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Singer Nneka tells world of love and injustice in Nigeria

From Isha Sesay, CNN
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Nneka on injustice in Africa
  • Nneka's singing career started when she moved to Germany to study
  • She has released her debut album in America this year
  • Nneka's songs tell of injustice in her native Niger Delta

(CNN) -- It is a long journey from the Niger Delta to the concert halls of the United States, but it is one that Nneka is taking in her stride.

Nneka is a Nigerian singer songwriter who is making her name on the world stage and earlier this year released her debut album and tour in the U.S.

At 28, Nneka is a relative newcomer to music. She has only been singing for around five years, but has wasted no time in winning over both fans and critics.

Last year, she won a prestigious MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Award in the UK for Best African Act.

Her work combines soul, hip hop, reggae and African music, but the lyrics have an unashamedly Nigerian tone, covering -- among her themes -- injustice in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

If you speak about corruption or hypocrisy of religious leaders, people don't want to hear that.
  • Nigeria
  • World Music
  • Germany
  • Niger Delta

"My music is very versatile, very mixed. I have different influences: afro beats, hip hop, reggae, raga, soul, hip hop, a little bit of rock, and of course the indigenous African or Nigerian influence," she told CNN.

Nneka grew up in the city of Warri in the Niger Delta with a Nigerian father and German mother. She went to university in the German city of Hamburg and it was there that her singing career took off.

She told CNN, "When I went to Germany and being in a place where you have no connection, you are confronted in a totally different culture, tradition, mentality.

"You're here on your own, you need to function and that's where music came in," she continued.

It didn't take long for her voice to make an impression in Germany, and she began touring Europe and releasing albums while still at university.

In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper last year, Nneka said: "In Nigeria, if you say you're a singer, people say, 'So what? Everyone sings.' In Germany, my voice stood out more."

This year, Nneka is touring the United States for the first time, playing venues such as the Los Angeles Troubadour, a West Hollywood club played by Elton John and James Taylor early in their careers.

She has been chosen by American rapper Nas and Jamaican reggae star Damian Marley to join them on their Distant Relatives tour.

"It's not just a tour about entertainment or music alone but about connecting people around the world and making us understand that we're all part of that one entity, which is love," Nneka told CNN. "And I'm happy that I'm the person they chose to represent Africa, which is a big opportunity."

While Nneka is captivating audiences around the world, it is playing in her native Nigeria which is most rewarding -- but also risky -- for her because of the political content of her lyrics.

She said: "I must say I feel responsible for my people. People who might not have the courage to stand up or the opportunity to stand up and speak about things that are very delicate and that people do not want to hear.

"People can identify," she explained, "But at the same time, there are a lot of people, especially the government, who have problems with my speaking my mind or the mind of many.

"If you speak about the exploitation in the Delta, nobody wants to hear that," she continued. "If you speak about corruption or hypocrisy of religious leaders, people don't want to hear those things."

Nneka gives some hint of the background to her passionate lyrics when she describes her upbringing in Warri.

"You can imagine what kind of condition that may be, growing up around pipelines, growing up around people who are very agitated and fighting for their rights, human and civil rights," she told CNN.

"But you know, despite that chaos and the agitation, people still are able to feel comfort and peace within the madness," she continued. "That is actually what has triggered me into going into music and doing music the way I do it."

She does, however, feel hope for the future in her country.

"I noticed that many people are becoming more conscious of their surroundings and more conscious of investing their money in proper institutions and infrastructure," she said.

"So it's like we're getting there, but it's taking time. It will take generations to make the people of Nigeria also understand that it is not just the leaders alone that have to take responsibility, but we ourselves."