An interview with the hip-hop heavyweight who wants to change the world with music.
Over the last three years, Radio Beirut has become a platform for the underground music scene, hosting everything from jazz and classical tarab to electropop, reggae and folk. This summer, they’ve taken their soundtrack outdoors – and invited Akua Naru, a Cologne based hip-hop artist, to close their series of music sessions with her potent form of spoken-word poetics.
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Naru’s first musical influence came from the gospel music of her church; later, she found inspiration from artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and jazz musicians Nicholas Payton and Roy Hargrove. She fostered her lyricism as a young girl, reading and writing poetry, and music naturally followed.
“At some point, when a beat was playing, those poems became rhymes. I have been doing it ever since,” she says.
Alongside her rhymes developed a powerful sense of political consciousness, one that continues to be the driving force behind her music today. “It’s not hard to notice when you grow up black and female in a small city in America,” she explains. “As a teenager, I was in a number of arts and political awareness programs where I was able to come into contact with political activists who had survived previous movements. I was inspired to read and study… And raise questions. I believe this really shaped me as a young adult.”
Her recent album, The Miner’s Canary, released in early 2015, showed an evolution in her sound, her distinctively raspy vocals and pertinent lyricism layered on to a characteristic medley of neo soul, jazz and hip-hop influences. The album’s artwork – which remade an iconic photograph of the Black Panther Party’s Huey P. Newton, though clutching a spear and microphone – points to the potential she sees in music to create change. “My music is rooted in social justice. It’s always questioning the world I have inherited, and tries to paint a way towards something better,” she says. “I believe that music is powerful enough to awaken, educate, inspire. It tells us where we are and some music can show us where we can go.”
Easily one of the most charismatic female voices in hip-hop today, Naru continues the tradition of creating music that calls out to people. “If I did not believe in the potential of music, how could I stand behind it?” She pauses. “I believe people are waking up and I don’t believe that will change.”