It’s a long journey from Nigeria to Nas and Damian Marley’s side onstage at the Fox Theater (Tues/25). But 28 year old singer Nneka makes the road seem eminently walkable. Born to a father from the Nigerian Igbo tribe, and a German mother, her Erykah Badu like vocalizations didn’t really take off until she moved to Hamburg at 18. Since then, she’s risen to European fame on the verve of lyrics that reposition Africa as it’s own narrator, and are set to driving R&B and hip hop beats. And now the States are taking note of her song. Nneka is opening for Lenny Kravitz, Badu, and Mos Def, garnering comparisons with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for her recent US release, Concrete Jungle (an amalgamation of songs previously released on her European albums), and generally heralding a new era of socially driven, worldwide hip hop.
Plus, she showed up to her Manhattan CD release party in pig tails and a hoody. When asked to describe her sound in a single word, she comes up with "bush." It’s clear that this woman has bigger things on her mind than album sales and accolades. We Skyped her just before she hit the stage for a show in France to ask; what’s good, Nneka?
San Francisco Bay Guardian: I’ve seen you at a lot of your appearances wearing an “Africa is the Future” sweatshirt. What does that phrase mean to you?
Nneka: Just a T-shirt (laughs) of course the saying is something we’ve been saying. Africa is the futre, it is the present the past and the future, this is part of the trinity that I believe in but its not just what I believe in, it’s a fact.
SFBG: You play the guitar in addition to singing. When did you learn how to play?
N: I picked up the guitar three years ago. But I’m still not doing it as you should.
SFBG: Why the guitar when you are already such a great singer?
N: As somebody who has been traveling around for awhile, I noticed that a musician is not just somebody who sings. Other people had the opportunity to grow up playing an instrument. [I didn't bu I]I decided to use the guitar because it is a process to my heart. It fits best to my style.
SFBG: You just recently started performing in the United States. Were you surprised about Americans’ perception of our country’s place in the world?
N: I wouldn’t be able to make any solid statement about American people, since I have not lived in America enough for me to conclude on that. I had a certain way of seeing Americans -- I had heard they were very plastic, artificial, not natural. But I came to see for myself, and I found you meet some people, and you can never generalize them. I’ve met people in the States who are way deeper than I imagined. When it comes to my audience, I noticed the Americans listen deeply compared to a lot of people out here in Europe. When I’m talking about political or religious issues, sometimes [European] people can’t understand. Compared to that, the Americans are like, ‘I understand where she’s at.’ It’s a good thing to have people that understand, that trigger you to understand more.
SFBG: You’ve toured with some of the most incredible performers in hip hop and R&B today. Who, of the people you’ve opened for, has taught you the most?
N: Lenny Kravitz, big time. I was on tour with him, and I was thinking, this man has been working in music for a long time. After doing this, I feel you might go on stage haphazardly, push aside your passion, you just function more or less. To my surprise, I saw that Lenny Kravitz is still passionate about his music. He lives his music. In addition, he’s a very humble personality. That is something I look up to, people who are still human despite fame.
SFBG: As a female performer, have you ever felt pressure from the industry to conform to a certain image?
N: If you know where you’re coming from, if you have your identity before you go to your record company than it’s much easier. Most of the acts in the States, they don’t have their own identity, they have their identity imposed on them. It has a lot to do with whether you are courageous about your artistry and creativity. It’s just like writing a book. If you’re sure about your subject, committed to yourself, than it will be much easier to see.
SFBG: What kind of role does music and the musician play in social change?
N: It’s the easiest way to me to express myself and make change possible. In order for me for me to evoke change, the only way I’m able to do that is through my music. This is something that I know won’t hurt anybody. I believe that music can make change when you believe what you say, and you’re part of what you preach. That change manifests eventually in the physical.
SFBG: Do you think the amount of traveling and touring you’ve done has given you a fuller perspective on the global community?
N: There’s a stage you reach when you’re like everything is everything. Whether in Europe, China, the USA, people are people. Everything is everything. And then you’re like, where do I go from here, when everything has been said before. We can’t lose hope now. Somebody has to say something.
Distant Relatives tour:
Nas and Damian Marley feat. Nneka
Tues/25 8 p.m., $39.50
1807 Telegraph, Oakland