A DAY WITH ABSTRACT SOUL QUEEN MARY AKPA
by Ladun Ogidan
Born in Nigeria and raised in Southern California, Mary Akpa brings a blend of grounded freedom to her music—a seamless blend of soul, jazz, electronic, and African influences. At the age of 18, she was discovered by Arista/La Face records, ultimately becoming lead singer and songwriter for an all-girl band. Akpa spent time touring both domestically and internationally, including performances in Germany, Istanbul, France, and Iraq. She’s written with and for numerous artistes, recording 2 jazz albums, and 2 electronic/down tempo albums, as well as released her debut EP, ‘Brave’.
What is your musical background?
I can’t remember a time when music was not at the centre of my life, even as a child. I’ve been singing and performing in some capacity since I was in grade school. I grew up poor, as an illegal immigrant in the United States, and therefore didn’t have access to any formal training until I went to UCLA to study music–ethnomusicology jazz studies, specifically. My ‘formal training’ was in the music programme at UCLA, but I honestly believe most of the training that shapes my art comes from the many musicians I’ve toured and recorded with, as well as studied my own.
How would you describe your current sound?
I try not to put too much thought into describing my sound. It’s heavily based on the blending of my musical influences that happens to feel most present in the moment I’m creating. For me, that feels quite abstract, so I often refer to it as abstract soul.
Tell me about the ‘Native Series’. How did you meet Ayo, what inspired your collaboration and where do you see it heading to in the future?
Well, over the course of a year or so, I can remember 8 or 9 musician friends in New York mentioning this woman, Ayo, whom I needed to meet, work with, or become friends with. So after a shared guitarist (who happened to co-produce my upcoming record) mentioned the same, I decided it must be in the stars. Ayo and I first met via e-mail, spoke on the phone a while, and realised that we have much in common: our ideas about music, our connection and passion for Nigeria, and our desire to impact the lives of young Nigerian girls. The ‘Native Series’ developed during these conversations, where we realised the power of two independent female artistes coming together not only to share a stage, support one another during and outside of performances, but also to create a community for other young women to empower one another. The ‘Native Series’ is a collection of shows where we share a stage to showcase our music. Additionally, we’ve created an organisation that focuses on mentoring and supporting young women who want to explore what their lives can be outside of the restraints they are accustomed to.
We spent a few days at the Global International College in Lekki during this trip, working with girls at the school. We wanted to listen to them and gain insight into how we can help empower them. We’re in the beginning stages of the organisation, so I’ll just say the possibilities are endless. Women are powerful, especially when we come together.
You’ve just returned to Nigeria after several years of touring abroad. How would you describe the Nigerian music industry and how receptive has the audience been to your sound?
I played my first show in Nigeria earlier in May this year. I walked on stage and felt an overwhelming sense of pride and joy seeing faces in the audience that reminded me of who I am; to have them embrace me, to feel them connecting with my music… I still can’t seem to find the words to describe that feeling. It’s like I returned to myself somehow. I believe I can do so much here. My desire is to connect with local Nigerian artistes who are thinking outside of the box; I want to be active and supportive in that community. It’s certainly here.
Can you talk a bit about your latest single That Day on the Train, a song about love found in the most unexpected of places— a subway ride in Brooklyn, what was your inspiration for this concept and was it as a result of a personal experience?
I’m literally laughing as I type this. It’s funny that people think the song is a concept I created. Maybe, because it’s such an unlikely experience? I’m not sure.
Well, I grew up in Southern California (between San Diego and Los Angeles) where the main mode of transportation is driving. I didn’t realise how much of a stark difference this was until I decided to explore New York, where the main mode of transportation is riding the subway. So I went from having the luxury of controlling my space (who I have in my car, how many people and so on.) to having no control and being completely bombarded with this influx of people traveling with me.
The funny thing about New Yorkers is that they tend to go out of their way to create this perception of being impervious to those sharing a subway ride with them. They play music on their headphones, they read, they do anything to avoid interaction. I’m quite the opposite, especially when I first arrived in New York. I’m curious. I wanted to know about people. I often created fictitious stories about their lives, just to keep things interesting.
Then one day, a gentleman walked onto the train, our eyes met and we held the gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time. Long story short, we ended up getting off at the same stop and started talking. Talking turned into a real friendship, and that friendship developed into a love that was so important to me – mainly because it taught me the true value of loving myself. Wow, that was long…
During your recent stay in Lagos, you must have encountered the traffic, chaos and the failure of the power sector, all experiences peculiar to Nigeria. Should we expect an album or collaboration influenced by these?
Oh, you better believe it! Nigeria is an astonishing country with so much potential. It’s wild to me that people are content under certain circumstances. But it’s also quite beautiful and equally frustrating when there’s so much to accomplish under time constraints. It teaches me to slow down and to appreciate the things that truly matter. Nigeria is magic to me, if for nothing more than that.
March 25, 2021