Interview – Ndidi Onukwulu
– by Shawn Conner
Ndidi Onukwulu‘s 2008 album The Contradictor was a stunning leap forward from her debut, which was pretty good itself. On The Contradictor, though, the Britannia Beach B.C.-based singer’s mix of blues, jazz, soul and pop really came together, while always staying a step ahead of easy pigeonholing.
The Snipe talked to Onukwulu, whose father is a Nigerian-born percussionist, about looking exotic while growing up in smalltown B.C., her recent forays into acting and beauty contest judging, and the problems with kids today
Shawn Conner: Growing up in small town BC and being pretty exotic-looking must have been cause for some angst.
Ndidi Onukwulu: Uh, yeah. Interior Canada, period. Having some melanin in your skin makes for a bit of a life. A pretty isolated life. Which is strange. But people are people, what can you do. When you look a little bit foreign they get funny around you.
SC: I guess that serves you well for your songs—it gives you the right to sing the blues.
NO: It does. That’s the thing. When people talk to me at the blues and say, “Oh, you’re so happy.” Well, I wasn’t always happy. A. B, have you been to Interior Canada? When you go and stay in small town Canada for a year, talk to me then.
SC: Is there some sense of satisfaction returning to these place and being onstage?
NO: It’s weird, I don’t know. It’s a different thing. I mean, I haven’t played in these areas before – I mean, I’ve played around Nelson, and that’s just fun. It’s full of health food, good times, and hippies. So it’s pretty happy. But the other places I haven’t played. I know in Invermere I’m sure to see a whole bunch of faces I don’t recognize, but that I did at one time.
SC: You’ve recently added a couple of things to your resume, actress and judge. Tell me a little about your role in Nurse.Fighter.Boy.
NO: I played a singer, which isn’t much of a stretch, and got to sing one of my own songs. It’s a whole different world; it’s a world that’s fun. You get to play make believe, but make it real.
SC: Do you think you have natural acting talent?
NO: I don’t know. But I’d like to try. I’d like to maybe study over time. I’m sort of a one-track woman, though. I believe whatever your strength is, you should really push that, and the other things you could be kind of okay you should investigate and learn about, study and then try.
SC: And judging the Vervegirl competition?
NO: That’s pretty fun. I get to look at young Canadian faces and pick the ones I think represent our country. It’s a great opportunity, I like that the magazine is trying to promote self-esteem in young women. I feel like youth in general, particularly females, have it twice as hard now as it was for me growing up. And itas hell. I can only imagine what they’re going through. This magazine’s trying to build an outlet for women to look at themselves and feel proud, no matter what their size or shape or ethnicity.
SC: Why is it harder now than when you were growing up?
NO: When I grew up, mind you I was in isolated communities, but there was money for sports teams, there was money for theatre and music in school. Now, the focus isn’t really on that. Extracurricular programs are practically nonexistent, so where do these kids go? They go to the mall, they get into gangs, because there’s no place to go. At least I had a bit of a network. I did go to about a million different high schools and schools, but I grew up at a time when there was money put into schools for extracurricular. And it saved my life. I was spending time doing things, rather than ruminating on terrible feelings burning through me. When you’re going through puberty it’s honestly hell. You know this.
SC: I still am going through puberty.
NO: [laughs] It’s a hard hard time. Nothing’s working. Today’s society, though it’s completely falling apart, there’s still this mass consumption mentality put on these kids. Female figures in today’s entertainment world are terrible. There are hardly any respectable role models for young women. It’s just kind of awful, it’s apalling – women are being forced to exude this sexuality prematurely. Boy, if I pulled that stunt when I was a kid – well, I wouldn’t have.
SC: You sound like me: “Kids today, boy.”
NO: I know, it’s so weird. I love them and I want to help, which is why I’m part of this contest. There are organizations I work with, as my profile rises, I’m able to more attention to – scholarship programs, literacy outreach programs. So I’m doing my best not to be so “kids today,” but it’s hard.
SC: Are you in touch with your RCMP step-dad?
NO: No, not so much.
SC: I thought he must have an opinion on this Robert Dziekanski court case*.
NO: He’s retired. I can give you my opinion, growing up with an RCMP officer. I don’t think he was the best example of a good clean common-sense officer. I’ve had a few run-ins with RCMP and it’s a very individual thing. I have mixed feelings. I understand the need for police, and appreciate them when they’re helpful. But giving that much power to an individual is a very tricky thing. You don’t really know how that person’s brain and ego really workds.
Like some of the things my stepfather would do and say… He was in traffic, which is kind of why we were in small highway towns. And he would purposely pull people over who weren’t really doing anything, and give them a ticket to make a quota, and I know a lot of cops did that. On the flip side, there were always three or four really amazing RCMP officers who were really proud of what they did, and were pragmatic and rational. In moments of extreme crisis, massive accidents or hold-ups, they would never did what those four gentlemen did. I mean, that’s pretty disgusting. They’re four large cops, he’s one man. It goes back to the idea, you give people this false sense of power, and some will exploit it.
SC: And none of this would be coming to light if someone hadn’t been walking by with a videocamera.
NO: Of course not, and that’s the amazing thing about technology. As much as I am kind of anti-technology, people can’t get away with things anymore.
SC: Does it bug you when you’re performing and everyone’s taking pictures on the cellphones?
NO: No, not at all. It’s necessary. I understand it’s part of life because we’re so Internet-based. The more that goes on the Internet, the more people can see. It’s very bizarre. Whatever happened to the days of traveling minstrels?
SC: I think those days are over. Then again, when society crashes, minstrels might be back in vogue.
*Four RCMP officers tasered a panicked Dziekanski five times at the Vancouver International Airport, resulting in the Polish immigrant’s death.