Interview: Ugochi Nwaogwugwu

Internationally acclaimed, Ugochi Nwaogwugwu is about to drop her sophomore album, “Afro Soul Effect.” I first met Ugochi, the Chicago born and based, Nigerian identified artist, as a youngster in Chicago’s underground youth arts scene. I was blown away by a performance from her then recently released debut album, “African Buttarfly.” As the years have progressed, I am no longer a disadvantaged urban youth, and now, similarly teach Chicago kids arts and creative writing. Since those free-pizza open mic days, Nwaogwugwu’s music has remained uplifting and inspiring throughout the years. Traveling the world and recording in the UK, Ugochi always keeps one foot rooted in her home town Chicago. Her parents originally of Nigeria, immigrated to the Chicago, Beverly/Morgan Park area, expecting their daughter to grow up to be a lawyer. Morgan Park H.S. alum, Nwaogwugwu fondly describes the south side of Chicago as “a little community.” Influenced by her fathers’ love of ballroom, Latin music and Soul, Ugochi finds roots in the indoctrination of her families Nigerian heritage, combined with the top-40’s U.S. pop fuels much of Ugochi’s style.

Ugochi describes growing up in the 80’s and bereaves the current airways when she states, “the radio was less segregated then, it was just good all around. We were listening to music from all over the world.” As a child she was encouraged to sing at family functions, despite her debilitating shyness. Her enthusiasm for music grew over the years but her Nigerian family were less than reticent to watch their daughter transform into a singer-songwriter and the “African Buttafly,” she was meant to be. Taught to be “a good Nigerian girl,” her immigrant parents pushed education and financial security on their daughter, who in college decided to take a different turn. “I never took the arts seriously because I always thought I was going to be a lawyer or sitting on the bar of some judge. It wasn’t until I was about to go to law school and it was going to become real. I was so turned on to what was happening in Chicago, in the poetry scene which was amazing. I loved what I could do with poetry as a journalism major. I could make my writing more creative.” We bonded about our similar immigrant parent’s expectations and concerns for their children and our similar journalistic pursuits. But, Ugochi’s universal understanding and transcendent view come best through in her recent work on “Afro Soul Effect.”

“The album resounds as more acoustic and accapella, a true collaboration with the musicians,” where Ugochi says she laid down most of the melody and the lyrics grew from the music. For the most part she had the lyrics and melodies thought out and showed the band a little sample to let them vibe with her style, to enhance her work. Excited by the fans and close friends invited to a recent listening parties, Ugochi was surprised by peoples’ standing ovations, “that’s the truth, when I’m talking about truth. I can’t make people react a certain way to my album. That’s real. That’s love.” Speaking about several of the tracks which were recorded in the UK working with the DJ Simbad, “I wanted to work on something funky, off the beat path.” The rest of the album was worked with the band. She says they “just jammed it out…reserved a little space at the studio jammed it out… Some of it you hear, feels live because we recorded live. We wanted to bring what we do with the band across to the people.”

When I asked about the vibe and feel of the album, Ugochi’s voice trailed off into trance-like wonder. Her calm candor revealing the true tone of the album’s introspective nature. Her pride and admiration of African folk music and her Chicago pride comes across through the album and her conversation. “It’s almost a journey in a lot of ways. You start the journey off and you start somewhere indigenous but then you hear these voices that bring you back a first world kind of place. You can feel the UK, London by way of Africa experience, and then it gets deeper into Africa. Deeper into the sounds that make it Afro-Soul which is the genre which I’m trying to express and put out there. It has this African, percussive, heavy energy but then this soulful experience, being raised on the South Side of Chicago. My feet are in both words. One foot in Africa and the other one in North America. All my experiences with music I’ve tried to bring across in this album.”

Having traveled the world over with her music, Ugochi says she’s only missing out on one continent of the world: Asia. Her music picks up all the sounds of the world and all the nuances of the different countries she’s visited. “I have some samba in [the album] for my time spent in Brazil. You hear a lot of clay drums, all kinds of percussion, cow bells and some Nigerian instruments from home. I just try to bring all the feels of all the places I’ve been, in my body, in my soul, and bring it out. It’s a fusion of a lot of my different kinds of styles. The progression is going deeper into the African sound. Not just soul. The last album was more my voice.”

When wondering about the message and intention of the album, I inquired about her poetry and songwriting. Ugochi proclaims her sense of hope for humanity in her songs. “Lyrically, there’s a warning on the back of the album, if you really get into them, they can be transformative. I’m interested in how we can be better as people.” “Dealing with things people are dealing with today. Things that I think are relative. I dedicate songs like “Breathe” to all those people out there stressed with road rage and need to remember to just breathe, to just take a step back.”

Marveling at the long list of countries across the world that Ugochi has visited, I inquired further into her insights and world views. Her humanitarianism and love of people resounds. “I see a joy for life [in the world] when things are seemingly at there worst, when you think they wouldn’t have things to be happy about. In any place people consider the ‘third world,’ I’ve seen that people are just happier. There’s a joy for life that just doesn’t exists in the supposed first world, where people have everything. Materialism, and economic success can be a good thing because you need money to get and do certain things, but it doesn’t make you a good person… I see all these other people across the world who don’t have anything, and then they offer it to you and smile. That’s a different type of connection. One where people aren’t afraid to give you there last. That’s a different type of love. That’s something I don’t see in the States. I feel that with friends and family, but not with strangers. These people have so much, this beautiful land, their health, yet I don’t think we understand that. We have so much to be happy about.”

Ugochi’s political and personal views meld together and her music manifests her pride and respect for humanity and her people. Her soaring lyricism and astute world view will have you singing and swaying to the rhythms of the world, or better yet the heart beat of humanity.

Check out Ugochi’s latest album, Afro Soul Effect online.

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