American artists have often found a particularly welcoming audience throughout Europe. From early Jazz performers in the first half of the 20th century to independent Hip Hop artists in the 1990's, it's often the case that non-charting musicians support their craft on the international circuit. While Hip Hop artist Akua Naruis adamant that Cologne, Germany is just a base for her meandering travels and an incessant tour schedule, there's no doubt she has benefited from that musical base.
In 2011 Naru released her debut album, The Journey Aflame, on German-based Jakarta recordsand followed up with a live-band interpretation of many of its songs the next year with Live & Aflame Sessions. Currently working on her next project, which will feature a special guest in the form of famed drummer Bernard Purdie, Akua took some time to speak with Project Inkblot about her perspective as a writer, a recent confrontation on the road and Hip Hop's global relevance.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is your being an American artist based in Europe, can you talk about how that lends itself to a different perspective or set of opportunities?
Of course it’s a bit different here, there are a lot of opportunities for artists to tour in Europe, I would say on a much larger scale. People here are willing to support artists that are not signed to major record labels, they just gotta like the music, you know? And I think that this is the reason why a lot of artists in the states [that] might have had a record out ten or fifteen years ago know that they can come to Europe and do really well just performing in different cities country to country. And in many ways it’s been great just travelling city to city and performing. I mean in terms of where I’m based, I don’t know if it really matters, I like Cologne a lot but I travel a lot. So it’s just that, it’s a base and because I’m here I’m able to be in other places [as well].
This may be a loaded question, but going to a place like Zimbabwe or going to Amman, what’s it like going to these places where a lot of Hip Hop artists don’t end up touring?
I mean, each place is different. It’s really great, it really continues to bring to my attention how amazing Hip Hop is. Like, I’ve been places where I’ve seen people where you would think there was no point of connection, they might be older or younger or they look totally different or they speak a different language, but they could rap the same song that I love, whatever song it is. Breakers, poppers, lockers, graffiti artists. I was in India a few months ago and I was teaching some Hip Hop workshops and I also gave a few performances, and just to see, you know, just to work with these women on writing their own rhymes and telling their stories. To see how they came into the workshop and the kind of performances they delivered as we were leaving this workshop, it’s just amazing.
Who would have thought that Hip Hop would have become so global? When Erykah Badu said it’s bigger than the government, in many ways she’s right. It’s really great, it’s powerful, it’s amazing to see how this culture has given voice to so many people, and to be able to connect with these people in their space, in their world and to be able to share my gift, it’s a dream-come-true for me. And it’s one that I don’t take lightly. It’s the grace of God, there is no way to describe how it feels. And also I think to represent the women in Hip Hop it makes it even more powerful.
I think it’s kind of a tired topic at this point to think about the lack of female emcee’s and maybe that’s because that’s a conversation that needs to emphasize the exposure of female emcees rather than the lack of them.
You’re right, it’s not about the lack of women but about the kinds of exposure that women Hip Hop artists are given, that’s really a good point.
I read that you and your band were recently confronted by a group of people in Romania, can you explain what happened?
It was in Hungary. Well actually the show was in a city called Cluj in Romania and it was awesome, we sold the place out, I think the maximum capacity was a thousand and they let in an extra 350 people, a lot of them had come a distance to come to the concert. I was really honored, it’s a great feeling to be an artist and to know that people are listening and will go to that extent to see you live. Like what else could you [ask for] as an artist? So I was already on a high from that and we were on our way back and, like I mentioned, we had stopped in Hungary in a rest area and I didn’t realize that we were being confronted by Nazi’s. I mean, these were people that seemed to be aggressive and they were chanting something that I didn’t understand. But I had just thought that they were celebrating a soccer match because you know people over here go crazy over soccer, so I just didn’t think twice about it although when we rolled up the way that they looked at me was kind of strange but my head was somewhere else, I wasn’t thinking about it.
And then as the situation started to unfold—you know I’m from the States, I remember growing up and seeing the Ku Klux Klan assembling outside of a supermarket, but I didn’t grow up where we were familiar with the whole Nazi language, of course they have the same premise that skinheads and the Klan [do], I mean, you know they operate from the same foundation. Some of the gestures [and] some of the language they use to hurt and to threaten and to imitate, it was foreign to me, I didn’t know that that’s what they were doing, I didn’t get it until a few minutes later when the people who I was with had made me aware of what they were trying to do and then it was really clear because they started to come to stand outside of the glass and started staring through the window. It was very clear then of course what their problem was and they wanted to aggress some of the people I was with.
And it was just—you know as much as I would like to say it didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t be telling the truth and it’s important for me to be honest. Normally I wouldn’t post anything personal online but I thought about it for a few days and thought 'no, let me share this experience that happened to me' because a lot of people are in denial of very explicit and obvious situations like that so of course they’re going to be in denial of racist incidents that are a bit more subtle. Yeah, I was really hurt by that. It’s obvious that we can’t go anywhere that we want to go. And as the situation escalated I wondered if the police would have supported us and to what extent with the story that I’m telling. So I’m grateful that we were able to get out of there without it turning into something more.
I think it speaks to the fact that the work that you and other musicians and academics do is still incredibly important.
Absolutely, whether or not this situation happened or not, you know what I mean? There are definitely instances that happen everyday, some not as extreme as that one, that reveal to us that we have a lot more work to do and that make me grateful to know that there are people in the world—there are musicians and some scholars—who are trying to make changes, that are trying to forge social justice in institutional change and it’s definitely necessary, it’s urgent and it’s important. I wasn’t really shocked unfortunately. We don’t live in a world where we’ve accomplished as much as we would like to think we have, we got a lot of work to do. So I wasn’t really surprised, I was hurt by it to be honest, but I know that there are a lot of fascist movements and there are a lot of people who don’t want progress.
Is that something that motivates your writing?
To be honest, I’m just writing. Of course I’m a Black woman, me being a woman and me being a Black woman has a lot to do with my identity and how I see the world and that comes across in my writing and in my message, my perspective and my ways of thinking [about] and being in the world, absolutely. I don’t know if I’m positioning myself, I’m not sure—I would have to think about it—I’m just writing what’s important to me and addressing issues that are important to me first.
And I guess that in me understanding that these issues are important to me they’re important for me to communicate for myself for other people who identify as I [do] might relate, and people who don’t might relate as well. That’s the beauty of creating art, it reminds us that we’re human, you know? And that we see ourselves in other people’s work. To your question, I’d have to think about how I’m framing myself, I don’t know if I’ve yet built a frame, you know. When I sit down and say iI want to write this,' I’m just interested in writing and communicating something first, I’m not meta-analyzing in the moment that I’m creating.
Hearing you talk about it and in your music it’s obvious that you really love writing.
Absolutely. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. If you let my mother tell you she’d tell you, I don’t know how I learned to read, I’ve always had just a natural love for reading, writing and literature. For as far back as I can recall, having memories, recalling events, they always involve me writing, reciting, recollecting, you know, and just putting it down. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I hope that I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life because it’s something that brings me great joy.
Well leading from there, you’re working on some new material. I guess you were working with Bernard Purdie in the studio, that’s crazy. So can you talk a little about what you’re working on and then just having the opportunity to work with people like Bernard Purdie or Angelique Kidjo or ?uestlove?
To answer that question, it’s very short, it’s a great, great honor. To me as a poet, as a writer, sometimes it’s difficult for me when I have to accept that I don’t have the words to describe something, it hurts, but I don’t have the words to describe that. All I can settle for is to say that it’s an honor and I’m really grateful, I thank God. It’s an honor to be able to create and work with people that are legendary, amazing artists, it’s a great honor.
To answer your question about Purdie, I’m working on my new album and he is a special guest and I’m very happy about that. So that’s what that’s about basically. It’s awesome.
I think some people will see Bernard Purdie and get excited immediately and others may not know him but will be able to appreciate the work that he’ll provide.
And I think that the people that don’t know him, they’re not conscious of it but they do know him, they’ve heard him, you know what I mean? If you listen to “O.P.P.” [by] Naughty By Nature or I could write a list of tracks where his beats, his drums were sampled, if you listen to Hip Hop music, you have heard him. So maybe they’re not conscious of knowing him but they do know. He’s a legend.
Your last album was really centered around the live music and interpolating some of those tracks for a live band, I would guess that the new album is going to feature the band as well?
I can’t tell you too much Jay [laughs]. Well I’ll just say for myself as a writer that you can be sure that the narrative is still going to be progressive, political, honest. Musically, it’s going to be Hip Hop of course. There are going to be some live elements as well, I’ll just say that. It’s definitely not going to be that when you listen to the album you’re going to think 'what?' You know, it’s kind of just like the next logical step. But definitely there will be some live influences on the album.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, I know you’re busy and in a different time-zone, so obviously we’ll be looking forward to the new album, whatever approach you’re taking with it.
Thank you for listening, it really is a great honor to know that people are listening because when I sit down and write I’m not thinking about the people, not to sound selfish, but when I sit down and write I think first about myself and being honest and true to the story that I need to expel and it’s about me first. And to know that when I’m being my most honest I could connect to people and that this could be a story of truth for other people, that’s a great honor. Just to know that people are listening, paying attention and following, that’s the highest compliment for an artist and I really appreciate you for that.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter.