I smoked with Asa...and got the best story of my career (Part 1)
One fine afternoon, I received a call to go meet Asa in her house. Here's what happened next:
“Should I light it for you?” Asa asks, blowing out smoke from her mouth, placing her luxury cigar on the table and stretching her hands to collect mine. She had earlier initiated a smoke session, accompanied by exotic tea. I had picked the leaves from a variety of options, settling for one with a pleasant aroma.
“Yes, please,” I accepted.
I watch the legendary Nigerian singer-songwriter Bukola Elemide spark up her silver lighter, puff on my cigar as the flames took hold, and wave in the air repeatedly to make the burn even. We are in her garden in Lagos, slightly sweating in the humid afternoon, as the lagoon waves splashing against her fence, punctuated the peace. The 35-year-old looks just like a saint, at peace with her blooming flowers, and sipping a golden fluid from a flask which she picked up “from my time in Portugal.”
The cigars came from Nicaragua, she explains. “It contains 3 leaves, and you shouldn’t swallow,” she says, handing it back. We sit in the silence taking puffs in unison, sipping on the tea.
It all feels nice. As nice as her music, which has powered a generation of Nigerian creatives looking to make ‘good’ music. Asa’s true legacy is multi-pronged. She can have a shout-in as the greatest Nigerian artist of the modern era. Her catalogue is sublime and far-reaching. She can be credited as the once-in-a-generation talent that redefined what it is to make elevated music from Africa. Or, Asa ought to be bestowed her beatification as the patron saint of alternative African artists, who look to her as proof of concept for their non-conventional music. If I earn a Naira every time a hopeful musician has used “but Asa did it,” as justification for their eclectic style of music, I would make Dangote sleepless.
A soaring vocalist and masterful guitarist, Asa is a calming presence blending Parisian jazz, Yoruba folk and soul into her albums. She writes personal lyrics ranging from her love life and mental health to her extensive travels and interactions with people. In Lucid, her fourth studio album, she offers a diary of love, moving between different states of the feeling, all woven with masterful songwriting and vocal delivery.
In her garden, where she loves to hide when she isn’t working, we sit and connect. Asa talks with a sincerity that borders on child-like. Her eyes light up, and when she laughs, she talks through it, explaining in detail. She used to drive a bike around Lagos, running her errands and checking on friends. One time at the mall, with her helmet, she was yelled at by an enthusiastic security guard, who had a problem at the car park.
“The way she spoke was very rude, very cruel. But then I enjoyed it,” she says. “I’m so insulated that it feels nice to be treated like a normal, regular person. Of course, you shouldn’t be yelling at people, but I liked it.”
We talk for hours about her albums, her tours, giving away money, and how simple life is for her. She reads huge volumes of books for inspiration, considers love the greatest human energy of all, and wears her heart on her sleeve.
Why are you mysterious?
I think this is natural. This is who I am. I'm very errm, I don't know. I'm just me. Mysterious, I don't know. Inasmuch in music, you need to be out there and you're usually the centre of attention. You're at a concert and everyone's looking at you. I do like to live a very quiet, private life because it makes me happy. So my life on stage and as a musician is definitely very different when I'm home and not performing. And the contrast is that I'm on fire on stage and in the studio. I want to make sure I bring out something well-thought-out and present good work to the people because I know they expect that much from me. I'm the same person but I just like to really be quiet when I'm not on stage.
How does it work? The Asa on stage is extremely expressive. I attended all your Lagos concerts. I watched you perform at the Supremacy concert, then I watched you perform your concerts at Eko Hotel. Everyone appreciates the amount of Asa they get while still yearning for more. It's a fine balance. Is it deliberate?
It's just natural. I don't know. I hardly celebrate birthdays. And I'm always very appreciative when I get to perform in Lagos. I don't do that a lot but whenever I do it, I'm very happy that people came out. Some of them know me, some of them just discovered me. It's just a good thing to be before people and perform. To me, if you ask which one do I prefer, studio or stage: stage. The stage has always been my life. What I have lived for.
How about your lack of collaborations?
Yeah. I did one with 9ice, I did with Jeremiah Gyang, I've done a few. I've done some collaboration. Maybe not a lot, perhaps because of time, I'm in different places and tours. When I'm on tour, it's very hard to do other things. But I think that's changing now. Now that I can take my studio out actually on the road, so it's easier. I did stop for a bit because of some of the collaborations. I wasn't happy with the outcome. The interpretation wasn't what I expected, and it's because I couldn't be at the studio with them to go through the whole process. I love to be part of the mixing, editing, because I know the producers also need help to understand the artist. So I did stop for a minute and said ‘you know what? I'd pay more attention and just do my own work.’
You left Nigeria many years ago...
(Cuts in) I never left (laughs)
Due to your work in Europe, your fans don't really consider you a core Nigerian artist. Do you think that's a disadvantage or an advantage for you?
I think Lagos is a place I don't want to leave. I think the last place I want to be, is not to be considered as part of Nigerian music. I think, if anything, I've always worked hard, in all my records to include home and my Yoruba songs. On each album, I must have a Yoruba song. Not only Yoruba songs, even my stories are inspired by Nigeria. The thing is that work takes me out a lot. I am in a contract with a French company, so it really does take me out a lot most times of the year and that's why people don't see me. And anytime I'm in Nigeria, I'm at home. You see that my home life is very quiet. I just want to relax and observe, not work. I love to work, but also just relax. I don't go out a lot. My life is very private and I enjoy my studio at home, I have my books. I don't want to be outside or considered an outsider. No, I've worked all my life. This is my country, this is my home, this is where I get my inspiration from.
Do you read a lot?
Oh yeah. All the time. Books are my friends. Now I'm reading a lot of non-fiction. I love history. I just started reading a book a friend recommended on Biafra. And from time to time, I read some fiction by some Indian authors. I'd read books about economics, I'd read a book about just anything that is interesting and cerebral.
Does it have any bearing on your art? The books?
Yes, it does. Because lots of the things that I read from my books, I put them in the music. I would take a line that I thought was interesting and I would add it to a song. Or I would save it somewhere for later use. And also, of course, it does make you a great conversationalist. I can talk with anybody, which is really cool with books.
Don't you consider yourself the opposite of what it means to be a celebrity, have fame and pursue the art at the level that you are? Do you think you're the opposite of what it entails?
Well, maybe. And I could be a different type of celebrity. But I just don't. Do you see that light that flashes? It ends after I'm out of the stage. It shouldn't be that way, but that's who I am. I don't really enjoy the attention which is strange. I can be with my fans who are my friends, I would do that every day. The other side, the glitz, the paparazzi, having to get dressed and go out, I don't find it enjoyable.
You'd rather be a "normal person."
I love being normal. I love going out, in a disguise and errm ...
Yeah. The other day I was in my motorcycle and there was a woman who was parking...
Wait, you drive a motorcycle, as in, Okada?
Yeah, I do.
How do you disguise yourself?
I just put on my helmet, my glasses and a scarf. Once I was trying to park, but not in the actual lot. And the security lady says "wo ma gba mi o." You know, the way she'd talk to ‘anybody’ and that was quite cool. But again it was also strange, like ‘is it is how you treat people? It was because I was on a bike and she thought maybe I was an okada. she thought I was a guy. Even the security guys were like "make him go park, oga." It was so funny. The way she spoke was very rude and cruel, but then I enjoyed it. There was something sad about it because it just shows how you talk to another person. To me, it was cool and uncool. Because if she had seen me she would have changed. She'd have been more respectful and all nice. But look at how she speaks to every other person that is considered nameless, which I find not really cool.
Yeah, I know. But we should learn to treat everybody with respect. Even the gateman, please talk to him with respect. But well, that's my upbringing. My parents had put that in me and my siblings from a very early age, and I'm very grateful for that training.
How was growing up in Lagos?
I grew up in a very strict home. My father was a strict man. I grew up in a strict home, but it was very musical. We listen to music every time. Me and my brothers. Music was always around. Childhood was a lot of rules. You couldn't go out to play at a certain time, you wake up at 5 am and everyone had a chore. You had to go to the well to fetch water. It was until I was maybe 18 that I realised; ‘wait a minute, I'm actually the only girl and I should be spoilt.’ But it was too late (laughs). My mum had more balance. My dad was really like the authoritarian and you know, the masculine stuff. But they still always loved us and my father was very cuddly. So I had that. I went to boarding school in Jos which was another beautiful experience.
What school was that?
Federal Government College, Jos.
I went to FGC Okigwe, Imo State.
Nice one. All boys school?
Nah, it was mixed. I couldn't do all-boys.
That would be harder. My school was mixed. Because my younger brother was there. Ha! the punishment was hard. Jos was another experience for me. I met with all kinds of people which also opened me, it was like travelling. School was also hard. We'd wake up early in the morning at 5. Jos is cold, but we had to shower with cold water. There was no food. So I learned all kinds of tricks in school to survive. But those were cool times.
It was tough. Really tough. Childhood? I don't think I ever want to go back to childhood because I hated...you know like, everything you do, there are adults telling you what to do, what not to do, I just hated it. I just couldn't wait to be done with school. With everybody.
Was your first guitar, a gift or did you get it yourself?
It was actually a cousin's guitar. It had two strings.
Just two strings?
Yeah, two strings. I saw it and I was like 'Oh my God'. I've always played air guitar because my father didn't think the guitar was that important an instrument. He said 'Oh, I'd rather pay your school fees and feed you, nothing else'. So when I went to my cousin's house for Christmas, I saw that his parents had gifted him a guitar but it had only two strings. And I was like 'Oh my God', the shape of the guitar.
Love at first sight?
Oh yeah. I've always wanted to play the guitar and the piano. But I just ended up playing air, and non-existent instruments. Everything was up here in my head. So the first time that I bought a guitar, I remember, I just left school and I was having a difficult time with my family. One part of my family is Muslim and the other part is Christian, so I was now with the Muslim part. It has nothing to do with them being Muslim, I don't know. But they just couldn't stand that I was singing. I would sing in the house, just singing everywhere, and they were just like 'Oh okay, its enough!" But those were very formative times for me to find my identity. All that singing I was doing was to find my voice. And I did. I think around 18 that I got the chance, in the midst of all these ‘don't sing, oh stop, it's enough!’ So one day I just got so frustrated and my uncle had given me some good smacking (laughs). I was in university, so I said you know what? I'm going to quit university. This my school fees, I'm going to Lagos Island to get a guitar.
Why Lagos Island?
Because that's where I hear they sell all the instruments. So I went and I got the guitar. To me, the guitar was like a gun. It was figuratively a gun because I couldn't fight back. I didn't have a home of my own. My parents had separated, so we were kinda at the mercy of families. But the guitar was what is going to be what would take me out of all this. So I started to learn. And I made a lot of friends because I was walking on the streets with my guitar. I tied it to a rope at my back because I couldn't even afford to get a bag for it. People would say, 'Oh you play guitar' and some would offer to help teach me. That was a ticket out of the restrictive life, or a life that wanted to steer me away from the music.
Looking back now, hindsight has shown you that you were right to do everything you did.
The thing is that I've always known what I was going to do. I never steered away from the path. But it took me a long time to really be bold and say 'I know what? I don't care anymore. I'm not going to study law, I'm going to go do music'. Before then I was just hiding, you know it was almost like a taboo.
Do you think the success of your work and your career, helped influence the situation for a lot of young women looking to pursue music?
Well, I think after me, there have been other young girls who have taken up the guitar, and have their way of singing, which is pretty alternative. I like to think that I must have also helped some girls decide that I can actually do it. The music for girls is the same for boys. It is still a very niche idea. People still have an idea about female musicians, all kinds of silly ideas. Sometimes they don't really see that you're doing music for music. There is a kind of tag that comes with a girl who sings, which is a really bad name. And I think that was the fear for my parents too. Because they thought that 'musicians, oh they are going to be doing drugs, they are going to be going with boys'. Those were the things I faced in the beginning, and I would go on tour with a bus full of men, and they would make passes and I won't react. They found that disturbing, the men. I had to prove a point to my parents at home who already had this idea that 'you're going to go to the studio, you'd be with boys'. I had to prove to them that this is serious, I'm focused, razor-focused, I'm not going to do that because I don't want to do it. I was young, what did I know? But the last thing I wanted to do was show up pregnant. When I was twelve, the girls in my neighbourhood at seventeen, sixteen were showing up pregnant. I said okay, I have a future, I know what I want to do, I've always wanted to be a singer, I'm not going to show up pregnant. So I had that to prove to folks back home.
And you did it. You're a legacy artist but you've never considered yourself as one.
Oh my God, I still think that I haven't done what I want to do. I haven't written that song. The song. I'm still young. I would equate legend with old or dead. I feel like I'd love to sing till I'm 80. I still really believe that I would be singing till 80. I still see a lot to do with music. So I really don't see it that ... It's too young, too early.
But there can also always be an argument that even if you don't see it personally, the world tells you so.
It's a good thing when people on the outside see you. Of course, some people are able to know their impact and use it. And that's very powerful. To be able to be bold and audacious, and take it on, wear it, accept it. It’s a good thing. but I think an artist or a painter always feel they are as good as their last work. I mean, you see I'm looking forward to doing another one because I think the song was recorded. But 'Oh my God, I could have changed this, I could have done this'. I'm learning new stuff. Especially when you come from the school of listening to Fela Kuti, and seeing what he had achieved and how it affected people. Or Bob Marley, you feel there’s still a lot to do. Especially when they are standing singularly as individuals, as champions. Half the time you feel like you're a cheat.
You do set the bar really high.
For me, it is punishing but...
I think it's the only way to live. Constant improvement. You have to work towards something. If it's not high enough then at some point you'd hit it, Then what happens?
You might never reach that height but look at Wole Soyinka. He has written so many plays. So many books. I'm sure he has some books that he has not written. But he doesn't just rest there. Stopping is like dying, so you can’t really just rest on your laurels unless you're incapacitated, you're sick, and you're unable to.
How was moving to France?
You know, it just happened.
Did you work with Kevin Luciano for a bit?
Yes. But before him, France had been on the horizon. I think it started with after I moved to that music school after university. I started to go out, and someone introduced me to a manager I had then. So that was where the connection started for me. There was a jazz group that came from France and they needed a singer and I was the one that was the singer in the band. I played also with Nathaniel Bassey. He put a group exchange between France and Nigeria, so that was how the story with France started. After being born in France, I also have a French part of my family. But it had nothing to do with that, Somehow, you never know. God has his ways. He has chosen this path for me and currently, I'm still in France.
How was the adaptation process?
It was difficult. I didn't know the food, I didn't know the language.
But you speak French now?
Yes, and I know the ways. But in the beginning, I didn't get the right clothing. It was just all so lonely and hard for me. I also went to a jazz school there and it was all in French, so I was lost. It was like, you've just got into a new school, new classroom, your parents just brought you to school and it's time for them to say goodbye. For the first three months, it was very difficult for me. I was eating the wrong food, I would buy food because of the colour. My mom gave me garri, I didn't even touch it. Once I'm in a place, I want to eat what they are eating. I was also eating all the wrong and strange foods. But with time, I started to learn because I'm curious like that. Learning about food, the ways, the people.