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Obongjayar: Growing, Seeking, Thriving

Rolling Stone AU/NZ caught up with the genre-defiant Nigerian artist ahead of two huge Australian shows


Salome Tresizé

There is a unique spirit threaded through the music of Obongjayar. One need only listen to the opening few tracks of his 2022 record, Some Nights I Dream of Doors, to get the vibe that this is an artist who knows his vision from the ground up. 

Importantly, it is a vision that requires him to walk to the beat of his own drum.

The London-based Nigerian artist has been on the radars of keen-eyed soul and Afrobeat fans since 2016’s Home EP laid a first introduction. Since then, the evolution of Obongjayar has played out vividly, with the artist navigating his ‘20s through the music – providing listeners with a beautifully fleshed out world of sonics that have drawn acclaim from industry and a growing global fan community alike.

Though the early years of his career saw Obongjayar cement his status as a wordsmith to watch, largely thanks to the Home and Bassey projects across 2016 and 2017, the artist’s widespread exposure would come in following years. 

Collaborations with Danny Brown in 2019 on the Detroit rapper’s U Know What I’m Sayin? album turned heads; his Sweetness EP in 2021 highlighted a strong partnership with the fiercely talented producer Sarz. And in the same year, Obongjayar featured on one of the strongest hip hop releases of 2021: Little Simz’s, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.

Just as he did on his collaborations with Danny Brown, the presence Obongjayar brought to that Simz project in particular made significant impact; a worn-in soul, blended beautifully with poetic wordplay, providing great foil and backing to the cadences of his fellow artists on each beat.

And so, with the arrival of his debut record in 2022, Obongjayar properly stepped out into a spotlight that had been ready for him to make such a move for some time.

Some Nights I Dream Of Doors – twelve tracks of eclectic sounds and world-building that fuse spoken word, soul and Afrobeat together in a way that feels incredibly personal; it’s an offering from Obongjayar that makes him even more endearing. 

Since the album’s release, Obongjayar has entered a tour cycle that, for those who have been following his journey from the jump, feels long overdue. Touring through the U.K. and Europe, as well as North America, has given him a taste of the on-road lifestyle as a headliner; more importantly, it has left an indelible mark on him as he turns his focus to future projects.

When Rolling Stone AU/NZ speaks with Obongjayar, he is mere weeks out from his debut Australian shows, where he will perform in Sydney and Melbourne. Despite this album bringing him some definitive career highlights, Obongjayar reflects on the journey to date with clarity and a sense of peace. 

“Sometimes I catch myself like, “Yo, I need to take a beat,”” he remembers. “There were definitely moments earlier this year, where I felt a bit burned out.”

The pressure to meet the expectations of others and himself, not just with the release of Some Nights…, but also simply coming out of two years of lockdown, hovered around Obongjayar – like it did for us all. While he knows he’s a workhorse and the creative brain never fully switches off, Obongjayar feels comfortable in admitting when things had become too overwhelming.

“You come out of this two year situation, and you’re straight into it. You feel like you have to use up all the opportunities you have to do the thing.” he says. 

“You’re doing everything: you’re working, you’re trying to fit everything in. That’s good in little spurts, but you can’t do it over extended periods of time, because it can get tiring. You can lose sight of what it is that you’re doing. You don’t want to lose sight of what you’re doing.”

He credits having a nurturing and supportive network of peers and crew outside of music for keeping him grounded, specifically now, with the more hype continuing to build around the ‘Obongjayar’ name.

Instead of letting himself get to the point where music feels like a grind, Obongjayar instead is prioritising a love for the art itself and the ability to check himself when things get too much. Key advice for all creatives to be more conscious of (though easier said than done), Obongjayar puts it simply: fulfillment can be gained by taking a breath. Remembering to exhale after every sharp breath in. 

“I’m glad I’ve received advice from friends who are musicians as well, creatives I know and have been around for a while,” he says. 

“You don’t have to be on the go every single time. As an artist, you’re always already, by default, either taking in information or you’re letting it out. You’re constantly doing that and once you add on to what you’re naturally doing, it can create this fucking block of stress.”

“I’ve taken a step back, I’m reading again; I’m taking my time. I’m seeing friends. I don’t know if it’s true for other people, but the experience of putting out your first album is like, “Cool, now it’s time. We’re here now!”, you know? It doesn’t have to be like that, though. It’s nice, but it doesn’t have to be like that. You can take it easy, take your time with it. At the end of the day, music shouldn’t feel like a grind.”

So far this year, fans have been treated to a new hit of Obongjayar smoothness with the single, ‘Just Cool’, dropping back in May.

The track, delivered with the smoothness of butter and the confidence of a person who is thriving in the comfort of his own skin, and his own voice. The confidence has long been there, but on a song like this, we hear Obongjayar take things up another level with ease. 

On whether he has any tried and tested techniques to bring himself the perfect place to write new music, Obongjayar – as he does throughout our whole conversation – speaks with a sense of chill that is infectious. 

“You need to read the temperature of how you’re feeling; if you’re not feeling good, what do you need to do to change, in order to get back to yourself?” he posits. 

“You can see it with other musicians who have been through the wringer, a lot of people aren’t happy. There’s this responsibility; you dream of this thing and then you finally get there and you feel like you can’t stop.”

At a time where music made by artists from the African diaspora – particularly out of the U.K. – is enjoying a well-deserved upswing of success in the mainstream, Obongjayar refuses to see himself (or any of his peers and contemporaries) as part of a solitary wave or vanguard. 

Being part of a wildly talented community of artists and storytellers producing engaging and original materials is exciting enough for him.

“There’s a lot of good things that I recognise and like about what is happening, but I don’t look at it like a wave or a ‘thing’,” he admits.

“I respect what’s going on and I like what I like, whoever they are, if it’s happening at the same time or happened before, or coming up underneath. Sometimes it can be like you’re attaching yourself to one thing, and I don’t want to do that. You’re not focusing on the thing that you’re doing, and then you’re trying to keep up with the other thing. In turn, your own thing suffers. If someone in that group is doing better, then you’re like, “Oh my god, why am I not doing better?” You stress yourself out more than you need!”

“I’m ridiculously inspired by the things I like, the people I like.” he explains. 

“It’s exciting; we’re in a time where it feels that music, musicianship; artists, photographers, people who make film…it feels like there’s heart in it again, you know? Right now, there’s some good and inspiring stuff coming out. It makes you feel good.”

And when it comes to current inspirations and what makes him return to the pen to start putting new ideas down, Obongjayar is flourishing simply by keeping his eyes open to life happening to him and around him.

Even with this Australian trip, he is excited to purely be in a new space; the idea of meeting new people and engaging in conversation is a concept that Obongjayar is clearly buzzed by.

“It’s stimulation for the mind. The people I’m gonna meet and the situations I’m gonna be in; it’s gonna be crazy!” he grins. 

“How I make music and how I come up with ideas, is very interaction-based. Where I am and what I’m feeling in these moments. All of this is part of it. It’s very important, as an artist, to listen; listening is one of the most important things. Paying attention to the world around you and how you’re feeling.” 

“Taking stock of what’s going on. These things I’m doing, whether I’m touring or not, I’m still going to be talking to people and going places, I’m still going to be in situations. There’s always a story to write about. I’m going through life shit, like everyone is; it’s all part of it, how I react to situations and how I am in them.”

Obongjayar performs at Melbourne’s Forum on Thursday, June 15th, and Sydney’s City Recital Hall the following day.