As the curtain fell on her second Live In Lagos concert, Eko Hotel felt like the latest stop in a decade-long victory lap for Asa. Supported by a majestic 30-man orchestra, the singer put together a strong contender for concert of the year, and it was only April. The spectacle provided further evidence that there is still space in the A-list of Nigerian music, for the Parisienne and her timeless Afro-cosmopolitan sound, but it’s also a space that she’s had to fight for.
This week makes it 10 years since Asa released her eponymous debut project, an album that is almost unanimously adjudged to be a classic. But it is also an album that almost never happened.
Asa has gone on to release two other studio albums since then: Beautiful Imperfection (2010) and Bed Of Stone (2014). Not only internationally, but also through Alaba distribution channels. This is important because even though she probably spends more time in the city of Lights than she does in the city that never has light, Asa continues to remain a revered musician back at home.
In addition to her remarkable studio albums, Asa has two live albums. At least two other projects have surfaced without her permission, and the singer’s reaction to their release has given us a peek into another side of her.
Asa is normally reserved and guarded, which adds to her mystic, but there have been moments when she’s shown that there’s some steel beneath that soft exterior. Last year, GTBank saw that side when Asa publicly distanced herself from the theme song she had made for the bank years ago. All isn’t well with that relationship, if indeed there’s still any, and it might have been pure coincidence that the bank launched an aggressive #737 campaign shortly afterwards, complete with new musicians, but either way, it didn’t look good.
The manner in which Asa disassociated herself from GTB was cold-blooded, however, it was the way she broke ties with her erstwhile label, Question Mark Records, several years prior, that really let Nigerians know that there was more to this singer than meets the eye.
In the mid-2000s, former MTV employee Kevin Lucciano-Gabriel set about assembling arguably the most versatile roster of artists at the time: Question Mark. Rapper ModeNine was the biggest star on the promising label that also had Nnenna, a sultry soul singer; Asa, a more acoustic-soul alternative; the edgy Street Monks duo; and Silver Saddih, the R&B heartthrob. Cobhams was the sinew that brought the artists together musically, but the relationship between the visually-impaired producer and Asa was particularly special.
Theirs was a match made in heaven – Asa occasionally combined her soul sensibilities to her Yoruba aesthetics, and brought both to Cobham’s polished, worldly production. Cobhams would produce Asa’s entire debut album later on but in the meantime, both the singer and her producer were signed to a label that Asa would claim never understood her music.
Despite the early promise, Question Mark was a label in perpetual turmoil and in 2006, Asa joined a growing list of artists who no longer shared Kevin’s vision and made for the exit. The singer alleged that Kevin and co were trying to sign her to an international deal behind her back, which isn’t shocking because Asa already looked and sounded like a misfit within the larger Q-Mark All Stars collective.
Asa also alleged that her former boss used mafia-style tactics to force her to stay. There were even reports that she had a gun pulled on her. Even though these were mere allegations, Kevin immediately became public enemy number one. It didn’t even matter whether the allegations were true or if Asa was violating the terms of her contract, for in a fight between a powerful male music exec and a bespectacled female soul singer, armed with only a guitar and a dream, the people were always going to take one side.
Through the years, Kevin has always maintained that all he wanted was for artists to respect their ‘contractual obligations’. But Asa had other plans at the time; she would sign with Paris-based Naive Records and release “Jailer” – a one-part political freedom song, one-part middle finger at her former employers.
“I’m talking to you jailer /Stop calling me a prisoner”
However, Question Mark one-upped Asa by releasing another version of “Jailer”. In fact, the label had several other records from the singer that they packaged and released after her exit, and they’ve been letting them go as if they were posthumous 2Pac albums or something.
Asa sued Q-Mark for releasing the last one, Down On Me (2014), without her consent, the status of that lawsuit hasn’t been made public. But even though she has taken her grievances from the court of public opinion to the court of law, “Jailer” will be remembered as the subtlest of freedom fights, and the classic album that contained it, the ultimate declaration of freedom.