Singer-songwriter Mary Akpa embraces her “Roots”

The Nigerian-born and L.A.-based musician says returning to the place of her birth helped her see herself in her truest form to create her latest release Nnoo.

Mary Akpa. Photo credit: Nikk Rich


Mary Akpa came to the U.S. with her mom and older brother as a young girl.

“We didn’t have the typical immigrant story where you’re leaving your home for a better life,” Akpa says. “My mom was actually doing quite well. And she wasn’t a fan of being in the U.S. initially. I think that showed up with … this nostalgia. We ate Nigerian food, we spoke ebo in the home, we listened to Nigerian music, with the exception of contemporary Christian and gospel music and then country because my mom loved Dolly Parton.”

“I felt like this album was such a journey of me coming back to myself and realigning myself.” —Mary Akpa

Growing up in the U.S., Akpa would go on to study ethnomusicology and business economics at the University of California Los Angeles and even got signed on to a major music label when she was part of a girl group at age 18. While they were housed at Edmonds Towers, which is Babyface’s studio in L.A., she learned a lot about who she was — and wasn’t.

“I didn’t want to present myself in a way that isn’t truly me for the sake of an audience or a No. 1 hit,” Akpa says. “That made my journey a lot more challenging to be honest but I think I needed that realization that young.”

Her latest release is Nnoo, which translates to “welcome home” in ebo, Akpa explains.

“I felt like this album was such a journey of me coming back to myself and realigning myself.”

Akpa went back to Nigeria to record the album. She wasn’t originally planning to go back but she was collaborating with other musicians in L.A. and something wasn’t clicking.

“I just kept thinking back to the moments where I was in Nigeria with my band in Nigeria and how it felt being home playing music,” Akpa says.

So she went back, locked herself up in a home studio with three guitar players, a bass player, and drummer and started “working through these ideas and then having them sort of congeal into something that made sense.” That resulted in her latest offering, which is the intersection of soul, jazz, electronica and African influences.  She returned to the U.S. to finish post production.

“I think I needed to be home to create this project because the project was a journey, a personal journey of coming home. And I don’t know if I would have really felt as grounded and rooted in what I had to say. … I felt I saw myself in my in my truest form.”

One of her favorite songs on the record is “Roots.” She says it’s her version of an immigrant story but also what it means to be an immigrant.

“How do you remain rooted when life is always throwing things at you and there’s so much shift and there’s so much change that’s just kind of a constant in life?” Akpa says. “What grounds us is our roots.”

Another song that has a lot of significance for Akpa is “Black Body.”

“One of the things that became really clear to me on this journey is how much social justice is really a part of my story and using anything that I have at my disposal, whether it be music, whether it be my voice, whether it be any platform that I have to ensure that marginalized people, my people, Black people, Nigerian people are seen heard.”

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  • Nick Austin
    Nick Austin hosts Soul Saturday, merging genres like soul and hip-hop with electronica and funk into a rich tapestry of sound that is uniquely Detroit.