BY KEMI ALEMORU
Nissi’s recent track “Judi,” which translates as dance or “move your ass” in Yoruba, is the antidote to our anxiety-ridden times. The 26-year-old Nigerian singer pairs sun-soaked melodies and a blend of English, pidgin, and Yoruba to tell us it’s OK to just let go. “I always prioritize my work and my passions so I find that I never have time to just relax,” she explains over the phone. “‘Judi’ was me saying to myself and others: you’re always chasing after something. Relax, take a minute, exhale. Just dance.”
The video directed by Nigerian creative known as The Alien, shows Lagosian youth breeze through impressive choreography. Nissi says it is a celebration of “how diverse the [local] youth are in their creativity.” While she first appears in all black, the video is a pyrotechnic flash of color. Her dancers don clashing yellows, pinks, blues, and greens on patchwork trousers, slick suits and comfy streetwear. She, on the other hand, is hidden beneath an ostentatious hat with a cascade of tassels to veil her eyes, subdued by her worries. In her own words, her style is “modern afrocentric, artistic” and “not ratchet.”
This is evident through all her sartorial choices. She wears the likes of on-the-rise African designers like Kenneth Ize and Tokyo James, often opting for playful, color-block ensembles. When speaking to her it’s clear she feels her “most free” self when performing, where she aesthetically pushes the boat out with “contemporary pop looks that include homages to African tribal marks, body paint and things linked to the heritage of the continent.” And yet off stage she’s happy to play the unassuming girl next door. “I’m less extravagant. I won’t walk to the store in an orange fur jacket.”
In the male-dominated Nigerian music scene, Nissi is not afraid to take up space, making room for the celebration of Black women’s natural beauty in all its shades and textures. The video for “Judi” includes modern takes on traditional African hairstyles: green braids in a bantu knot style, afro hair stretched with pink thread, and Nissi’s own face framed by her natural coils that are cornrowed at the roots. She adds: “You probably won’t catch me with a wig. I want to be comfortable with who I am. I’m portraying my African self, which I’m very proud of. I want to make sure people see that in me.”
Her music encompasses a “nice spectrum of sound” as she blends both African and European influences. The cross-cultural influences of her sound trace the path she’s taken in life: Nissi Ogulu was born into a highly creative family in Port Harcourt, Nigeria; her older brother is Burna Boy (dubbed the African Giant) and her grandfather was Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti’s manager. She’s lived in England since 2011, first in Bath, then Warwick where she studied Mechanical Engineering before eventually settling in East London
As she gears up for the release of her upcoming EP, Ignite, she finds herself zipping back and forth between the two continents a few times a year “on the spur of the moment” often to film music videos. Like her brother, she rejects the label of afrobeats artist, not out of criticism for the growing genre, but simply because she “isn’t a fan of boxes in general.” Given her family ties, getting into the music business “feels natural.” “You have people who understand the business and I’ve had a massive friend in my grandad who showed me how to record a track that harnesses my skill set. It’s also good because there are people who set the bar for you and push you,” she continues.
It’s clear that performing is an art form she’s been honing since she was a child. “When I was younger I played the piano at first, then would perform at parties with my friends. We would pretend we were Destiny’s Child,” she laughs. As she grew up she connected with “emotionally expressive” singers like Alicia Keys, Nina Simone, and Etta James. Her close-knit family unit encouraged her free-wheeling impulses. She describes road trips to Nigeria’s capital Abuja and “moments of mischief” with her brother as they rode around hotels on skateboards. Her parents also helped her realize the importance of balancing the two sides of her personality: Nissi, the performer, and Nissi Ogulu, the hard-worker. She credits Bose Ogulu, her mother, who she describes as a “powerhouse”, for her and her brother’s flair for dancing and style. “She studied our personalities and translated it with the style at the time. I was kind of tomboyish in the beginning so I liked anything with a zip. For my brother’s leaving day at secondary school from the boarding house, I rocked up in a pair of pink tims [Timberlands] and a frilly skirt,” she says, still evidently in love with her outfit. Holding it all together is the calming energy of her father Samuel. “My dad is very relaxed. Nothing is the end of the world. That makes you resilient. It’s the “I can’t come and kill myself” attitude,” she explains.
Being surrounded by this rich mix of strong characters is perhaps how Nissi became so self-possessed. Her upbringing for sure gave her the confidence to put herself out there and know that nothing is out of reach. That’s why she’s currently juggling music with a career in Mechanical Engineering. “I believe if you want to make something work then you can,” she says. When asked how she finds the time she says nonchalantly: “You find it.”