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Art is an underestimated tool for activism, an interview with Nneka

When colonialism squanders the soul of a country and the reckless greed of the few damages the self-respect of the many, it leaves little room to dwell on the effects  of climate change. When the basic needs are met, only then can there be time for awareness to strive for environmental change that is sustainable and benefits every aspect of life. Nigerian-German singer-songwriter and activist, Nneka (Egbuna), born and raised in Warri in the Niger Delta, fights for positive change in her homeland by means of truth and art.

As a painter, who needs to distance himself from his work to be able to find a renewed,  healthy perspective, Nneka left Nigeria for Germany at the age of 19 to study Anthropology at the Hamburg University to discover that the journey has led to a new found understanding of her African identity. In 2005 she releases the critically acclaimed, debut album ‘Victim of Truth’, the first step in achieving worldwide success. Following her sophomore album ’No longer at Ease’ (2008) (named after the novel by Chinua Achebe), her third album, ‘Soul is Heavy’, is released in 2011. With incredible vocal capacities she melts reggae, hip-hop, afro-beat, vintage soul and R&B into a strong, passionate and thought provoking musical ride in which she questions life, fellow humans and the state of despair her home country Nigeria is in.

An interview with Nneka about identity, freedom, corruption, hope and art as a way to bring awareness.  



Sanderz:  ‘Soul is Heavy’ is a song on your latest album, by the same name, with a direct message about Nigeria’s pain and suffering, identifying yourself with Isaac Boro, Ken Saro Wiwa and Jaja of Opobo. How has the song ‘Soul is Heavy’ been received and the album in general?

Nneka: The album was named after the track Soul is Heavy’, because it contained the major issues that I felt had to be stressed, like environmental- or political damage, that are being camouflaged by that one thing we call democracy. In the end it’s used to fill people’s pockets. It’s a song about the damage caused by self-profit.

Though the album was received quite well, it also stirred things up in Nigeria. Some local TV-stations weren’t willing to play the video due to the type of visuals, the exposure of the Shell logo for instance. In spite of the difficulties with these local TV-stations, bigger stations such as Trace TV and MTV did play the video, but they may not have been aware of the contents due to the lack of proper research. In the end I got the message across. Although I had a lot of discussions with ‘heavy’ Lagos based people who called me up and said: ‘Why don’t you leave the old wounds to heal? This is about Nigeria’s past.’  And I answered : ‘You can not call it history when the oil pollution in the Niger Delta and tribalism are ongoing problems.’

So these are the issues that I’m emphasizing, but at the same time I’m trying to find solutions because mentioning the problem is not enough. At the end of the day it’s all about unity. It boils down to the fact that we are all human beings, or more specifically Africans or Nigerians, and we need to respect each other more.

Sanderz:  You’re an ambassador for the arts of the AWDF, African Woman’s Development Fund. What is the strength of art and culture to bring about positive change?

Nneka: Instead of standing on a podium holding a dry, political speech, I rather write a song to positively influence the minds of people who are hardened or in power, to change their views and the way they have been living up till now. In my case that is the easiest way to break the ice and approach the hearts of people.

I think music, art in general, as a form of activism is a very underestimated tool, especially in Africa. But now people are opening up towards the idea of using art as a means to have an impact on politics. I was made ambassador of the African Women Development Fund because I’m very outspoken and Africa, and Ghana specifically, needed somebody like that to support their cause. But obviously it’s the work behind the scenes of the African Women Development Fund ( that really counts.

Sanderz: What has been the feedback on your music and activism?

Nneka: People leave comments on Facebook or come to me after a concert to show their appreciation of the work that I do and share their personal stories with me. It’s totally mind blowing and a bit scary when people tell me how my music has positively affected their lives.

Sanderz:  You’ve once said ‘there’s a limit to freedom’. That’s a difficult boundary to determine. How would you define a sound view on freedom? 

Nneka:  How would I define freedom? (sighs deeply) As long as you’re able to respect another man’s dignity, that’s the limit to your own freedom. When you start disrespecting people and taking them for granted, you’re attacking another man’s space. That, for me, is overstepping the boundaries of freedom. 

Sanderz: So freedom is bound by your own integrity?

Nneka: Definitely.

Sanderz: You’ve mentioned, many years ago, that it’s your hearts-desire to be recognized in Nigeria. What’s your position in 2013 as a female singer in your homeland?

Nneka: There was a time when I was very upset, because I could not go back home and didn’t feel like I was acknowledged. I decided to let go of that negative force and let things come naturally. I believe in the energy and the positive manifestation of spoken words into reality, of things that are mend to be. So when I decided to let it go, I left my problems in God’s hands. As a result I gained more publicity and fame around the world. Ironically  that’s what mostly happens in Nigeria: Nigerian artists have to be acknowledged by England or America first, before they are claimed as their own. Luckily, things have changed for the better. There’s more interest in the type of music that I make and I’m glad it’s not just about the entertainment value, but people understand that you can use music as a means to stress critical social issues. There’s a big wave of musical awareness in Africa happening and I’m thankful that we have that power now.

Sanderz: You said that ‘Soul is Heavy’ is about finding that place in your mind that allows you to be yourself. However, everything around us feeds us the fear of not belonging. To be at ease with yourself isn’t considered to be profitable. How do you remain yourself against what is generally thought or accepted?

Nneka: It takes a lot of self-control, because there are many things to distract us in life. It’s hard to maintain your goals in life, if you have any at all. Certain people tend to be your downfall and they are probably not even aware of it. It’s important to be able to distance yourself, accepting change and allowing it to occur. So it is about letting go of certain things in life, and letting go of bad habits. 

Having travelled around the world I have come across  different ways of finding peace of mind, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. But at the end of the day it felt like an excessive amount of information, everybody was saying something else. Overall, the way we are living seems all very selfish. I believe in God and for me that boils down to: loving yourself and loving your neighbor. That is what we need to do, regardless of what you get in life. Let them pump you with hatred, then embrace them with love. What motivates me to continue to love, is knowing that I have God. That’s it. 

Sanderz: That’s a difficult conviction to realize….

Nneka: Yeah, It’s not easy to understand for some people, but it’s possible.

Sanderz: Corruption is a topic you feel very strongly about. What in your opinion would be a way to minimalize corruption?

Nneka: Wow!

Sanderz: I know it’s a difficult one.

Nneka: It’s a big one (laughs). We always complain about political leaders and how everybody ‘up there’ is corrupt. I think we should look at it from a different angle, from the bottom, the roots, the people who make society, who are part of the system and cannot be ignored. We can’t just blame people in power. We have our individual responsibilities to carry. I’m talking about grassroots and NGO’s, I’m talking about people with passion and love for change. You can contribute by starting in your immediate surroundings, as long as you’re doing it with passion and love and not for the sake of I-service. Then you are able to change society. 

Corruption is a mentality, part of ‘the survival of the fittest’ that Darwin talked about. Out of what God has given us, we have created money, created most of what is around us. Money is a beast and we have lost control. But there’s always a way to go back. I know, it’s easier said than done. There’s just no easy answer to the question.

Sanderz: You’ve been actively involved in the Occupy Nigeria Movement. Can you tell me what the movement’s striving for and how do you see its progression?

Nneka: The Occupy Nigeria Movement started as a national protest movement against the oil subsidy removal in Nigeria, but there were so many things happening in Nigeria that people decided to use it as a platform to raise awareness and express our feelings to our political leaders, enabling us to stress other matters: issues of corruption, issues of tribalism and Boko Haram, a jihadist militant movement. Due to the norms in our culture, in which we were taught to respect, we have lacked the courage to open our mouths and speak the truth. The amount of respect for the system, made us fear it. Consequently we mistook that fear for respect. The Occupy Nigeria Movement was an opportunity to let everything out. 

It was amazing to see how many people had come from all over the place, regardless of their tribe and religion, to express their feelings towards our political leaders. However, in the end it felt like we sold ourselves out. Those who were most against  the oil subsidy removal, had to settle on some middle term agreements, which did not benefit the society at all. So concerning the oil subsidy removal, the protest was a disappointment to many people, but I couldn’t be sad about it, because I saw the bigger picture. As far as I was concerned it was the beginning of something new.

Sanderz:  You talk about the relationship between America’s oil addiction and the corruption of Nigeria’s government.  From my point of view it’s easy to take a stand against fossil fuels, because it’s not my livelihood. What’s your opinion about moving away from fossil fuels to clean energy?

Nneka: (laughs) That is difficult. The crazy thing is that we don’t even have a  refinery. Oil is our major source of income but it’s also our major source of loss. You mean finding alternative forms of energy?

Sanderz: Like solar or wind energy…

Nneka: People, who are undertaking projects promoting alternative forms of energy in Nigeria, are being sabotaged. Also when, for example,  a large supply of solar energy lights is needed to light up the whole street of the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos –the longest bridge in Africa – the contract is given to a Chinese company. The lights that are used are so cheap and of poor quality, that they will blow in a short period of time. That doesn’t mean that all Chinese products are of inferior quality. China is investing a lot in Africa at the moment. I’m just saying that Nigerians who attempt to bring alternative forms of energy into Nigeria are often being sabotaged. 

Eric Dooh at home in Goi village showing oil pollution - Marten van Dijl / FOE Netherlands


Goi: Child in oil polluted river - Marten van Dijl/ FOE Netherlands


Goi: fisherman showing his catch from oil polluted river - Marten van Dijl/ FOE Netherlands

Nigeria has a major problem with its electricity supply. (Nigeria’s economy  heavily depends on the import of power generator sets for personal and public usage. The Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN, formerly known as NEPA) is often being sabotaged – BBC iPlayer – Business Daily: Nigeria , business and blackouts) The generator companies pay  people of the PHCN to sabotage their own company, so that the power generator market can thrive. There’s no way the economy is going to survive without the generator companies and switch to solar energy. There is never going to be a constant power supply because people are allowing themselves to be bribed by local politicians, and the government in general. The system is poisoned from within and every attempt you make to change the system, as it is now, is liable to ruin or kill you.

Let me tell you about another example of sabotage: I was trying to bring mushrooms into the Niger Delta to clean up the soil and polluted farmlands (mycoremediation). But laws even prevented the import of mushrooms. It’s hard when they sabotage your intentions from zero. So it takes a lot of patience to walk the path of positive change.

Sanderz: So there is not a lot of room to fight the ecological disasters in the Niger Delta?

Nneka: Fighting ecological disasters would take a lot of time and personal sacrifices. It needs a lot of selflessness.

Sanderz:  Foundation ‘Rope’, is an organization for raising awareness and creating change through all aspects of art. Can you tell me something about the work of the foundation?

Nneka: Earlier you’ve mentioned that art and culture can be a platform to stress critical political issues. That is exactly what we’re doing with ROPE ( ). Most of the programs, our workshops have a political message, directed towards politicians and by involving community members our goal is to make the community a better place.

In Sierra Leone we organized a workshop for sexually abused and war affected women, which is one of my main concerns. We aim for longevity, self-sustenance and continuity with an emphasis on education, which helps to create a source of income and an independence from foreign aid which also benefits the economy.

Sanderz:  To fight with passion for any country must mean that there’s beauty to fight for. What’s the beauty of Nigeria?

Nneka: The beauty of Nigeria lies in many things we don’t even realize ourselves. We are proud of our culture, our music and the new generation of educated, powerful people and our resources. We don’t need to travel outside of Africa to know who we are. This is quite a change from when I was growing up and I was made to believe that I was nobody. Everyone who was white and had straight hair was considered immaculate and closer to God. We were raised with the colonial mentality that God loved lighter skin more. It has taken some time, but I can see the wave of change coming. There are so many passionate people coming back home to Nigeria to invest their energy, time and knowledge in re-educating fellow Nigerians. We are getting there gradually.

Sanderz:  What do you do in your daily life to reduce your carbon footprint and if so is there a difference between how you can reduce your CO2 footprint on different continents? 

Nneka: I try to do my part. I do not always separate my trash, because in Nigeria there are no facilities to separate trash. We still have a mentality of throwing trash in the streets, which creates heaps of rubbish everywhere. So I try to educate the people I work with to encourage a different mentality to separate plastics from paper. That’s easier said than done.

And I support Fair trade with shea butter that I manufacture, package and sell with local women. Half of the money I earn goes to foundation ‘Rope’, and therefore back into the community. Those are my little contributions, but I realize I still can do more. I am learning.

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