SING IT, SISTER "If I would come with a book, or a speech, I don't think I would attract people's minds the way I want to."
"Ever since they discovered oil here, not much has been going well for Nigeria."
Nneka, who comes to the Middle East next Thursday, sounds a lot different on the phone from what you hear in her songs. She speaks softly, allowing stretches of silence to throw her thoughts into harsh relief. On record, she's all business: a vocalist in control and on a mission, moving deftly between soulful R&B and precision hip-hop, often in the same song. Throughout the various soulscapes painted on Concrete Jungle (Decon) — a compilation newly released in the US drawn from her first two albums — she carries that voice like something extremely valuable. And she should, since it is.
"Music is the best way for me to tell people what's going on at home," she tells me on the phone from her manager's office in Hamburg. "If I would come with a book, or a speech, I don't think I would attract people's minds the way I want to."
Growing up in the oil-rich city of Warri in Nigeria's Delta State, Nneka (née Agbuna) recalls being perpetually surrounded by conflict. There were the lingering tensions between the northern government and the Biafran loyalists, and the conflicts between Delta's inhabitants and the European oil companies who surged in through the latter third of the century. There was the climate of violence that blooms from an order characterized by corruption and exploitation. "The problems have never been in one spot — they're within Nigeria, within the community, within the tribes and from outside of Africa."
Although it's the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the US, Nigeria is not often mentioned in our public petroleum narrative — and the ravages of the industry upon Nigerians are even less discussed. The reserves may be rich, but suitable refineries are scarce, so most of the oil is sent elsewhere to be refined and then shipped back — at crippling costs for a country already struck hard by poverty. The effect on the environment has been equally devastating: gas flares, oil spills, ecological traumas, and every form of pollution have fouled Delta. But so heavy is the presence of petroleum culture in Nigeria (even Nneka's secondary school was an extension of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation), and so broad and varied are the obstacles, that to right them requires enlisting anyone who will listen. It's a big job for a little record.
Concrete Jungle is up to the challenge. Most of its songs are culled from early sessions Nneka did with producer DJ Farhot while studying in Hamburg. As such, they capture the full range of influences that flooded her ears during those fertile years. "Uncomfortable Truth" rolls like a lost Curtis Mayfield track atop sly swells of brass, a clap-along beat, and Nneka shouting down a system that's "choking us to death." The fuzzy drums, puffy bass, and lilting cadence of "Mind vs. Heart" conjure that millennial lounge-hop sweet spot that sprang up between Lauryn Hill and Zero 7 — that is, before the song tightens into a frenzied proto-Latin climax. There are flashes of high life ("Heartbeat"), bouts of hip-hop ("Showin' Love"), and stretches of simmering Afropop ("From Africa 2 U") — but though her songs sound as if they'd arrived from all over the world, they are, like Nneka herself, Nigerian through and through.