Akwaeke Emezi is in a constant state of debut: introducing and re-introducing themself as someone completely new. They describe the nature of their ceaseless evolution in a statement that may well become true of this very feature: “by the time it comes out, it’s not really who I am anymore.”
One immutable quality the 36-year-old Nigerian author has is prolificness. In 2018, their first book, Freshwater, a groundbreaking semi-autobiographical novel exploring mental illness through the lens of Igbo spirituality, was met with widespread acclaim and named a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Over the next few years, they released a steady stream of titles in varying genres: there was 2019’s Pet, a National Book Award finalist foray into young adult fiction; 2020’s New York Times best seller The Death of Vivek Oji; 2021’s Dear Senthuran, a memoir which takes the shape of a series of notes from Emezi to friends, family, and lovers; their debut poetry collection, 2022’s Content Warning: Everything; and later that year, their first crack at a romance novel: You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty.
It was this last project which positioned them to step into yet another new role as an executive producer for a major studio, as Amazon landed the screen rights to the story in a “highly competitive” bidding war, with Michael B. Jordan’s production company attached to develop the project. An FX series based on Freshwater is in early development as well, which will also count Emezi as an EP and screenwriter. On top of it all, they’re also a painter, and had been making short films since before they became widely known as a writer.
One might assume that Emezi is now perched in a comfortable enough spot to sit still for a spell and tend to their works in progress. But with their abilities in turning a phrase confirmed, it felt time to not just put words together on a page, but to perform them. They decided against writing and releasing another book this year (though rest assured, several are locked and loaded, ready to roll out in the near future) and have instead been working with a vocal coach in preparation for yet another debut—this time, before a live audience—at Brooklyn’s Afropunk festival.
Their first single “Banye,” released in June, serves up a playful, high-energy beat under dark, brashly rapped lyrics, but there’s a somewhat intangible quality to it that defies genre classification. Both their written works and their music have been labeled “hard to define,” by their own team and others; as a creative who resists being pinned down, one who rejects categorization into any rigid genre, profession, or binary, that’s a marker of success. Below, the polymath details their journey to making music, their “spirit-first” creative process, and muses on other worlds they aim to conquer, if time permits.
On top of all the projects you already have in development, what moved you to pursue your music professionally?
I’ve been a poet since I was a teenager. I went to the Cave Canem Poetry Workshop, this Black poetry organization here in Brooklyn, and while I was there I decided to start writing professionally, on the fiction side. It was also there that I realized I could rap. But I was incredibly shy! It took me years before I would even tell anyone else. I finally rapped for my sister [the photographer Yagazie Emezi] two or three years in and she just looked at me in that way that only a sibling can, because she was disgusted that I was good at it, and that I had kept it from her. And I was like, “Yes, but I’m not ready!”
What made you decide that now was the right moment to share your talents?
I didn’t want to admit how important it was to me for a long time, because it just felt so much harder than writing books. It’s hard to find the right people to work with, to build the right team. Also it was like: You’re not getting paid for this! But then I went to Berlin to see the artist Obonjaya perform, and I had this epiphany while watching him: Damn it, this is what I’m meant to do! Obonjaya is also Nigerian and his performances are very spiritual. My friend, [programmer and event organizer] Sinat Giwa was instrumental in getting me on the Afropunk stage, and she passed away last month. It was a devastating blow. She touched so many people’s lives and she believed in my music. She could see where it was going and supported me and I just thought, I have to do this for real.
How would you describe your sound?
It’s hard to define. You can dance to it! I thought that I could go more of like a spoken word, you know, conscious rap angle, but then I was like, “I want to shake my ass.”
And you can’t deny the people that.
Or myself, quite frankly! It’s just hard to describe it, even talking about this with my producer after we made these songs, because we were like, how do you describe this to someone? What genre do you call it? We couldn’t come up with something. In general, with my work, I like to hand it over to the audience it’s meant for and then they can tell me what they feel about it, because it’s made for them.
How does the process of writing books differ from your creative process of making music?
I’ve been working with [vocal coach] Gordon Chambers and I’ve learned so much, one thing being that I had no idea how to play! I’m a very regimented person. This idea of channeling emotion through music and not worrying about your technicality, it made no sense to me. It was a level of vulnerability that I wasn’t accustomed to. And music is collaborative in a way that books are not. I can do all the songwriting, I can do certain melodies and cadences. But really I needed someone to make me beats.
You’ve expressed a desire to speak directly to a Black audience with your work. What’s the significance of debuting at Afropunk?
I’m nervous! But a lot of people have mentioned to me that fear and excitement feel the same in the body. I think that when I step on the stage, it’ll click. I hope it does because that’s what I’m banking on. We’ve been rehearsing all week, we’ve run through the sets. It’s going to be some tracks from the unreleased debut EP, as well as some covers. I made my own stage costume—
You’re designing? You’re coming for everybody’s gig.
Sometimes it’s just easier to do things yourself! They’re raffia chaps, I’m so excited.
You’ve spoken about creating music from a spirit-first center. What does it mean to inhabit that space?
I inhabit it living my life, and it just shows up in my work because most of my work is self-portraiture. When I started Freshwater, which is autobiographical, two writers were really influential for me: Malidoma Somé, who wrote Of Water and the Spirit. He writes that when we think about colonialism, we think, “They replaced our language, they replaced our religion, they replaced our culture,” and he points out that what they actually replaced was our reality; things that were built for centuries and generations stopped being real because a bunch of white people showed up and said, “That’s superstition. That’s backwards.” And the second writer was, unsurprisingly, Toni Morrison, who talked about making work from the edges: “I stood at the edge, at the border, I claimed it as center, and I let the world move over.” I stand at that center that our Indigenous realities are real, and I make art from there. Everything I make is informed by that.
Did you have any apprehensions about making this kind of leap to music, given your established persona as a successful writer?
Working on this EP has given me almost a drunken sense of ambition, where I’m like, “My God, I can do anything.” When I started making music and talking to people about how difficult it might be for others to see me as this whole artist instead of trying to fit me into a box, the point of reference I heard the most was Donald Glover. There’s so much more I want to do. And there’s so much more that I am doing, you know, just quietly. It will all get rolled out in due time.
What would be your ultimate pipe dream?
I think maybe my most surprising dream would be acting.
With your resume, I feel like nothing is outside the realm of possibilities. We’ll turn around and you’ll just be like, “Hey, I’m a skateboarder now.”
That’s entirely possible. I be getting surprised too! At every turn it’s like, I didn’t think life was going to take me down this road. But here I am, and I love it.
Akwaeke performs at Afropunk Brooklyn Sunday, August 27.