Nigerian songstress and songwriter, Asa (Bukola Elemide), recently caused a stir by singing – in a long black dress, appearing to mourn the demise of her nation – her hit 2007 song “Fire on the Mountain” to Nigerian leaders, including President Muhammadu Buhari, at an event in the presidential villa in Abuja. Social media was abuzz with praise for the 39-year old artist’s courage in “speaking truth to power.” As she sang in her biting lyrics: “There is fire on the mountain and nobody seems to be on the run…I see the blood of an innocent child and everybody’s watchin’….”
The artist name, Asa – meaning hawk in Yoruba – was a nickname given to Bukola by an old man in a bustling Lagos market while returning the lost child, who frequently wandered off on her own, to her mother. The pseudonym of a hawk is particularly apt: these birds are renowned for nesting in high trees, which fits Asa’s eccentric loner personality. Hawks also have a hoarse screech consistent with Asa’s unique, husky voice.
A Tale of Two Cities: Lagos and Paris
Asa was born in Paris of Nigerian parents, Akin and Arsah, who were studying cinematography and “hustling.” She returned to Nigeria with them in 1984 at the age of two. Her disciplinarian father worked as an engineer and cinematographer, while her shopkeeper mother taught. Asa lived with her three brothers in the overcrowded FESTAC town.
She was a shy, nerdy tomboy, having to do much housework as the only girl in the family. This forced her to grow up quickly. Her family was part of the white-garment Celestial Church, where her thick voice prevented her from joining the choir, though she remained deeply religious. Her mother’s warnings not to look at boys due to the high youth pregnancy in her community, made Asa somewhat uptight. As with many Yoruba children, a deep distrust of extended family, friends, and strangers was ingrained in her as a child.
Asa attended the elite Corona school in Lagos before going on to Federal Government College in Jos. She returned to Lagos State University to study Theatre Arts and Music, but dropped out after only six months to pursue her musical passion, enrolling at Peter King’s Musical School in Badagry. Her father cut off her stipend, having earlier wanted her to study Law or Medicine. Living with her grandparents, Asa earned enough money from studio performances and tours.
She bought her first guitar at the age of 20, determined to emulate Bob Marley. Her authenticity and fresh, original sound were reminiscent of the similarly dreadlocked, guitar-playing Tracey Chapman. Her parent’s acrimonious divorce was a traumatic experience that plunged Asa more deeply into her music as a therapeutic balm. She became closer to her mother to whom she dedicated the entrancing praise song “So Beautiful.”
Growing up in Lagos exposed Asa to Nigeria’s cosmopolitan, bustling megalopolis of 15 million inhabitants. She fell in love with the city in which she still spends much of her time in a house by the lagoon around the plush Victoria island, writing by the Atlantic ocean and riding her motorcycle through the city’s notorious traffic jams. At the age of 18, Asa returned to the city of her birth, seeking to enrol at the IMEP Paris College of Music. But her teachers told her she did not require any further training. Asa established residence in Paris, despite having only “survival French.” She eventually performed in clubs, revelling in the city’s street art, and recording albums in the French capital. She has contrasted Paris’s racial discrimination to Lagos’s gender discrimination, while noting: “I never want to lose the local feeling, but I also never want to totally reject or lose the global aim.”
Muses and Music
Asa’s eclectic musical tastes were cultivated from listening to her father’s record collection. Nigerian artists like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, and Yoruba Fuji, Highlife, and Apala artists were plentiful in her home. She would later discover Lagbaja. Asa often sings in her native Yoruba which she considers “one of the most beautiful languages in the world.” Also included in her father’s collection were: Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and Lauryn Hill.
At the age of 22, Asa met her manager, Janet Nwose, who introduced the raw talent to blind Nigerian producer, Cobhams Emmanuel Asuquo. He oversaw her first studio album Asa, in 2007. Her music has variously been described as “neo-soul” and “indie-pop”, and is a mix of soul, hip hop, RnB, jazz, reggae, funk, folk, and pop. She sings ballads, mid-tempo, and dance music in an inimitable mellifluous voice.
She has consistently rejected being pigeon-holed, despising the amorphous label “World Music.” Hits like the hugely successful “Jailer”, “Fire on the Mountain,” and “Bibanke” were standout singles from her debut album which sold over 400,000 copies. She won France’s Prix Constantin for the best new artist in 2008. She also started opening for Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, John Legend, Akon, and Lenny Kravitz who shocked her when they first met in Paris by serenading her with a rendition of her smash-hit, “Jailer.” Grammy-winning Beninois singer, Angélique Kidjo, became an early mentor, while Oscar-winning Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o, remains a fan.
In 2010, Beautiful Imperfection was released. It sold over 400,000 copies, with hits such as “Eyé Adaba”, “Be My Man”, and “Preacher Man.” Four years later, Bed of Stone followed, with hits such as “Eyo”, “Satan be Gone”, and “Dead Again.” In 2019 came Lucid, which received mixed reviews, with songs such as “Murder in USA” and “My Dear”. By this time, Asa’s fan base had spread across Africa, Europe, the US, Australia, the Middle East, and Asia.
She was touring Europe when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Her impulsive decision to take one of the last flights out of Paris to Lagos brought her out of her musical shell. Rather than going into total isolation, she flung the doors of her home studio open to Nigerian artists for jam sessions. The result was her heavily percussioned 2022 “V” album in which she collaborated with Afrobeat superstar, Wizkid; highlife duo, The Cavemen; and Ghanaian soulstress Amaarae. The album – produced by precocious 20-year old P. Prime – was an ode to Afrobeats, and represented a move away from her comfort zone. She thus learned to be less of an over-rehearsed perfectionist, and more of an experimental improvisator.
Rebel with a cause
Asa has often identified Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Bob Marley as her greatest influences: “I saw the way they affected people with their words, they made the government react, people loved, people laughed, and I wanted to do the same thing.” But despite her biting lyrics, she has not been as confrontational as the two marijuana-smoking superstars, stressing entertainment over education as her primary artistic responsibility. As Asa noted “I don’t believe in aggression.” Her criticisms of Nigeria’s malaise are thus often couched in generalities, and the leadership is not singled out personally for condemnation.
Asa believes strongly in education as a liberating force, noting: “We will not put an end to extreme poverty if we do not give priority to education, especially girls’ education.” She has been outspoken about the need for gender equality in a misogynistic Nigerian society rife with gender-based violence and low political representation of women. She has persistently lamented the curse of oil in hampering Nigeria’s development. She has organised charity concerts to pay for children’s education, bemoaning the ubiquitous presence of street urchins across the country. Asa takes every opportunity to return to Nigeria, believing strongly in performing for her compatriots. She is proud of her ancestry, and deeply conscious of her Yoruba roots.
Professor Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.