It's been four years since Nneka Egbuna emerged from Germany as the gung-ho Nigerian rapper/singer/songwriter with a socio-political bone to pick, and yet she's still indifferent to fame. "I'm just happy that more than one person listens to me," shrugs the 27-year-old when asked if she has the desire to break the US now that she's been recognised by the Mobos as the Best African Act, and Channel O, the premier African music network based in South Africa. "It's not about being popular. It's about the love of doing the music. It's about giving people hope; it's not about me, it's not about Nneka herself, it's about having a voice and it's about having a message behind the voice."
But it's not that she's ungrateful. It's just that on closer inspection, Nneka should perhaps be considered an activist first, singer second, with the kind of sincerity that once made her British contemporary Ms Dynamite the poster girl for the nation's inner-city woes, while over in the US, Lauryn Hill was scratching away at the glossy aftermath of her debut album with a new raw persona aimed at firing shots at everyone from the music industry to the government. Likewise, after the release of Nneka's EP The Uncomfortable Truth in 2005, it became apparent that the singer was on a mission to openly address the issues that affect her home country. Her 2005 album, Victim of Truth, and the latest, No Longer at Ease, keep to her tradition for social awareness; on the song "Suffri" she resorts to pidgin English to demand "whe the revolution?" and on "Streets Lack Love", she names and shames oil-producing companies like Shell for causing pollution that she says has led to the illness of many Nigerians in the Niger Delta for nearly 50 years.
The song is a direct reference to the experiences she observed growing up in her hometown of Warri and also to the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer executed in 1995 along with eight other colleagues for campaigning against the oil companies. She says she wants her eclectic brand of hip-hop, soul, afrobeat and reggae to explore "people, politics, corruption, bribery, sex, immorality, hypocrisy, George Bush, many things" and also wants her life experiences to inspire others. "I know that there are many people out there who go through the same or similar problems, and this is my mission to give those people the courage, that no matter what, or whatsoever you're going through in life, as long as you want something and you believe in yourself and you believe there is a God, things can definitely change," she says.
Growing up in a polygamous household of five siblings, two mums and her dad, Nneka didn't have particular aspirations to become a singer. But she remembers she would always sing to herself as she went around cleaning her compound and was introduced to the music of the Fugees by a neighbourhood friend named Chike who fancied her. "I never really thought being a musician was something," she says. "I grew up with that education that my parents gave me, which said that it's important that you go to school and you have a degree. So my main goal was to have a better life, to live a better life, and to study." At the age of 19, she moved to Germany to study Anthropology, but she refuses to disclose the main reason behind the move. "I never ever thought I'd leave Nigeria," she admits. "It was never on my mind to step out of Nigeria, or to study abroad. It's more a personal issue – I won't be able to address it now because I'd be revealing too much of my personal life story."
A clue might be in the autobiographical song "Halfcast", which details the discovery of her bi-racial identity. She raps: "Found out my date of birth which explains my life's mystery/found out that the one who conceived me is separate to the one that gave birth to me/rejected by the one, I was protected/sent back to Africa on a plane I was neglected/who'd have thought that prejudice and injustice could begin in your own family/decided to accept the inescapable death of the white me/pushed it away, I'd never been what I assumed to be".
Nneka seems the sort who won't share more than she has to; she exudes a quiet intensity that doesn't take kindly to digging. She doesn't offer up much about her mixed-race mum either, believed to be half-German, although she frequently mentions her dad. But she can be frank and direct at times, happy to fill in the blanks surrounding her Hamburg experience, explaining that she moved to the country on her own and had no family support, taking on odd jobs which once had her cleaning toilets at 4am. Despite the lack of ethnic minorities and the odd racist barb, she says the most shocking thing about the country was that "people are very, very punctual and the traffic is smooth. In Lagos, if you want to get from one place to the next you have to calculate two hours ahead."
She decided to pursue music to make ends meet and hooked up with German hip-hop producer DJ Farhot who helped develop her sound. She got signed to the independent Yo Mama label, and despite the extra marketing push, she was reluctant to create an all-encompassing brand name for her music. "That's a very difficult, difficult question to answer because I don't even know at times where to put myself," she says. "I wouldn't be able to put myself in any of these boxes, since my music is very diverse. There's a lot of hip-hop in it, there's soul, there's reggae, there's afrobeat. Maybe it's best to call it African pop soul, I don't know. I don't really think too hard about the way I produce my stuff or what it is. It's very important that I don't rationalise too much. I think music should have passion. I use my heart."
She moved back to Nigeria in 2007 and has since supported artists including Sean Paul and Gnarls Barkley, as well as landing a top 20 in the UK singles chart with the song "Heartbeat". But while she still goes between Germany and Nigeria, she admits it's been more challenging to promote her music in Lagos, where she now lives. "I'm hustling a lot," she says. "There's more work to do in Nigeria – 200 million people here have to hear your music and it's difficult to get your music out. We don't have proper record companies or distribution agencies. You have a lot of piracy and you have this big piracy organisation called Alaba. Some people even pay the Alaba guys to pirate their stuff, just to get popular. It's crazy." How does she make money? "I play gigs, I have my CDs with me, I sell them in small stores. My success in the UK has helped a lot. My video is running in South Africa, so that is helping me become more known within Nigeria."
In the long term, she hopes she can put her degree to good use and might consider creating a museum which holds Nigerian artefacts because "we should not just sell them to foreigners", and musically, she hopes she can continue to pay homage to traditional African music while giving it a modern spin. "I think many upcoming artists that I've gotten to know are beginning to gain more courage to do stuff that is different, and also to mix styles like Western sounds with African indigenous elements," she says. "It's actually courageous in a way because you have too many old people not appreciating this kind of music. They are fixed on the past. But it's cool, and at the same time it's important that we preserve our culture, our indigenous music and not forget that authenticity."
'No Longer at Ease' is out now. Nneka will be playing at ULU, London on 4 NovemberReuse content