Our very own kwaito general, Kabelo Mabalane, said: “You can’t keep a good man down.” Soul singer Asa epitomises this statement. This phoenix that keeps on rising spoke to Helen Herimbi .
On the first listen to Asa’s (pronounced Asha) self-titled debut, one can tell that she is an autobiographical social commentator. Take for instance the first track, Jailor, in which she sings about oppression on all levels.
“At that moment that song was very necessary,” she says over the telephone from Paris. “Jailor gained notoriety on the underground and was necessary since I had my very own jailor then.”
This “jailor” came in the form of a deal that went pear-shaped a few years ago. Asa, Nigerian born and living in France, explains: “I was in a production agreement with some label that was started in Nigeria, because they heard my music.”
But not everything was as it seemed. “I wanted to work, I was enthusiastic and they had great ideas, but as time went on I started feeling weird. They were trying to make me sing songs that they chose and I was beginning to have fears for the future.”
This 25-year-old made the decision to abort this partnership when “they started suggesting drugs to get a super-performance – and that didn’t blend with my ideas.”
Asa, who usually sounds very serious when she speaks, softens her tone with: “It’s not that I wanted every thing to go my way, but when you are in this for a reason and for the future … I didn’t want to be desperate. So I left. Apart from that the music wasn’t good, I was just a singer. A singer without feelings, without emotions, without thought.”
But that’s not where it ends. Soon Asa began to fear for her life.
“So with all this I got a lot of threats, because I realised I was working with a group of men who tried to legalise dirty money. When I terminated the agreement with them, I had a lot of threats, and I still do. I was home in Lagos two weeks ago and I had a threat on my life, that I would be killed. I had to leave immediately.”
It is out of this horrendous situation that she found a new deal and began making music that she is proud of. Her album includes English and Yoruba songs, covering topics ranging from war, blood diamonds and to the state of Africa in general. It has amassed “a very positive reception in places like France, Italy and Spain”.
But her raw sound – which is enhanced by her acoustic guitar skills – has granted her comparisons with some of our greatest authentic musicians.
While names like Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill and India.Arie come up “probably because I listened to them while growing up,” Asa is determined to carve her own niche in the industry. She explains: “My music is soul with a fusion of folk, hip-hop, reggae and jazz.”
As a result her latest single, Fire on the Mountain, which borrows from reggae influences, has been on high rotation on MTV base and Trace TV.
And Asa is adamant that her past will not keep her down as she shares her future plans. “I want to keep creating, writing.”
This article appeared in Tonight on 27 February 2008.