with an unmistakably unique lexicon flavored with German, African, and British influences (“I have more,” she interjects. “Do you want me to write them down?”). For the sake of length and poignancy, this story will focus on four key words that give insight into Nneka’s life and it so happens that Ms. Tropical Cheekbones And Buttery Skin, uses this word a lot to describe her suitors’.
But who could blame them? The German-Nigerian singer/song writer can have that tantalizing effect on men. At a slender five foot four, Nneka is the type that makes straight-haired models seem utterly boring all of a sudden. When men spin fiberboard globes and point to places where more exotic women lay, she is the abstract African beauty they picture. She walks around indoors barefoot like an Indian bride and that accent, oh boy.
Most foreign singers try to hide their regional inflections. Take British sensation Estelle, for example, whose crystal-clear vocals show little hint of her West London upbringing or Netherlands pop singer, Giovanca, who speaks Dutch but sings in English. Their success has depended on their ability to globalize their voices. Nneka however, having grown up in the Delta region of Nigeria singing in the local church choir, sounds distinctly African. Her voice begs one to acknowledge its ethnicity. It’s a social statement in itself, one that refuses Western influence in place of cultural authenticity. And, oh yeah, it’s downright sexy.
Nneka explains that she can tolerate people who try to form, but she can’t tolerate people who try to perform. “Being Nigerian sometimes, people are not proud where they come from,” she says ruminating on the issue. “They get the chance to go overseas, twist their tongues, and try to be American.” Like this one man, Nneka recalls, who approached her on the train trying to woo her with pickup lines while hiding his African accent. At that point, Nneka, who would have none of it, decided to expose him. “I told him don’t even go there,” she says. “I can tell you the village you came from.”
That’s how real Nneka keeps it. Everything she does beams with Pan-African pride. After yesterday’s sojourn in New York’s Black Mecca, the singer-songwriter spends most of today doing interviews at Girlie Action, a media, marketing, and management firm in downtown Manhattan and the extent of that pride unveils itself by the minute. Nneka reads Nigerian literature from authors like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She can imitate accents from every region of Africa, expounding on the high inflections of South Africans and the tough gutturals of Ghanaians. Google her image and you’ll find a feisty pictorial of Nneka in a fighting stances with two huge leather gloves and a hoody that states “Africa is the Future."
Intertwined with that African pride is Nneka’s empathy for the human condition. When it was time to leave Nigeria and go to college, Nneka enrolled at the University of Hamburg to major in Archaeology, which she later changed to Anthropology. “It’s a quest for human mankind,” Nneka says. At the same time she was attending one of the most prestigious continental colleges she was also touring the world musically.
She released her first album, Victim of Truth in 2007, to a shower of accolades, out of which the UK Sunday times declared it “as good as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Nneka’s sophomore opus No Longer At Ease, like her debut, showed that her cultural consciousness was not just an angle, but a social necessity, a part of her.
2010’s Concrete Jungle is an extension of this global awareness. Having been deemed “pure hotness” by Rolling Stone magazine, the LP is a rally cry to modern Africa, urging the war-torn to break from the shackles of its colonial forefathers. The songs are incendiary. They’re revolutionary. They’re ballsy. In “Kangpe,” a fast-paced anthem about strength during adversity, she delivers lyrics in Nigerian creole. In “Africans,” she sings, “Now it’s up to us to gain some recognition/ If we stop blaming we could get a better condition/ Wake up world! Wake up and stop sleeping/ Wake up, Africa! Wake up and stop blaming!” She’s Harriet Tubman meets
Bob Marley, a true militant from her bare feet up to the Afro that she refuses to plait
And there it is, the second word of Nneka’s dictionary. She doesn’t know she has said something irregular until she’s well into the next sentence. When she does, she stops to reflect, turning her head, inadvertently scanning the shelves of disheveled compact discs in Girlie Action’s listening room. In America, we say “braid.” In Great Britain and the countries once part of its empire, they say “plait.” There is no noteworthy difference between the two words, just that one is the result of British hegemony and the other the result of American. Nowadays, plaits or braids have become more of a relevant expression of blackness than Afros, but key schoolgirl experiences have long ago turned them into the opposite for Nneka. “I used to plait my hair in Nigeria,” she says twisting a strand of it. “In school, it was compulsory to braid it to the back and you wear earrings, the school uniform, white socks, and sandals.”
Even now, Nneka refuses to tie down her hair except when she’s visiting her dad, who would prefer her with straightened hair or a weave. She permed her hair once in Nigeria, but she ended up losing a lot of hair when it started stretching. So these days, she keeps it simple with her Afro, oiling it with Indian hemp. “You know the way our people are,” she says. “It’s funny with their weaves on and their skull is itching.”
It’s evening at the Girly Action headquarters and Nneka has almost completed a full day of nonstop interviews. She’s only a tad restless now, grabbing a book of matches on the coffee table and striking them one by one. “I hope you don’t mind, I like the smell,” she says which sparks a discussion about the decadent smells of gasoline, glue, and scented markers that Nneka recalls her and friends use to sniff when they were hungry.
When the tangent is finally rerouted, Nneka talks about commuting between Germany and Nigeria. That’s when this peculiar word “flatmate” comes up. It’s the third word in Nneka’s dictionary, perhaps the most telling. Having glorified her bi-raciality in the song “Halfcast” from her last album, Nneka has embraced both her German and Nigerian heritage, traveling to and from apartments in both countries. Just like the two cultures that make up her ethnic background, these two homes have polar differences. “Germany is a vacation,” she explains. “In Nigeria, I needed to get out with a flatmate and move into a better area.”
In Hamburg, her apartment reflects her artistic spirit: hand-drawn paintings, terra cotta walls, and ubiquitous ficus plants decorate the chic flat. Nigeria, on the other hand, presents a rougher quality of life. Although she now shares a girly apartment, pink carpet and all, with a roommate who does media-related work, less than a year ago, she lived in a boys’ quarters, the little house where servants stayed during colonial times. Everything comes back to politics.
Which brings us to the final word of Nneka’s dictionary, “wahalla.” It’s a strange word borrowed from Nigerian pidgin, which roughly translates to “turmoil” and is fitting for the singer-songwriter who does not shy away from it at all. Plus, according to Nneka, the word has found its way into many African dialects, which presents another nod to her sense of Pan-Africanism. To a person who can churn a country’s political redemption on shoulders into a lovely guitar ballad, turmoil may not sound as bad as people may make it out to be. Nneka certainly doesn’t look down on it. “I’m saying the truth,” she says and then pauses as if pondering something heavy. “It’s a high time to stand up and take things by the hand.” Just like Nneka.