Five years is a long time to wait for one of your favorites to release new music. For fans and supporters of Mary Akpa, it was ticks off the clock that was worth the wait, as the Nigerian-born, California-raised singer-songwriter grew in her time away from the studio. Much like anyone with free time, Mary explored the world, while discovering herself through ups and downs. By experience these life changing moments, Mary found clarity, enriched her voice and her artistry, and re-emerged from her hiatus recharged.
Taking a different approach to songwriting than she did on her 2012 effort, Brave, Mary Akpa trusted her own creativity by working on unfinished songs live in front of an audience. Imbued with harmonic melodies, Mary Akpa sounds like a smile in a field full of flowers. It was that same passion and roots in music that led to her being discovered by Arista / LaFace Records and sign a deal. In addition to her degree in Ethnomusicology that she received from UCLA’s prestigious program, Mary Akpa has performed for audiences such as our U.S. troops in numerous countries from Kosovo to Iraq.
So, as we speak to this week’s world-traveling, soul-stirring, completely original First Look Friday artist, Mary Akpa shares of herself in this introduction to our Okayplayer family. From opening up her thoughts on today’s artistry to how art can authentically challenge the injustices we face — Mary Akpa is a liberating new act to become familiar with especially if you’re all about progressively innovative sounds. To support the UNSEEN album architect, we’re also placing in the song, “Empty (Ka M Kuo Me),” which we urge you to check out below. Enjoy!
Okayplayer: To music snobs the world over, you are making an impact. What is it that those in music game are seeing and hearing that the rest of the world has yet to discover?
Mary Akpa: I’m feeling a shift among artists. There’s a desire to make more of a social impact with music and the arts in general. With all that’s going on in the world, artists are choosing more and more to use our platform for change. It seems almost as overt as the artists who made waves during the Civil Rights Movement. There’s also an emphasis on reconnecting with our roots — I certainly feel a stronger pull toward my native sounds and rhythms — and a desire to intentionally express from that place.
OKP: For those who have a passion for music, they honed their skills and practiced their craft. Who are your most cherished influences in music and why?
MA: I draw inspiration from many places and my influences tend to fluctuate quite a bit. Papa Wembe, King Sunny Ade, Angelique Kidjo and Miriam Makeba are huge influences of mine from the continent because they fought against the political structures of their time while rooting their music in culture. Nina Simone falls under a similar category for me as well. She was fearlessly expressive. I’m continually inspired by the way she interpreted jazz so soulfully. Radiohead!! Those arpeggiated guitars and Thom York’s way of songwriting is out of this world. Björk is out of this world to me. Her voice is absolutely magical. She is so sonically unapologetic and playful, and everything she does is rooted in her Icelandic background. The soul singers Sam Cooke, D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder… the way they use harmony and melody is so effortless and so complex all at once. And then there’s Sade. The grace, the voice, the poise. I mean, she just has it all.
OKP: Can you talk about how your life was while developing as an artist? How did you react to your first bits of press?
MA: Artists are constantly developing, at least if we’re doing it right, so I’m not sure that we’re aware of the development as it’s happening. I’ve been singing and performing since I was pretty young, but I didn’t really feel like an artist until I learned to own and trust my own voice. Growing up, we listened to both Nigerian and American music, so I was exposed to very different ways of interpreting rhythm and melody. I also studied Ethnomusicology at UCLA. The experience of immersing myself in music from so many different cultures helped broaden my perspective of sound and inspired me to explore my voice outside of the pop box. Last year, I released music and played my first show in Nigeria. It was overwhelmingly beautiful being recognized by my people. I felt like I came back to life. I still can’t put my finger on that feeling. I’ll just say it lit me up.
OKP: With incidents involving people of color, police and racist occurring almost on a daily basis around the globe — how can your music (and/or others) help to relieve the trauma that is being experienced by the masses?
MA: It’s so important to share our experiences as authentically as we can. Whether that be love, loss, or the way we feel during political unrest. When we do that we connect with one another, and we feel understood and validated. The state of world leaves people of color feeling that we don’t matter. If my music can make someone feel like they matter, then I’ve done my job.
OKP: What have been the most definitive obstacles that you’ve overcome in your career thus far?