Celebrating Black History Month with the Multi-Talented Swiss-Nigerian Artist Nubya
The Embassy recently sat down with Nubya to talk about her latest and upcoming albums, what empowered her to embrace being songwriter, producer, and record-label executive, as well as her transformative year in New York back in the mid-nineties.
Swiss Embassy: For your last album “Today” you wrote and co-wrote most of the songs. It is said to be your most personal album so far. And on your new album coming out this year, most of the lyrics will be written by you as well. At this point in your life, what allowed you to be so open and share your feelings and thoughts in such an intimate way?
Nubya: My love for music has evolved over the years. When I was seven I started to play the classical piano and at home I would listen to all sorts of music. My mother has an amazing record collection. As a child I loved to take records out of the shelf and dive into the music. The range went from classical to jazz, soul, folk, and African music.
When I was 17 I started to add my voice to playing the piano and decided to go to America for a year to spend time with music. After graduating from school I went to New York and studied jazz at the New School for Social Research. They had an amazing jazz department with professors that helped us dive into the sounds and history of jazz. After the year in New York, I returned to Switzerland as planned and studied economics in Basel. During that time I was playing in several jazz, acid-jazz, blues, and pop bands. I started to do a lot of live-gigs and after some time I was performing so much that I was making a name for myself. I found myself at a fork in the road: Economics or music. I chose music, for which my heart is beating and have never regretted it since.
I always did a little writing and co-writing, but I had most of the songs written for me. Yet, it has always been important to sing from my heart, that’s why I would spend a lot of time with the writers until they knew what I wanted to say and sing. When I started working on my last record “Today,” I knew that the words had to be mine and that my words are going to be the real deal, if I want to speak from my heart and experience. It was really a matter of believing in myself and encouraging myself to go for it. I had great musicians and songwriters who encouraged and shared their knowledge with me. I just love singing my own words and the greatest gift is, when people tell me that a song of mine helped them through a rough patch. That’s what music is to me: It lifts me up, I feel understood, I get energy from music and if my music can do that for others, that’s the best feeling in the world for me.
I was also lucky to have people around me who empowered me whenever I doubted myself. We are about to finish my new album that will be released this year and most of the new songs I have written with an amazing songwriter and lyricist, Alan Glass. The moment we started working together, things were flowing and songs just came into being every time we got together. The first single “Rebel” was released last year and the album will be released this year.
Swiss Embassy: Besides being a successful singer-songwriter you are also a business woman. You were in charge of the entire “Today” album production and it was released under your own label. Was this a nice way for you to combine your passion for music with your economics studies? In what way has this empowered you to shape your own space in the Swiss music industry and beyond?
Nubya: It was a very empowering experience, but without the people around me, who have been graciously sharing their knowledge and expertise with me, it would have been a hard thing to do.
When working with a record company, the artist usually has to discuss every decision with the record company and I just wanted to have the freedom to do things my way. I was happy with the result and can only recommend this approach to other artists. Nowadays, with social media it’s so much easier to publicize your own work. All these emerging communications platforms make it possible for up-and-coming artists to be heard and seen instantly by large crowds. Social media has been seismic shift for our industry, and in most cases to the benefit of the artist.
I studied economics for seven semesters at the university, which have definitely shaped my way of thinking in terms of business. I always wanted to read my contracts and check the figures, which is very important. I was very aware of lots of artists, who were cheated out of money multiple times. I was determined that this would not happen to me.
Also being in charge of a production, I was in charge of the budget and had figure out where and how much to invest for marketing, studio rental, technician hire, etc. What I learned is, that I have to switch between my artist and my business mind. When I am in artist mode, I am very bad at doing my office-work and planning things. And when in my business mind, I feel focused and can plan things quite well, but I feel uncreative and cannot get into the “zone” where I could write and work on music. So, I just have to plan my weeks and days accordingly, as to where I solely focus on music or business, but not both.
Swiss Embassy: You were born in Basel to a Swiss mom and a Nigerian dad. Many can relate to belonging to two cultures and finding their own space in both worlds. When do you feel closest to each home country? How has this enriched your life and what might be challenging about it?
Nubya: Growing up in Switzerland I felt very Swiss, and, yet quite different. Not with my family or with my friends, but with people on the street, who would often make remarks or stare at me in a way that would make me uncomfortable. Funny enough, I chose a job in the spotlight.
I grew up in my Swiss family in Basel and I always felt very Swiss and couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t see me as that. Often, I would be asked where I was from and if I wanted to go back there. Things have changed very much since. Switzerland now has a high immigration rate and it is not unusual anymore to see colorful people all around.
Funny enough the same thing happened in Nigeria when I was visiting my family there at age 15. I thought I would totally blend in but people would ask me constantly where I was from because my skin was so light.
So, for some time I felt like I couldn’t blend in anywhere and wouldn’t truly belong to one place.
That started to change when I was in my late teens and I began to be grateful for coming from two cultures. I realized that I have a double blessing. Two wonderful families, one in Switzerland, one in Nigeria and two great countries that I can be part of.
I wrote a song about this. It’s called “Song Of My Soul.”
Swiss Embassy: You spent an exciting year in New York and credit this time with experiencing more in one year than at any other point in your life. What were some of the highlights? In what way has that year changed the trajectory of your life? What did a normal day look like for you during that year?
Nubya: The year in New York was a big life changer for me. I went there right after finishing high school. This was the first time I was away from home and it was a year in which I wanted to live out my absolute passion: music. I remember entering the New School where you would hear music behind every door and all the wonderful people I met during that time. I immediately found friends and they showed me the many sides of New York City. As you can imagine, it’s hard to find an affordable room for rent, so I moved up and down the city and had the chance to discover different neighborhoods. I spent around 10–12 hours at school learning and diving into jazz. I cannot imagine a better place to do that. Our professors were among the best jazz musicians around and they gave us access to their knowledge of music and the history of jazz.
I would go to jam sessions and was able to fulfill one of my childhood dreams. To sing in a gospel choir. One of my friends at school asked me if I wanted to join the choir and it was what I had dreamed of. The choir was invited to perform at churches in Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, the Bronx, and the services and music just moved me to my core every time.
I will never forget how helpful people were. I used to ask lots of questions and was grateful that all these amazing musicians would take the time to talk to me and share their wisdom. I loved that I could blend into the city and nobody would care where I was from until they heard my accent. I was able to free myself from quite a few conventions and the fear of what people might think of me, such as the way I dress or if I sang on the street.
Swiss Embassy: During your time in New York, how did you experience the city’s diversity compared to that of Zurich’s or Geneva’s?
Nubya: What was super interesting to me, was that New York wasn’t really the melting pot that I thought it would be. We are talking 1994. I haven’t spent enough time in NYC to know how things are today. Back then, I was expecting a city where people of all places and colors would live together, but soon found out that most of the people wouldn’t mix, but stay more or less in their demographic circles. And I remember having quite a heated discussion with one of my fellow black students. She took umbrage with me being friends with the “wrong” community. At first, I couldn’t understand her point and I was frustrated about how she saw things in just black and white. But then I was grateful that she started the conversation, because her story and experiences were so different from mine growing up in Switzerland. And this was a big history lesson for me. I had no idea what she had been through and was facing.
If I compared New York to Zurich, apart from the size, I think that New York is a very fast-paced city. Swiss cities have a little more time. They have drive too, but not at the pace of New York. In my heart, New York is like a second home. It’s an exhausting city, but I always charge my batteries with inspiration, drive, new ideas, and lots of motivation when I’m there. I miss New York and am glad that it’s possible to travel again.
Learn more about Nubya here:
Willkommen auf meiner Homepage. Mein neuer Song "Rebel" kommt am 26. März 2021 heraus. Der Song ist die erste Single…
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