by ‘Damilola Oyedele
We wish to apologise to readers who bought Y! Issue 3 and had mashed-up pages of the Asa interview. The error is due to a Printer-Devil (pun intended). We apologise, and have therefore put up the full interview here for your reading pleasure. Thanks for buying the magazine! 🙂
Meet Asa, the woman.
SHE BROKE onto our collective consciousness with fire in her voice, a bag of captivating tales and the stirring twangs of her guitar – our hearts melted. The dreadlock-wearing, guitar-wielding soul singer was – still is – sometimes too good to be true. But there is Asa the artiste – who can control a stage like no one we have seen since Fela – and there is Asa, the woman who continues to evolve behind the scenes. For the most part, Asa kept her personal life very close to her chest. Until now. The soft-spoken crooner talks to ‘Damilola Oyedele about the distinctive ideals, thoughts and experiences that have shaped the inner core she has never before spoken about…
“She’s like me,” Bukola Elemide says of one of Nigeria’s premier soul artistes, a woman she sees as a mentor. “She’s vague; you never really know what she’s thinking.”
So yes, she knows what we think of her: that she’s withdrawn; aloof. “I didn’t have a balanced childhood,” she tries to explain.
“I didn’t have a balanced childhood”
Early in life, the Bukola who became Asa (Yoruba for ‘Hawk’) dealt firsthand with the bleak reality of divorcing parents. “It wasn’t a sweet marriage between my parents. It was abusive,” she reveals, sharing her response. “As an only girl, I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. I had to be responsible, I had to be straight, I had to be watchful. That’s why some people think I’m serious or I’m snobbish, but I just mind my business. I have so much on my small shoulders; you can’t imagine, and the less problems, the better for me, so I just take it easy.”
Growing up as offspring of a sour marriage might have damaging, but it came with its unique blessings. “I took a conscious decision to be right for so many, so many people,” she says firmly. “I wanted to prove a point to those who felt, ‘Hey, you’re nothing. You’ve been stained; you don’t have hope’”.
She remembers being just a young girl with a dream. “I always wanted to be a musician,” she tells me. “But I never got the chance to have an instrument. I only had the instrument in my head, and the table top, and my mother’s cream tube for my microphone. That was the only way out, but I still wanted to let the world know me.”
It’s not difficult to imagine the little girl drumming on the dining table as she hums a made up tune. Just a few minutes before this interview started, as she waited, scanning through the pages of an old Y! issue, she unconsciously begins to stir her feet in a fast rhythm. That restless spirit has allowed this eagle soar beyond imagination.
“I needed to prove a point to my mother, you know, that you’re going to have a daughter – children that you can be proud of,” she says.
Her song for her mother, Beautiful, in her first album, was a true story. “I have a mother who I love so much,” she says.
And just like the lyrics Ni to ri omo, o je iya ni ile oko (For her child, she suffered in her marriage), Asa still believes that sacrifice is one of the hallmarks of motherhood; developing a deep respect for women because of the example her mother set. “I saw my mum sacrifice; she went all the way,” Asa recalls quietly, her eyes still. “She watched me grow and took me through the stages of adolescence into womanhood. If she didn’t stay with me I don’t know what I would have become.”
So would Asa let go of her career for her children?
She laughs. “You know, this is what I love to do, but that’s why I say there’s a time for everything. I don’t know what it feels like to be a mother; I’m not yet a mother, but definitely for my child I would,” she says, now serious. “I see it as a very important thing to give to my kids. My mother gave up so many opportunities in her life. It happens. Sometimes you can have your kids and still do what you have to do, but some people choose to sacrifice.”
The older woman has clearly left an indelible mark. “It’s sacred …motherhood,” Asa says. “It’s something that I respect; I look forward to. Motherhood is more complicated than fatherhood. It’s different. The baby comes out from you; you’re connected from the womb.”
This glimpse deep into Asa’s soul… is rare. It’s rare because it speaks straight to vulnerabilities no one would imagine behind the veneer of tomboyish toughness, confidence. But it’s also incredibly enlightening – leading one to see just how autobiographic her debut album was, and to appreciate the beauty of such brave honesty, and possibly why that album was so magnificently successful – she firmly believes in everything she’s saying. “Most children I know are closer to the mother. There are a lot of things a woman can’t do, that a man can, this is what makes it so sacred. It’s not carefree; not something you overlook. It is serious,” she says.
There is something simultaneously troubling and beautiful about the Nigerian culture where, she says, “a mother can separate from her husband, and you will rarely find her going to find another man. She would rather remain married to her children. Her children see that and they appreciate it.”
And how much is she looking forward to having children of her own? “I’m chilling. It will come,” she replies, smiling. “I’m not going after it, I’m not killing myself. I have been lucky to do things at the right time. When it’s the right time, everything is easy. It just falls on your lap.”
I never trusted people – I didn’t trust men for a long time.”
Be my man!
After listening to Asa, the first album, for a three-year loop, many would be forgiven for pegging her music as ‘serious’ – dealing with themes of war, sacrifice, pain, oppression – but then came the debut single from the sophomore album, and it was brand new woman shaking and wiggling, a naughty smile playing by the sides of her mouth, for her man in the spectacular video for the song Be My Man. We couldn’t help thinking ‘wow, so she had it in her!’.
“The song is a fun song, I’m just having fun in the song,” she admits. “And I’m the one saying, you know what, I’m taking the risk [of falling in love], but I’m aware. I’m breaking mama’s rule. I know it’s wrong, but tonight I’m in love. We’re going to go and do all the cheesy things in the world.”
She’s all smiles as she talks me through it. “Usually the man says that,” she has a twinkle in her eyes now. “But this time I’m the one saying it. It might be good, it might be wrong, but I’m going to go for it.”
And what kind of man would Asa sing ‘Be my man’ to? How would she know the one? “I could ask you the same question,” she replies, laughing. “But you feel it. It takes time to know. It’s not immediate – you have to build a friendship. You meet people from different backgrounds; with different temperaments. You take something about that person and it stays with you, even from friends. You learn something from everyone you meet, and it’s personal.”
She shares an experience. “My friends always told me ‘Asa when you’re in love, mehn, if it goes sour, you’re going to cry’, and I’m like ‘oh, shut up!’ I thought I was strong. But later I was in a relationship with a guy in France, and he just disappeared. I didn’t know why. For weeks I was crazy, I was going back to the same spot where we met, hoping he would come. And then I asked myself, ‘what are you doing? You have to get over it’.”
That experience birthed one of the top tracks on Asa’s debut album: the absolutely relatable hard-hitting lyrics and melancholy of love lost on Bibanke. It came straight from the heart. “I was saying ‘If I cry, just let me be because I really am hurt’,” she explains.
I almost wanted to hug her.
Ties that bind
How does she keep herself grounded through all of this though? “I grew up with God,” she says simply. “It’s God that keeps us together in this country where there’s so much pain and struggle. I don’t really agree with the church, but I definitely agree with God. I believe in God. I trust in God, not in humans, because they’re always going to mess you up. It’s the way we’re built. We go about relationships the way we go about religion. There’s so much religion and so little love – what’s the idea?”
This sense of a relationship with God clearly defines her views on a lot of matters – including, not surprisingly, marriage. “Marriage is important. It’s beautiful – you grow, you fight, you make up, you build a life together. That’s how God wants it to be – a union,” she says. “You need your partner; your friend. The most beautiful part is you have your kids, and you share and grow together. But you need to find the right person and nothing less.”
Still, she has a grudge. “We need to change the idea of what people think a woman should be,” Asa says with some force. “In our society, young women are pressured to be married by a certain age, regardless of whether they are ready in other areas of their lives.” We share a few jokes, girl to girl, about the concerns of anxious family members.
“Even my mum!” she says, rolling her eyes. “She asks ‘So how are you? Who’s the guy?’ I say, ‘look, when I’m ready to show you the right man, I will! But I certainly won’t go to the first man I meet.” She pauses and then smiles: “I hear that Nigerian men are formatted. They can say ‘I’m ready to marry in six months’ time’.” But there is one matter on which she will not smile. “Divorce is wrong. I don’t like it. It could ruin the child. Very few children are strong enough [to cope with it],” she says, herself the product of a broken marriage. “I am the result; I was affected by it. I never trusted people – I didn’t trust men for a long time.”
Another pause as a thought clearly runs through her head. “I think that was a good thing, because I didn’t get pregnant,” she adds, smiling.
One wonders though, where her father is in all of this. “He’s still my father and I respect him for that,” she says, also sharing her tight bond with her siblings, to whom she still plays mum at times. But again, it’s her mother that’s queen of her heart. “She’s proud of me,” Asa says, proud of herself.
There’s so much religion and so little love – what’s the idea?”
Talking about her life might get her quiet, but talking about her music makes her light up – and Beautiful Imperfectionhas enough wattage – but it’s also because the album speaks to the place she is at right now in her life, and it’s a good place.
“I’m happier in this album,” the soul singer confesses. “You say it’s more glam, but I’m a chick! I just want to be a lady and really start to live the way I want to. In the first album I was so very disappointed. I had to leave university. My parents didn’t have money. I needed to bring that out, and I did. I’ve said mine, and now we’ve got to move on. What’s the next step? I said ‘hey, I’m a lady! I’m actually a beautiful lady, come on!’” She giggles.
“When I know the song is the right one, all my nerves stand; they are awake. Trust me, there are a lot of songs that people shouldn’t even hear because they’re not right, or maybe it’s not the right time, but when the right song comes, I’m fidgeting; I want to share it!”
She’s really in a good place now – and you can feel it, and be happy for her. “Now I’m beginning to live the life that I didn’t live as a child, I’m beginning to open up and look inward; to feel myself. I needed to stop for a minute and quit trying to always sort out other people’s problems, because it wasn’t any better for me, you know?” She sighs. “My journey has been beautiful but it has imperfection, and that’s lovely because it makes me fly; it makes me want to get up in the morning.”
Again, it’s clear: Asa’s music hits home for her listeners because she draws from a deep well of personal experience. Her lyrics and tunes are a conscious effort, pointing to where she is at that moment in time. “For me, every step has been inspired by the happenings around me, and that’s why when people come to me and say they relate, I feel proud. I’m not just talking to myself but to other people,” she says.
Not that making this album came without challenges. There were so many things that didn’t work out according to the plan. “It was great, but also crazy,” she tells me. “We got stuck in New York because of immigration issues, when I was supposed to be in France. I think God just smiled and said ‘No, you’re going to go my way’. It worked out and I’m happy.”
She collaborated with Nigerian producer Cobhams Asuquo on this one as well, though the album was recorded by Tchad Blake. “I’m very hopeful and positive about this album – so far, so good,” she shares. “I’m more positive about it than the last one. A second album is not easy; you don’t have as much time as you had in the beginning. You get a little bit of pressure, and I didn’t want to be pressured so I went to the village. I love the village – that’s reality.”
She says “teaching through music” is what she has decided to do with her talent. “There are so many people that do music that makes you happy, and that’s good, and then there are other people that bring awareness of what is going on around us,” she says. “I remember when I was kid, ‘Bata mi a dun ko ko ka’, made me bury my head into my book. Nigerians want good music and they deserve to have it. We used to have good music back then – I’m not saying we don’t have now – but I wanted to do another kind of music in the sense of bringing folk back, bringing back the days of storytelling, and the days when we were educated through music.”
But it’s not just Nigerians. “To everyone,” she tells me, excitement building. “Be you Nigerian, South African, English, American. I wanted to speak on topics that were general, but from my point of view as a Nigerian. We need to be educated. We need to be open. We’re not open, and it’s because of poverty. When there’s no food you have no time to think of any other thing but survival.”
“What’s the next step? I said ‘hey, I’m a lady! I’m actually a beautiful lady, come on!’”
She speaks of survival, because she has known those battles – some times at the most primal level, but through it all she stands – a beautiful woman, a talented performer, a role model to younger women.
“Every time I’m through talking to Asa and Janet (Nwose, her manager), I feel like anything is possible!” said a friend of these two to me at the interview. I totally agree. Speaking to Asa leaves you happy, hopeful, and refreshed.
And when all is said and done, if there’s one thing Asa knows, it’s that she’s grateful – for where she is now, and for what she has become. “It’s beautiful,” she says, smiling. “To be a woman is really beautiful.” Y!
This article is culled from Y! Magazine Issue 3, out in stores now. To read more of this and other exciting pieces, buy a copy! (Click HERE to find a vendor near you)
More pictures of Asa below!
Photo credit: Obi Somto for Y! Magazine