Tracka De Day: Asa ‘Why Can’t We’

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For every musical need, there is a Nigerian. Want a side of political activism with your tunes, à la Bob Marley? Listen to Nneka. For traditional African music that picks funk as its dance partner, go see FELA! And it won’t be long before D’Banj is queued up after Kanye on every college dorm party playlist. But then there’s Asa, who hasn’t been tossed into a musical scene the way other Nigerians have. Even before you listen to her music, Asa seems like a different kind of Nigerian musician. While P-Square can blend in with fellow R&B artists Usher and Trey Songz, Asa’s choice of wardrobe recalls the distinctive style of indie rock songstress Shingai Shoniwa. Maybe it’s because she’s a Parisienne—Asa was born in the French/fashion capital and raised in Lagos. Asked in a recent interview with CNN’s African Voices program (video below) whether she felt more connected to Paris than to Lagos, Asa said no. Though currently based in Paris, she’s proud to be from Nigeria. She wants people to ask where she’s from when they listen to her music. Asa’s music, however, achieves a brand of genre-bending that few other Nigerian musicians are attempting. She’s doing her own thing. See for yourself in her latest video, “Why Can’t We” above. In the video Asa sports a series of bright, retro-inspired outfits. Though it’s hard to stick a genre label on it, you could say Asa’s music is like her fashion sense turned into a soundtrack.


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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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