“This is probably the most personal record I’ve ever written,” says Ndidi Onukwulu of her latest album, Dark Swing. “Some songs are absolutely not [personal]. But some of them are very, very personal. Whereas before, I would write a lot about other people’s situations but I would feel them.”
Onukwulu’s fourth album, Dark Swing, is her most moving album to date. From original songs like “Don’t Come around Here” to her brilliant take on Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man,” Dark Swing carries forward Onukwulu’s unique sound. It also travels deeper into unexpected genres, drawing from sources few artists are delving into nowadays. Country, blues, gospel, jazz and surf, Onukwulu incorporates many sounds and styles that were once common amongst black and white artists (many born from black musical traditions), but are now primarily viewed as “white” genres. It makes Onukwulu’s sound difficult to categorize and market, which comes with its rewards and challenges.
A journalists once referred to Onukwulu’s music as having strong R&B influences. It was an odd but telling statement–R&B is, at best, a minor influence in her overall sound. Not surprisingly, being of mixed heritage, with a voice that does not sound “black” in the contemporary world of music, once exacerbated Onukwulu’s confusion about her place in music.
“[It was like] I guess I’m a sham. My voice doesn’t sound like ‘this,’” says Onukwulu. “And as a mixed ethnicity woman, brown women always kind of sound like ‘this.’”
Like Tracey Chapman, Brittany Howard, Valerie June, Skin, Chloe Charles and Aisha Burns, Onukwulu is not making what is today perceived as “black girl music” (which is essentially a narrow restrictive R&B/Soul/Hip Hop box that black female artists have been slotted into almost exclusively during the past 20 years of music). And unlike white artists such as Justin Timberlake, Jessie J, and Iggy Azalea, celebrated for “sounding black” and playing in genres most often filled by contemporary black artists, many black artists creating outside of the box are rarely celebrated on mainstream radio, magazines, and award shows. But rather than compromise her artistry, Onukwulu continues to embrace her uniqueness.
“In this album [Dark Swing] there’s definitely more country influences, and I was specific about that. I wanted it to be a little more adult contemporary pop-ish, and a little less pinpointed on quote unquote ‘black music.’ I don’t know what it is but as a world, society, we’ve got a really long way to go with a lot of things, especially with our beliefs that a certain amount of melanin denotes a certain sound or that you have to make a choice. Back in the day, country and blues were sort of synonymous with the sound of the slaves, of the poor. And though there was colour differentiation, the actual living conditions and the tone of these specific people were identical. It wasn’t until money got involved and selling things got involved that we suddenly started creating genre and divisible lines, and it’s still very much [that way].”
“There are a few women in places of power but the majority of people in power in the entertainment industry are men, and, so, being a woman, there’s already sort of this weird push that my look is a factor in how accessible I’ll be and what I do. I can’t get around that. And also, putting me in a box that is identifiable with how I am presented and how I am visibly presented is something that they do because it’s easy. As a culture we don’t like to work harder than we have to. Even in terms of how we consume our entertainment, it needs to be easy and it needs to be something easy for people to absorb. I think it’s really, really unfortunate. It would be really nice if we suddenly had a day where people just put out music and we never got to see what the person looked like. I can only hope that by moving forward and sticking to my guns and doing whatever I feel my heart is inspired by, and is necessary, that it will open doors for others, so that they can have this opportunity.”
As her sound continues to confidently move beyond labels, Onukwulu’s song writing transcends as well. Her songs are stories. It’s hard not to feel something when you listen to her words, and it’s impossible not to relate. She often captures fleeting moments many of us experience but rarely put into words. Her ability to evoke the thoughts and emotions you feel when falling in lust and love (or out of both) is captivating.
“I think it’s the newness of what it’s like when you see strangers. I also like watching people interact. ‘Seen you Before’ was more personal. ‘On the Metro,’ I was literally on the Paris Metro and they [two strangers] were doing what I was envisioning. They had this weird chemistry and I was very fascinated. I was actually staring at them the whole ride, and I just sort of imagined that that must be what she was thinking because that would be what I’d be thinking. They obviously liked each other but nobody was able to make the move.”
Remakes are also a musical flight that Onukwulu happily takes on. “I did a Tom Petty song. I’d definitely do “Tease Me Baby” by John Lee Hooker. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” by Led Zeppelin–that would be on there for sure! Probably Memphis Minnie. There’s a Roxy Music cover that I’ve always wanted to do. Patsy Cline would be on there. Maybe I’d cover New Edition ‘Mr. Telephone Man,” she concludes with a laugh. “It would be ridiculous.”
What Onukwulu will create or remake next is yet to be seen, but one things for sure, it is bound to captivate.
On songwriting: “It [songwriting] has really changed over the years with [me] just getting older and life changing. I used to write in big bunches constantly, all the time. I just had all this inspiration. Then I went through a really tumultuous time and it kind of became really hard to write. I kind of stopped writing for a bit. Now writing is a bit easier. I just sort of wait for it to come. When the urgency to create something new happens, and I get a lot of inspiration, I just kind of go with it.”
On album titles: “Dark Swing was the name of one of the songs. The head of the label I’m on was like, ‘I love this song title. You got to make it into the record title.’ And I was like, ‘alright.’ This was just a reference note for myself about what the song was — it was the dark swing. It kind of fit what the tone of the record was. The Escape, during that record I was kind of escaping situations and putting myself in other crappy situations. The Contradictor was sort of a comment about myself because I have a tendency to be one way and then immediately contradict myself, I do this all the time. And then No, I Never, is actually something I would say all the time when I got caught doing something, obviously doing something that’s not awesome, then I’d be ‘No, I never did that. I never said that.’ But I did and I know I did.”
On her most surreal moment: “I think it was 2008, eating at the same table as Suzanne Vega. I’m a huge fan of hers and I totally freaked out and nerded out. My guitar player was like, “So, what you reading?” She started talking and I was just like staring and trying to get into the conversation, and I secretly whispered, “You really inspired me.” She didn’t really hear me but I was like, I don’t want to nerd out but I’m having a really hard time not being cool because she was a huge, huge influence. Particularly this idea that you can talk and share these stories, like, Leonard Cohen, but be more interesting and come from the female perspective. Oh my God, I love her so much.”
On being a woman in the music industry: “It’s only competitive for women and only about looks for women. But male musicians, they look like crap. Even the pop star ones. They are not hot, not attractive, and like dirty. Half of what they say is garbage. I’ve got to be a certain dress size. Pay to get my hair did. I have to put on makeup. I can’t just wear my glasses to go on stage, so I’m half blind half the time.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the founder of The Winehouse Mag.