Category Archives: Twentysomething Others

MUSIC INTERVIEW: Nia Ekanem – The most humble musician you’ll ever meet

Modestly just three words describe the way singer Nia Ekanem perceives himself, but behind the acoustic guitar is a compelling narrator riding a timeless rhythm.

In 2014 it’s fair to say that popular music is largely dominated by mindless lyrics. Content sits on the periphery of offensive and has arguably been raped of its intellect, but scoop the shit from the piss and you’ll unearth a new wave of artists. Students of their craft, they concentrate on getting it right, whatever it may be, and gain a collective of loyal fans in the meanwhile.

Nia Ekanem NUBI magazine

A musician, and singer, Nia Ekanem fits perfectly into this category. Self-confessed perfectionist, his aptly-titled debut EP – Learner Composer Expressor is beautifully nostalgic with unexpected depth for someone so young. It’s no wonder then that before the official release in July, single Home had already been featured on BBC Introducing, a proud moment for the then, 21-year-old. ‘I was very excited but took a back step and thought, I guess I’m doing something right.’ But I’m surprised to hear him say this as his noticeably cool exterior verges on self-effacing. Nonetheless incredibly charming, I’m drawn in by his considered responses, although jumbled at parts – I get the logic and sense his passion.

A distinctive sound, made far more seductive by its maturity and raspy edge, he’s dubbed his own genre away from ‘Acoustic Soul’ to simply ‘Organic’ – much like everything about his brand which he approaches strategically (what else do you expect from a Marketing Management student?) Nia’s thoroughness though I find quite funny as it contrasts his naturalistic style of just about everything, from the frustrating way he song writes: ‘I sit down, whether on keyboard or guitar and when the melody comes to me, I play it over and over again, and try to trust whatever comes,’ to being in awe of nature and the great outdoors.

Needless to say, he’s come a long way since his beginnings at church where he was a shy singer.‘I always felt singing was a bit nerdy and that you had to have an RnB voice. I couldn’t sing like Trey Songz or Usher so I left it.’ Or at 16 rapping on grime beats with childhood group L4C, but when creative differences split the friends apart and Nia took a two year break, this is when it all really began. Music direction found, ‘I got introduced to soul music and I was like, I guess not everybody has a high-pitched voice,’ Nia Ekanem was ready to get serious and I couldn’t wait to hear about it.


Your EP came out late July, why did you choose to have only four tracks?

I have a lot of material so I thought to pick the songs that really represent me as an artist. I still see myself as a newbie in the industry and not everybody will get me or want to get me, not because I’m crap but it’s understandable. Keep it short and simple, and if you like it, you will support me in my music journey, if you don’t, onto the next one.

The lyrics are very heartfelt. I’d love to know what memories you were channeling?

All of them represent me reminiscing about the past but Old School Days really puts a stamp on it. It was basically me at university bored, missing home, stressing over exams and the chorus came to me. I had the chorus for a couple of months just repeating it and then one day, the verse came. I try to write as natural as possible, if not it just becomes a whole mess. Home was pretty much the same, when I was around 14 my mum said the words, “Home is where the heart is,” and explained it to me, it has been with me since then. That song was literally written in two hours, I guess I was telling the story of a person on a journey. Their heart is somewhere else but they have to go through this journey in order to make a great ending for their loved ones. Little Jack basically is whatever you’re going through, someone is going through something worse. I wanted to tell a story about somebody’s reality and Don’t Let Me Go it is, we all want to be accepted.

Who do you want to be accepted by?

I would say everybody and anybody but I really just want people to take away the message, something that will help them in their lives and future.

Are you planning to tie your marketing degree with the music?

Later on, yeah, I want to create a summer camp for creatives so people who are interested in music to help develop them, and help with their direction. Myself and two others have a management company called CIC which stands for Creative Ingenuity so marketing helps with the whole management side of things.

Nia Ekanem Instagram

How important is it for artists to marry that business acumen with performing?

When you understand the business aspect of things you don’t necessarily have to rely on record labels because record labels are selfish. You come under me, sell so and so, if you don’t, we’ll drop you. If you owe us money, we’ll take your belongings, but if you can figure out a way of how to market yourself, it works in your favour.

You took time out to decide whether you would pursue music. What were you doing to make that decision?

My first year was recovering from the break up of L4C and thinking how to market myself because I’m a person who likes perfection, and if I get into something, I like to be sure. I changed my whole social media to just one name because it made sense and I tried to just sort out my brand, who I am and how I want to be looked at. So that was the first year and the second year was practising the keyboard and guitar.

Having to shut yourself off, was that quite a lonely experience?

It was both lonely and annoying because I saw my friends and peers doing things. We feel the need to compare our level of progress or success to those around us and if it’s not on the same par, we condemn ourselves. That was one thing I kept doing. So while my friends were graduating, getting jobs, releasing projects etcetera, I condemned myself and didn’t try to look at the end goal and bright side in what I was doing.

How do you preserve your creative energy and focus?

I watch movies a lot. I go to the cinema alone, not because I don’t have any friends but it helps to expand the mind. Every time I go with somebody I feel like I’ve wasted my time but when I go by myself, my mind goes wild and it helps with my creativity. I also travel a lot, like I said to a friend of mine recently, “I’m going to the mountains,” or something like that [laughs] but really I’m going somewhere to unwind. It’s been a very busy, stressful couple of months and to get back to myself I’ll just book a hotel somewhere and spend a couple of days.

So you value your space and time to recharge.

I try not to lose myself because when you’re around people, all you get are compliments to an extent so it’s trying not to allow the compliments to fill your head because then you’ll be like, ‘I’ve arrived!’ [cue my sly giggle at the joke] but no, you haven’t. People will say it I guess to be encouraging but you have to realise to stay humble.

What do you see then as your value in the music industry? What are you doing differently that needs to be heard?

Staying organic with my sound. Standing for something and being able to make a difference with my music, now that is amazing. That is really something I believe is different and I can’t wait until everybody hears it.

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Selina Brown: She spreads love, ‘loves’ love and keeps her businesses tight

As I peruse back to 2010 on Facebook, trying to put myself into the mindset of someone who’s intently focused but yet so spiritually centered; it’s obvious that my words will never completely serve 27-year-old Selina Brown justice. By her own admission, there are many facets to her being.‘That’s a bloody understatement,’ I reply, when her timeline is filled with profound statements and visual keepsakes of her many fearless adventures. Do I start at her humble beginnings in a one-room flat with mum and younger sister, or now, with a recent feature in the Voice newspaper which declared to everyone that she is indeed, living the dream? Neither one. I decide a non-linear approach is best to document this overdue chat with Selina – friend, visionary and creative entrepreneur.

One must stride with purpose, darling.

One must stride with purpose, darling. Pictured here in New York in 2013. 

‘When we first met in 2008 working on the Balsall Heathan [magazine] we’d have lots of conversations about fear and judgement. You didn’t divulge much about yourself but I knew you were going through your own coming of age. Describe the Selina before the awakening?’
‘Wow. You brought me back. The girl that used to come to St. Paul’s everyday was still exploring. She – I’m going to talk in third person – wanted to see the world. She knew that she was chosen to do something very special and knew she was going to do it. She’d just learnt how to totally love herself so everything that I was explaining to you was what I was currently learning. By passing it onto you I was reconfirming it to myself as well.’
Spoken with an almost ethereal tone of voice, I got the impression of a wise woman visualising her younger, more naïve self. As we recollect, there’s a soundless rhythm that orchestrates her expression, as though she’s guided by more than the physical.
The future might have been uncertain but Selina was sure of one thing: her career would be in the media – a fusion of events, design and business as she found the prospect of self-employment too alluring to settle for the restrictive 9-5. After hopping to another desk job at the West Midlands Faiths Forum, the business dream persisted leaving her with only two choices: stay and resent it, or free herself. Third option: get made redundant.
‘I totally got pushed to do what I wanted to. I was actually rejoicing at the fact that the organisation was going to be closed down because I was too fearful to really step into what I wanted to be.’
Clearly fate had stepped in but the pivotal moment was yet to come, and it involved jetting off on a plane to the other side of the Atlantic. One heap of faith later in 2011, Selina made for the Big Apple, settling into an apartment overlooking the Hudson River – working in the city, thrift shopping by weekend and discovering who she wanted to become more than ever before.
‘In New York I met people who personified my dreams. Everything just became a big possibility,’ she reminisced.
What she didn’t guess, was that those two years would become life-changing. Not only did Selina’s network flourish, she became part-vegan while training as a Womb Wellness Practitioner, (your guess is as good as mine) and envisioned Little Miss Creative – an empowerment network for young, fabulous women.
‘I think it was more for me [laughs] because I came back and there was nobody! I’d been in New York for two years surrounded by so many creative people that it was the norm to talk creativity, veganism, art – everything that I like – but when I came back there was nobody to talk to! Yes, I had my friends but on a collective level there were no real groups.’
February 2013 – Little Miss Creative’s debut into the UK. Picture a basement full of women in Birmingham’s quirky Six Eight Café, all with an eclectic outer appearance and shared desire for happiness; bellowing affirmations and connecting with other creatives in the city. Launching its website on Valentines Day with the sentimental Love Letters campaign, the popular group boasts just under 1,000 twitter followers and takes the first step towards being global with an exciting launch in New York, later this year.

LMCLOVELETTERS
Perhaps this explains why one of Selina’s goals in life is to own an aeroplane?
‘I love travelling and I know certain people on this planet don’t have the ability to leave their country, or their city even. If I have my own plane, I can put them on for free and allow them to experience that sensation every time I get on a plane and experience a new culture.’
During my friendship with Selina, I’ve realised that she has a huge urge to give back; rooted in her belief of the boundless laws of attraction. In 2013 she raised enough funds to send a young Gambian boy to school for a year, serving as the inspiration for her first self-directed documentary, Smile Gambia. [click here] Launched through communications agency Creative High, business venture number two is charity Dream Big, set up to promote greatness in young people.
‘I have three passions and business being one of them, that’s my Creative High outlet; charity being very dear to me, that’s Dream Big; and just young women and empowerment, that’s LMC. I’ve split it up but they all drive me individually and I love them all equally.’
Without attaching a Beyonce-style, ‘Girls run the world’ rhetoric to Selina’s story, having experienced hardship early on in life her mother was the catalyst for the woman she is today. We don’t spend too much time dwelling on the negative, not to say we skirt over it but Selina doesn’t do clichés, and she isn’t on Skype to tell a sob story.
‘The struggle was hard. Having no food in the fridge and seeing your mum cry because she can’t make ends meet, having to light candles because there was no electric – that was our upbringing. However my mum always – she’s the most amazing person on this planet – she was positive about everything and was able to go through university with two children under the age of whatever – she made it happen.
‘We were living on the poverty line but my mother didn’t have a poverty mindset. That’s what set us apart and made me what I am now.’
When Selina first approached me about doing an interview last summer while on her second visit to New York, I anticipated how I’d be able to encapsulate all that she is in one feature. Let me say, though we’re towards the end, it has not gotten any easier. She’s an earthy woman who likes to connect and ‘just breathe.’ Who has plenty to share but yet loves silence so much she drives without music. With a seductive drone to her voice she tells me how in her spare time she likes to: watch films, burn incense, have herbal baths with ‘proper herbs, petals or flowers,’ paint, write in her journal, lie on grass and watch the stars. An avid juicer, yogi and serene being, I can’t fathom how she fits into the rigid corporate environment?
‘When I envision a businesswoman, I look at it holistically. Meditating, keeping peaceful, staying committed, having integrity, thinking outside of the box, all makes me a good businesswoman.
‘This is so deep but knowing that there are energies and forces out there willing for you to succeed keeps me going everyday. I’m just so thankful and blessed to be as far as I am.’
‘A lot of the ventures you start, you do so on a whim. No set plan necessarily, [she laughs because it’s true] no money – you just see the end and work backwards. How do you make the impossible, possible?’
‘[Pause for thought] It’s multilayered that question because I totally believe that the universe supports you in your purpose. All of the resources will come but you’ve got to take the journey, and I don’t work in isolation. I have an invisible team of my ancestors, the universe, energies, all of that – it’s not just me.
‘I’m also very much a ‘just do it’ person. If I have an idea I don’t think of the limitations or what could possibly go wrong, I just do it. I’m a perfectionist and I try my damn hardest at everything I do and that’s how I’ve been able to last as long.’

If you can dream it, you can achieve it. Walt Disney. The latest post on the LMC Facebook page

If you can dream it, you can achieve it. Walt Disney. The latest post on the LMC Facebook page spreading joy all round

‘There must be some advice you wish you’d been given starting out?’
‘Save as much money as possible and don’t buy stupid pieces of clothing that will end up going to charity. Obviously take every opportunity that you have to travel, write down all of your ideas and act upon as many as possible. I’ve had so many great ideas but procrastination can get in the way so be fearless.’
Though we weren’t connected by camera, (well I was, she didn’t turn hers on) I nodded in agreement as Selina doesn’t just talk a good game, she practices it like a pro. She then reveals something out of the ordinary; one very important ritual inspired strangely by a primetime television series.
‘I have a vision board and a vision wall but I also CSI my life every Monday morning so between those three things I do religiously, my room is covered in quotes. When I say ‘CSI’, when they’re trying to catch a criminal they usually have whiteboards and draw out a whole plan of action of how they’re going to do it so I do that too every single Monday.’
Never heard it put like that before but that’s the fun about Selina, she’s an eccentric.
As we draw our chat to an end it’s approaching 9pm. We’ve been on Skype for nearly 45 minutes and Selina has one of her events to pass through – no surprise another music fundraiser, this time for the Philippines but we continue talking for a few more minutes as we’re reminded of each other’s successes. Yes, the growth is real.
‘You must hear people say that you want too much? Can you ever see yourself getting to a point where you stop?’
In true Selina-fashion, ‘No!’ she fires back, in a way that let me know that was the dumbest question I could ask. ‘As long as you’re living, you have a purpose – that’s all I can say to that.’ But she’s nice enough to add a little bit more. ‘Even if I’m 90, I still have a purpose so I can’t sit there and do nothing. I want to leave a legacy. My dream, my goal is to leave a legacy. People are going to write about me in history books so until that has been accomplished, I will remain on this planet doing what I’m doing. There’s no stopping.’

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Alexandria Robinson-Sutherland: The artist not to be judged by her cover

If someone had asked me to describe how I picture the modern artist, I’d assume moody and edgy. Understated in charm and appearance; perhaps even slightly egocentric on some level. An enigma who is intently serious about their artistry. The type to shrink from a crowded room and who spends more of their time alone than not, but there again, I don’t spend much time with visual artists and there are always exceptions to the rule.
On the outside, 24-year-old abstract artist, Alexandria Robinson-Sutherland, has a warmth about her that suits her day job as a school Art and Catering Technician, but at the same time, is all business.

Alex with exhibiting artist, Lexx 'Sketch' Carby

Alex with exhibiting artist, Lexx ‘Sketch’ Carby

As I arrive for our interview, I stumble into an exchange of details with a gentleman from the networking event upstairs at Urban Coffee Company. Apologetically she excuses herself while she runs off, to show him the product of her current venture, Project U-Neek, here in Urban Coffee, where we were just two weeks before viewing the works of an artist she helped showcase. A tentative hug is shared before we make our way to the café next-door where there’s lots of wooden furniture and ironically, artwork plastered on the walls. Swayed by comfortable seating, we direct ourselves to a table near the wall and get off to a not-so-prompt but relaxed start. 
‘I babble a bit, you know, you might have to wave and tell me to shut up.’
‘No, it’s fine if you babble, the more the better.’
But Alex doesn’t babble much at all, though she couldn’t hide her nerves and admits to not enjoying the spotlight that, inevitably, publicising Art By Alexandria will bring. ‘No, no. I don’t like being centre of attention. I know that may sound bizarre but I honestly don’t,’ she begins laughing. I can’t help but think that it’s a nervous giggle. ‘I like helping people and I like being acknowledged, but in as much as being famous or one of those people who are on OK! magazine – I like my privacy and my own space.’

198890_401389336591581_1774051315_nThe more we talk, I discover that Alex’s modesty runs deep, much like her background which has as much fuelled her creative talents as hindered them. ‘I think at the time it affected it [her art] because I couldn’t even afford basic art materials. Unless I was at school I wasn’t really able to do art which was why I had to go into resources at home like pasta and potatoes.’ Moments before, Alex parodied her mother in a Jamaican accent telling her off for wanting to bring her pasta necklace malarkey home. I laugh, as it’s something I can secretly relate to. ‘It was hard times so we couldn’t really afford to waste stuff, especially food, but as soon as my mum’s back was turned I was in the kitchen drawers! I got in trouble many times.’
School, by her own accounts, was her artistic playground; the place where she first realised that the coloured marks she made on her mum’s walls was in fact ’art,’ however, her relationship with school wasn’t at all harmonious.
‘Creative people at school tend to be slight oddballs and misunderstood. Were
you one of those kids?’
‘Yeah. [Laughs] I was kind of a recluse to be honest. It wasn’t that big of a school so I knew almost everyone but no, I didn’t enjoy it at all, I was actually bullied.’ On hearing that, I rush in with an intrusive, ‘why were you bullied?’ but kick myself metaphorically for my lack of tact. Still, there’s no embarrassment and she doesn’t shy away from addressing the subject, rather uses the time to reflect on something that’s been the catalyst for her extremely positive attitude to life and work.

Installing artworks on behalf of an artist at Urban Coffee Company

Installing artworks on behalf of an artist at Urban Coffee Company

‘I wasn’t as confident then as I am now, but I believe all those experiences have helped me stand up for what I believe in. One thing I’ve never been is a conformist, so if ever I was instructed to do something unjustified, well I wouldn’t – maybe that’s why I was bullied? I’ve always drifted between people which is probably why I always knew everyone because at one point or another, someone didn’t like me or I didn’t like them – for whatever reason.’
Now I was starting to figure what Alex valued the most – independence. Failing to see the perfect career she craved and no job in her field after graduating with a degree in Interior Architecture and Property Development from Wolverhampton University, she transitioned her hobby into a business, giving her a new sense of freedom. ‘I just thought, I need to be in control of my own income, I can’t rely on anyone else and in order for me to be in control, I have to be self-employed.
‘I’d actually hate having to wake up everyday and do a job that I absolutely despise. With self-employment, yeah, I may never, ever get a hundred thousands pounds a year but knowing that I can get by with what I earn – the satisfaction and the happiness that that gives you is so much better than working with people that you really dislike everyday.’
Now cue short-term pilot, Project U-Neek, a scheme born out of Alex’s desire to help emerging visual artists, including herself to get off the ground. The spark? A call for artists to exhibit that she saw in a restaurant window somewhere in the Custard Factory – the city’s own unique creative hub. To her disbelief, she was successful, and from this experience launched Project U-Neek, liaising with the venues on behalf of the artists. Doing this, Alex says, leaves the artists to do what they do best – being creative.

Alexandria and Alex, the Chef at Urban Coffee Company talking food business

Alexandria and Alex, the Chef at Urban Coffee Company talking food business

‘The aim for Project U-Neek was simple, to see if businesses in Birmingham would like changeable artwork on their walls which constantly appealed to new audiences and kept footfall coming in. That’s what I was interested in, but I wanted to make sure that there was a need for it. I’m all about commercial art and giving people exposure.’ 
‘So it’s almost like being a creative director, an event manager and a mentor all-in-one which is pretty cool.’
‘I guess you could say that. It’s actually more than I bargained for but in a good way.’
‘How important is it for you to help and encourage others?’
‘Extremely important because we visual artists play a big role in society but we are constantly snubbed and criticised, and too many of us dwell on this. I think every one of us has faced hardship of some sort but it’s how we react to it. It’s just one of those things in life and pursuing my dreams – sorry, what’s the question?’ [Laughs] So I guess at times she does ramble but there’s much more sentiment attached to not only Project U-Neek, but everything that Alex puts her energies into, and it’s rooted in her desire to nurture.
‘Growing up I didn’t really have a role model, so I try to be the person that I longed for growing up. I also find that people don’t share experiences, good or bad, they just keep it to themselves. Yes, you may hear about your friend’s promotion, graduation or them passing their driving test, but behind that, how they got to where they are and the work it entails – instead of being so vague and saying, “hard work,” we need to break it down and share. What exactly does hard work consist of?’
Blending the worlds of art and business, for much of her life Alex has developed the skills needed to go self-employed as she tackled the next life challenge, but more than being obviously intelligent, she’s incredibly wise beyond her years and is as impassioned about social issues and the community as she is, unsurprisingly, about art.
An ambassador for young adults having a voice in politics, Alex recently visited Palermo, Italy as part of an annual meet with peers involved in European Project, Success. Representing Ladywood, a particularly deprived area of Birmingham, Success, is made up of citizens living in various EU countries, the aim being to educate their local community on their citizen rights and empower them. The findings to emerge from research and workshops goes towards implementing positive change in the local area. Her motivations for joining? Simple.

Alex on official business waiting to deliver a presentation on social policies and the justice system

Alex on official business waiting to deliver a presentation on social policies and the justice system

‘I just love to learn and to help and encourage people. A lot of the time we’re all each other’s enemies for no reason and it should be the opposite. We don’t have to be best friends but we do need to respect each other. If I can educate myself and use this knowledge to help others, even if it’s just one person, it’s like, ‘wow,’ that’s one more person that wouldn’t have known, if it wasn’t for me – which is what it should all be about, right?’
Said without any hint of arrogance, as I draw the interview to a close, I’m blown away by Alex’s passion to succeed and feel that I’ve experienced the genuine article here; someone who’s driven through adversity but at no point has she stopped acknowledging others. I find that hugely endearing. Out of all the accolades she has achieved to-date, I ask her what she’s most proud of?
‘I think it would be, other than Project U-Neek, achieving my degree because although I didn’t enjoy the course or fit in socially, looking back, it helped define me as a person and allowed me to gain invaluable skills. It was always so easy to quit because of this, but I didn’t.’
‘What encouragement would you give to someone who’s in a position like yourself?’
‘I’d say to stick it out, it will get harder before it gets better, so don’t let the hardship knock you down. If you quit you will never get there and if it was easy we’d all have it. Bottom line, hard work does pay off, look at this current situation – me being here with you right now. I wouldn’t have been here had I not pursued my dreams. There will always be hardship in life, of some kind, but learn from it – look for the positive in every negative experience and allow it to help develop you, not discourage you.’

Alex will be exhibiting her artwork between the 20th July – 30th August 2013. Exhibition launch takes place on 1st August 2013 with live entertainment at Green Space Salons, Longbridge, B45 8UU. For more information or to contact Alex please visit: www.projectuneek.co.uk

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