First Look Friday: Mary Akpa Interview
First Look Friday: Mary Akpa Interview
Photo of Mary Akpa taken by Kenen Nwatu in Lagos, Nigeria.

First Look Friday: Brave The Otherworldly Sounds Of Mary Akpa

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Photo of Mary Akpa taken by Kenen Nwatu in Lagos, Nigeria.

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?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Photo of Mary Akpa taken by Daniel Obasi in Lagos, Nigeria.

MA: Self doubt. In a world where we survive on clicks or likes, it’s difficult to be an artist knowing that people come with judgement. It’s like we’re in a constant pageant. Overcoming self doubt is one of my greatest accomplishments. That and understanding that what I do isn’t really about me. It’s about the music. When I remove my self from the equation and simply focus on the art that’s when I’m at my best.

OKP: Can you also talk about the importance of the music industry scene as how you’ve experienced it? How do you see it evolving in the next five years?

MA: To be honest, I never felt I fit in in the music industry scene. That said, artists seem to be moving toward a more fluid industry where executives are less instrumental to an artist’s success. We’re creating their own lanes and I’m really excited to see where that takes us.

OKP:What are some things that you’ve learned about yourself that comes out in your music?

MA: I’ve learned that I am not for everyone. Knowing that those who get it, get it, and those who don’t can find something that works for them has given me the freedom to be authentic.

OKP: What were some moments from your recent travels that will forever stick with you? Why?

MA: There are two experiences that stand out in my mind. The first is a road trip to Onitsha during my recent trip to Nigeria. My amazing mother took me along the same route she walked to get to her midwife’s house the day she gave birth to me. The second experience that stands out is the empowerment work that I led (with young girls) through an organization I created with a fellow Nigerian artist. Those two experiences made that trip a two-for-one on the most memorable list.

OKP: What was the first song that you ever wrote entitled? Can you talk about what it has come to symbolize since you’ve entered into the professional life?

MA: My first song was actually untitled. I’m notorious for leaving songs untitled until the very last moment. It wasn’t my best work, but it wasn’t nearly as awful as I thought at the time. I sometimes go back to that song just to remind myself of the importance of expressing myself without thinking too much about it. There’s a purity in that that I want to maintain.

OKP: How can your music speak truth to power in an age where people are so quickly digesting sounds and disposing of artists in a nanosecond?

MA: You know, I try to keep in mind that I’m not for everyone. I’m not a pop artist, I’m not a straight up R&B artist either so for me it’s about the listener. I want people to feel something when they hear my music, and if they do, that’s the truth. And the truth sticks!

OKP: Collaboration is uniquely a key to the success of certain creative individuals who wish to change the game. Who would you want to work with this year going into the next and why?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Photo of Mary Akpa taken by Kenen Nwatu in Lagos, Nigeria.

MA: I would love to work with Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington this year. Each of them bring a otherworldly element to music that resonates so deeply with me. My long-term dream is to get Thom York, Raphael Saadiq, Björk and King Sunny Ade into the studio and pump out the album of a lifetime. I’d bring D’Angelo in once the ideas are set to bounce vocal ideas around with him. A girl can dream [laughs]!

OKP: What is the overall message that Mary Akpa is trying to present in her music?

MA: I’m honestly just being an artist. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. There’s no big message except here I am, trying to live an authentic life, and this is what I have to say about it.

OKP: Can you break down the inspiration behind a song that you created but never put out?

After Philando Castile I couldn’t get out of bed and needed to clear my mind so I wrote a song called "Soothing Sorrows”. It wasn’t anything complex. Just a meditation, but it was a way for me to soothe myself of the pain. I also wrote a song called “Brother" around the same time. It was my way of speaking to Philando. I wanted to know what he felt. Did he know it would end that moment? I wish I could’ve given him some comfort somehow. I still feel that pain sometimes.

OKP: How do you see yourself changing the music industry for the better versus all of the bad stuff that goes on within it?

MA: I can’t say I’m on this grand mission to change the game. I just want to make music that feels real to my experience. Music is called a universal language for a reason. It’s a gift we’re given to speak to one another on a level that transcends so many barriers. The more artists use that gift — that truth — the more people will demand it and crave it. I feel it happening already.

OKP: How do you get over any anxiety before hitting the stage to perform live? What are some lessons or tips that you’ve learned from others about doing a stage show?

MA: I still get nervous every time I perform. Like, every time. I actually embrace it. For me it means I still have reverence for what I do, and I still understand that I’m about to open myself up. I never want to lose that. I have a mantra that I repeat to myself before going onstage. It puts me in the frame of mind to open up and then honestly, I just have fun. I stop caring about “performing” and I really get into the music, I get into what I’m doing, I react when my guitar player plays something that hits me. It’s a conversation for me. I’m always the most inspired when I see other performers truly digging into the music. That energy is palpable.

OKP: If the reader’s learned one thing from this First Look Friday chat with Mary Akpa — what would it be?

MA: That music should make you feel something. My hope is that my music does just that.

Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open for more from Mary Akpa (and us!) by following her on Twitter @MaryAkpa.