Stone Free

As singer-songwriter, Bukola ‘Asa’ Elemide, 31, gets ready to release her third album, Bed Of Stone, one of Nigeria’s most famous musical exports tells Wings why things are different this time around…

Words Belinda Otas

When she burst onto the music scene seven years ago, she broke new ground with a sound that transcended boundaries; she’s since built a reputation as one of the most exciting artists to have emerged in the last decade. Her soulful melodies appealed to audiences across Africa, Europe and North America, and her debut album picked up a top-five spot on Billboard’s World Music chart.

This is not the same Asa we encountered on her self-titled debut which caught the world’s attention in 2007, or on her sophomore album, Beautiful Imperfection, both released to critical acclaim. Bed Of Stone, an eclectic collection of 12 soulful, introspective, uplifting and pain-filled tracks, is a philosophical ride. With influences that range from rock to jazz, and lyrics in English and Yoruba, her mother tongue, Asa explores what it means to live, love and questions life. Dead Again is confrontational, and Asa says the song came about after an episode of betrayal. “When I found out, it was like, ‘this is what this person turned out to be’,” she says, “I was really mad. I was hurt while I was writing the song.” She adds: “In fact, I was going to Hastings to meet a producer, who was meeting me for the first time; but he met an angry girl [laughs], and I was shaken. He asked what the problem was, and I poured it all out and he started scribbling it on paper and said, ‘Let’s make a song out of this’. The direction the song took was totally unplanned. It just happened.”

From the melodic and playful Eyo to the rock-influenced sound of Satan Be Gone and the haunting Bed Of Stone, Asa weaves seamlessly between genres and emotions. It’s impossible not to be moved. So, what were we previously unaware of, that she had to tell us this time around? “With this album, I’ve grown – and each album, you see an evolution. This one, I’ve come into myself, I’m comfortable with myself and I’m searching for something and stating it. I’m projecting what I want on this album,” she says. “You know, these three albums, they have their individual spirit because I wrote them in different states of mind. The first one, that was a younger me, more rebellious, asking questions and writing about love. The second one was much more comfortable and joyous. I wanted to dance, and I wanted people to see another side of me that they’d not seen in the first record. This third one is a blend of those two – like hold on, it’s time for introspection. I need to actually be true to myself, and say, this is what I’m going through at the moment in my life and I want to write about it. I wanted to feel human again.”

From the outset, Asa’s career has been studded with awards. She was a Best Female Nominee at the Victoire de la Musique and won France’s prestigious Prix Constantin, the accolade accorded to a French artist with the outstanding album for that year. She has opened live shows for the likes of John Legend, Beyonce and Snoop Dogg. But she’s no diva; Bed Of Stone may be very much an album of her personal journey, but it’s also one she believes her fans can relate to. Even though the record appears to confront harrowing themes, especially on songs like Dead Again, Asa has a different view. “I won’t say it’s troubling, I would say it’s more or less an exorcism of life and feelings that we go through everyday. It wasn’t just introspective of me. I also thought about other people.” As to why her music not only appeals to fans across the globe but also transcends boundaries, Asa says: “I’m not into fads. I like to be fashionable and I like fresh sounds. Of course, there will be times when I incorporate acoustic with electronic and bring something fresh in terms of sound, but the core remains the same. You always have to be yourself, be as true as possible. That makes it timeless.”

This explains why she has stayed true her roots in soulful music, against the backdrop of the current popularity of Afrobeat pop music in Nigeria which D’Banj, one of Nigeria’s biggest artists, recently said was ‘the country’s second-biggest export after oil.’ She admits: “I enjoy that kind of music. I dance to it and it really makes me happy, which is what music should be but I can’t do it. It’s not my strength. If you can’t do it, don’t even attempt it. I have never thought of going down the popular route. For me, if you’re comfortable with what you do, be confident in it. If you’re good at it, keep it up. If you can’t, don’t do it for the wrong reasons. I’m not going to do it for the wrong reasons. I will enjoy it, but I will stick to my lane.”

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Sound Travels

Since her first album, Asa has toured extensively across Europe and North America, which has earned her the reputation of a nomad at heart. She tells Wings that being on the road gives her the freedom to write. “Whenever I travel, that’s when I’m able to write, because I’m able to think. You get to perceive things clearly on the road and I have noticed that about myself,” she says. “I have no home. The road is like my home. It’s very hard for a musician to say ‘this is home’. I always go to Lagos. I have a house and family there. I also partly live in Paris. Really, I’m everywhere, and I enjoy travelling. I long for it. There is this nostalgia, and if I get to a city and I like it, I try to live there for a while, sometimes for a few months, just to experience every aspect.”

Her love for travel isn’t just confined to her tours, “Within Nigeria, I love going to Calabar and Kaduna. I love a good road trip. However, every time I try to attempt travelling every one screams, ‘It’s not safe!’ but I love it and always have. When I was younger I went to school in Jos, and I would travel 14 hours by bus for the scenery, the lusciousness and the different cultures. I also recommend Abeokuta, my hometown. You see the houses perched on the hills, the red sand, just life and simplicity – not all that concrete and machinery that you have in the big city.”

When she fuses Yoruba with English, Asa’s musical language pushes the boundaries in a way that seems effortless; it’s a trait that runs through her albums, something she’s never been afraid to do. “Everyone, and especially successful artists, have always infused some originality. For me, this is how I can be different. In hindsight, I never think about it, because it comes out naturally.” Asa adds that it makes music much more interesting. “It’s like an ingredient you put in your food. You spice it up and that’s the way it is for me when I write in English, Yoruba or sing in French. Music has no barriers or frontiers. The most important ingredient in making music is that it’s universal.”

In spite of her international success, Nigeria and Africa are still her main sources of inspiration. She says that the song Eyo (also the name of a popular festival in Nigeria) was born out of nostalgia. “I was homesick and missing Lagos – the warmth, family and just familiar ground – and I remember Lagos and playing at the Eyo festival; and it’s full of warmth and colour, so it all reminded me of home and brought it all back.”

By contrast, Bed Of Stone was inspired by her personal experience when she first returned to France after years of living as a student in Nigeria. A song of pain, Asa recalls: “The first time I came to France I remember it was such a difficult period for me. Bed Of Stone is about the discomfort. It’s the stories of our mothers who stayed through thick and thin, so they could provide for their children back home. It’s not easy to be in another country or speak another language that’s not one’s own. You will definitely not be treated well. The song is a dedication to those people who persevere.”

Asa’s third album, Bed Of Stone, is out now, asa-official.com

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