A little background…
Ninola was chosen for the first batch of the Native 14, a decision that seems insulting in hindsight, considering the global strides she would make mere months after the second issue of the Nativemag hit the press. A once-in-a-lifetime musician, with a divine ear for feeling out the most lascivious innuendo, Niniola never needs to share a spotlight with anyone.
If you look closely enough, you’ll see the coquettish girl hiding behind a swept bang that auditioned for Project Fame West Africa in 2013 in the fierce, bejewelled woman that stands in a power pose on the cover of Niniola’s debut album, This Is Me. It has taken her five years to transform from that girl to this woman, a critically acclaimed Afro-house crossover artist with appeal that has found her fans across the spectrum from teenagers and septuagenarians. This is deliberate, she tells us when we discuss the album.
“My music is fusion of beautiful sounds,” she says, “Though my root genre is afro-house, I experimented a lot with this project. I personally love to dance and my background is in complex ballads. I didn’t want to give up one for the other so I found a way to meld the two.”
When Niniola listened to music growing up, she tried to mimic the technique of 90’s R&B powerhouses like Brandy and Whitney Houston. She didn’t have any formal music training, and so her ambition wasn’t ever stifled by the worship these artists inspire and how foreboding fans are of anyone who tries to emulate them. She got her introduction to house from her siblings and her education in the classics from her parents’ extensive library, but the art of transcending language barriers she learnt through the work of Yvonne Chaka-Chaka and Angelique Kidjo, artists who sang in inaccessible languages but still drew strong emotion from their listeners. She listened widely, drawing inspiration from these artists, cobbling what would become her own sound from the best parts of theirs.
She also learned from them to separate herself from her craft as a songwriter and her persona as a performing artist. Songwriting is where she spends the bulk of her time when she creates music, it takes some introspection to weave stories that address real life situations and capture that vividness without coming off as manufactured. Music is a way to express herself and use her art as a medium to talk about the way women explore their sexualities. She favours subtlety over brashness, her fans have come to expect her little puzzles and her penchant for making the listener work for that pay-off. It appeals greatly to her. If she can slide it under the radar of the draconian media censors board, even better.
Much of her music’s spontaneity comes from when she actually records her music. She lets the beat guide her, listening for the parts of the beat she calls ‘vowels’. The audience always responds more to those parts of the beat and she knows that her hooks and best lines have to maneuvered to either start or end on these ‘vowel’ beats. She makes it a principle as well to always work with the first melodies that come to her, based on a conviction that the first instincts in this part of the process are always the most accurate ones. That first melody often makes it to the end, only slightly tweaked to accommodate her lyrics. She believes strongly in the divine, and her music is as much about kismet as it is about meticulous planning. Traditionally these two ideas should not co-exist, but it has worked her for this far, so why not?
The album she created is cohesive but constantly morphing between genres, each jaunt tethered to the album’s core by Niniola’s sensual voice, breathy and strained as though startled by a surprise meeting with a paramour. This versatility is what made her so intriguing and seduced critics to her cause. It is obvious that there is still some growing for Niniola to do before she incarnates into her final form, but even this vestigial version seems to have sprung up fully formed.