Akua Naru Is Moving Forward
Chioma Nwana: So my first questions are what’s your name, where are you from, and what do you do?
Akua Naru: My name is Akua Naru. I’m from New Haven, Connecticut. I do a lot. I’m a hip-hop artist, performer, activist, poet, deep-thinker. I’m a sister, lover, friend. I’m a traveler, yeah. I’m a lover of Black people.
CN: Okay, so you’re somewhat of an everything girl. Can you tell me a little bit about all the things that you’re involved in and how you found your way into them as you progressed as an artist and a person?
AN: It’s hard. To be honest, I just think that some people are born for certain things. I believe in destiny and fate. I don’t know if I ever made a conscious decision and said, “Yo, I’m gonna do this.” When I was a kid, I always loved reading, and at some point, as a reader, I fell in love with being a writer. I was reading Langston Hughes, I was reading Phyllis Wheatley, I was reading Maya Angelou, and I just wanted to write my own. After a while, I started to see the power of how I can influence other people’s experiences through whatever I wrote and how people responded. I saw that as a young girl. For me, I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven is a very Black city, and my family was very conscious about how they wanted me to perceive myself in the world. I was always very interested in the history of my people, and I was someone who was always asking questions. Some of those questions couldn’t be answered, and it put me on a search. That search – that journey – is reflected in me as a traveler. I don’t think of myself, at this period of my life, as searching for something, but I am very interested in understanding what it means to be a human being in different places. What does it look like to love in this place? What does it look like to be a child? An adult? What does it mean to be a human being in this place? What does that sound like? What does it look like? Activism comes through being a poet. Analyzing situations and asking questions and feeding your knowledge. Contributing solutions. Trying to find a way to make sense of what was going on and what continues to go on.
CN: I like that a lot. I like that it’s a process. I like that you’re using all the tools that you have to understand the world around you.
AN: Yeah, as a human being, this is a process. Anyone who says that it’s not is – maybe that’s the case for them, but that’s not it for me. I’m in process, always.
CN: Word. So I see that your works is heavily geared towards Blackness and the infinite aspects of the Black experience, and you’ve created a platform for yourself within that realm. How do you use that platform to power your social activism, and how do you use your voice to give disenfranchised groups – whether it by race, gender, or socioeconomic status – a voice?
AN: I don’t feel like I can give a voice to anybody. You have a voice. It’s like when white people told us we was free. You are free by virtue of being a human being. This whole shit is fucked up. I’m not here to give voice. I’m just fighting for my voice, and because I’m in this body – we’re fighting from the same body, so when one of us speaks, we all speak. It’s more like that. I’m fighting for my voice. We’ve been fighting for our voice for over 400 years, and we still fighting. I just work on having the courage to speak and to tell an authentic story and to be as honest as possible, as I can be, as I’m situated in this body, in the body of this experience. In terms of centering Blackness, to be honest, I’m not really – for me, Black is all there is. That’s so vast, and that’s so enormous, and that’s such a wide spectrum. It’s not limiting at all. Toni Morrison told that actually you’re freed by it. I’m not trying to do anything – it just comes out. When I say in [my song] Black Genius, “Black genius, kanekalon twists with two fingers.” Kanekalon twists with two fingers? Any sister knows what I’m talking about. C’mon, I’m just being. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m just being. I’m just being myself. As I talk to you right now, I’m very honest. I’m just being myself. I’m not trying to present nothing. Like today, I just threw on anything. I gotta do this interview. I’m like, “Fuck, I didn’t even get dressed.” I could just laugh because I’m so crazy. I’m just being myself. It’s magnificent.
CN: So your answer kinda changes my follow up question. I was going to ask how you integrate Black womanhood into your music. But you’ve explained that it’s not something that you necessarily try to do and that it’s something that happens because Black is at the root.
AN: But I’m also conscious when I speak. I know that I’m in this body, I know that I represent many, and I know these things are important to me because I’m in this body. I’m just being, but I’m also being in a way that’s conscious.
CN: It’s intentional.
AN: Absolutely. It’s intentional, and it’s unapologetic, and it’s on purpose. But in that, it’s still natural because it’s not contrived.
CN: So I watched your recent video, “Made It.” I liked it a lot. It was very community-based. There are a lot of videos in which the artist will be rapping or singing, and they have their crew behind them to hype them up, but this video was much more intimate. Even though there were more people in it, it was much more intimate in the way that you presented it. It was very gentle. It was very soft. What inspired the video? Can you tell me the story behind it?
AN: In order for you to understand “Made It,” you’d have to see the first video, “My Mother’s Daughter.” That’s the first part. “Made It” is the second part. I’m about to shoot the third and fourth part. Can I talk about “My Mother’s Daughter”?
CN: Of course!
AN: “My mother’s daughter, she was born on a Wednesday.” That’s what I say. “Bloodline of kings, solid gold rings and kente.” So it’s all about who we are as Black people. What does it mean to be Black? Aren’t we African? And if I have my mother’s face, I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face. How much of my soul and my spirit is my mother? What makes me my mother’s daughter? So if you gave me your child and just disappeared, God forbid, that child would have nothing from you? And if we are African people, what do we carry from mother to daughter, mother to daughter? I was trying to answer those questions for myself about traditional African spirituality, about the mother as the continent, and the peace that I found when you’re in Africa and you don’t have to be bombarded with “Blackness.” America forces you into this box. I wanted to tell a story about sisterhood, and about self-discovery, and about ancestry and lineage, and about our roots, and our power, and the beauty of all of that. And that was “My Mother’s Daughter.” This album is called The Blackest Joy, because it’s true that we can tell about our suffering and our pain, and the trauma is real, but that’s not all to the story. There is love, there is beauty, there is intimacy, there is joy. And that is our power too. We wake up, and we’re here. That’s the story of “Made It.” “My Mother’s Daughter” is like I told the story of these women, and I was one of the women. But I didn’t want to be in the front. I try to be conscious. I know I have an American passport. I know that passport is bloody as it is, it still – as much as we suffer in this country, when you step outside, you understand that it does grant you certain privileges. I have brothers and sisters that have to go to the embassy just to go to the neighboring country. I feel for them. I’m not proud that I have this privilege and they don’t, and this is what we’re fighting for. The global Black experience. So I didn’t want to be the Black-American, even though I’m African, too, and this is a Pan-African production, for sure. Don’t get it twisted. But I wanted to be there as the sister to these women. I didn’t want to be the star. It’s okay. You know it’s my voice, I produced the track, I worked on the video. I don’t have to be in the front like, “Yo, look at me.” That’s not even my character. I want to sit among us. I don’t want to be the star of us. I want to be one of us. So in “My Mother’s Daughter,” you saw that. It was mother, daughter, sisters. And then “Made It” was a follow up story. Then I invited the men because in “My Mother’s Daughter,” it was mainly women in the video. This was also filmed in Togo. If you watched, “My Mother’s Daughter,” you see I’m underwater, I’m born, I come out of the water, I’m in a canoe, I go through a door, and the door’s a symbol of life and death. As an elder dies, a baby is born. All of that. And then “Made It” is like – really I said all of that about “My Mother’s Daughter.” “Made It” is just about us being here in the midst of calamity and tragedy. That’s the spirit of the blues: we are still here. I made it. I could say so much about it, but people just gotta watch the video. It’s better that they interpret it because I’ll be talking for another ten minutes just about that video. We wanted to keep it real African, though. We’re so proud of our heritage as African people. It’s so lovely to be a part of these beautiful traditions. It’s so fantastic. I’m so happy.
CN: That makes me really happy. So what was it like working with Eric Benét?
AN: It was dope. He’s a really great vocalist. He’s crazy vocally. He’s absolutely insane. He’s crazy. and a super nice person. Yeah, he is super nice and funny.
CN: Speaking of great musicians, who are some of your musical influences or inspirations? And who are some of your inspirations within the realm of activism? I know you mentioned a few, but I’d love to hear if you have any personal favorites.
AN: When it comes to music, to say personal inspirations… Everything you touch touches you. I can’t say, “This person in particular.” I can just say what I like. For example, I am very inspired by [Nina Simone’s] life. I like SZA’s album, I like Daniel Caesar, I like Flying Lotus, I like Thundercat, Christian Scott. I love jazz. Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway. I like J.Cole. I can’t say to what extent one artist influenced me more than others because I’m influenced by everything. Beyoncé and Jay-Z just put out an album. I don’t have TIDAL, so I was trying to–
CN: It’s on Apple Music now, and SoundCloud!
AN: I heard it was on Spotify as of this morning. I’m looking forward to listening tomorrow night. In terms of activists, I like Roxanne Gay, Angela Davis, Winnie Mandela – may she forever rest in peace. The list goes on and on. There are so many great speakers of truth. Even Nina Simone was an activist. Marc Lamont Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s a writer, but there’s such a thin line. A writer to an activist, a singer to an activist, a teacher, you know?
CN: They’re all avenues through which one can enter the world of activism. And they’re all tools that can be used to push activism.
CN: To take this in a different direction, how long have you had your locs?
AN: Eleven years.
CN: What role do they play in your identity? And in your opinion, what role does hair play in general for Black women?
AN: Yo, hair. Let me hit you with this one. Hair for us as Black people is very important. This is so ancient. I’ve seen pictures of traditional hairstyles that my cousin had just on a Friday night. In a museum, you saw portraits of traditional West African styles, you know? Hair is very important for us. It conveys a lot. It can say marital status, it reveals class, it can speak to the order you are within a family, it can speak to your profession. For us, hair is just so important. I love my hair. I’ve worn it for so long. We’ve been through so much. I just got it dyed this morning.
CN: I like the color.
AN: Thank you, thank you. I had to hit you with the fruit punch. But yeah, in terms of my style, it’s just like when you hear a certain song, it sounds like a certain artist. There are certain things. My mother said, the other day, “I was in this city, and I saw this outfit, and I thought this would be perfect for you.” Obviously I have an imprint in terms of how I look and how I present in the world, and somehow that spills over into everything else. All these small things are a portrait of who you are.
CN: So I saw you’ll be teaching workshops in Senegal. How did that happen?
AN: VB, one of the organizers, is someone I know. She’s a Cameroonian singer, and she’s very active in West Africa. For me, I’m happy when I’m on the continent. I’ve spent more and more time over the last few years in Africa for longer periods of time. I want to do work. When I talk about activism, a lot of what I’m doing, I don’t put it online. It’s not for the cameras, it’s not for Instagram. It’s just because either we’re doing the work or we’re not. For me, I want to work within the Pan-African world. It’s not just Black America or the Caribbean. It has to be on the continent. It has to be. Whenever I’m able to be there again to do the work, I want to be there, obviously. It’s a fulfillment that’s beyond. I feel very fulfilled. I was there a couple years ago – maybe 3 or 4 years ago – doing something similar. I was in Togo, in a prison working with women. And this is the kind of stuff that I do, so people will invite me to come through, and I’ll come through. So this isn’t coming out of nowhere.
CN: Understood. So lastly, what do you have in store for us in the upcoming months?
AN: The last two videos, “My Mother’s Daughter” and “Made It,” were a part of the series. I’m completing the series. That’ll be on the continent as well. I already recorded another album, so I’m working on a new album. I’m working. I’m on tour – tomorrow night I’ll be in New York, playing a little showcase. I’m doing so much stuff. I have no idea.
CN: It’s cool that you have so many things going for you.
AN: I’m doing a lot of different things, so if I tried to list them, I might wake up in the middle of the night like, “Damn, I forgot to mention this, I forgot to mention that.” I’m just on tour, working on music. What you can expect is me to continue moving forward in what I’m doing.