Nneka - Scala, London
The Scala is buzzing tonight as the slightly damp crowd filter in from a drizzly King's Cross to see Nigerian/German activist and vocalist Nneka share her thoughts on the state of the world. Before we get into the heavy stuff though, we are treated to a short support slot from up and coming singer-singwriter Seye (or “eyes” written backwards as he keeps reminding us). Fresh off tour with Emeli Sandé, Seye -pronounced “Cher”- keeps spirits high with his ska-tinged electric guitar led tunes. Banter between songs and a dedication to Beyoncé make the crowd putty in his hand as he wraps up.
Half an hour later, anticipation is bubbling over as the crowd wait for the petite frontwoman to take to the stage, her backing band building up a silky smooth groove for the excitable audience. She appears to cheers and clapping, which fail to remove the scowl from her face as she eyeballs the entire crowd. It takes three songs for Nneka to emit something which nearly resembles a smile, but her stern stance in the face of adulation makes for a strong stage presence. She calls her followers to battle, howling ‘Wake up and stop sleeping! Wake up Africa!’ against the pulsating channel of noise of ‘Africans‘. Her unsettling glare and poignant hand gestures convert her petite frame into the largest shadow in the room.
Set highlight comes in the form of ‘Lucifer (No Doubt), a throbbing hurricane of energy that pounds throughout the entire crowd as Nneka hurls her tiny figure across the stage with genuine dynamism. She is like a pent up can of Red Bull - not that she’d approve of the comparison to a corporation of that scale. The underlying political message tonight is what makes her performance so captivating. Between songs she explains that she is not a very good communicator, which is far from the truth - her ability to give a speech is mesmerising. ‘VIP’ is the boiling point for her political activism, explaining that the song (aptly it stands for ‘Vagabonds in Power’) is about corruption and injustice with an emphasis on the current oil crisis in Nigeria. It’s an educational process, as her music carries the message powerfully without seeming forceful. If anything Nneka is giving us food for thought to make our own minds up.
Nneka’s work is clearly inspired by dark places, as she narrates in her soulful tones that she is ‘disappointed in me now’ against a funky bass heavy tempo. If it sounds all too serious, it’s not. Yes, at times you feel seriously pissed off at the state of the world, but regardless the whole room is moving to the rhythm. At one point the miniature front woman takes to a cajon in an improvised drum off with her lead percussionist, and there is even a giggle shared between the two of them. Nobody is self-conscious as limbs flail and bodies sway and the music brings a sense of tranquillity to the room (even if it is a loud one).
Tonight, Nneka uses her position on stage as a platform to raise awareness of issues close to her heart. From a musical perspective, her passion for her country and the people provide ample enthusiasm to create an enthralling and aurally diverse performance. Words flung around from the crowd as we filter out from the Scala range from ‘inspiring’ and ‘enlightening’ through to ‘voice of our generation’. The accessibility of her R’n’B tinged sound encourages the younger people in the audience to really listen to her message, which can only be a good thing. Regardless of whether you approve of her political stance, Nneka is one of the most intelligent and most of all, relevant performers you are likely to listen to anytime soon.