Interview \\ Akua Naru and the female experience

Hip-hop’s most articulate wordsmith Akua Naru is a glowing woman. Hours before her recent London show, Naru invited Nina Fine into her dressing room to share ideas on relationships, literature and the female experience. 

Talking with Akua Naru is an invitation into a space of intellect, awareness and generosity. Even before we speak I have already seen Naru manage the final moments of soundcheck with precision and realness, despite the gig being the last date of her UK tour following a flight from Brazil. Watching Naru in soundcheck immersed in both familiar and unfamiliar sounds I have a hint of her impactful stage presence.  

Back in the dressing room of Village Underground, sounds of glissando keys in the next soundcheck travelling down to the room, the conversation begins with travel. An American based in Cologne Germany, Naru has been travelling the world, with an extensive Africa Tour in 2016. I wonder how the movement affects her music. “Of course, being in different parts of the world, seeing what life is like in different places, it has an impact on you, as a human, on the planet”, says Naru. “Whatever you create like me creating this conversation is informing that, so somehow, in some shape or form, it is informing the music, because of the perspective.”

The title of Akua Naru’s tour, The Way Is Always Forward, reflects this sense of movement. I am told the title comes from a realisation, “cause I’m always moving. I’m a traveller, and I feel like you can’t go backwards, you just can’t. If you’re stuck in the past… at the end of the day you have to keep moving, life is going to move forward”. 

Already in the early part of our conversation, Naru, moving her position in the armchair and facing me directly, expresses herself with a self-awareness of someone who knows themselves but is open to discovering the total opposite. There is an assuredness in her tone; a curiosity of reaching for something further. So, ‘how does she feel arriving in London?’ “I feel hype … sometimes you can feel it even before you step foot in the city — when you walk in the venue. I feel it in my spirit right now. I feel the energy of the people coming here, the energy of the place, the energy of the band. I can feel that it is going to be a great show.” With travelling comes new perspectives. Naru shares how it has “allowed me to develop more perspective. It’s given me more compassion, I’ve become less judgemental — you know what I mean? Accepting.”

“Nina Simone carried a lot of pain. How she communicated it fearlessly… I just find that to be so inspiring”

Music isn’t the sole function of Akua Naru’s touring. Even from quick glances at her Instagram account, it’s evident that Naru engages with communities, locals and spaces in the cities she visits and performs in. She says, “When I have time and I’m on tour, I try to put the word out to meet with different activist groups. Sometimes I hold workshops, I give lectures, sometimes I have private meetings where I do work with women around different issues, or you know, we hold conversations about art or womanhood, discussions on race, different political issues.”

The drive behind Naru’s social engagement and work is in the understanding and learning. She explains, “You can never gain a full perspective in any way by having just one workshop talking to people coming from one place. You have to over time develop relationships with people and understand from them what’s happening and what’s going on and vice versa. I’m just sharing and I’m just inviting, being invited to conversations. I’m inviting others to conversations and there is always something that we share and gain, and that’s really just the goal right there.”

Akua Naru’s music moves within the realms of different genres including Jazz and Hip Hop. “Jazz is a period of hip hop. Jazz is the parent. It’s like asking me what the relationship between me and this woman is—this is my mother”, she laughs. When asked if she agrees with Robert Glasper in his recent NPR video—that Jazz and Hip Hop are both music expressions of protest music—Naru agrees, “We are black people who were forced into a state of war, slavery. Blues is the first secular music. From blues, we got Jazz and so on… everything is politicised. And we’re still fighting … we’re still trying to navigate a humanity that’s evident and obvious in these people”. 

The female presence, experience and voice are central to Akua Naru’s musical journey. Sampling female writers and academics including Toni Morrison and Dr Tricia Rose, Naru’s congruence with female voices and their histories develop the multi-layers of her music. In fact, as we talk, Naru tells me that for the last album, The Miner’s Canary, the title came about from a series of conversations that she had with Dr. Tricia Rose. When Dr. Rose first made contact with Naru, she was under the impression that Dr Rose was seeking permission for sampling; “Yeah, she hit me up. I was thinking, maybe she wants to confront me. You know, it was amazing how we met, we became really good friends—she’s a sister of mine for sure.”

“I’ve been blessed to have the gift of music so I have to do it. If not me then who? If not now, then when?”

As our conversation turns to Toni Morrison, one of Naru’s favourite writers, I ask what inspires her. She says, “It depends on the person, I mean I can say for Toni Morrison, it’s really about courage.” Naru explains, “I feel like, first; the courage to be in this body. I know it well ’cause I live in it. To have had the courage to speak and I know that pain, to carry that pain. Nina Simone carried a lot of pain. How she communicated it fearlessly… the amount of courage that she has to speak, to sing, to write and to continue; I just find that to be so inspiring.”

Naru continues; “The first book I read was Sula, and it’s one of her novels. It really describes a friendship between two women.” I ask why her music is so focussed on female experience. She moves towards the central point in her chair, arms strong in stance and she says, “I’m living in this body, I fight from this body first, I’m a black woman. So I have to seek from where I’m coming from first.” Once again, there is a sense of responsibility present, “We know what’s at work. We know what the reality is, so, more music has to be created… I’ve been blessed to have the gift of music so I have to do it. If not me then who? If not now, then when? You know what I’m saying?”

With Akua Naru’s strength comes a balance f softness that translates through her constant gratitude for her position; “It’s amazing as an artist to be able to create anything because it takes a lot of courage to create something here first”. Naru points to her chest. “I could just write about a character, I could write about this land right here” she continues, “but if I write about what is going on in my heart, what’s in my soul, and what’s my spirit, what is the light inside, and I’m being honest about that story, that’s all that I can do”. 

It’s one thing to perform to an audience, but with the brutal honesty of Naru’s words and music, there is a powerful impact on any listener. With that in mind, I ask her how people respond to her music? In response, Naru gives me a wonderful analogy; she compares her music to a child, “I’ve heard people tell me amazing stories about what the music meant for them. How the music lives with them… It’s like, I wrote it, and it was my child, and it was in the womb first, and I birthed her, I brought her here, she came through and now I nursed her to a point and let her go free in the world, and you telling me, yeah when I had her, this is how she lives in my house, this is how she lives with me, like, I see how she has her own life now. She belongs to all of us – it’s not just mine.”

The lack of preciousness that Akua Naru demonstrates regarding her music—recognising it as an entity from personal expression and one to be reformed and interpreted by others—is something special: “If anyone comes and says, ‘wow, I see beauty in this…’? It humbles me.” ‘Humble’ feels like an accurate word as Naru explains, “I thank God that I’m able to do it and I don’t take it for granted – not at all. Like every word that you hear, it’s labour, it’s work. It’s like chiseling stone, carving the precise stone for this wall”. 

“When ideas come, melodies, where are they coming from? They’re coming from somewhere. I’m here to honour the ancestors”

Akua Naru is a multi-talented and multi-disciplined musician. From the journey of her first two albums, The Journey Aflame and The Live and Aflame Session back in 2011 and 2012, she has now developed her own independent record label, The Urban Era, and her 2015 album, The Miner’s Canary, was self-produced. “With The Miner’s Canary, that’s my baby. I’m not saying I don’t love The Journey Aflame but The Miner’s Canary is a different relationship. I conceptualised the album and I said, ‘this is where I am going sonically’, and I produced the album. There are maybe four songs where I invited someone to co-produce with me.”

There is an ownership and a realness with the process Naru describes and she admits that she wasn’t ready to “move into that seat” for her previous albums, just yet. “When you hear Mr Brownskin—that bass line—I worked my ass off to get what I wanted because I also composed a lot of the music on that album too”. 

It’s evident that inspiration comes from multiple areas of Naru’s life, whether it’s the women that she surrounds herself with, the supportive family, or the vast travel and discussions which open perspectives. That being acknowledged, there is also history and an honouring of those before: “I’m saying, first it’s the ancestors. When ideas come, where are they coming from? When ideas come, melodies, where are they coming from? They’re coming from somewhere. I’m here to honour the ancestors. The reality for a lot of people today? You’re in an environment that doesn’t support the uniqueness of your spirit as a creator.”

A great moment happens when we talk about family. For Akua Naru, her family has been a huge support system, something she values greatly: “there are people who don’t have strong family units. There are people who don’t have the human capital, the human support. There are so many different factors, you know. I’m really blessed.”

Naru shares a family anecdote: “The worst was with my mum; once I did a show in Switzerland and my mum flew out. I was on this huge radio station and the person was asking me about my childhood and my mum was interrupting the conversation and answering the questions. My mum was like, ‘hold on, wait, oh no, just ask me, let me tell you’ and I was so embarrassed. Like, I don’t know if black people blush but if we do, my cheeks were so red!”

It’s a pleasure talking to an artist as open, deeply thoughtful and calm as Akua Naru. Her friends have been sitting with us for most of our time together. There’s a sense of female union in the space.

The generosity of spirit and exchange taking place is tangible and a thought continually reverberates in my mind—this matters. These conversations; the awareness of being invited in to a space unfamiliar but equally important, this is essential for effecting change. As women, we share some experience. As different races, we come from different histories and lines of heritage. For Akua Naru to invite me into her world, it is a privilege.

Akua Naru has a new album coming out later this year

Follow @jazz_standard @akuanaru @ninafinemusic

JS | Nina Fine

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