1am, Beauty Bar/Palm Door


Ask Nneka, a 25-year-old singer and freestyle rapper from Nigeria about her influences, and one name stands above all others: her countryman Fela Kuti.

"Fela is dead, but his message still talks to people," offers Nneka, her cell phone crackling with car horns and loud voices in the African night.

Interest in the late Afrobeat pioneer, jailed repeatedly through his career, has been sparked by a new Broadway musical, Fela!, not to mention the work of Antibalas and Austin's Ocote Soul Sounds. For Nneka, growing up in Warri, in the oppressive shadow of oil industry, Fela was a true hero, her faith complete: "If not me, someone else will spread his message."

Nneka has her own message, as well as her own swinging global style. Like Lauryn Hill, she combines hip-hop, reggae, and R&B. A striking young woman, she's pointed in her dim view of the oil economy and her concerns about Nigeria's struggle to reform. She's also been tireless in her commemoration of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the reporter and activist who was killed by Nigeria's junta in 1995. "I am a Nigerian who is global," she says. "If I did not make music, at the end of the day, I don't think that I could make a change."

Her musical journey has been circuitous. After moving to Germany to attend university (her mother is German), Nneka, at 19, discovered club life. In 2005, she dropped the devastating No Longer at Ease (Four/Yo Mama) in Europe, its title taken from Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Nneka just released her U.S. debut, Concrete Jungle (Decon Inc.), and plays Lillith Fair this summer, but she's not sweating fame.

"I'm just doing my music," Nneka says. "It's not about breaking into the charts. It's something I do with my heart. The minute I'm doing it for money is the minute I stop."

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