Thirty-five minutes long, and full of sound, My Fairy Tales, Nneka’s fifth album, is the best demonstration that true quality music can easily make its way to success even if it breaks some of the industry’s rules.
“It’s been a few years since I released my last album [Soul Is Heavy, 2012] – the Nigerian-born singer declared when she launched her latest work – the record company wasn’t necessarily ready to release a full album because of timing, so I decided to release this project myself”: something she eventually did through her newly founded music label, Bushqueen Music.
‘Project’ is a word Nneka uses frequently, when referring to My Fairy Tales, not only because of its length (which is quite unusual for an album) but also for the vision that lies behind it. “I believe it can help a lot of people, especially with what is happening in Nigeria right now,” she also said. “I think many Africans – she added – both at home and in the diaspora can identify with what I’m talking about on this album, and I know many women can relate to it too. It’s just like writing a book or painting a picture and knowing that people will appreciate it, regardless of how well it does commercially”. The desire of recording an album which could appeal to Nigerians both at home and abroad should not surprise, given Nneka’s background: born in Warri to a Nigerian father and a German mother, she moved to Europe when she was only 19, where she studied anthropology at Hamburg University, and this wide range of influences is also evident in the sound of her ‘project’.
Marking in some way a departure from the hip-hop sound of her previous albums, My Fairy Tales mixes reggae with highlife, afrobeat and various other African music genres. In principle, not something which may be automatically appealing to the music industry which acclaimed Nneka in other occasions (in 2008 her single Heartbeat entered the UK top-twenty in 2008, and was sampled by Rita Ora in her song R.I.P.), but the 34-year old Nigerian decided to take the risk. “I know that this isn’t a very commercial project. I don’t have a pop song on this album or a track that would be considered radio-friendly – she explained – but it was like a child; I just wanted to get it out!”.
The personal, emotional involvement of the singer with her work is also demonstrated by the lyrics of the nine tracks. Even if they cannot be defined as totally autobiographic, they deal with themes the public can identify with, but which are also deeply rooted in the artist’s personal experience: especially in her longing for the country where she spent her childhood and in the contrast she sees between her roots and the society she lives in currently. “I’ve felt what many Africans also feel when they are asked to be ‘different’ in order to make money. At present, the hand which feeds me comes from Europe. I like it, but it also irritates me”.
The increasingly bad influence Western culture has on Africa – especially in the cities – is also one of the themes of My Fairy Tales, especially in Local Champion, which stigmatizes neo-colonialism leading to the loss of African identities. This is not the only political theme Nneka addresses throughout the album, also talking about corruption and even the Boko Haram terror attacks. “What is happening in Africa at present concerns me a lot – she told CNN during an interview – Boko Haram has always been an issue, obviously, for the past five, six years: there’s a track in the album, called Pray For You, which I recorded when not too many people knew what was going on with Boko Haram in the West”. This same song, in which Nneka blames the ‘miserable soul’ of those who are destroying her country but does not stop praying even for them, is also an example of another recurring theme in the album: faith. In various tracks (Book of Job, Babylon, Surprise) the singer uses biblical references and makes clear how much they matter to her, also in the light of the Rastafarian culture which connected such imagery with the fight against injustice and for the rights of minorities. Religion is an essential part of Nneka’s life (“Maybe the only place where I feel safe is in God and in myself”, she once said) but also of her artistic journey and My Fairy Tales is a perfect expression of that. It is not a ‘spiritual’ album, nor anything similar, nevertheless faith is an essential part of that mix of unfaltering beliefs and feelings that make listening to this ‘project’ a worthwhile experience.