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After the Escape: How Nneka Egbuna found a home in music

December 18, 2017

Nothing in life was given to her. Instead, Nneka Egbuna had to fight for it — a struggle which her gripping songs reflect. The German-Nigerian musician granted DW a glimpse into how her life and music span continents.

Deutschland Hamburg Nneka nigerianische Sängerin
Image: DW/A. Steffes

"Wake up Africa, wake up and stop blaming / Open your eyes, eyes, stand up and rise!" the singer with the artfully wrapped, colorful turban calls out to the crowd of people before her. The hall inside the Hamburg "Fabrik" cultural center shakes as the temperature rises to over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), despite the frosty April night outside. Nneka beams and transitions into the next song.

At first glance, Nneka does not seem like the type of person who would have such a stage presence. In private conversation, she is reserved, almost shy, but she comes alive on stage — with her songs. They are packed with energy: she sings about forgotten traditions, about her deeply rooted belief in God, and, time and time again, about Nigeria, her homeland. How oil companies are bleeding the country dry, and how corruption and bribery are leaving people helpless.

Nneka Egbuna
Despite her quiet presence off-stage, Nneka has a fiery onstage persona, and she packs her performances with energyImage: DW/B. Bischof

City of birth that is far from paradise

Nneka Egbuna was born on December 24th, 1980 in Warri, a port city in southeast Nigeria where sea trade, oil and the steel industry dominate the economy. The oil industry in particular causes great environmental damage, which Nneka also sings about in her songs.

She is a Christian, and perhaps it is due to her birthdate that she is deeply religious: the 24th of December is celebrated by Christians worldwide as the night when Christ was born. But perhaps it comes from the fact that she had nothing handed to her in life, always had to fight for herself, and often enough had no one she could trust other than God.

Nneka is the youngest of four siblings. Their German mother left the family when Nneka was two years old. Her father remarried, and his new wife stopped at nothing to make life unbearable for the children of the former wife. Nneka's brother Anatol describes in two autobiographical books how the stepmother tortured and terrorized the children, especially the two youngest — himself and Nneka.

Nneka herself does not speak about her past. She simply says that "a certain condition" forced her to leave Nigeria for Hamburg, her mother's home city. That was 1999.

Nneka prefers not to speak about her pastImage: DW/A. Gensbittel

At first, the then 19-year-old lived in a residence for asylum seekers close to the airport. Later, she moved into communal housing for youths. Nneka was ambitious. She learned German very quickly and thoroughly. After a year and a half, she completed her high school diploma at a secondary school that had a graduation track for non-native speakers of German.

"I always say my motivation came from the unknown," Nneka said, her normally skeptical look melting away for a moment, "from having the space, being given the opportunity to explore a different country, a different language and having peaceful surroundings."

Music by coincidence

After graduating from high school, Nneka studied ethnology, anthropology and African studies while making music on the side. She had always sung. When she met German-Afghan DJ Farhot, she found someone who knew how to add the right beat to her music.

"Farhot brought Hip Hop into my life," Nneka explained. "And I, being African, introduced the African side to him…He is from Afghanistan…And then us two in Germany, it was just an amazing mix."

With a demo tape, produced by Farhot, in her backpack, Nneka hustled through Hamburg's streets in early 2000 in search of a job. The company sign for "Yo Mama Records" caught her eye. The record label had contracts with German hip hop groups Fettes Brot and Eins Zwo and Sierra-Leonean-German musician Patrice. Nneka stopped in her tracks when she saw the motto under the company name: "Mama is the best." For Nneka, whose name means "Mama is supreme," it was a sign of fate.

Nneka walked into the building and asked to speak to the head. Label Manger Martin Schumacher was impressed by her courage and offered her a contract. He continues to be her manager. Nneka also continues to collaborate with DJ Farhot, her earliest producer. It's a strong "musical family" and an extremely creative one.

To date, Nneka has released five albums. Her very first album, "Victim of Truth" (2005), was celebrated by the international press. The British newspaper The Sunday Times described her as the legitimate successor to American singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill. In the years following her debut, Nneka gained greater public exposure and in the meantime has toured the entire world.

Nneka Egbuna and DJ Farhot in a Hamburg studio
Nneka and DJ Farhot continue to work together years after their first meetingImage: DW/A. Steffes-Halmer

Belonging to both worlds

Her songs have lost none of their political explosiveness over the years. On her most recent album "My Fairy Tales" (2015), the faithful Christian decries the murders of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in the song "Pray For You."

She also uses her global fame to support humanitarian projects. She co-founded the "Rope" foundation to encourage youths to express themselves through music and fashion rather than turning to violence. She also is an ambassador for the "African Women's Development Fund," a women's rights organization.

Nneka continues to speak reservedly about her private life. The inner conflict she experiences as a German-African continues to play a role in her life. But over the past few years, she has been able to find greater peace within herself and her two cultures. She travels between Hamburg and Lagos: "I don't feel at home anywhere to be honest!" she said, looking out from under her curls with serious, dark eyes. In Nneka's perspective, the most important thing is to feel at home in yourself and never forget that, "life is a journey."

Discover more about Nneka Egbuna and other artists who had to find home in a foreign land inDW's online feature "After the Escape."

You can find the TV documentary on YouTube.

Or watch it directly below:

Documentary: After the Escape - Finding Home in a Foreign Land