The Beautiful, Tortured Soul of Nneka Egbuna

by Al Tizon

Have you ever wondered if God messes with our iPods? I do. It’s irrational, of course; God probably has other things to do. On the other hand, music is such a spiritual experience that the idea of encountering God among the playlists is not that far-fetched.

For example, I was recently in one of those funks—you know, that enduring cycle of blah that overtakes you for no apparent reason? For me, music is usually the remedy, but nothing—not even the old reliables—succeeded in resuscitating me. When David’s harp isn’t working to soothe your troubled Saul (sorry about that), you know something is very wrong.

Well, that’s where I was while I was driving home from work one day when a song “randomly” came on—a song that reminded me why God invented music. I didn’t know the particulars until later, but just so you know, the song was “Kangpe,” and the singer was the beautiful, genre-defying starlet Nneka Egbuna from Nigeria.

Seamlessly weaving in and out of soul, pop, reggae, and hip-hop, a product of both first and third worlds, as well as of urban and rural environments, Nneka’s songs also swing between postmodern electronica and tribal roots music.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t know anything about Nneka or the song filling the crevices of my Subaru and my heart, because I swear—I swear—that I wasn’t the one who added it to my playlist. The Manager of the universe—but who is also the Lover of each of our souls—must have, because the song absolutely and thoroughly de-funkafied me. Thanks to the strength of Nneka’s passionate, world-music voice embedded in the combination beats of reggae, hip-hop, and electronica, and a brief sermonic interlude in the middle of the song by “the Canadian godfather of hip-hop,” Wesley Williams, I came storming back from the depths!

Immediately after arriving home, I sat down in front of my computer and researched all I could about this artist. Born to a Nigerian father and a German mother, Nneka is the product of two cultures, as well as parental split-up. She grew up in Nigeria but then moved to Germany to study anthropology at Hamburg University. Her musical career began there, as she worked with famed hip-hop beat-maker DJ Farhot, and she could have stayed there for life. But internalizing the suffering of so many of her people in the impoverished and war-torn parts of Nigeria, she eventually succumbed to the ache in her soul and moved back to Nigeria as an act of solidarity.

Raised in a strict Christian home by her father and stepmother, she claims in one interview that to love God and neighbor aptly sums up what she’s about. However, in a later interview, she claims to have gone beyond the rigidity of the Christianity in which she was raised and has found affinity with much of the African traditional religions.

I ordered two of her CDs: her 2010 Concrete Jungle, a compilation of her Nigerian releases intended to test the potential US fan base, and her 2011 Soul Is Heavy. Her background and her evolving faith are the stuff of her music, as she sings about Africa, poverty and wealth, war, political corruption, God, faith, and justice. Some of the most moving and powerful songs—the ones I can’t get out of my head—include “God of Mercy”—You carry me and make me strong. Oh God of mercy, I appreciate thee—and  “My Home”—When they put me down, oh you know, you are my home, my beginning, my middle, my end. On some songs, such as the aforementioned “Kangpe” and “VIP” (Vagabond in Power), she sings in some kind of tribal English or pidgin Nigerian, if you wish, which makes them lyrically undecipherable. Nonetheless, they seep into your inner being and somehow make guttural sense.

Seamlessly weaving in and out of soul, pop, reggae, and hip-hop, a product of both first and third worlds, as well as of urban and rural environments, Nneka’s songs also swing between postmodern electronica and tribal roots music. Her eclecticism, sincere passion, and powerful message have earned her impressive accolades, such as Best African Act at the Music of Black Origins (MOBO) Awards in 2009 and an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2010. She has collaborated with the likes of Wesley Williams, Black Thought, Nas, and Damian Marley.

Nneka Egbuna is a beautiful soul. Wearing little or no make-up, often in plain baggy clothes on stage, and sporting a rebelliously large afro atop her petite frame, she eschews the glamour and hypersexuality of Hollywood stardom and demonstrates natural and inner beauty. Don’t get me wrong: She is not hard to look at! But her appeal lies in her anti-sex appeal commitments.

She is also a tortured soul—in a good way. Though miles apart musically from Mark Heard, I saw the same pain in her eyes that I did when the late, great Heard sang songs like “Worry Too Much” and “Another Good Lie.” Like Heard, Nneka seems genuinely disturbed when she sings of the hardships and suffering of people. It is this empathy that fuels her music. Not content just to sing about it, she co-founded the ROPE Foundation, an arts community intended to help youth become conscious of peace and justice issues. That’s surely one way to deal with the pain—start a foundation and do your part in changing the world.

There is much to celebrate in the passionate, righteous music that pulsates from this beautiful, tortured soul. Granted, my urging you to add Nneka’s songs to your playlists isn’t as glorious as God adding it for you. But once you do, you’ll have them forever there to lift you up as well as to spur you on to good works.

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