Nigerian songstress Asa (real name Bukola Elemide), recently caused a stir by singing — in a long, black dress, appearing to mourn the demise of her nation — her hit song 'Fire on the Mountain' to Nigerian leaders, including President Muhammadu Buhari, at an event in the presidential villa in Abuja. Social media was abuzz with praise for the 39-year old artist’s courage in speaking truth to power.
Asa was born in Paris of Nigerian parents, Akin and Arsah, who were studying cinematography. She returned to Nigeria with them in 1984 at the age of two, where she attended primary and secondary school. She dropped out of Lagos State University after six months to pursue her musical passion.
She enrolled at Peter King’s Musical School in Lagos, resulting in her father cutting off her stipend. Asa was forced to earn money from studio performances, buying her first guitar at the age of 20. Her parents’ acrimonious divorce was a traumatic experience that plunged Asa more deeply into her music.
Growing up in Lagos exposed her to Nigeria’s cosmopolitan, bustling megalopolis in which she still spends much of her time, writing by the Atlantic Ocean. At the age of 18 Asa returned to the city of her birth, establishing residence in Paris where she performed in clubs, revelling in the city’s street art. She has contrasted Paris’s racial discrimination to Lagos’ gender discrimination.
Her eclectic musical tastes were cultivated from listening to her father’s record collection, which included Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Sunny Ade, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. At the age of 22 she met her manager, Janet Nwose, who introduced her to blind producer Cobhams Emmanuel Asuquo. He oversaw her first studio album, Asa in 2007.
Asa’s music is a mix of soul, hip hop, RnB, jazz, reggae, funk, folk, and pop. She sings ballads, mid-tempo and dance music in an inimitable, mellifluous voice. Hits such as 'Jailer' and 'Fire on the Mountain' were standout singles from her debut album, which sold more than 400 000 copies. She won France’s Prix Constantin for the best new artist in 2008.
In 2010 Beautiful Imperfection was released, also selling more than 400 000 copies, with hits such as 'Eyé Adaba' and 'Preacher Man'. Four years later, Bed of Stone followed, with hits such as 'Eyo' and 'Satan be Gone'. In 2019 came Lucid, which received mixed reviews, but Asa’s fame had already spread across the globe. Her 2022 V album was an ode to Afrobeats, and involved collaboration with Wizkid, The Cavemen and Amaarae.
Asa has often identified Fela and Marley as her greatest influences: “I saw the way they affected people with their words, they made the government react, people loved, people laughed, and I wanted to do the same thing.” But despite her biting lyrics she has not been as confrontational as the two cannabis-smoking superstars, stressing entertainment over education as her primary artistic responsibility. Her criticisms of Nigeria’s malaise are thus often couched in generalities, and the leadership is not singled out personally for condemnation.
Asa believes strongly in education as a liberating force, noting: “We will not put an end to extreme poverty if we do not give priority to education, especially girls’ education.” She has been outspoken about the need for gender equality in a misogynistic Nigerian society rife with gender-based violence and low political representation of women.
She has persistently lamented the curse of oil in hampering Nigeria’s development. She has organised charity concerts to pay for children’s education, bemoaning the ubiquitous presence of street urchins across the country. Asa takes every opportunity to return to Nigeria, believing strongly in performing for her compatriots. She is proud of her ancestry and deeply conscious of her Yoruba roots.