Nigeria: From Ella Fitzgerald to Wizkid, Aṣa’s radical turn

By Eva Sauphie
Posted on Friday, 13 May 2022 12:05

Nigerian singer Asa © ASA/PLATOON

With ‘V’, her fifth album, which she recorded in Lagos, Nigerian singer Aṣa has taken the time to reconnect with the local scene and collaborate with some big-name artists, like Wizkid.

Gone is the guitar-wielding, wise-cracking rocker look. Aṣa, whose real name is Bukola Elemide, has swapped her huge black glasses – her trademark since the beginning of her career – for flashy tinted lenses. She has even been daring enough to post pictures of herself wearing grillz, the favourite accessory of US rappers, on her Instagram account. This is a sign that the jazz enthusiast – who grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and her father’s vinyl records, from Marvin Gaye to Fela Kuti – has done a 180.

39-year-old Aṣa is a heavyweight in the Nigerian pop music scene. In her new and fifth album, V, she has joined forces with Wizkid, the king of Afrobeat; The Cavemen, a high life band; and 27-year-old Ghanaian soul singer Amaarae. This is a little pop-tinged rejuvenation for the woman who has accustomed us to subtle collaborations, such as the one with jazz flautist Malik Mezzadri in her first opus Aṣa, which won the Constantin Prize in 2008.

“Happier and jovial”

This desire for change was evident as early as 2019, when the artist parted ways with her historic French label, Naïve Records, to release Lucid on her own label, Rue 11.

“I needed to regain control of my image, to be completely free to manage my career and to be the real Aṣa, happier and jovial,” she says as she leaves her music studio in Lagos, hidden behind her black frames.

Born in Paris to Nigerian parents who returned home shortly after her birth, Aṣa first made a name for herself in France, a country she adopted at the age of 20 when she began “late” to strum her six-string.

It was time for the woman who has long gravitated towards the French-speaking scene, collaborating for example with the Ivorian reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly and Frenchman Yannick Noah, to reconnect with the country where she grew up. “I needed to reconnect with the people who make music happen back home,” she says.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the city

In the spring of 2020, the singer had to cancel her European tour because of the Covid-19 pandemic. After a concert in Germany and a visit to Paris, she finally settled in Lagos.

“Going home was the best decision I ever made,” she says. “Without this long interlude in the country, I would never have met the artists and people who participated in this album, like my producer Priime.”

“Coming back home has benefitted me artistically,” says this nomadic composer, who never travels without her notebook. “I never wanted to lose contact with Nigeria. France gave me a lot, but my songs were always inspired by Lagos.”

Composed far from the noise of the city, in her home on the edge of the lagoon, her latest opus is a jewel box of softness and lightness. Aṣa sings of love, and more love.

“The world is connected now, there are no more borders. The public listens to music to escape and continue to live,” she says when asked who Fela Kuti’s heirs are and why the current scene is all about entertainment.

Yoruba, Pidgin and English

The singer refuses to be labelled as an activist, even though she was more militant in the past. For instance, she sang about violence against women on her previous album, on the track ‘Murder in the USA’, and in support of people living with HIV in Abidjan in 2015.

A “more serene and at peace with herself” Aṣa provided this positive energy to the Nigerian youth in May at the Eko Hotel in Lagos, a luxury complex where she had performed twice before.

“I am at home in Lagos. Everyone knows the story behind my lyrics, their words, my expressions,” says the polyglot who switches from English to French, her heart language, which she has abandoned for this album in favour of Yoruba, Pidgin and English. “It’s like a conversation with the public, with a family.”

The artist – who has already performed in Togo, Liberia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe – hopes to “tour all over Africa” and while waiting to fulfil “this dream”, she plans to meet up with her old fans again at a concert scheduled for September at La Cigale in Paris.

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