SXSW Interview: Asa
by Winston "Stone" Ford
Find more about Asa at MySpace.
I first caught wind of Asa (pronounced Asha) by listening to her powerful first single, Jailer. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the Paris-based Nigerian ex-pat, and her combination of modern American soul music and her native Nigerian rhythms inspired by text messages sent on a bus through her native Lagos. Asa turned her love for music into a budding music career, with a top 10 album in France and emerging stardom in her native Nigeria, where she has opened for the likes of Akon, Beyonce, and John Legend among others. I had the chance to catch up with Asa in the NPR Room at South by Southwest, where she was in the middle of a 2 night stand at the festival as a part of her just completed American tour.
What is your background?
I was born in Paris. I moved to Nigeria when I was 2. I went back to Paris when I was around 21 or 22.
What was the situation like in Nigeria when you were growing up?
I grew up in Fastop Town (Lagos). I grew up in a part of Fastop Town that I usually like to refer to as the projects. In Nigera we have over 200 tribes who speak different languages. But Lagos kind of brings everybody together because its a cosmopolitan city. So In this area we had all kinds of people. It was like a budding house.
We all know that Nigeria, like many parts of Africa, has had a treacherous past. Did you witness any violence growing up?
Those are the things that you can’t escape. That is the news. That is what you see on a daily basis. That’s just the story. Growing up for me was a learning process. Growing up in Lagos you see a lot of hard realities. There are loads of stories. You don’t trust people.
You list some of your influences as American soul music, with artists like Erykah Badu, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. What age did you start listening to American soul music?
As far as I remember, I think I was about 6 or 7. That’s when my parents told me that I started singing. But you know, there is a time as a child when you begin to understand your environment, but now it’s pretty fast for kids today, so I’m surprised that it took me that long!
I knew that one thing that was constant with me was music. I love singing. I loved the feeling that I would get when I listened to music, especially from those people I just mentioned.
So how accessible was American music growing up?
It was pretty much everywhere. Unfortunately Americans have succeeded in putting out their culture (laughs), but I really commend them [for that]. My father I just hope that [Americans] can open up to other cultures and accept them.
My father and my mother grew up in an era that was funk and soul music, with the Afros and the platform shoes. Even in Africa, they were very aware of that. You also have to understand that Fela Kuti also came from that era of funk and James Brown. But there was also a local flavor.
So, the way I found out about you was through your first single, Jailer. I thought it was a very powerful song, and it has a lot of parallels to classic hip-hop. What inspired you to write that single? Were you incarcerated?
Just Pain. If you’ve ever felt held down..at that moment, at that period [of my life] I felt like it was the end of the world. Also, when I sit with my peer groups , our conversation was always around politics. We were always arguing about past leaders, and especially those leaders who have brought Africa to what it is, and we usually wonder what happens to them. I hope that song would send out a message to upcoming oppressors and even people in the neighborhood or the next man [as well].
So you’re based in Paris now? What is that experience like? What motivated you to move to Paris?
Strictly music. Every now and then I go back home when I’m free.
We all know that the French have had an uneasy history with people of African origin. Have you experienced any racism while living in Paris?
I haven’t seen that, or I choose not to look at that part. What you have to understand is that the French have been very open to African music. If you compare it with the English, the French are much more open, and I’m grateful for that opportunity. There are other artists back at home [in Nigeria] that have hope. So I’m very grateful with what [the French] have done, and I’m cool with that.
I see myself as a messenger, I see myself as a preacherman, and you always gotta move, you know?
So how long have you been in the US for this trip?
Just two days? Wow.
Yeah, just two days (laughs}.
How are you being received in the US?
They’re open. The SXSW festival is very rock and roll, very loud music in every bar that we’ve passed. But in the mist of this, we still find people to listen and that’s the first mark. So yes, I think we have been received openly, they’re listening to the songs, and I feel like they are discovering it, and lets see what happens from there.
How do you feel about being classified as “world music” here in the United States?
All music is world music. It sounds like were categorizing and I do understand that because they need to know what to put in the [music] shops but wherever I am, I feel honored to be a part of this festival. These are people that I read about and I see on TV like Angelique Kidjo.
So we have a question that has been a tradition on this site, and people either love this question or hate it. What are your top 5 songs/tracks/artists that you’re listening to on your iPod right now?
Santigold – Santigold
Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
will.i.am. – Songs About Girls
So what’s next on the Horizon for Asa?
To go on. Music is what I love doing and I’m always hopeful and prayerful that there is a positive effect on the people.