Learning To Tell Better Stories Through Asa's Music
Storytelling in music is an exceptional art form and can teach us, writers, how to write without limiting ourselves to words
I’ll write a vignette on encountering every artist who inspires me in some form. Here’s a picture:
Nigerian-French singer, Asa, is on stage, commanding a presence. Blue lights embrace her amid sweaty Londoners. It smells of Jollof rice, the kind made from firewood. That this is the first taste of freedom since the pandemic is evident in how she sways her shoulder-length locs. She’s shiny: filigree lined on the sides of her lime green pants, a shiny top that shows off a taut belly and shoulders. The evolution of style. She’s strumming her guitar and singing into a mic, round glasses sitting on her nose, cheekbones highlighted, and sharp.
This past weekend, I saw Asa live in London. An obvious decision made months before, in a little Norwich bedroom. I’ve seen Asa at least four times before: once at a literary event — my first time. It was too brief to be an encounter, almost a wink, but love stories say the first time’s a charm; there’s no better love story than this. The second time was at her first Live in Lagos concert the same year — I won a 5k ticket and went alone. I returned to my house in the thick of the night, baptised with passion, touched by an angel. A third time with friends at her second Live in Lagos concert. The last time at an event where she was the *headline performer. I would’ve seen her a fifth time in April 2020, but the pandemic happened, and I was distraught. I might have needed Awe and Bamidele to survive the past year but did without them, dissatisfied by studio recordings and how they paled compared to a live event.
If you’ve never heard of Asa, I’ll say she’s a storyteller. A half-truth. The kind who weaves tales into music. Examples: there’s Akinyele, the stubborn lawyer who wants to eat his cake and have it, the young wife in Bimpe, whose inlaws won’t leave her alone, and of course, the prayer we all ask of God [even Jesus did]: Satan be Gone. Asa is not merely a word-stringer who cares only about how catchy the rhymes are. Almost anyone can do that. Storytelling is more than poetic words. As you can already tell, Asa tends to capture the complexity of humanity in stories.
I’m in the concert hall when I know I’ll write about her in this week’s newsletter. I’ve previously described Asa concerts as spiritual experiences, and this time is not an exception. Goosebumps spread on my skin, and I can feel the back of my throat burn as I strain my voice to match the screaming crowd. The moment I know, I’m enraptured by her movement, not the magic of her song. Like years before, when I was obsessed with finding my voice, I realise that Asa and everything her art embodies is the pinnacle of my literary aspiration. I’m not speaking merely about achievements. Her freedom to express so freely, to find and sift out the stories from the mundane, everydayness of life, to tell stories that stay, even after the singer has left the stage and the actors have taken off their costumes.
Here I am listening with my vocal cords, with my ears, with legs, my hands, and my back. My mind moves through the movie scenes in her songs, flipping pages as though the performance is a picture book. The characters have real faces; they make me cry, laugh, dance, rejoice.
I no longer remember how I discovered Asa, as in properly discovered her music the way one might walk by a music shop and hear music that lights up their day. Sometimes, I suspect there was not a time when I did not know her. My dad says that he played lawn tennis with her on the university campus and that his coach had wanted to date her. At the time of writing this letter, I can’t verify this story that exists in my mind's periphery and may have been altered by memory.
My earliest memory is 2007, featuring Jailer, the song that reminds us that we’re not all free until we all are. A junior student with a magical, croaky voice performs at a school concert, and people are moved to tears. At the start of the 2010s, the music entered my subconscious when I wouldn’t stop listening to stolen demos like Iba [of course, at the time I didn’t know they were stolen, I assumed Asa had an album — The Captivator — she wasn’t particularly proud of, the way one might have a story or project they’re ashamed of.] The tracklist helped me transition from a guarded 16-year-old to a young woman entering the world.
Ten years later, past breakups and sicknesses, I haven’t stopped listening. I’m typically envious of other forms of art: painting, sculpture, acting, photography, etc. They can seem ‘more alive’, maybe more lucrative than writing. Asa allows me the opportunity to carry my vulnerability into her presence and to borrow from her strength, even when she’s not physically there. I’m speaking of the weight that flows from her lips and settles into my consciousness, a power that allows me to borrow portraits of characters in telling my stories.
Right before the concert ends, Asa shares heartfelt notes: wanting to give up but not giving up, wanting to be a tailor, but that not working out, etc. I imagine how colourless and strained life might be without her album coming out in a few weeks or months and suddenly feel like throwing up.
I hope you enjoyed this and are encouraged to listen to Asa. [Grammer errors are human, sending this newsletter is divine.] Kindly share with friends and have a lovely weekend. 💖