The reinvention of Aṣa, Nigeria’s premier soul music diva

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By Wilfred Okiche

In February, Asa, the Paris-born, Lagos-bred soul music superstar who now shares her time between both cities, released V, her fifth studio album and eighth project in all. A soulful interpretation of contemporary Nigerian pop, it is her first full dive into the depths of Afrobeats music.

For years, Nigeria’s premier soul music diva has built a career crafting soul tunes about the human condition.

Her eponymous, platinum-selling debut album arrived in 2007 and became an instant classic.

With that record, Aṣa created a rich soundscape blending indie-pop, soul, jazz, folk and R&B genres into an irresistible package that went straight for the mainstream, charting in Europe and landing in the Billboard Heatseekers chart in the United States. The record also won her the now discontinued French Constantin Award in 2008.

Her unique sound, birthed in that debut, was recreated across the three albums that followed. and has directly influenced a new generation of alternative artists looking to express themselves outside the confines of radio-friendly pop. American rocker Lenny Kravitz is a huge fan. So is Kenyan Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.

Fifteen years after the first album and a little more than two years after her last, Lucid, it is Asa who is now incorporating elements of what is considered radio-friendly pop today, into her own music.

Nigerian singer Asa performs on the Stravinski Hall stage during the 45th Montreux Jazz Festival
Nigerian singer Asa performs on the Stravinski Hall stage during the 45th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, 12 July 2011. [File: Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA]
A newfound edge
But while the songstress – born Bukola Elemide 39 years ago – admits this shift in direction, she considers it more of a creative extension than a sudden departure. “For V, I wanted a fresh take on Afrobeats,” Aṣa told Al Jazeera from her home studio in Lagos. “I wanted a hybrid of genres that is Afrocentric with plenty of percussion.”

Afrobeats, the dominant sound in Nigeria and across the West African region, is a catch-all term representing a constellation of ever-expanding, percussion-driven sounds accommodating everything from hip hop, R&B, dancehall and amapiano.

It is also currently seducing the rest of the world.

The Grammys in particular, have taken notice too, awarding Nigerian pop star Burna Boy the best Global Music Album trophy last year for his Twice as Tall album.

Aṣa is the latest of several Nigerian artists heralding the Afrobeats wave. But ecstatic as she is about the global explosion of Afrobeats, she does not consider herself new to the sound or jumping on a trend.

“People say Aṣa is doing Afrobeats now, but I have been doing it from the start,” she explained to Al Jazeera. “Like every other major genre of music, Afrobeats has several branches and mine is just one of them.”

The matter of labels comes up in conversation, just like in descriptions of the artist and their music, by fans, purists and other stakeholders in the record industry. But Aṣa, who understands the convenience of labels, does not subscribe to them.

“The main thing is the soul,” she said about her music. ‘I don’t necessarily do soul music in the American kind of way but with every song I record, be it Afrobeats or whatever, there is the soul that I put in it. And you feel it.”

For Nigerian music critic Dami Ajayi, the newfound edge in the latest output from an artist long heralded as a leading voice in blending soulful rhythms to African sensibilities, is only the latest example of a long line of singers taking creative risks mid-career.

“Every career needs unexpected detours,” said Ajayi. “I am most delighted about her new direction and frankly, no one saw it coming.”

Letting go and letting loose
The journey to V began in 2020 after COVID forced Aṣa to cancel her Lucid tour in promotion of her fourth album in Europe. She returned from Paris – where she spends a lot of time – to Lagos, the city which she says inspires a great deal of her creativity.

Yearning to reconnect with the people and sounds of the city, Aṣa threw the doors to her Lagos home open, inviting a revolving roster of contemporary artistes to her studio to share ideas and in some cases, make music.

It was during one of these sessions that Aṣa met P.Priime, the prodigious 20-year-old producer who became her primary collaborator on V, producing all but one of the album’s 10 songs.

With only a handful of hits in his catalogue at the time, P.Priime had accompanied Nigerian singer Fireboy DML to her home and Aṣa was immediately struck by the depth of his talent.

“Priime is versatile,” she told Al Jazeera. “He is not just a beatmaker, but a proper producer and he goes a hundred percent all through the process.”

On one occasion, P.Priime forgot his midi keyboard at her place. Aṣa, who had no contact for him, put out a search party led by her manager Janet Nwose.

The producer’s return morphed into “a session that just clicked so we kept working together”, he told Al Jazeera. “She plays the guitar and I play the keyboard so that is where most of our collaborations originated from – the instruments.”

With V, Aṣa was looking to respond to the state of the world at the time of recording. Best known for melancholic anthems like Jailer and Bibanke that criticized human foibles and failures, the Aṣa that shows up on V is more assured, laid back and oozing good vibes only.

Her state of mind during songwriting was a reaction to the times.

“With the world going through a pandemic, there was no need to write another dark song,” she said. “I wanted some relief. A lot of the songs on V are about trying to get out of down moments.”

Not that making V was a walk in the park; the record presented new levels of difficulty for Aṣa who was forced to let go of her niggling quest for perfection.

Previously, she has tackled heavy themes like immigration, domestic violence and sexual assault on some of her most potent records. So for V, she had to learn to not approach her songwriting with the same notable rigour that birthed stone-cold classics like Fire on the Mountain.

“V is about the melodies, the texture and where the music takes you,” she said. “I didn’t spend too much time fussing over the lyrics… I had to allow myself to be vulnerable and write without overediting or stressing unreasonably. It felt good not to create tension for a change.”

Letting go also meant that for the first time in her 15-year recording career, Aṣa made room for guest artists on her album, shooting breezy melodic chants with Nigerian superstar Wizkid on IDG and making groovy vibes with highlife duo The Cavemen on Good Times. On the trappy bounce of All I Ever Wanted, she even adopted a silky falsetto to keep up with Ghanaian-American alté sensation Amaarae.

The record remains polished even when Aṣa tries minimalism in her lyricism and thematic concerns. Cohesive and impeccably produced, V plays like the work of someone who could do popular music in their sleep but deliberately chooses not to.

This willingness to shift gears comes with having the utmost respect for, and being inspired by, her creative collaborators, Aṣa explained. Despite imprinting so much influence on the culture, the freedom and “the looseness” in the work of the African artistes who arrived after her shaped her creative process and direction on V.

And that has made all the difference.

“When I get too hard on myself, I just think of the younger guys and ask “what would they do?” she said. “They don’t think too much, they just go for it. It isn’t that they aren’t thorough. I love that they do their thing and defend it. They inspire me.”