Akua Naru is a refreshing voice in hip hop. Her internationally acclaimed music offers a mix of fiercely intelligent lyrics, adventurous musicianship, and a mind firmly fixed on justice. She has taken her music to the African continent with shows in Zimbabwe, Cape Verde and Nigeria and collaborations with leading musicians Angelique Kidjo and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. Jessica Horn sat down with Akua Naru at Jazz Café before her first ever show in London to discuss her music, her politics, and why she rhymes about women’s lives.
Jessica Horn: You are a storyteller, one of our modern day griottes. If you were to tell the story of you, how would it begin?
Akua Naru: I am from New Haven, Connecticut. I am the oldest of three. My mom was a single parent and my grandmother had a lot of influence in raising us too. I grew up in one of those old Pentecostal Holiness churches and I feel like my story to a certain extent starts there, because my church was a microcosm of female leadership. I grew up in church and we had a female pastor, my grandmother ran Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, my aunt was choir director, there was a woman playing the drums. I grew up in a world of extremely strong Black women. In my world we were the standard and I didn’t know otherwise. I am also a member of a culture of people who are tied to a rich and vast musical and oratory tradition and I grew up immersed in that. That is where my story starts.
JH: In hip hop albums there is usually at least one song where the MC focuses on bigging themselves up. I feel like The World is Listening is that track on your first album, but your choice was not to talk about yourself and instead to big up all the other sister MCs.
AN: That song came about because I was listening to Queen Latifah’s album Black Reign. There is a part in one track where they let the beat run and she just went in. Queen Latifah has become like an Oprah of hip hop; she is a celebrity that has so many talents that some people don’t even know that she is a really dope MC. And I was thinking that there should be a song to honour somebody like Queen Latifah, and the I was thinking- Lyte, and Lauryn, Bahamadia, Eve and Salt n Pepa- and the list kept going on and on.
That boasting tradition exists in hip hop and of course I take part but for me I try to write within a concept- because it is more challenging for me as a writer, as an artist. Obviously I do think I am good at what I do and that is why I do it, so I don’t need to bombard you with that every time you listen to my music. For this song I felt like sometimes there are just gaps in the field that I feel need to be filled in. If it doesn’t exist I would like to fill that gap. I could sit down for hours and complain about the fact that this song doesn’t exist, or I could sit down and write that song until the next thing inspires me. So that is my reason for writing The World is Listening.
JH: In your lyrics you always speak about women’s lives – if you speak about injustice you speak about it in terms of how women experience injustice, which is often through the violation of their bodies. Why women’s lives?
AN: Because I am a woman, and I am a woman who is born into a family of amazingly powerful women, and I am saddened by the fact that so many of those stories were never told. Imagine how many stories were never told – the violence of that. For example women who were talented artists, or painters or MCs but there was a glass ceiling that someone constructed for them which meant that they could only live as maids or seamstresses for their oppressors. Or they were forced into positions where their wings were clipped so that they could not be free. I am aware of that every single time I open my mouth. That will never happen again with my pen. Black women and our lives? That is the norm for me. When I am talking about people, I am talking about us, like Toni Morrison taught me- I am talking about us.
Women have been really denied access- even when we have been inside [hip hop], we were denied the right to tell stories without corporate interest saying that we have to engage certain narrative trends to be commercially successful, or to represent ourselves in a certain way. There is a body of knowledge that we really haven’t had access to because women have not been given voice in this music. I am not singling out hip hop- it is just a microcosm for a larger patriarchal set up.
JH: It seems that we have the world that we actually live, and the world that people are trained to want to hear about. You have a lyric that asks “what is the worth of a woman’s story to a DJ?” – so what is the worth of woman’s story to a DJ?
AN: What is the worth of a woman’s story to a DJ if she is not reciting from a template of hypersexualisation, a template of predatory capitalism? If she is not selling a list of products – and actually it’s the same for men too, for real. It saddens me. There are a list of things that you have to talk about to be successful. You have to look this way, you have to be this way- because they know how powerful this music is. There are people that study what sounds and what narratives work and they tell us what we need to produce because this is what is going to bring them more money. =
JH: You rhyme a lot about love in different ways and I am wondering what love means to you?
AN: I think love is an emotional rite of passage. I think love, like Toni Morrison says, is only as good as the lover. I think that some people have a greater capacity for love, which is unfortunate but it just is. For a poet there isn’t really a language, you can’t find the language for this. You can describe the neighbourhood, but the exact address? I don’t know. Love is God in essence- love is the highest vibratory force in the universe. That would be my definition.
JH: What is your connection with Africa as a space, politically, culturally, historically?
AN: I am a child of the African Diaspora. I am an African American and so I had to search– and through that come to understand how black people across the Diaspora connected and how we started movements through that. So how a Du Bois could meet and befriend an Nkrumah, what was the relationship between Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, in what ways did a Malcolm X influence a Sankara or a Biko, in what ways was Fela influenced by a James Brown, how Lumuumba influenced a Malcolm X- for Malcolm X to call him the greatest man to ever walk the African continent. This is important to me because I am a daughter of the Diaspora and that is an important part of my identity too. When I can get to the continent and connect with my brothers and sisters there and get to understand how we are similar and where differences may be- those have been some of the most powerful experiences I have ever had.
Akua Naru’s debut offering The Journey Aflame is available on CD and online. Her new album is out soon. Jessica Horn is a feminist activist, writer and technical advisor on women’s rights. Her work focuses on the intersections of women’s health, bodily autonomy and freedom from violence.