Music & clubs

Lie Ning: Berlin’s next R&B superstar

Damien Cummings speaks to Lie Ning, a born-and-raised Berliner who might be the city’s next R&B superstar

Image for Lie Ning: Berlin's next R&B superstar

Berlin-born Lie Ning creates layered, spacious and cohesive works that express the strength and beauty in vulnerability. Photo: Isabel Hayne

Did you really grow up in a squat?

After the Wall fell, there were so many destroyed and abandoned buildings, so communities would squat and rebuild houses and have new ideas about how to live together. I grew up in one in Prenzlauer Berg. We were 25 people sharing this house, sharing food and the spaces. And it wasn’t just artists. There were mathematicians, physicians, social workers and all kinds of people from different backgrounds.

My mum was one of the founders, so I was literally born in that house. I think it really shaped me, especially the way I want to work with people. It explains why I don’t necessarily see myself as a singer, but as someone who is interested in talking to people and creating a dialogue, an exchange.

How does that manifest in your projects today?

I think music is very intriguing, as it can work without words, and it can convey emotions that are hard to explain. When you’re living with 25 people, there’s a lot of commotion and tension. Growing up in this environment and seeing grown-ups having to sit down and talk about problems or issues infused by past trauma made me understand human connections. So, in my projects, I try to create environments where the people that work in them feel seen and nourished, where they can actually explore their abilities. And at the end of the day, they are also able to pay their fucking rent.

Your songs deal with deep themes in a very airy, spacious way. Is creating space important for you and your art?

I love that you say that. That’s one of the biggest things that I want to figure out. Creating space is something that I’m really curious about, but I don’t feel like I’ve achieved that at all. I take it as a compliment, because on the upcoming works I’m definitely trying to give even more space. I know that I’m writing my music from my perspective and my experiences but, at the same time, those are not my songs. People take them and project their own stories onto them, interpreting them and in a different way. That’s very beautiful and powerful. When people feel they have the freedom to put themselves into those songs, I did my job.

I want to take people on a journey and have them enter a world where they can get out of their heads

Do you feel that Berlin’s mainstream music scene is becoming more expansive and accepting of different sounds?

Yes. I’ve been talking to some friends and they’ve mentioned that there was an Afro-European movement in the 1990s, as there were a lot of Black people and people of colour in Berlin, but it kind of died down. When I was growing up, there weren’t many people I identified with, and seeing this now, there are so many queer people. There’s so much awareness that needs to grow because Berlin is always proclaiming to be so open, when it’s really not. But the people are coming. And it really feels like a family and it really feels like the people that are in the scene, the artists themselves, are so supportive. I think there’s a special kind of momentum at the moment.

Does that give you more confidence than before?

It depends on what “confidence” means. I obviously have my moments, doubts and self-consciousness, but I think that you get that when you grow up with adults that treat you as a human being rather than a child, and that actually talk to you and are interested in having an exchange because you have this very different view on the world that they know.

I don’t think it’s necessarily confidence, it’s about being comfortable being yourself, and that happens when people see you for who you are. I think that’s also what I’m trying to do with my music, but also in my political work and my everyday life, to give people space and visibility.

A lot of young people look up to you in that regard. Would you be comfortable accepting the term role model?

I would be comfortable with that. But it needs to be different from teaching, because I was only a child myself until few years ago. But with people who are a bit older, which I feel like my audience is, I’m like, okay, listen, I’m happy to be there. I’m happy to lend you an ear. I’m happy to go through it with you together. But not as a kid. I don’t really like the idea of that, and I think the role of the teacher is a totally different dynamic.

Tell us about your Berlin show.

This is so exciting. I’m shitting my pants, because this is going to be our first headline show in Berlin, which is crazy because this is my home town. This is where all the stories are from and all the people that I talk about. They live here or they’ve commuted through here. And playing at Lido, one of the first clubs that I went to as a teenager, is really a full-circle moment, so I want to give something special.

There’s going to be a lot of performance, and much thought has gone into conveying certain aspects and emotions. I want to take people on a journey and have them enter a world where they can get out of their heads. It’s so important to live and to be you. So, we’re taking you on a journey to say goodbye to all the Covid panic. If we do it together, you know, the sky’s the limit.

Lie Ning’s show at Lido on December 7 has been postponed until 2022.