Against the backdrop of tinkling bells and the rhythmic movement of the sea, singing sensation, Nneka Egbuna, told Reporter, Darlington Abuda, about the influences that moulded her life and music.
Though a graduate of archaeology and anthropology, the half-Nigerian, half-German has chosen music as her pathway to the stars with very positive results.
Was it idleness that unleashed your musical career?
No. When I left Nigeria for Germany I was totally on my own without friends and family. My trip wasn't really planned and left to myself I never wanted to step out of Nigeria, all I wanted was a better life. When I got to Germany I was placed in this Asylum Information Facility, a place where people who are homeless are kept, for about three months with other homeless kids and a lot of foreigners from other countries. Eventually, I got out of that facility and got a place of my own though it was also financed by the state. I started school and started learning the German language but I was lonely, I needed something to hold onto and music was the only thing that gave me that solace and I got into it fulltime.
I got a record deal and I was able to finance my studies which was a relief, also music gave me the opportunity to travel around the world and have experiences I would never have had otherwise. Music gave me even more courage and a healthy dose of self-esteem because before I left the country I did not have any self-esteem.
How many albums do you have to your credit?
I have three albums to date and one is coming out next year. The first one, titled Victim of Truth was done in 2004, No Longer at Ease, which was titled after the popular novel from renowned novelist, Chinua Achebe, and my third album is called Africa to and Fro.
Which of your albums gave you the nominations you have gotten this year?
The nominations came from the hit single 'Heartbeat' from the album No Longer at Ease. I shot the video in Ogba, Lagos and it got me three nominations; one Channel O and two MOBO (Music of Black Origin).
What was your reaction to the news of the nominations?
The fact that the awards were tied to the African consciousness made them a very big deal. Channel O is an African channel and thus the award is continental in scope and this fact made me very happy because it meant Africa acknowledges my music. Prior to now I had heard people say my music was too 'oyinbo' (not African enough) for the African palate. It was not that I did not want to sing in Igbo or Urhobo but I needed to keep to my style because I wanted to reach a wider audience with my music so I had to sing in English or pidgin English so that the whole of Nigeria can understand my music. I am happy that not just Nigerian television stations but Channel O, which is an African channel, has acknowledged my music as African.
What about the MOBO nomination?
The MOBO nomination is another thing all together, the name alone makes it quite a big deal and it made my day and if I should win an award that will be something serious indeed.
Did you ever think that your music would get you awards?
Never Especially this video I did for 'Heartbeat.' It is not that I did not do it with all my heart but it was something we did very fast. We actually spent two days working on it because we had to submit it in that time so we did everything 'sharp sharp.' I submitted it, came back to Nigeria and did the MTN show with Tuface. Surprisingly, after two days my manager called me to say MTV put the video on number one. The response to the video has been overwhelming. People were trying to reach me from all over the world with requests for gigs and that is how the 'Heartbeat' video has taken me places.
How were you able to combine your studies with music?
That was very difficult but I struggled through it because I was brought up in a home where education is paramount. My dad drummed that into me, he made me understand that a beautiful voice or face amounted to little if there was nothing in the brain. He made me promise that if I had the opportunity to do it I was to make sure I completed my studies when I travelled. Despite the fact that he did not pay for my studies because maybe at the time he may have thought I would grow up to be a wayward person, I wanted to prove to my family that I was capable of making something with my life and by the help of God, stand on my own. I think I have been able to achieve that.
But doing music and studying was ridiculous because it took so much energy; you come back from a show and have to move straight into a seminar where you have to do a presentation and that invariably meant one had to always be prepared. Achieving that was strenuous. Despite the stress I got good grades even though I did not make a first class result I was above average and for someone who did not speak a word of German before I travelled there this kind of result is pretty cool with me.
Tell us about your initial experiences when you got to Germany?
I would describe my initial experiences as those of a 'JJC, Johnny just come'; the language, the weather, the mentality and so on. Also, everyone I met was very organised and punctual. Everything had its time, if you are in a bus you press a button so that the bus should stop if you want to (alight) at the next station so one had to be very alert. Again, the traffic lights were a wonder. At the time I was leaving there were no street lights in Warri, I saw them for the first time when I got to Lagos but I really did not know what they were, so I had to learn about these things and their uses. Also before I left Nigeria I did not know that biro is the name of the brand that made the pen and not the pen itself. There were so many things that I did not know and I had to adapt when I got there.
For someone who has been part of the Nigerian and German music industry, can you do a comparison and identify certain changes that will bring the Nigerian industry at par with the international market?
We have everything here but the only thing I see is that we have to invest more time and patience. The other day I was in the studio and I asked for an echo effect only for the sound guy to give me a double delay. We need to develop more education and a passion for our creative works because we have all the resources. When it comes to performance though I noticed people do playback a lot. It is sad that Nigerians will pay to watch a massive show and when you get there, it is playback that they are doing if that was all they were expecting, the guests could as well sit at home, slot their CDs into their musical systems and listen to the songs on their own.
I will suggest that we do more performances; by this I mean artistes in Nigeria should devote more time and care to the audience that is paying and spending money buying your CDs because without the audience you can't buy your house or your Hummer jeep.
Has your skin colour ever worked against you?
Not here, though in Germany I am equivalent to full black, in the states I am black and here I am half-caste. Let me explain, every time I come fresh from abroad I am 'oyinbo,' when the sun beaten me a little then I become half-caste, then when it has beat me to the fullest I become 'yellow.' This is cool because I know that in Nigeria people don't mean it in a derogatory way but over there when you are called nigger you know what it connotes.
But I have always said skin colour does not have any bearing on being African or not though I actually experienced this form of racism especially in school where I had this professor who refused to give me my scores for a dissertation I submitted. First of all he was concerned about the topic because he said it was personal. I was writing on 'The Term Nigger in Present Europe' and he thought I would include too much of my point of view. He said if I was to do that I should make it just a small paragraph and that is what I did. Eventually, after writing a 30-page thesis he said I did not have enough references even though I had about 20. He said "you black people are good in singing and I have done so much research into your music so I wonder why you are not satisfied with what you have? I have found out that you guys are good at playing basketball and sports." You know he was boxing us in a corner. I went to him three times thinking he may have had a bad day the first time I saw him but he remained adamant and the third time he really let his venom spew over me so much so that I left his office weeping. I ended up doing another seminar and got my scores.
Do you consider yourself to be a rebel?
Rebel is actually a good thing as long as I am not a dictator or spreading negative energy then cool. I stand for love and the truth and though I won't say so but you say so then I will claim it.
Would you say music has been lucrative to you?
Yes, very much so.
What influenced your style of music?
My experiences in Warri where I grew up have definitely influenced my music because they have made me do my music and do it in the way I do it with consciousness in quotes because I am still learning. Also, the way and manner in which I grew up has made me very proud of being a Nigerian, though I was not too proud before I left the country but I experienced what it felt like when people give you a colour and I was proud to be part of something profound, my roots. So when I am outside I am always very proud to say I am a Nigerian from Wafi.
What are the various activities you are participating in while in Nigeria?
I was invited to be part of the ION International Film Festival, where I will not only be performing but also trying to educate the youths that one does not need to travel out of the country to make it in life. So I will be raising awareness on self-growth and national pride.
Are you in a relationship?
No I am not in a relationship, but if a man should desire to be with me because I am a musician then good riddance. No guy is asking me out now but if there was then it would only work out if he does it well.
Some people say that musicians find it difficult to get married. What is your reaction?
It is indeed difficult for female musicians to get married because most of the time she is always on the road promoting her music and doing tours much like a nomad and this makes settling down difficult. Personally, I consider myself an old layer at the age of 28 but I believe it in God's hands now; if he wants me to continue then I will and if he brings something my way that he knows is good for me then I will take it.
So marriage is on your to do list then?
I don't know about marriage, and by this I mean the white gown church thing but I wouldn't mind tying a bond with someone. Someone I share the same ideologies with and I will be glad to do the traditional thing and take his name if he has a nice name but I will still leave the Egbuna before his name.