I smoked with Asa...and got the best story of my career (Part 2)
In the concluding part of my afternoon with Asa, we get lost in the essence of her music; why it is focused on love, how her albums were made, and why her performances are never the same.
Thanks for reading the first part of this Asa special on Afrobeats Intelligence. If you missed it, click here to update yourself. Don’t read this without that beauty.
Asa is magical. She knows she is. She’s self-assured and aware of her charm, her celebrity, her talent, her fire. She acknowledges the existence of her magic, in a matter-of-fact way, moving quickly from it when it is brought up.
As early afternoon quickly turned to evening, I apologized for taking so much of her day. She gently waved it away. “I’m having fun,” she interjected. “This is fun. I am enjoying myself. I’m travelling tomorrow, so it’s nice to just be here.”
Out in her garden, with the waning sunlight shining on our faces, we wandered through different topics, her curiosity bounced about, asking questions and offering feedback. Her love for conversation was evident. We spoke about her music and where all the good stuff comes from. It felt very much like talking to an old friend.
Here, in the concluding part, the conversation focuses on her artistry. We get lost in the essence of her music; why it focuses on love, how her albums were made, and why her performances are never the same. She weighs in on R.Kelly, and why she gives away her money.
Where does your music come from?
It comes from the church. It comes from the streets. I grew up in FESTAC and the city is musical. I was hitting paint buckets with my brothers and making beats, freestyling in our room. Then when NEPA has taken light, what did we do? We didn't watch much TV in those days. It was singing. Fela Kuti was, and is a huge influence on my music. Bob Marley too. Those guys, I always mention them because they were the ones who made the strongest impression on me. Michael Jackson, James Brown, even Miriam Makeba. But as time went on and as I grew up, I began to discover neo-Soul. Erykah Badu, De Angelo, Lauryn Hills. And then jazz music. So I started to develop an eclectic taste. I've always had it. My dad had pieces of vinyl because he schooled in France too. So he had these eclectic ways about him, which I think I took from him. The music is from everywhere. The church is a very strong presence in my singing.
You're considered a maker of classics.
Your albums. ‘Asa’ and ‘Beautiful Imperfection’ are mostly classified together. ‘Bed of Stone’ is regarded as another life of its own. What was the difference for you, between ‘Asa’ and ‘Bed of Stones?’
I think ‘Asa’ was young, angry, pretty frustrated, with a lot of energy, and a lot of service to render. I was always thinking my music is a tool, and I needed to use it as a tool. It had to have purpose. For ‘Beautiful Imperfection,’ I had experienced a new life, touring France. I had been to countries I had never been to in my life. Japan, Australia...so there is a bit of happiness. I think that torrent—experiencing something new—kind of drove the album. But Lagos, Nigeria always stayed with me. And I had named the album after Lagos, what I think Lagos is to me. Lagos is ‘Beautiful Imperfection.
'Fire on the Mountain', is a song that would last forever. How does it feel being the creator of that song?
You know, that song was created with Cobhams so I can't take the glory.
Okay, being part creator then.
Again, that time, we were asking what can we do? What can we contribute? How can we help? Just hungry and frustrated people. Really hungry. Passionately hungry about wanting to do something. That's where 'Fire on the Mountain' came from. Because we would sit down and talk about what's going on and realised, ‘well, the only thing we have is music.’ Cobhams was also a big part of ‘Asa’. In the album, me and Cobhams interwove, because him being part of it brought magic to the album. That was the state then. It still is. Things are still happening in the world.
The world doesn't get better. Both locally and internationally. It's like we're hurtling towards something that you don't know what it is but...
(Cuts in)..It's people. It's people that always fuck it up.
What state were you in for ‘Bed of Stones’?
‘Bed of Stones’ was now back to introspection. I was experiencing new things. "Bed of Stone" I think I had my first serious relationship, after being razor-focused. You see more matured Asa, me growing into a woman. Now that I understand touring, I've seen people. I began to see the music business. Music. Sometimes, you love it, but it's not just about you anymore. There are so many people involved. ‘Bed of Stone’ brought me back to my first time in France. It's really about that first time in France. The discomfort, but also seeing other people, immigrants from Nigeria and their lives. I was a student, but we kind of had a similarity: we were in a foreign land which won't always be comfortable. It would never feel like home. The album is about Paris. It was the mix of being in a serious relationship. On 'How did love find me,’ after waiting and hoping for so long, when I woke up from it, I was like 'girl you can't always be this deadbeat serious now. Take it easy and have fun now.’ You've already proven to your mum. She'd already told you ‘I'm proud of you, I trust you'. So I took time, to just relax, take it easy and also to write genuinely. I didn't want to follow that line of ‘Asa’ the album—with 'Fire on the Mountain' and 'Jailer'—if it wasn't real to me. So, I wanted to write about love because that was what was happening to me at the moment.
You looked within.
Yeah. Both current and the past. And a little bit of thinking about people now. People in depression. I wasn't in depression. I just saw this documentary.
You were in depression?
No, I wasn't. Never. I mean, there is a little bit of depression after a tour. You get out of the routine and you just feel awkward. The routine is no longer there. This is the time where you have to unpack your bag. You're no longer on the road. You're no longer every night in front of people. But it wasn't about that. I felt that on ‘Beautiful Imperfection.’ I had gotten used to it, I understood it now. ‘Bed of Stone,’ is a mix of love, a mix of thinking about the world, but also giving something out to people who may be going through a bad time.
What’s that tattoo on your hand?
It has no meaning. It's a mouse by Picasso. The most random thing I ever did. I was having lunch one day in New York, and the girl who served me had these cute little tattoos. I always have the times when I really want tattoos. My great-grandmother had tattoos all over her body. And I always wanted one, but the mood and time would pass before I made up my mind to go get it. When I saw it, I asked ‘what does this tattoo mean? She said Picasso. I told her ‘I'm going this afternoon before I change my mind.’ And I did. I was walking around New York like ‘yeah I'm a bad girl now.’ And then I showed Janet (my manager) on Facetime or I don't know what we were using then. She said 'What?! It's horrible. You look like 50 Cent. No. Lil Wayne! I said ‘no but it’s tiny.’ Honestly, I went to the shop and asked how I can remove it because it just made me feel mad. But right now, I don’t notice it anymore.
Let’s talk Lucid. What's the dominant emotion when you consider the project?
That I just hope people would listen. That it would reach people. I never want to do an album and keep it in my bedroom. I just want it out. My thinking is getting it out. That's it.
Where did this one come from?
This one came from a lot of relationships. My relationships. But the principal subject that I love to write about is love. If you ever wake me up at the dead of the night and I have to freestyle, there would be just one word — love.
Yeah. I consider it the highest level of human vibration.
That's what everyone is looking for. Everyone wants it one way or another. ‘Lucid’ is about that. It's a diary. It's like my reflections. A few of the songs too are from shared conversations, but still on the topic of love with my friends. When we are exchanging notes and we try to help each other. Of course, love that didn't work. It's really about breakup, the joy of finding new love, just love in all shades. There's the triumphant one. There's the good one, which is like, you know what? I'm taking power. It's like I don't care anymore. What I grew up learning about love is different now. I don't want to live and not enjoy love, or be perfect for someone else. And there's the love about just almost begging to stay. That kind of stuff. And having this other person see what he isn't seeing. All the things I want to do if it works.
How long did it take to put it together?
Well, I think these songs came over that time after the 2014 ‘Bed of Stone’ release. I was on tour. I think the oldest was five years, which is 'Beginning'. I was just writing on the road, I was travelling.
Was that why you dropped ‘The Beginning’ first?
No, Maybe, I don't know. It just felt like a song that stood separate, kind off, on its own. The beginning maybe. Of course, it is titled 'The Beginning'. It just felt like a song that should go first.
What type of love accurately describes you?
Love of self. That's where I am now. But I am also open to love. All the love that didn't work out for me, I don't regret it. It was beautiful. Some of them I have forgotten. Didn't mean anything. Some of them meant something. But what is very profound for me, which I'm experiencing now, is not worrying anymore. Just loving to be by myself, which is new actually. If you consider growing up with Nigerian parents, and all you hear is ‘oh you have to learn how to cook for your husband, you need to learn how to do this for your...
Nigerian love is always equated to service.
Exactly. It was service a lot of the time for me. And now I was like, maybe I could be of service to myself. You have to understand that most of my life, I've done a lot for other people. I needed to prove to this person. I needed to do this to that person. The effect was that it kept me disciplined or more grounded. But it was more in service to other people.
When you begin to love yourself, that means you know yourself a bit more and then you discover some truths about yourself.
Yes. This is it. This is the point where I am now. Where I am loving the person I am now. I haven't stopped or sat down to think about this person. It's always been, I need to heal the world. I need to do this, I need to do that. Which is cool. But at some point in your life, life brings you back to yourself. Before you can go out there to smile and have conversations, what about you? What can you do? Do you know who you are? With my own brainwashing of love, and wanting to live for someone else rather than me. This time, especially with ‘Lucid’, is just expressing all those loves. Watching my mum, with her own story, and how it reflects on me. Also now, me in my relationships. It's in the works, which is what Lucid is about. I think I'm kind of beginning to form. Beginning to see clearly, so that's who I am. It's kind of more like self.
How should people approach this art?
They would appreciate it in many ways. My aim is simply that by writing about my own experience, I've been of service in elucidating what you might have gone through. Somebody who is listening to it might also have gone through that. But they may not be a singer, and may not be able to put it through songs. But I've done it through my own stories, and I hope you can say I was actually feeling that. I was going through that. I hope the songs can soothe them. The whole purpose and the result I'm trying to get is that it soothes you, calms you, it makes you laugh. It brings out something from you.
Let’s talk about touring. What happens to you when you hit the stage?
Oh my God, it’s adrenaline. It's a one-shot experience. You're about to perform, so it's a very exciting experience. Really, all my nerves are shooting up, it's exhilarating. It's very spiritual too because I don't know what I'm going to do. I've practised everything. But somehow, because of the place, the moment, the people, spontaneity, things happen. So that's a high time, with all your nerves on alert. It's a very beautiful moment, really. Beautiful moment. Because you can never only do what you practised. I leave it to the gods of the stage. Whatever would happen would happen.
What's your most memorable performance?
I think the most memorable performance was the last performance I had on Saturday in Hamburg, in a cathedral.
How was it different?
I've never performed at a cathedral. It was full even to—I don’t even know what they call them—the arches, the pews up there. Very high up. It feels very exhilarating knowing that people are watching you. And there was a moment of spontaneity, I was very nervous, and I had to do something immediately for a particular song. It wasn't really going well for me. I had to just switch. Something happened and it was spontaneous. I never knew that I was going to do that. That was the most memorable because that was the last performance I had. And of course, the next day I came to Lagos and got straight on stage from the plane to a birthday party. Hamburg yesterday, and today in Lagos. Different crowd, different places, different people. The first one, everyone is seated, very respectful. The next one everyone, is hey!
Oh, my dancing. Tell me about it. (laughs)
It's juvenile. You dance with abandon. It's like you just transcend this realm.
Exactly. I go with whatever the spirit is telling me.
You never practice them?
No. I just dance for exercise. But really, dance is just an expression. I don't dance the usual way, like a professional. No, I don't do that. I don't think I'm able to do that. I just want that if a limb wants to go to the east, let it go. Or if my feet...we can call it reckless abandon.
Who are you?
Oh wow. That's a difficult question. I don't like bringing attention to myself, so I won't say I'm good. You know it already (laughs). I'm joking. I'd talk about what I think I'm here to do, because I think it's an assignment. I think we are prophets. I don't know if that's the right word. We are all given something to do. I think my own is to make people happy. When people are happy, I'm happy. When I earn money I only have a part of it, and the rest is for others. I only need a little. If the others need to go to school, 'okay I got the money now.’ And building people. So I think I'm a service person...
Do you find happiness through service?
That is the best for me. It gives me great joy. So who am I? I don't know. I am Asa. I'm just all of these things I'm learning and finding about myself. I don't know yet. But I do know I love to read, I love to be quiet. I don't like attention.
You love peace. Within and without.
Oh yes. I do. I love quiet. I'm having an amazing afternoon. I like you to enjoy what I enjoy, we have a good conversation, food, travel, I don't know. We'd see. But for me, to be of service, I think that's my main purpose.
Talking about service. People put a lot of demands on entertainers. Should art mirror society?
Yes of course. like I said, they are messengers. Music or any form of art is powerful. Just writing it can create a war. It's that powerful. A lot of people try to shut down poets and authors. Why? He doesn't hold a gun.
People have tried to harm me for my writing. I love to paint pictures with my writing.
That's cool. I do love to paint pictures too with music. So you see, that's power. Again, people would expect that because with you, with an artist, we are amplified. We are powered to make a change, to create a reaction. So, definitely. But I also think celebrities should be forgiven because artists are humans too. If they don't want to be a mirror, like when you place such high expectations, because they are human still. You want some truth, you want some sincerity in what you do. Some people might be misleading people, with that high expectation of them. So they have to do this, they have to do that, to keep up. You kind of get surprised when the artist does otherwise. But the global idea is: artists, if you have a voice, if you have a medium, you're very important.
You should treat it with some sense of responsibility.
Oh yes, definitely. Your tool, your microphone, or your pen or your computer, you're influencers.
Should we separate the art from the artist? Look at R.Kelly!
No, you shouldn't. You can't. It's hard. Especially when someone has done what he has done. It won't stop me, I won't deliberately not want to listen to his songs. We also have to give it to him. He made songs that really inspired people. But would people stop listening to his music? I don't think so. We must not excuse his actions. It's wrong. All these girls coming out to say you did this, it's absolutely wrong. But the art is out there, it won't be locked.
You still have hunger. At what point would you decide to look back and consider what you've done?
From time to time, I would look back, and I would still listen to some of the songs on my albums. After I finish recording I usually don’t go back. But every now and then, before I move forward, especially when in doubt, I go back, I listen. I try to read comments, some comments...
That's a risky exercise.
Yeah. But I don't do that too often. But it's only for this purpose, when in doubt. I need to go back, and then hear what the people are saying. What did the song do? When I get that confirmation, it shows me you're on the right path. Keep writing this new stuff. This was the effect that the old song, the previous album, had. So from time to time, I would listen to a few of my favourites on my album, and I'm also in awe sometimes. How did you write that? I'm in awe, like how? So yeah, I always look back. To go forward, I look back.
Fun fact: I never finished smoking my Nicaraguan cigar. It was too important to be thrown away. I savored it for weeks, taking enthusiastic puffs, until it absorbed too much moisture to be lit again. It was a cherished memento from a fantastic working experience. I may have shed a tear when I finally flung it into the night.