AfroPop Fusion Artist and Modern Day Griot Blesses The Afrocipha

My movement is called Fearless Nation. It’s about how you can use Fear to change or motivate you. Because I swear to god, if you’re not scared of something, it might not shake you to do something. You don’t change because you want to change, you change because there’s no other choice.

Some might characterize Naira as a singer-songwriter, others as a film producer, and director. One thing that’s for sure is that Naira’s artistry in 2015 lies at and beyond intersections between various angles of the African Diaspora. Modifying, reinventing, and incorporating Hip Hop, Afrobeat, and Electrosoul into her AfroPop fusion genre, this natural-born storyteller and her ‘Fearless Nation’ of supporters are self-driving new developments in a highly digital, connected, and rapidly evolving world.

Naira has made a wide range of appearances, having been featured on radio platforms such as Sirius FM, BBC Radio, MTV, MTV BaseAfrica, and BET. She has also collaborated with a number of top performing Hip Hop and Afrobeat artists: 2Face Idibia, Banky W, 9th Wonder, Theophilus London and Naeto C to name a few.

The Afrocipha had the opportunity to sit down with Naira for an extended interview following her performance at Afrodreamfest 2015 in Harlem, NYC.  

N = Naira

S = Spady

B = Bajulaiye

S: How does the Afrodreamfest in New York differ from the first one held in Atlanta, Georgia?

N: The first one was a part of a renaissance arts movement in Atlanta, GA. It was to revive the arts, the appreciation of theater and music in Atlanta. At that time I actually was a lead actress in a play; the play was called wedlock of a god.

S: So do you live in Atlanta?

N: I do live in Atlanta. I was born in Miami, I’m of Nigerian heritage

S: First generation?

N: Yes, I’m first generation, yes, yes

S: Where are your parents from?

N: My mom is from Ekiti, and my dad is from Ogbomosho, so we’re Yoruba people

S: How have you maintained Yoruba culture in Atlanta?

N: I think Houston and Atlanta have huge huge Nigerian communities. Everybody actually asks me, ‘oh, you’re American?’ I’m like, no I’m a Nigerian who lives in America. My parents raised me like I was from Nigeria.

S: How did you maintain Nigerian culture in your household?

N: It’s the language. It’s the morale. It’s the intent. It’s the hustle. It’s the religious and spiritual beliefs that permeate everything that you do. That’s how we keep it alive. The language, talking the language of my grandmother. I learned the language in Nigeria. I’ve known it all my life basically.

B: How would you characterize your music?

N: My music is a fusion. We titled it Afropop fusion. So I do Afrobeat. I do Pop music. I do Hip Hop, and I do a little bit of Electrosoul, which you heard in my performance called ‘Put Me On.’

B: It sounded like that last song was something special, to both the audience and to you

N: I don’t know. That’s just the way it’s perceived. It’s a blessing to me as an artist. I feel what I feel. So when I’m in a city I link with somebody like you and say put me on: ‘What’s the dope ish, where are we? In Harlem. What’s to eat? what’s to do? What’s the vibe in Harlem? Show me what it’s like.’

B: Oh wow, yeah uh huh

N: It was crazy! For sure, for sure

B: What were your musical influences growing up?

N: Umm, of course Fela. Fela Kuti. Kenny G. Michael Jackson. Yeah my dad… it’s weird… uh huh Bob Marley. Umm Lauryn Hill, Wu Tang Clan hahaha. Umm who else..

S: Including Ol’ Dirty Bastard as well?

N: O..D..B!!! hahah yeah

S: great voice by the way. He had a great singing voice

N: I like listening to like Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I’m a lover of all kinds of music. Asha..Umm anything, everybody

B: What are you influenced by stylistically? You got like a.. It’s an amazing style. It stands out, you know, like everybody can see it

N: I don’t know, my sister was a designer, and my mom was also a designer. So I guess innately I pull from my lineage, my cloth. The cloth that I was cut from. But I don’t know, I like to represent. If you see me before you understand what I’m doing, you might already have a clue by looking at my attire. I try to rep Africa, West Africa massive, man. You already know, you already know, you should see it

S: All the time right?

N: Yeah everyday

S: Do you keep a journal at all?

N: Oh, wow!!!!

S: I know, I know, I thought you did

N: Strange, no one has ever asked me that..

S: Because essentially, your speaking narrative, and your written narrative deserves an audience just as your singing narrative. You have a story. Not only do you have a story… Did you grow up around Nigerians who told stories?

N: ALL Nigerians are story tellers

S: Oh c’mon, why do you say that?..

N: They would tell you, ‘I wake up in the morning. When I was your age, I never had shoes. You better appreciate shoes.’ I be like, dag, are you serious? I just want a new pair of sneakers.. That’s what my dad would say. He’d give me this whole long story.

S: You have to appreciate that, right?

N: Yeah definitely, my family is definitely Nigerian, they’re all storytellers. That’s actually part of me, like, whether it’s the medium of music or the medium of film, my intent is to tell a story, always

S: It’s one thing to be able to tell a story, but how do you go about your stage craft? Of all the performers tonight, you were very keenly aware of stagecraft.

N: Ahhhh…

S: At what point did you begin to look at that as an important aspect of performance?

N: It’s always..

S: Ah, ah. All the time?

N: Yes, yes, yes. We come to see a performance because we want an experience. And it is my job as the artist to give you that. So I taught myself, alright, create an opportunity to visualize my music. So yeah, for sure

S: You mentioned Lauryn Hill being one of the people important in your development. What is it about Lauryn’s vocality as well as her on stage performance that you have found useful?

N: Sincerity… Sincerity…

S: mmm… Why is that important?

N: That’s why music can transcend language, because of sincerity. We don’t have to understand what you’re saying, but if we can feel that you’re feeling what you’re saying, I can connect with you. You can speak Swahili, you can speak Portuguese for God sakes and I can connect with you. I can feel whatever you’re feeling, so sincerity. If I wasn’t feeling my music on stage you would know. Today I was having fun.

S: How long have you been journaling?

N: I don’t actively keep a journal. But it was a gift that was maybe two years old. Somebody said, ‘write it down. Write your dreams down. Write your thoughts down.’

S: Wait, wait, wait a minute

N: Yes hahah I have very vivid dreams

S: How vivid are your dreams, do you remember them days later or just went you wake up?

N: Almost always the day I wake up. Very lucid dreams I have. They’re very real. I was told to write them down, to read them, maybe I can find something in them.

S: What do you think is the power of these dreams?

N: I swear I want to know. I don’t know. I’ve had some really crazy dreams, like God are you trying to tell me something? hahah

S: Keeping on that track, you have a writer’s side to you. You can write, aside from just journaling, right?

N: Yeah

S: You need to write a book

N: Film, music. I write for others, yeah

S: You do it already?

N: Yeah

S: You do film scripts?

N: yeah, I’m a filmmaker slash producer

S: No kidding

N: yeah

S: So what particular projects are in store?

N: Ahhh, I’m glad you asked. I’m working on a web-series. Umm, It’s called drifting apart. It’s pretty much an exploration of culture, like I’m saying like, growing up as a Nigerian American, and having other nationality friends whether they’re Russian or American or what not. And how those differences tend to pull people apart, and actually sometimes they also bring people closer because if you have a shared experience it makes you connect. But yeah. So that’s that. I’ll be shooting that in the next couple of months. I’ve finished the script.

S: Where are you shooting it?

N: Atlanta. Yeah..

S: And this is your first feature film?

N: This is my first web series. As an actor I’ve done maybe a year and a half. I did a film and I did the soundtrack for that film. And before that I’ve done different stuff film and stage wise, theater..

S: so you majored in film?

N: I did not, I did not. I’m a Nigerian, so you know your Nigerian parents will tell you ‘you’re not a doctor? I will disown you’ hahah

S: hahah are they serious? Are they serious when they say that?

B: ‘Who do you want to act for?!’ haha  

N: ‘Who are you acting for?! Leave this stupid music!’ Yup, the song I did yesterday is called dream killers, and in the first verse I say, ‘I got some good school and my parents told me to use it, forget about the music, but I should pursue it, everybody has a dream that they didn’t live out, and I don’t want to be haunted just because you got doubts. Doubts, Your doubts are like anthrax clouds. Whatever happened to put your mind to something you’ll succeed, all I need is your support, not you killing my dreams.’ So Yeah, my parents were not feeling music.

S: So how did you persist?

N: I don’t know I couldn’t shake it. And eventually when they got stopped in the street, they’re like ‘oh you’re Naira’s mom!!’

S: ahhh they got proud of you then hahah

N: Yeah like, ‘That’s my baby!! That’s my baby, now! Did you hear her new album??’

S: And they happen to have your cd right in the back of your car

N: You better know it, you better know

B: Is there a specific avenue that you prefer the most?

N: Nahhh I don’t prefer one over the other

S: It’s not an either or thing for you

N: It’s almost symbiotic. The music for the web series, the chorus, you know, I Tyler Perry’d that bitch. I want to have a hand in it, you know what I mean? So I love it all. I’m a film lover, I’m a filmmaker. I’m a music lover, I’m a music maker

S: What was the film that most impacted you?

N: Heyyy you not gon ask me that question!! I’m not gonna let you do it! I’m not gonna let you do it!

S: There’s some reason why those affected you that way N: Ohh that’s too hard. I mean I watch films everyday. Coming to America was a hilarious movie. I love the cinematography. I love the script. I love the costuming. There was a biopic about a historical person in Nigerian culture, his name is Sango [Shango]. And it was a film. Man, if you guys can find it at your local library or somewhere..

S: And what was it called, Sango?

N: Sango. Sango was epic. I just never expected a Nigerian, it was completely yoruba. Like, I was stunned. S-A-N-G-O. Sango. He’s the god of thunder and lightning or something like that. But yeah, just the way the film was shot, the way the story was told, it just blew me away. I was a kid and I still remember it till this day.

S: Slow paced, or fast paced, the narrative?

N: It was action; it was on some shape shifting stuff. It was crazy. But the story itself, you know, like folklore. I mean we’ve watched 300 and all this other stuff. We have our own 300. Yes, check it out. The myth and the legend, Sango

S: It seems from listening to you the web series is one aspect of this visual media project that you envision. So I’m trying to get a sense…

B: On a broader scale.. on a broader scale…

S: Right right..

N: hahah you guys are clairvoyant

B: It sounds like there’s something you’re looking to build on a broader scale. Can you talk a little bit about that?

S: What do you envision?

N: Like I said you guys are clairvoyant. I’ve done music videos for other people and myself. I’ve done commercials. But I haven’t done a feature length film. And I didn’t feel like I could do it justice without practice. Without the experience. So that’s why I’m doing a web series. Because I need the practice. I need the exposure to handling a cast for longer than two days, a script for longer than two days, schedules and finances for longer than two days. So that’s what this is, a practice for a feature length.

S: You need the handle and experience, so when you do the larger one, the hour and a half one, you already have it in the bag, you know what I mean?

N: You know it!

S: Do you prefer shorter or longer feature films?

N: My YouTube is TheNAIRAExperience. Everyone that’s ever watched my videos or that I’ve done a video for has said, ‘we love you because you’re a storyteller, there’s always something in your video that’s beyond the song.’ So as far as that goes, yeah, I don’t know. It’s just a part of me and I bring that to everything that I do.

S: And you talk about it in society, about almost having a mélange of Afrobeat and Hip Hop. And even — not musically — but there’s an aspect of garage. I don’t know if you’ve looked at UK garage at all.

N: Really..?

S: Yeah, there’s an aspect of garage, it doesn’t come out in the lyrics, but in the performative aspects of it. It’s crazy to me, I watched that performance on stage. How do you see the relationship between Hip Hop and Afrobeat?

N: Oh that’s easy..

S: Tell me how?

N: I think that.. 2012-2015 Afrobeat is a proliferation of what Fela Kuti started. And what people like Wizkid, or Davido, or Naira, or anybody that’s doing music in the diaspora of West Africa, that’s what we’re doing. We put our own little twist to it, whether it’s Hip Hop or a Reggae feel to it. That’s what it is now… It’s not even Afrobeat it’s Afrobeats, with an S.

S: Plural, yes

N: Uh huh. Yeah actually ‘Put Me On,’ the producer of the B side, which was the part that everybody was jamming to, he’s from London

N: So the garage element…

S: So that’s the garage thing

N: That’s right. That’s where you’re getting it. Like I said, you’re clairvoyant.

S: Aside from the full-length feature you have in mind, you seem to have already a vision of what impact you want to have and the way you want to bring these various communities together. What would you like your film and music work to do to have all of them in conversation, the Atlantan and the Nigerian? I’m sort of wondering, how does your music, your performance, act in conversation with a Jeezy for instance, or an Akon when he’s with Jeezy. I’m trying to get a sense of how you see these things, this new world…

B: coming together..

S: Because you’re really on the precipice of a whole new thing that Americans will soon see that is happening. But you already see it. So what do you want to attribute to that?

N: I see myself as the intersection

S: A crossroads..

N: yes, of music and film, of Nigeria and America. Or the south, and the far far far far West, you know what I mean? My movement is called Fearless Nation. It’s about how you can use Fear to change or fear to motivate you. Because I swear to god, if you’re not scared of something, it might not shake you to do something. You don’t change because you want to change, you change because there’s no other choice. And I feel like instead of Fear… Fear used to cripple me. And instead of allowing fear to cripple me, I want fear to empower me. I want fear to empower you. Because low key that’s what it does. I don’t want anybody in a corner somewhere looking at life and their challenges, and be overshadowed or overcome by them, nah, nah, nah. Recognize that it’s a blessing and opportunity to grit your teeth, to change your path, change your whole life. Paradigm shifting. That’s what I do. That’s my mantra. Fearless. I gotta be fearless.

S: How do you get over being immobilized by fear?

N: It’s optimism. There are some things you can change, there are some things you can’t do a thing about. So why worry? We stress about stuff that we cannot control or change, why? Lets do something about the things that we can control. Whether it be society at large, YES racism exists, but lets not even stop there. Don’t stop at the intersection. Lets keep going. What else can we do? What else can we change? Instead of marching, lets do other things. Lets mobilize our finances, and our intellect, and our creativity and do something. Don’t just march for no reason. You feel me?

S: I’m thinking about Adichie when I think about you. But the way in which you guys construct America in her novels, and in your speech acts, are very different. I mean you’re both in America.

N: Chimamanda you mean

S: Right right, I just gave the last name

N: Yes you did, yes you did, I heard it, but I said let me make sure

S: It’s a privilege that males have in Nigeria more than females. You know, it’s okay to use the last name with Achebe? You know what I’m saying?

N: Oh it’s fine, its fine

S: It’s all about reversing roles and privileges. Privileges that males have that females don’t have. You both are living in a place with Nigerian heritage all around your head. Maybe because you’re in the south, and she’s farther north. I wonder how your vision is at variance with, or how do you see yourself reflected in her novels?

N: So the only novel of hers that I read is ‘Half Of A Yellow Sun.’ Prolific book, prolific mind, prolific author. So I don’t think that I differ.. I haven’t read Americanah and some of her newest work. But I think I am in congruence with her mindset.

S: Reading her novel that addresses the Biafra war..

N: Yesss!

S: How does that resonate with you as a Yoruba woman?

N: It’s so real. I think there was a doctor in America or somewhere. It’s tribalism. Where we think we’re different, or we think we’re better than, when we’re really just cousins, brothers, uncles, father, mothers, and grandmothers, or something. I think that sometimes we’re more comfortable with our differences, you know what I mean? Because we can layout our differences and we can write them down. We think that they’re real. But if a white person meets someone from Nigeria, you sound a lil’ different, they don’t care what tribe you’re from. You’re all one thing.

Naira is gearing up to soon announce the details of her new EP and short film, scheduled for release before the end of the year. You can follow Naira and her Fearless Nation on Twitter @iamnaira

© James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015