17 On The Frontline: Obongjayar

“That’s where home is, finding yourself and who you are.”

Anyone who has left their hometown will recognise this story, those feelings of restlessness and a need to see more of life. Obongjayar is relaxed as he sits, thinking back to the days when he wasn’t sure who he wanted to become having just moved from Nigeria and going straight to college. There were times, he admits, when “I was trying to fit in as much as possible. So I easily fell into the wrong crowd. After a year or so I was like, man, this is not what I want to be. This is not the route I need to go. So I left and went to Art school.”

It’s easy to simply imagine Afrobeat as a catch-all term for all viral ‘Azonto’ club music. Although, Obongjayar’s approach to music is closely tied to the vocal manipulation traditions first pioneered by the Afro Jazz sounds of Kofi Ghanaba and Fela Kuti, the distinction lies in his delivery.

Obongjayar announced his arrival last year with the release of ‘Creeping’, directed by Frank Lebon, it was a darkly sophisticated story of the things we feel when alone at night. At a time when social anxiety and depression have never seemed more prevalent, Obongjayar gave voice to the ubiquitous what-am-I-doing-with-my-life at 2am panic. His were stories of dreaming, failure and redemption – so when we sat down for a chat at an East London cafe, I asked him to start at the beginning, and explain how he was able to secure a critically acclaimed director for his debut project?

“We got loads of different people to chip in ideas and stuff. Frank’s was just the most vivid, exactly what I had in my mind, exactly what I wanted. Cause the story is so vivid on it’s own – that’s for all of my music – all the songs I do. It’s not a code, it’s not super difficult to crack, I tried to be as clear as possible in the imagery and what I’m trying to say so it was all in the story. I didn’t need to explain what I was talking about so I think that was easy for Frank, he’s a genius, easily.”

A six track introduction to Obongjayar came with ‘Home’, the debut EP that played on the nocturnal and arrived swiftly as the follow up to ‘Creeping’. Released in December 2016, it was the level integrity he brought to the project that had Kojey Radical declaring him ‘the best to ever do it’ shortly after. “Me and Kojey go way back,” he says when I ask him about it in person, recalling the story of their introduction back in 2011 “I think he’s a great artist and I respect him.”

That’s where home is, finding yourself and who you are.

The very concept of ‘home’ itself was the inspiration behind his debut EP, a project ridden with a mixture of angst and ambition. Obongjayar recounts his dissatisfaction with his home-town of Ashford and his unease with wasting his talent in order to be socially accepted: “The reason I left Ashford to go to Norwich was to be as far away as possible from that concept of home, I was a bit tired of the whole situation. I wanted my own freedom, my independence, so I went to Norwich to sort of find people like myself, cause at the time, when I was in Ashford the people I was hanging about with – I didn’t feel comfortable with those people.”

In college, Obongjayar had been on the path to respectable academia, like most children of African parents, he was expected to become a Biomedical Engineer at the very least, preferably with a strong knowledge of the Law. “I was doing Maths, Chemistry and all that stuff you know? Deep down knowing I was an artistic person and still I’m trying to fit in, and wanting to become what my parents wanted me to become. So I decided to do the sciences ‘cause I thought that’s what they want and that’s where you get a good job – still using that mentality, like, the Nigerian mentality. So after a year or so I was like ‘fuck this. I’m going to Uni. I’m going to a different place and I’m going to start all over, rebuild myself, find myself.’ That’s where home is, finding yourself and who you are.”

As people grow older and free themselves from the constraints of wanting to fit in, and instead embracing individuality, I question whether that’s something that is simply down to age? “I think it’s more down to the society we live in now” he counters instead. “Cause everything is out there, you can know about your history without having to be taught, so that’s played a huge part. You can see it and you can be proud of it, you know what your people have suffered, you know how influential your people are.”

Black people in the UK or wherever are starting to become proud of their heritage, and that’s why it’s coming out in the music.

The impact of a Afrobeat heritage sound can be felt strongly across UK music presently. Just take a look across all genres and you’ll see evidence of Afrobeat influences appearing in contemporary music from; the burgeoning Afro-Trap sound of J-Hus and Kojo Funds; to the more familiar Afro-inspired production from Fuse ODG or Mista Silva. In the Dance music arena, both Black Coffee and Black Motion have gained worldwide acclaim for their Afro-House styling. Even Kidnap Kid, My Nu Leng and Rudimental have remixed traditional African music in recent years, after they became involved in the Beating Heart 500 project founded by Chris Pedley and Black Butter Rec’s Olly Wood.

Add to all this recent performances in Africa by Little Simz, Skepta and Migos in the last two years and there is the feeling that Africa is making tangible moves in music. So I ask Obongjayar about his take on this new evolution, “I think what’s happening now is Black people in the UK or wherever are starting to become proud of their heritage, and that’s why it’s coming out in the music.”

We talk some more about his next project, and Obongjayar remains tight lipped, a simple “wait and see,” is the answer when I ask for a little insider information. “I think music now, the majority of the stuff, is very destructive.” he says instead when I press for insight into his next work. “I kinda wanna put something positive out there because I believe very strongly that what you listen to, the music you listen to, the stuff you watch, is very important. Especially to children, and people coming up, you need to put a positive message out there. Especially people of colour as well you can’t keep degrading yourself. The music you put out, that these kids are listening to, that affects them so much, and how they see themselves. I feel like if you’re talking about certain subjects and glorifying certain things: come on. It’s become – ‘this is the only way we can do this’ – and there’s so much of it out now it’s peak, there’s no point. Anyone can do it. Anyone can jump in the studio and be like ‘I’ve done this’ regardless of whether you have or not.”

Obongjayar is more interested in the realities, rather than the perceived glamour of guns and trap life. “I think that’s why I respect Kano so much as an artist. Cos there’s two sides to everything. It’s fine, you can live something, but you have to show the positives of how you’ve come out of that struggle, and know what those struggles have taught you. Instead of constantly saying ‘this is what I’m doing’, ‘I’m killing this’, I’ve got that’ – it’s unnecessary. [Kano] is very both sides, ‘I’ve been through this, I used to hang out here. But look where I am – look where this music is taking me’ especially on his new album, it’s such a grown album. It’s intelligent stuff he’s putting into his music. I’m super big on Kano, I think he’s one of the greats. I think more people need to pay attention to Kano and the messages that he puts out.”

I’m not a rapper, I’m not an MC – I just make music, I’m getting really into poetry, I wouldn’t say I’m a poet yet.

We talk about the dangers of being labelled a ‘rapper’ or ‘MC’, the difficulty of doing new things when you have been consigned to one genre, “that’s the great thing about what I’m doing, I don’t want to be consigned to a certain area ‘cos I’m very musical. I’m not a rapper, I’m not an MC – I just make music, I’m getting really into poetry, I wouldn’t say I’m a poet yet, I’m not a poet, I’ve been getting very into it, doing research on people, and going back and trying to see the techniques and learning it properly. Cos you can’t just say you’re a poet.”

What Obongjayar can say about his upcoming work is that it will showcase more of his heritage and expects it to be quite a departure from the mellow tones of his ‘Home’ EP. “If you put yourself in a box, you can’t break out from that. And that’s the sort of mistake lots of people make, you put yourself in a category and say, ‘I’m this’, then you go to the studio; and you’re feeling a vibe, do something you’re really feeling but can’t put it out ‘cause people already labelled you a certain artist.”

You can download Obongjayar’s debut ‘Home’ EP for free right here.