Nneka Egbuna was born in 1980 in Nigeria’s oil country to a Nigerian father and a German mother. She studied anthropology in Hamburg, and there met the Kabul-born producer DJ Farhot, with whom she has continued to work. Farhot’s online biography says that in “a rather dull backyard of the Hanseatic city south of the Elbe … socialisation with Hip Hop [took] place immediately.” Nneka herself brought hip-hop to the party, plus Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, reggae, American R&B, and older political songs like those of Nina Simone.
The musical mix they developed grew uses these elements with an attractive freedom, and Nneka has been compared to Lauryn Hill. But she usually sings rather than raps, and it’s her voice that catches your attention first. It has three distinct layers: a prophetic sound with a low edge, a mid-range with lots of breath, and a top in which the breath is set free in flute-like improvisations. That delicate voice makes the political edge in her songs all the more effective.
Writing in what must be her third language (she has sung in Igbo as well), Nneka brings accomplished lyrics to match that totally fresh sound. One of her moves, exemplified in her hit “Heartbeat,” is to unexpectedly reveal what seems to be a love song lyric as a political comment, with the political content thus resting on the long relationship of colonized and colonizer. She can do the type of song that catalogues centuries of history, but mostly her commentary is pointed. In “Lucifer (No Doubt),” an intense fusion of reggae and Afrobeat, she addresses the materialist world: “Oh, no doubt, I’m loving you more than I love myself. With your mouth, you stole my soul so I could not love myself.”
Not all of Nneka’s music is political by any means: her virtuoso tour of styles that flourished before she was born offers many pleasures, and a song like “Shining Star” just about channels Sly Stone. Her pure reggae songs tend to carry spiritual lyrics rather than political ones.
Nneka has been a presence in the middle rungs of the European charts for several years. She appeared at Lilith Fair in 2010 and turned up on David Letterman, but she has so far remained little known in this country. One of the many interesting questions attending her Ark show on October 24 (see Nightspots) will be to see how her music’s considerable electronic component is realized in live performance.