In Kesswa’s Music, Detroit Techno and Nigerian Gospel Find Common Ground

Experimental singer Kesswa is forging a path between contemporary R&B and traditional Nigerian music, and the result is something to behold.

Kesswa’s debut EP “Soften” plays out like a long-awaited release of breath.

The four-song project matches contemplative lyrics and ambient vibe over rhythmic patterns that pull just as much from contemporary R&B and Detroit’s rich electronic musical legacy as they do the talking drums of traditional Nigerian percussionists and non-traditional song structure.

“Being first generation Nigerian, I’m still learning so much about my parents. There’s just so much more to understand because of the cultural difference and the generational gap.” — Kesswa, Detroit singer and songwriter

It’s an impressively confident and inventive debut from Detroit born-and-bred Kesswa (born Kesiena Wanogho), who brought the project to life with the assistance of harpist Ahya Simone and producer Askanse.

Beginning the 27-year-old’s nascent music career, however, wasn’t without some friction.

Click the player above to hear Kesswa’s music and her cultural journey to discover an identity in Detroit while her parents kept traditional Nigerian music alive in the family home.

Courtesy of Kesswa
Courtesy of Kesswa

As a first-generation daughter of Nigerian immigrant parents, the vision to become a recording artist was initially met with doubt from parents more focused on finding their footing in a new country.

“I didn’t grow up in an environment that was fully nurturing of artists,” says Kesswa. “I had to really fight myself and my own beliefs that I’ve internalized from people who may have wanted to be artists; who may look down on artists and not really view being an artist as a real career path. I had to contend with those things and I’m still contending with them.” 

Still, Kesswa’s parents did give her one gift that would inadvertently help her music career — the music of her parents’ native Nigeria ranging from traditional Nigerian gospel to the Afrobeat fusion of Fela Kuti.

Music is one of the strongest connections Kesswa has to her roots. Those Nigerian influences permeate throughout the music she makes today alongside a blend of contemporary Detroit influences.

“Just being a young girl who had access to the radio in the 90s, I discovered Underground Resistance and ghetto tech and house music and all these different things that I didn’t have a name for at the time,” says Kesswa. “It would be stuff that I would stay up late listening to on the radio.”

Watch an unplugged performance of Kesswa singing “To Find” below.

Post Written by LaToya Cross 

Audio Feature by Ryan Patrick Hooper

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