A show by Nneka isn’t just an introduction to her heartfelt brand of soul music. It’s also a crash course in world affairs, the realities of living in an oil-rich nation, and in Nigerian politics. Nneka took the stage at the Double Door in front of a diverse crowd and wowed everyone with her impassioned blend of R&B, soul, rap, and everything in between.
Though she’s just beginning to make a name for herself here in the United States — her first US album, Concrete Jungle, was just released this month — she’s already made a name for herself in Europe and, of course, in her homeland of Nigeria. Her first album, Victim of Truth, was released in 2005, with a followup in 2008. (Concrete Jungle is a compilation of these first two albums.) Her stop in Chicago was the last night of a tour which took her through major US markets and included a stop off in New York to make her late-night TV debut, giving an impressive showing on Late Night with David Letterman.
Local performer Jerome Holloway gave it his best against a noisy crowd, even thanking at one time the people who were paying attention to him. His music was more of the folk singer-songwriter sort — his voice sort of reminded me of Ray LaMontagne — and maybe not the best fit for a crowd there to see a more beat-heavy R&B performance. He’s certainly someone whose music I hope to hear more of in the future, however. His songs were quiet and at times romantic, thematically appropriate for Valentine’s Day, even if they were romantic songs of the broken hearts variety.
After an incredibly bass-heavy set from DJ Sean Alvarez (no, I’m serious; I’ve heard a lot of loud music, but this was so loud that it was almost physically painful, though for that I think the fault rests with the people at the soundboard rather than the DJ), Nneka’s band emerged, followed by the petite singer herself, clad in a sweatshirt boldly asserting “Africa is the Future”. She launched into a solid set of tunes, drawing largely from Concrete Jungle. The crowd adored her, screaming wildly when she entered and dancing on the floor throughout the set.
Taking a break midway through her set, Nneka talked about her homeland to educate this American crowd and to show just what it is that moves her to write and perform her music. Her words often come from a place of great sorrow for the corruption and poverty that she sees in her homeland, and at times she seemed nearly overcome by the great emotion inside of her. But Nneka’s show is also one of joy, celebrating life, love, spirituality, and all that is good in the world. Despite the serious moments, the young singer was often all smiles as she performed. Song selections included “Heartbeat”, with an extended ballad-type intro, “The Uncomfortable Truth”, an acoustic version of “Come With Me”, “Kangpe”, “Focus”, and “God of Mercy”. She also threw in a cover of Fela Kuti’s “VIP”, which in this case stands for Vagabonds in Power. This Midwestern crowd may have needed a lesson on timing when asked to sing along, but what the audience lacked in beat, they made up for in boisterousness.
What Nneka should be most proud of, however, is that after her show, people weren’t just talking about her songs or her performance. As I was winding my way out of the Double Door and walking down Milwaukee, I heard people talking — about Africa, about Nigeria, about wanting to learn more. It’s easy to talk big but not take action, but if just a handful of those people who walked out of that show wanting to educate themselves wind up doing so — well, that’s how a difference is made in the world.