Politicize Your Playlist with Nissi Ogulu
Meet Nissi Ogulu
Nissi is a Nigerian-born, UK-based musician. Her EP is on the way, she’s joining Burna Boy for his “Life on The Outside” Europe tour, and she has a number of entrepreneurial projects on the go.
We had the chance to chat with Nissi about her music, how she honours her Nigerian roots, works with family, and how her migration stories influence her work.
How did you get started in the music industry?
“My family is very musical - I grew up around it.”
I hid my musical side for a while, until I was 13. I met someone who ended up becoming my best friend - he was trying to start producing music and he heard me singing one day. He was 15 at the time and we literally went to the studio and made a jazz record. We played it for our friends and they were shocked. My grandfather is an afrobeat legend (he managed Fela Kuti) - when he heard it, he said we had to take it to the next level. That’s how it all started.
What are you working on these days?
“I’m a musician, automotive designer, painter, and I run an animation company.”
I believe in capitalizing off all your talents!
I’ve got an EP on the way - it’ll be released October 2018, stay tuned for the exact date!
I’m doing a lot of automotive design alongside the music and art. It’s tough and it eats into my sleep, but I’ll do it for as long as I can! I’m an automotive designer for Jaguar and Landrover. I also worked on a humanitarian project recently, designing a car for the Red Cross in Austria - that’s the kind of stuff I like to do.
I have an art company, that’s me as a painter and go around and do exhibitions. There’s also Moxie Lagos, an accessory line. If an artist is going on tour, we’ll design the merchandise for them. We also have our own products, like phone cases, accessories.
I also have an animation company called Taeps - We create African influenced animations, based off of African mythology & stories. We’re still quite new, we started about a year ago and we’re just about to release our first short film.
You work in so many mediums - do you find that it influences the music you create?
“Definitely. And vice versa - the music influences other art forms.”
Like when I’m working on a collection for an exhibition. Each collection tells a story and the story I’m working on now is “music as a weapon.”
Music is the only universal language. Anyone can understand music, whether you understand the language or not. I mash up different cultures and add one instrument that looks normal - to say, “this is the weapon.”
The message behind your 2016 song “Pay Attention” (and its music video) is politically charged.
We’re often told to stay quiet about our values/politics as artists on the come up, and to share that side of ourselves once we’ve “made it.” What’s your take on this formula?
“I want to show people that this is what I’m really about.”
That formula is something I hear a lot - I do understand the music business and in terms of marketing, doing things that are relatable first and saving your views for later.
But I’m also very empathetic and a big humanitarian at heart. Those are the things that I find very important. Even if I’m trying to market myself first, I really want to show people that this is what I’m really about. Even if it’s just 1 song out of 6, or in a video form.
Pay Attention was more about the quality of the music and the message - it was too hard to pass up. And that was my first official release - in my mind, it was an opportunity to put out a song that had great content and great context. That’s why I wanted to do Pay Attention first - to set the bar for myself.
You’ve got strong ties to Nigeria’s music scene and you’ve studied abroad. Does your migration story shape your sound/art?
“I’m very big on Africans exploring Africa as a whole - whether it’s music or business, to develop it and not to exploit it.”
I’m like a sponge, picking things up everywhere I go. If you meet me for the first time, you might think I’m really quiet because I’m more of an observer - I soak up a lot, but I also know I have roots that I have to pay tribute.
Whether I’m singing a pop song or a rock song, I’ll always make sure there’s some sense of African sounds. I like to explore and do other things, but I also like to maintain the fact that this is where I come from. That’s essentially how I operate within all the moving around.
You’re performing in London on October 7th - do you prefer working in the studio or performing on stage?
“I prefer performing - the feeling is second to none.”
When I’m on-stage, I can express a different side of me. I don’t even believe half the things I’m doing! It’s great, I can’t even describe the energy and the vibe but I enjoy that outlet. But that’s not to say that I don’t like creating - I can’t live without creating.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
“I get my body painted, I pray, and talk to my mom in person or over the phone.”
They’re not rituals per-se, but that’s the usual set up. And the body paint is part of my look!
So what should we expect in terms of new projects?
I’ve got an EP I’m working on, a few collaborations, and some visual ideas I’m putting together. I’ve got a bit of a Donald Glover in me right now - I’m trying to show people how visuals and audio can come together. I’m really looking forward to seeing what that turns out to be.
You and your brother have pretty distinct sounds, but have you considered collaborating on a song?
“Yes! A Burna Boy collab is coming in the near future.”
We work on small things together now, but we’ll do something bigger in the near future. Yes, we’ve had different career paths and I don’t want the narrative to be “Nissi: Burna Boy’s sister,” but he’s also my best friend and I want to develop a musical relationship with him too.
How does family dynamics shape your work? We noticed that your sister styles you!
“I think God was very clever with my family.”
I’m not saying this because she’s my sister, but she’s the best fashion designer/stylist you’ll come across. She styled me and my brother from the jump and she’s got her own stuff too - it’s all perfect. My mom is also a manager in the industry so it’s a full-on family unit. And when you get to spend quality time with your family while you’re working, you get to know them on a work level too.
Anytime you’re creating art, it’s very emotional. When you can relate to your family as creatives and not just family, you can’t get any closer than that. I find that to be such a blessing. Even when we get on each other’s nerves (with tempers, egos and all that), we’re able to understand each other better.
Who are some new artists that you’re excited about?"
“When you’re working on your own project, you kind of stop listening to other people.”
I’m a little off on my new artists. But I would say, I’m in love with H.E.R. And I just discovered Masego - I’m really loving his music.
Then there’s my classics that I’m always listening to - Alicia Keys, Nino Simone, Etta James. And if we’re talking about the Afrobeat scene, I really like Tiwa’s music. And I’m listening to a lot of Burna Boy.
Who’s on your wishlist for music collaborations?
“Alicia Keys is on the top.”
Ou, that’s such a long list! Alicia Keys is on the top. Even as a kid, I’ve always loved Jay-Z as an artist and a businessman. Obviously Beyonce is on the list too.
Also SZA, Chance the Rapper, H.E.R., Jessie J, Emilie Sande, Common (I really love his delivery), Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, and Lady Leshurr. The list goes on and on!