50 shades of Aṣa: Documenting the years since she set fire to the mountain

Happy Birthday Asa!

I still remember where I was when the first Asa album ‘Asa’ was released. I was a teenager stuck in that limbo of long senior high school days and short nights, when sleep is never enough. 2007 was an entirely different world culturally from the one we live in now, it was the cusp of the Internet explosion that would start in earnest in 2009, before mobile internet supplanted cybercafes. CD stores were still a big deal then, they were the only way you could find new music.

I’d known of Asa long before her debut album was released, she’d been signed to Storm Records and while she languished in pre-album purgatory, the bigwigs unsure of what to do with a diminutive, guitar strumming prodigy, she did an insanely popular skit for Soundcity TV (that would eventually grow to become the cable channel). Then in late 2005 Asa disappeared, leaving Nigeria for France and the opportunity to see her music properly supported and her vision given flight.

The store was CD Classique on Ago Palace Road, a tiny store couched in a busy highway in Okota, with a newly installed CCTV camera because its constricted shelves made it a sweet spot for teenagers pilfering from their selection of soft core pornography. I had come to replace a couple of my old faithfuls, Meteora, Under My Skin, Riot!, Folie A Deux, when I spotted it, stacked in paper jackets on the counter. There was just something about ‘Asa’, the minimalist album art, a monochromatic portrait of Asa caught midway through a dance, eyes closed, loc’s in motion, sensible glasses. It was nothing like the polished, West gazing art that other Nigerian pop stars of the time favoured. I worried the attendant about the album and she told me what she knew: It was Asa’s debut, I found out for myself, Cohbams Asuquo, who was still coming into his own as well, had produced the entire album. I listened to it from start to finish, and fell head long in love with Asa.

In many ways, Asa is more artist mission statement than personal introspective album. There is a fervor that defines the album through and through. You could tell from the songs that she was ecstatic to finally be able to make the music she wanted to make, the way she wanted to make it. But there were also so many discordant ideas in Asa, Asa’s allure for grand ideals sometimes tips into phantasmagoria. A typical example is her lead single off the project “Fire On The Mountain”, a song that was not only well composed, but also came accompanied with a haunting video of life frozen in motion.

“Fire On The Mountain” parlayed themes of child abuse with real world conflict in the larger society, Asa brings it all to a bridge where she sings “we would run, run, wishing we had put out the fire!”. It’s a promise of an apocalyptic conclusion that offers no respite from the already heavy subject matter. Re-imagining Asa’s diminutive guitar pose from a video at a subway in New York makes all the difference, because what you get is your typical doomsday prophet, who yells signs of the end times at passersby with no promise of retribution for sinners. Understandably, this says more about Asa as an individual threading the fine lines between spirituality and wokeness, than it does about her music, but such grim philosophical leaps resurface across the album, with a noble outlook, that lacks optimism

I didn’t get into Beautiful Imperfection until a year after it was released. I’d gotten into university, gone through the motions and become entirely disillusioned with the whole process. If Asa is Asa exploring her place in the world, Beautiful Imperfection fits as a consolidation of the former project with a new sense of self-establishment through all new ‘costumes’, gimmicky glasses and a whole persona that fit awkwardly on her. The era marked a more self-assured and free-spirited Asa, with cuts like “Be My Man”, “Bimpe”,  mirroring some of my own personal struggles in many ways.

The public university system is complicated enough to frustrate even the most gifted. And I struggled, frustrated by the insistence of the entire system that I conform; a decidedly more ‘pop’ bent Asa hued those years with “Dreamer Girl”, a song that subsumes listeners into the mind of a presumably younger Asa with big dreams and nothing but hope. The Asa who forebode the day of reckoning for mankind gave way for Beautiful Imperfection to soar on “Why Can’t We” and “Iba“. Even the initial somber disposition of “The Way I Feel”, explodes into an electric guitar-led chorus. I could never really get into the album beyond these handful. It reminded me too much of the insincerity of trying to conform to external standards, a peeve of the side of me who never got over Asa’s all new pop star markings. It seemed Asa tried to get away from it too, she took a four year hiatus after the album, and grew a whole lot before 2014’s Bed Of Stone.

In 2014, when the video for Dead Again, the first single off Bed Of Stone was released, we could all sense that a realignment had occurred. Asa’s initial pessimism on Asa, may have segued into reassurance and self-confidence on Beautiful Imperfection, but Bed Of Stone, is where disappointment sets in. Starting with “Dead Again”, the lead single off the project, Asa’s leery gaze but optimistic faith in the world seems to have been trounced. Asa is coming to terms with how much she cannot change, the realisation that sometimes love is just not enough and that somethings are to be left forsaken. “Dead Again” is a somewhat existential reflection of how little control we have over the world around us, a fact she already indirectly established on—albeit in a different context— on “Jailer”.

Asa had cut her lock’s into a stylish bob, gone were the costume-y signifiers of the last era and its saccharine songs. In it’s place was urgent agency, emotion. The album was also the longest and the most self-determined. And at its beating heart were two things, “Eyo” the place where everything had started and Asa laying herself bare. The stories Asa told now, were stories about herself, her love for Lagos’ busy street and perpetuatal motion, her experiences with being an immigrant in another man’s country, depression, racism, love and loss and “Moving On”, a particularly harrowing story of what many suspect was sexual assault. There was a rawness to Bed Of Stone that Asa had never given us before, a window into her own mind, her own thoughts as they related to her.

In the following year after the album’s release, Asa returned home for the first time to perform at Eko Hotels, Lagos, as part of the promotional tour for Bed of Stone. It was a magical moment that highlighted her becoming, as she evolved through the years, with her own humanity at the core of her music. Her musings, convictions and trials of love have served as a bed rock for every shade of Asa we have seen in the last decade. In view of a few more years to come, safe to expect the full Asa story to come full circle on the day she drops the mic. (If ever)

Image Credits: Sofia and Mauro

ICYMI: Watch Asa’s spellbinding rendition of “Moving On”