Nigeria has endured some difficult times of late: There was a deadly Ebola crisis, the kidnapping of 219 schoolgirls by militant Islamist sect Boko Haram, and current fuel shortages that are crippling its oil-dependent currency. And while there are rays of hope — incoming president Buhari has mobilized the army against Boko Haram (a name that loosely translates to 'Western education is sinful') and recently rescued 260 of the group's survivors — Nigeria isn't exactly a prime vacation destination this year. Yet it's the only place that Igbo-descended Nigerian soul stylist Nneka will call home. "Because you have to have faith in the face of all this madness," she says. "And this is my country."
Amid all this darkness, the singer has just released a pudding-thick new ska/reggae/R&B record with the seemingly sunny title My Fairy Tales. Highlights include dub-echoed experiments like "Surprise" (with its uplifting urging to "Count your blessings, take them one by one").
"We say 'local champion' to people when you think you are an international star, but then you are really illiterate, from the ghetto, with no proper education, and you're very crude and raw in your manner of life," Nneka explains, chuckling all the while. "And I feel like that a lot — I was born in Warri, and the people from Warri are very attached to nature, and very real. And we're loud, but we're honest, and they call us local champions. So I'm bush and it's OK — people seem to like that mix of bush and elegance, so I like being a bush-elegant person."
The title My Fairy Tales also references a sarcastic local tradition: When someone mentions the term, they're essentially expressing disbelief, that the news you're relating to them can't possibly be true.
"But hey — every single thing that I stress on this album has a lot to do with reality," she insists. "But I package it in a very ironic way, just like Fela [Kuti] did in his music. And I'm also trying to be more positive on this one, and not just make it all dark and horrible and miserable. I balance it out with some form of hope."
In conversation, Nneka is forthright about the problems in her homeland. Ebola victims, she's heard, weren't afforded modern medical conveniences, but housed in an ancient warehouse once used to quarantine chicken pox sufferers. "And now there are NO precautions — people have just gone back to their old ways of life, like Ebola never came," she sighs. And don't even get her started on the misogynist Boko Haram.
"But we can't blame anybody," says the activist, who's started her own Rope Foundation (grab-the-rope.com) to raise cultural awareness through arts programs for Nigerian youths. "We don't know why people are behaving the way they are. We don't know why Boko Haram exists. At the end of the day, all this speculation doesn't make any difference. As far as I'm concerned, each and every one of us has to assume their own responsibility. We can't wait on the government anymore. Don't wait on anybody to help you. Take the situation into your own hands, and help yourself."