A few days after she saw the blockbuster smash “Black Panther,” Nnedi Nebula Agbaroji, lead singer of local electro-groove trio Trouble in the Streets, was still sorting through her emotions. As a first-generation Nigerian American, she was astonished by the movie’s depiction of African culture, “represented in the spectrum that I grew up in: color, celebration and transparency.”
The message she took from the film intersected with ideas she already was incorporating in her new practice as a holistic life coach. “We all belong to each other, no matter your color, culture, disposition or craft,” she wrote on Facebook. “We have to look out for one another because in the end, we all want and deserve to be here on this earth.”
The last few years have been a time of transition for Agbaroji, whose band plays South by Southwest side parties on March 12 at Hotel Vegas, March 13 at Empire and March 16 at St. Elmo Brewing.
After five years working for a local nonprofit, Foundation Communities, the 2012 University of Texas grad’s music and performance art began to demand too much of her time, and she moved into a more flexible side hustle in temporary catering. Now, she spends many of her days working as a chef at the Texas Athletics Nutrition Center.
And though she made a name for herself as a backup singer, first for the Lisa Marshall Band and later for Mama K & the Shades, she’s front and center — a commanding presence — in Trouble in the Streets. Onstage, she allows her voice to rise from a soulful croon into a howl, into raw shouting over a turbulent vortex of rhythm provided by bass player Andy Leonard and drummer Bobby Snakes.
She describes the band’s sound as “motivational rage.” It’s aggressive and raw. Inhabiting the music is a cathartic rush, she says. But her new stage persona came with an unexpected consequence.
“I realized I was getting typecast into this really hard, edgy, very asexual type of person, and I was like, ‘I’m actually a really girlie girl,’” she says with a laugh. “I do performance art. I’m a hooper. I’m a girl.”
But it’s a strange time to be a girl in the public sphere. “It’s getting harder and harder to define what that is for yourself, because other people are telling you, ‘Oh, well you don’t have to be girlie, you can be anything you want,’ but what if I really want to be girlie? Whatever that means to me.”
She credits Ghislaine Jean, the artist better known as Qi Dada Ras, half of the husband-wife duo Riders Against the Storm, with helping her tap back into her femininity. The couple’s monthly Body Rock parties foster a sense of community, and in that space she felt free to release.
“I’m a dancer, so being able to express that without judgment,” she says, “without unsolicited advances from other people, just feeling safe, in a safe space … (surrounded by) beautiful people getting to do the same thing. …” The liberation was dreamy and it helped her lose inhibitions that developed as she became accustomed to the intense scrutiny that comes with fronting a band.
“I would kind of put that box around myself of, ‘Oh, I don’t want to come off too this or too that.’ Body Rock is like, ‘Shed all of that. Put it all away. No one is going to put any label on you that you don’t attach yourself.’ That’s really what it did for me,” she says.
Agbaroji’s affinity for all things feminine is apparent in a quick cruise through her closet. There’s an abundance of lace, rhinestone embellishments and romantic bell sleeves. Beyond that, she gravitates toward “lots of color, lots of prints, lots of fun shapes.”
“I don’t really buy retail-price anything,” she says. “It’s usually Savers (Thrift Store). It’s usually under $20, or clothing swaps.” Her friend Rebekah Trigg, who runs her own clothing brand, #Ninjastitch, creates custom pieces for her.
Some of her clothing skews toward theatrical costuming acquired in her other life as a dancer and a flow artist, a craft she picked up after college.
“I went to a festival and saw people spinning flow toys and I was like, ‘What is this witchcraft?’” she says with a laugh.
She started spinning Poi (glowing balls), but quickly moved on to hula hoops. She joined a hoop company and began to land paid gigs at festivals and events. “I got to perform with Beats Antique (at Euphoria Fest) on my 25th birthday,” she says. “(I had) these really magical experiences that I’ll never forget. It gave me such good foundation so quick.”
From there, she moved into dance, performing with the local company Crash Alchemy and teaching herself routines by watching YouTube videos.
“You see all these new moves that the kids are doing and you think, ‘Oh, I’m too old to do that because kids are doing it,’ but then you see these choreographers who are older than you and they’re doing it, so it’s like, no … you’re not chasing after this ideal that you’re not. If you want to do it, then do it. If you want to play, then play,” she says.
In our youth-obsessed society, the power of growing into yourself as a woman is often obscured by fear — and the fallacy that age erodes beauty. For so many women, the opposite is true: They look much better at 30 than they did at 21.
“There’s something that happens as you age. You just get more aware of your body and how you want to move and how you want to present yourself physically, emotionally,” she says.
“People say when you turn 30 something clicks. … I’m about to turn 29, and that’s Saturn’s return. Something is starting to click, and you see the big picture and you see the life you’re creating for yourself. … Your life’s not trying to spit you out, it’s trying to forge you into the person you came here to be.”
She’s experienced a similar evolution in her attitude toward her hair.
“I’ve been natural for about five or six years now,” she says. “I still love wigs, I think wigs are awesome, but it’s not as necessary to my identity as it was when I was in college.”
When she was younger, she permed her hair to straighten it. Eventually, it started to break from overprocessing. After she stopped, it took a while for the natural approach to work for her. At first, her hair wasn’t growing.
“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not long enough, it doesn’t look how I want it to look,’ but I wasn’t taking the right approach. I wasn’t taking care of my insides first and my mental first, and it’s like your crown doesn’t shine unless you take care of the rest of the things,” she says.
Around two years ago, she stopped fighting her hair, trying to detangle it, and it started to “free-form dread” on its own. “It started growing, and it started growing in these little dreads, and you look in the mirror one day and you’re like, ‘That’s you,’” she says.
Her post-“Black Panther” meditation also included a beautiful allegory about finding yourself.
“Like my grandfather told me in a fever dream once, ‘You are an earth person; look at your feet. They are the color of the ground. You were not meant to walk on sidewalks. So if you have any question about who you are and where you belong, now you know.’”
TROUBLE IN THE STREETS LIVE
The band is not an official SXSW 2018 artist, but you can catch them at these parties during the fest.
- March 12, Strange Brew VII at Hotel Vegas (1502 E. Sixth St.) with A Giant Dog, Free with RSVP at 2018.do512.com/strangebrew.
- March 13, Music Tech Mashup at Empire (606 E. Seventh St. ) with Magna Carda. Free.
- March 16, St. Elmo’s Fire at St. Elmo Brewing (440 E. St. Elmo Road). Free with RSVP at shoorah.org/event/st-elmos-fire.
In this series that combines music and fashion, Deborah Sengupta Stith talks to Austin musicians about how image plays into their art.