TONY COX, host:
Singer/songwriter Asa was born in Paris but spent her childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. She returned to Paris as an adult to test her talent on the French music scene. But it was in Nigeria where Asa first discovered the sounds that would influence the music she creates. She joined us recently to talk about her debut album. It's a mix of reggae, soul, and jazz with a touch of pop. I started our interview by asking Asa about the catalyst for her music career - her father's eclectic record collection.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. ASA: (Singing) Wonderful is what you are to me...
Ms. ASA (Singer; Songwriter): My father had, you know, good collections of music from Marvin Gaye, Philip Coutre(ph) to Bob Marley. He had it all. And he was a cameraman, and he used the music to do something special with the pictures. You know, while he's playing I would sneak around and just listen. So I think music started for me then.
COX: Were you ever in a situation, Asa, where you were torn between - because you mention your dad had Motown and Marvin Gaye, torn between the American urban music and the more traditional music of Nigeria and in Africa.
Ms. ASA: That was in, you know. It was between American, the West, you know, influence and then the church music and the street music, traditional music from Nigeria.
COX: Now, let me make sure I heard you clearly. Did you say that it was a sin or that's what was in?
Ms. ASA: That was - yes, that was what was in, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: OK. It was not a sin…
Ms. ASA: No, no, no.
COX: To perform that kind of music. But at the beginning, that's what you were drawn to.
Ms. ASA: Yes.
COX: And at some point, you were like, I want to do what?
Ms. ASA: I wanted to get in touch with my identity, my roots. You revised my language. That's what I - you know, that's my mother's song and I started to embrace it.
(Soundbite of Ms. Asa singing)
COX: At some point, it became clear to you that you really did have a future as a performer, as a singer, as a songwriter. What was it and when was it that you knew, you know, this is - I'm good at this. I've got a future here.
Ms. ASA: When I was a little girl, I was really sure of what I wanted. (Laughing)
COX: That you were going to be something. When did you learn to play the guitar?
Ms. ASA: I was 20, 21. When I got the chance to buy my guitar, it was a revenge. People found out, you know, about me doing music. And after school - I grew up with my - I was living with my grandparents and it was a Muslim home and the things are pretty much quiet there. So, I didn't have that freedom to express. So, I got always - I was always frustrated. So, one day I got tired and the money that was supposed to be for school, I just took it and went out and bought me a guitar, and that was a revenge actually.
COX: Now, you've been performing for some time and I know that you have recorded before, but this is your - this is still considered - this "Asa" is still considered your debut CD, isn't it?
Ms. ASA: Yeah, yeah.
COX: It's wonderful, first of all.
Ms. ASA: Thank you.
COX: I've enjoyed it. The very first cut on here is a very intriguing track. It's called "Jailer," and some of the lyrics say, Jailer, I am in chains. You're in chains too. I wear uniforms. You wear uniforms, too. I'm a prisoner. You're a prisoner, too, Mister Jailer. Where did that come from?
Ms. ASA: The main reason why the song was written was in Nigeria, we have, you know, a lot of dictators, people suffered so much, and I think the country is just picking up from these horrible experiences we've had.
COX: Well, you know, one of the things about your CD and your music, it's been described many different ways. One of the ways that it has been described is as music that has a message, and certainly "Jailer" is a song that does that. Here's what caught me by surprise, Asa. And that's that, you make interesting points in your lyrics, and yet the music is so soft and sweet that it doesn't seem angry at all. And you have to listen carefully to really pay attention to what you're saying because if you're just listening to the melody, it takes you to a different place. You know what I mean?
Ms. ASA: Yes. That was done on purpose.
COX: Was it?
Ms. ASA: Yes. But honestly, I was - I wouldn't say I sat down and say, OK, I will sing a sad song but in a happy way. I know pain. I know there are different categories of pain.
COX: Yes, there are.
Ms. ASA: And I don't want to put too much pain out there. You know, it's better - I try to put, you know, hope and positivity, which I think is the solution, you know. We are all praying for hope and we have to be positive to achieve this. So, I try to put that in the music.
(Soundbite of song "Fire on the Mountain")
Ms. ASA: (Singing) There is fire on the mountain And nobody seems to be on the run Oh, there is fire on the mountain top And no one is a' running. I wake up in the morning Tell you what I see on my TV screen I see the blood of an innocent child And everbody's watching...
COX: Talk about the song "Fire in the Mountain." This is another example of social justice lyrics, isn't it?
Ms. ASA: Yes. Yes. "Fire on the Mountain" has talked about lot of things that we all know, we are familiarized with, from war to pedophile to diamond blood, you know, to many things, many more, you know. Really, what I'm talking about there is I'm trying to make us aware of what we already know but we are scared to talk about or to approach.
(Soundbite of song "Fire on the Mountain")
Ms. ASA: (Singing) You don't even know him
COX: What do you want as this new CD is being introduced to America?
Ms. ASA: What do I want? First, I want people to discover my music, to also discover where I come from. I like to talk about Africa as a beautiful place with beautiful people, kindhearted people. And also, Africans themselves, you know, we need to start looking at ourselves differently. We're not very confident, you know. If you go back home, people are - you know, they are down because things are not working. I want to heal with my music not only Africans but everybody, you know, across the world.
COX: Congratulations on this. Would you play something for us?
Ms. ASA: Yeah, sure. (Laughing)
(Soundbite of song "Jailer")
Ms. ASA: (Singing) I'm in chains, you're in chains too I wear uniforms and you wear uniforms too I'm a prisoner, you're a prisoner too, Mr. Jailer I have fears, you have fears too I will die, but you self go die too Life is beautiful, don't you think so too, Mr. Jailer I'm talking to you, Jailer Stop calling me a prisoner Let he who is without sin Be the first to cast the stone, Mr. Jailer Hey, Mr. Jailer…
COX: That was singer songwriter Asa. Her album "Asa" was released earlier this year. She joined us here at the studios of NPR West.
(Soundbite of song "Jailer")
Ms. ASA: (Singing): Part of me What you don't know, you're a victim too, Mr. Jailer You don't care about my point of view, Mr. Jailer I'm talking to you, Jailer Stop calling me a prisoner Let he who is without sin Be the first to cast the stone, Mr. Jailer Hey, Mr. Jailer If you're walking in a market place Don't throw stones Even if you do…
COX: You're listening to News and Notes from NPR News.