Nigerian Afro-jazz singer-songwriter, Nissi, is no push-over as far as songwriting and performance are concerned. She dropped her debut single “Criminal” n 2016 and the catchy R&B-infused piece with a mix of Funk and Jazz music earned her a proper introduction into the Nigerian Music scene.
Her new rhythmic single, ‘Judi’, which essentially means ‘dance’ or more literally, “shake your bum” in Yoruba is also trending on YouTube.
With an A-list brother, Burna Boy, and an award-winning music critic as a grandfather, Benson Idonije, Nissi says she is out to carve a name for herself as an artiste. The Mechanical Engineering graduate tells PREMIUM TIMES more in this interview
PT: How would you describe your kind of music?
Nissi: I would definitely say that my music, in general, is Afro rooted but contemporarily driven and globally positioned in that it is a blend of my foundation, stemming from the highlife days of Fela Kuti and my granddad, having to learn jazz and blues from him (granddad) as well and then experimenting with all kinds of music, from reggae to funk to RnB. I think it is generally described these days as Afro-jazz or Afro-funk.
PT: But Funk is not much of a big deal here in Nigeria
Nissi: Definitely not. The key thing is you want to communicate with whoever your music is reaching and no matter what you’re saying, if you’re not saying in a way that they are enjoying, and inclined to listen to it, then you run down your job. So it’s not just about saying ten thousand words.
PT: You studied mechanical engineering. How did music come about?
Nissi: It is not a hobby. A hobby wouldn’t make you spend this much time and burn this much energy. I started doing music when I was 5 years old. I am in my mum’s music school, I play the piano, I started singing at nine, and I started recording music at thirteen. It’s always been a major thing for me.
PT: Tell us a bit about the music works you already have
Nissi: My first official single was called ‘Pay Attention’. It came out in 2016, following that I released another track called ‘Criminal’ in 2016. After that, I put out ‘Favourite List’ in 2017. Between last year and this year, I put out ‘Little Trouble’.
PT: Let’s talk about your most recent track, ‘Judi’. What is the inspiration behind it?
Nissi: In all my music, I always have to talk about a message that tackles the realities of life and that was just one of them and it was like just as much me talking to myself and everybody else that we all spend so much of our time working and hustling and trying to make things work so that we can survive and make some money but you neglect your exhaling moments. I just wanted to remind people that there is a silver lining at the end of every problem.
PT: Did you start singing before your brother, Burna Boy?
Nissi: I think in different ways we both started doing music around the same time because I started with piano and stuff, he started with Tupac and try to copy the flows of those guys. That was his beginning and my beginning was with the piano.
PT: Have you two worked together on any song?
Nissi: No, we have not.
PT: Is this deliberate?
Nissi: Yes, it kind of is because obviously, my family is very close-knit. I think it’s because we both respect each other, respect our crafts, and respect the tribulations we’ve both grown through individually. I personally think it would be so amazing if we put out a record when there is a demand for it, like people looking out for a track with Nissi and Burna Boy.
PT: Do you also feel not many people will know the back story that you have also been doing music?
Nissi: Yes. That was something that I really struggled with when I started putting out music. It was a big problem for me but I had to just say to myself that this is one of my favourite human beings on the planet doing what he wants to do and I am doing what I want to do and we are both supporting each other. Regardless of how I spin it, it is what it is, he is my brother.
PT: Do you feel being siblings with Burna Boy makes you want to match up?
Nissi: I don’t think I am one of those artistes that would have the luxury of putting on music and starting from what you call scratch. I think for me, it wasn’t too much pressure on me because I always believe that I was capable of delivering that standard. I think that is the only reason why, otherwise if I had a doubt in my abilities, I definitely would have felt much much pressure than I do right now.
PT: Where are you based most of the time?
Nissi: Most of the time I’m in London these days.
PT: Would you say you have a pretty decent fan base in London compared to Nigeria?
Nissi: I definitely think I have a lot in the diaspora. My fan base is in diaspora and just now, branching out into Nigeria.
PT: Why are you releasing ‘The Nights’ EP and not an album?
Nissi: There is so much music. I want people to kind of grow with me, which is why I don’t have any feature on this first one. Although I have other features that I will probably put in the next project. This is like the appetizer. A full album, I’ll probably say next year but I will put out another EP this year.
PT: Why are you signed on to your brother’s label?
Nissi: In the first instance, it took a while for me to nurture this mindset. It’s almost like the colonial mentality with we Africans, which is something I fight against. When outsiders come in, you’d rather do business with them than with your own. I am thinking if I am advocating for the promotion of Africa, for the African culture, being proud of your own, what sense does it make if my own has a legacy that is meant to be a legacy that you can call your own as well, and just going outside because you don’t want to be associated with your own big bro, which is what is putting us in the mess we are in at the moment.
PT: There’s also an arty side to you, how does it influence your kind of music?
Nissi: The same genre of music is kind of in parallel with my art with recreating comics to doing fine arts with different media and really growing as an artiste as a whole. It really does influence everything that I do, to be honest, in terms of how I dress, the paint on my arms, how my videos look, directing and understanding things, and unto like the animation company that I have started as well. I can’t make music without being artistic about it and I can’t do art without music.
PT: Considering your love for the arts, one would ask why you ended up studying engineering
Nissi: I studied engineering with the bias of designs like product designs, sustainable energy, and stuff like that. The reason is, to be honest, I was studying arts fully, because of my professional life of being an artiste, doing exhibitions also being a recording artiste, always having to be in the studio.
The demands of my pieces and my collections were too great for my curriculum. So, I actually sat down with my art teacher and my mum to design a way to make my life work. They would let me still use the school studio because they believed so much in my talent and I would just be making my own pieces for my own professional career. I never really stopped, I just stopped it as a school subject.
PT: Do you think female musicians are given the same level playfield as the guys?
Nissi: I don’t think so to be fair. Because it is a male-dominated industry and in any male-dominated industry, you’re definitely not going to stand on the same level ground. You have to just work hard and get the same accolades but I don’t think that there is an open condemnation.
PT: Are you ready for all the dynamics of being a female artiste in Nigeria?
Nissi: I think I studied this and I see it as everybody sees it. I think it is also part of the social expectations of females in Africa and in Nigeria specifically. We are being misogynistic with our ways and I think we are a big part of shifting that narrative. I make people want to be free with themselves. Whether you are a female or not, I want to portray the same love, the same energy beyond any social expectations, social norms. Although, obviously, you’ll be true to your personality, not to say you go and be a complete outcast you know you should be able to express yourself wholly and be respected for that. That is what is important. It is also a great thing to have people in the industry, who have the experience and can help you navigate.
PT: Aside from your brother, who are your favourites in the Nigerian music industry?
Nissi: New school wise, I like Fireboy, I like what he is doing. I think that’s it for the new school. We have our legends, of course, like 2baba, obviously my brother, obviously Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, I love Seyi Shay. I really like her.
PT: How would you describe your sense of style?
Nissi: I think it is very modern and Afrocentric. I think that is the best way to do it.
PT: Do you still find the time to run your art company?
Nissi: Yea, I do. My life is a plethora of sacrifices. I constantly have to sacrifice and to push because I want to leave a quite notable mark in the world where I take creativity as a whole. I have done exhibitions in Nigeria, Terakulture, I have had a few there. I had my first exhibition in Terakulture in 2016. I still paint and all and there will be an exhibition in December this year. Hopefully, COVID allows us.
PT: What are your thoughts about the Nigerian music industry?
Nissi: I think we have industry but I don’t think we have a system that allows the industry to work the way it should. I do think that we have the talent. I love the fact that in Nigeria and Africa, music is not just technicalities. There’s also a feeling about it that pushes you. However, I am sometimes disappointed with the limitations that people have in terms of music. It is not broad enough just yet.
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