Asa’s earliest memory was singing through the painful hours it took her mum to braid her hair for school when she was little. As a child, Bukola Elemide (her birth name) had realised the power of music to exorcise pain and disillusionment. And she never let go of that knowledge. “The recollection that stands out the most is that I was constantly singing, that was all I did. My parents often scolded me for it.” Of course it must not have helped that her father, a cinematographer, had an eclectic collection in his audio library. Asa cut her musical teeth listening to Juju, Apala, Blues, Afro beat, and Raggae; trying them out and gradually forming her own musical sense from these influences.
Born in France, Asa moved to Nigeria at age two, living in several places before finally settling in Lagos. She chalks her peripatetic life to “decisions that your parents make and you just follow.” She did eventually finish her secondary education at Federal Government College, Jos.
Growing up in Nigeria is not one of happy reminisces for the musician who was the only female of four children. “It is normal for an African girl to take up the mother role; you are trained to be responsible. But I am a free soul, and I spent a long time fighting for freedom.” Asa’s need to break out of the mould resulted in an insularity which she is now only coming to terms with. “Asa has just grown; I missed out when I was a teen because I was so into my own world,” she says.
She ultimately attained her long-sought freedom when her parents endorsed her decision to relocate to coastal Badagry, on the outskirts of Lagos State, to study music. This time, she says, was six months well spent mastering the guitar. With the hindsight of two successful albums, and a number of international nominations and awards including the 2008 Prix Constantin for French new talent, Asa sees her Nigerian upbringing as the inspiration for her musical success. “I learnt morals and a compassion that I would not have had growing up in Europe. In Nigeria, you learn to improvise, to become a survivor. My family went through phases of tough times, Nigeria toughens you that way. You learn to think.”
Evolution between albums
Asa’s debut image may have positioned her as Bob-Marley and Tracy Chapman rolled into a youthful, contemporary whole, but with her sophomore album, she appears to have embraced a more feminine and optimistic sense of style and music. This, she explains as a change in mindset: “While composing my first album, I was like an angry teen; I wanted to talk about so many disappointments without seeing it from the world’s point of view. I was an angry person who did not understand why things were the way they were.
Having said all that I had to say in my first album, I now am less burdened; and with ‘Beautiful Imperfection’, I am speaking from the point of view of a woman who has experienced life. I have a renewed sense of self and I know that there’s room for negotiation. I just wanted to be happy and uplift people with my music.” Blood red nails, a carefully made-up face, coiffed dreadlocks and form-fitting attire are a further reflection of this change in outlook. Especially for a musician whose national appeal had – besides her soul searching lyrics – had a lot to gain by her eschewing of a feminine flamboyance in favour of a more staid, if unconventional, appearance.
Asa’s anger, however, still targets naysayers, who peddle untruths about her. Speaking on a recent libel suit she launched against a media company, which had sought to query her sexuality and relationship her with her best friend and manager of eight years, she exhibits a contemplative equivocation. “I did sue them. People do not watch their mouths, and it’s especially horrible when it is not true. But with these situations, you never know if it’s the right thing to do.”
While still largely cut from the same poignant socio-political criticism mould of her self-titled debut, she softens things up in ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ with pop track ‘Be My Man’, admitting a more sensitive side that she now thinks she is “mature enough to explore”. “My favourite movie is ‘Pretty Woman’. There is something vulnerable about a woman who finds her Prince Charming. I’m still cheesy that way,” she laughs self-effacingly.
Asa’s musical identity is inspired by her native Yoruba word for ‘hawk’; and one would think that the young musician who punctuates the interview with native proverbs, and whose songs (particularly Awe from her debut) are a wonderful employment of native Yoruba idiom, would be one to boast a remarkable knowledge of the language; but she reveals, “I don’t speak Yoruba as well as I sing it; most of my childhood we were spoken to in English, and in school punished for speaking vernacular. I think that was one of the biggest mistakes our parents made.”
The single-mindedness that Asa shares with the avian inspiration for her name informed a decision to return to the European country of her birth in 2006 for musical opportunities which she felt she had exhausted. “Nigeria is a wonderful place to acquire inspiration but pursuing an individual definition of success is difficult back home. There’s a close-mindedness concerning what constitutes success.” If she had done as the society had deemed propitious, she would have kept pace with her mates, attended university and perhaps gotten a job hustling the nine to five. “Our parents have brainwashed us with the belief that success is a direct result of education.” She sings ‘bata mi a dun koko ka’, a yoruba pedagogical rhyme, to illustrate this. Nigeria is no doubt one great music export richer for Asa’s refusal to be judged by society’s standards.
Her remarkable debut and sophomore albums have been internationally certified platinum and gold respectively; the latter since its release in October, 2010. Nominated for Best Female Act at Victoires de la Musique (French Music Awards); the young guitar-wielding musician recently thrilled the British media to a performance showcase as part of her on-going tour of Europe.
These among other international recognitions are more than enough proof that the world needs a paradigm shift. “Besides,” says the diminutive 28-year-old who has worked extensively with producer Cobhams Asuquo and collaborated with Nigerian rappers like 9ice and Naeto C, “travelling the world and trying out restaurants in the countries I visit is so much fun, even if my band and I have been on the bus, camping out on tiny bunk beds all week.” Asa will be performing on a double bill with Ivorien Reggae Musician Tiken Jah Fakoly on April 4 at the Barbican, London, as part of her European tour.
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