Guest Post: I’m a Nigerian-Irish Artist that Ignored Her Roots for Years

artist, creativity, music

There’s a saying that says that to return to your roots is to find meaning – not in the future, not in a desire, not in the end, but in the beginning. You can thank for that intro. As much as I would like to have everyone assume that I’m a fantastic wordsmith, considering I’m a whole ass songwriter, I can’t take credit for that definition.

I have no real experience in writing articles like this and I don’t know where to start, but I can always tell you who I am. I’m Jennifer. I’m 20. I’m a singer-songwriter, I produce electronic pop songs. I’m a critically acclaimed over-thinker, I’m Nigerian and Irish. Yes, I’m black. Yes, we exist.

Erika has tasked me with the job of writing an article about how my roots have influenced my artistry and how I see myself as an artist. For the longest time, I struggled to think of ways in which it has. I began to take a mental inventory. The genre of music I make is not directly influenced by my Nigerian roots. It’s very, very far away from music that people assume should come from me in the first place. I could go into a spiel about how people expect me to either make afro beats or slow R’n’B songs about men, but I digress. 

I make electronic pop music. It’s not the Nigerian gospel my parents play on Sundays, and it’s not a 2020 version of Usher’s ‘Burn’ that my dad plays in the car every Saturday on our food shop trips. It doesn’t hold any type of resemblance to Beyoncé’s ‘Dangerous in Love’ that my dad proudly put on our shelf in the living room. So, did my roots influence my music at all? And is it a bad thing that it doesn’t, and never has? Am I being disingenuous by not allowing my roots to play a part in my music? Does it mean that I’m disconnected from my roots because you can’t hear it in the music I create?

Basically, I was having an existential crisis. 

I can’t lie. As I’m writing this, I’m still figuring out the answer.

I’ve come to the conclusion, that ‘your roots’ doesn’t have to be just one thing and it does not have only one definition. People normally talk about roots as your family origins, the particular place you come from, and the experiences you’ve had living there. But roots can be a combination of things that bring you back to your essence. If you’re Nigerian like me, you’ll know that “your roots are everything”, because your parents refuse to let you forget.

I’ve realised that you can see my roots in the way I see myself and hold myself as an artist in the middle of 2020. My music may not have stereotypically ‘black’ or ‘Nigerian’ aspects to it, like afro beats or something, but if you know who I am, you know the following: I call out social injustice whenever and wherever I see it, and my whole essence as an artist is to challenge the status quo. I’m a black girl making pop music who openly and loudly speaks about social and racial injustice, and if I make a few people feel uncomfortable while doing it, I couldn’t give less of a fuck than I already do.

When I thought deeper about it, I realised that this attitude I have towards being an artist, how I stand in what I do, and my willingness to call out what is wrong doesn’t come out of nowhere, and isn’t only a result of the internet age. My first exposure to this type of music and honest, revealing, and political artistry was through Nigerian music and nothing else, and I had never realised it until a few weeks ago. 

Adviser Nowamagbe, a very well-known Edo Artist among my parents’ generation in Nigeria created an album that had imprinted itself on my brain. Not because it’s particularly catchy, but more because my parents never stopped playing it. The album was called ‘Fake E.F.C.C’ and was a body of work in which every song criticised Nigeria’s EFCC, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Every single lyric in every single song was condemning the corruption that was rampant within the highest levels of politics in Nigeria. In particular the EFCC, whose main function was to investigate financial crimes, such as money laundering but which was, in reality, stealing money and people’s futures. I’ve never fully understood everything he was saying, as this music is in our native language, Bini, but I had enough knowledge of the language to get the gist. 

This guy was directly addressing one of the nation’s most important commissions, insulting them, calling them out, and exposing them for their crimes all through music, harmony, drums, and reverb. He was saying things everyone else was probably too afraid to, and using his art as a vehicle to express powerful truths and echo the thoughts of a whole country. There was a reason why at every party held at my house, this would be the backdrop of my aunties and uncles’ conversation about the corruption that never seemed to fade within Nigeria. I would sit beside my dad and listen to what everybody was saying, and look at the passion on their faces as they spoke of the need for a revolution. All this conversation brought about by one album. Most of the time, we’d only be 5 minutes in. 

The first song I wrote that I ever performed outside of my bedroom was a song called ‘The Colour Black’ about police brutality in America, inspired by the murder of Sandra Bland. I was 17 and I sang it in front of a room of white people, where I was the only black performer. It was a big deal for me because my parents had tried to convince me to sing something different. After all: “They may not like you saying all these things. It’s Ireland, you know”. But in my 17-year-old brain, there was a message to get out, and someone had to do it. I decided it was going to be me. Much love for 17-year-old Jennifer who thought she was saving the world with one 3-minute song at a small writing competition, but we love the enthusiasm.

The music I write now may not always be about social injustice, but I aim to be an artist that stands for something bigger than myself. I used to think this was a result of the internet, but it’s also in my roots. I grew up with Nigerian artists that are not afraid to speak up. 

I’ve got Nigerian parents, so spirituality holds a heavy presence in my life. I was the kid who was obsessed with the mystical parts of our world, myths, and stories of gods and demi-gods (this part my parents were unsure about because Greek mythology is not Roman Catholicism), but yes, I’d read ‘Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief’. You know how it is.

Two months ago, I changed my artist name from JENN to SPIDER, a decision I never even realized was me taking a step closer to my roots of spirituality. People ask me why I’ve decided to name myself SPIDER when I have lowkey arachnophobia. The answer is complex, and I feel like I give a different one each time, because there’s never been just one reason why the name has resonated so much. I’ll give a brief summary, though. 

I was raised to believe in signs, spirits, and a higher power that is looking out for me. A few months ago, I was in quite a dark place. I wasn’t creating anything or making any music. I had given up on everything creativity-wise and I had given up on myself. I was tired of being patient and felt like everything was against me. That’s when I started noticing an insane number of spiders cropping up in my room each day, and I kept having to get my flatmate Elena to get rid of them for me. It got so ridiculous that my spiritual side was kicked up the ass, and I googled what the meaning of this was.

In the spiritual world, when something shows up repeatedly in your life, it’s a sign from the universe that you have important lessons to learn, so you can grow in certain areas. Lo and behold, ladies and gents, spiritually talking, spiders can show up as an animal totem to tell you that you need to learn patience and get in touch with your creative energy again. Spiders have incredible patience and are masters of complexity because of how they weave their webs. The spider wants you to become more in touch with your emotions and your darker side, to slow down and take your time to create, to look at life through a different lens, to create your own story based on the experiences you’ve had, to examine your shadow self. So yes, the universe was calling me out. 

Spiders are associated with three things – creation, assertiveness, and the connection between past and future. Spiders also make their webs, and then just let things fall into place for them. They do the work but still allow themselves to be receptive. 

I make music under the name SPIDER to remind myself of my creative power, to remind myself that I weave the web of my life, that things can fall into place for me, to remind myself to be fucking patient and to create because that’s the whole reason for why I’m here. 

Ironically, spirituality and religion were parts of my heritage I desperately tried to run away from, and now I’m running back. As I get older, I’m starting to make out a breadcrumb trail that leads to my roots. Seeing how it’s made its way into how I see myself as an artist and how I use the space my creativity gives me is quite beautiful. As a black girl who once tried her hardest to distance herself from her blackness, her roots, and culture, accepting this breadcrumb trail and even shining a light on it is something I didn’t think I’d ever do. That’s growth, baby! (Get it, because roots grow. Okay, I’m gone.)

Written by SPIDER

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