Why People Shut Up When Obongjayar Opens His Mouth
Off the back of his outstanding sophomore EP 'Bassey', we sat down with the London-based Nigerian artist to see what he's getting up to next.
Photo by James Pearson-Howes
Obongjayar is engrossed in my story. It’s an early September afternoon at a busy Portobello Road cafe near his publicist’s office and I’m recounting how the previous day I absentmindedly gave my address to a creepy launderette proprietor after my washing machine broke. Leaning over the small table, the 25-year-old, Nigerian-born artist pushes his black coffee out of the way, his expression dismissing the surrounding chatter as he focuses on my quasi-perilous quest for clean clothes. Wearing immaculate-looking Carhartt himself, he says, “I really enjoy hearing people talk,” a claim he proves by asking me as many questions as I put to him. But, as demonstrated by his two EPs, 2016’s Home and 2017’s Bassey, the London-based artist can do something extremely special with what he absorbs.
On Home, Obongjayar’s lyrics gave fresh nuance to universal themes such as loneliness and failure, while its follow-up Bassey poses more philosophical questions. “Let lovers now and past / Still feel me in their hearts / Still feel me in their thighs,” he sings on “Endless”, a meditation on mortality the intensity of which is matched by Matilda Finn’s engrossing video. But whether the production nods to ambient electronica or afrobeat, it’s Obongjayar’s voice that’s always the focal point of his songs. It carries the wisdom of a blues singer and sophistication of a spoken-word poet, wrapped in the confidence of a grime MC, its calm authority a kind of spirit guide in the age of Brexit and Trump.
It’s an assuredness that translates to Obongjayar in the flesh. As he escorts me to our meeting, the press officer says that when Obongjayar, whose real name is Steven Umoh, walks into a room, people pay attention. “Literally everyone would be talking and I’d start and it’d be dead silence,” the artist confirms, remembering rapping at open mic nights in London. But it quickly becomes apparent that he’s humble, repeatedly emphasising that it’s the process that matters to him rather than approval. “If there’s no build-up, you haven’t created all these relationships. It’s all about the journey rather just jumping in the studio with, like, Pharrell, because once that placement is finished, that’s it, there’s no history, there’s no funny story. Whereas I can go back and say that’s how I know Moses [Boyd, a producer], or that’s how I know Yussef [Dayes, a drummer].”
When he speaks, Obongjayar’s accent only at times betrays a life lived outside England, but his Nigerian heritage is all over Bassey. The record also pays homage to his grandmother, whose surname inspired the title of the EP. With his parents working away from home, she raised him in Calabar, a city in southern Nigeria, until he joined his mother in the UK at 17. Obongjayar remembers his childhood as peaceful, but admits he didn’t enjoy school. “Federal government college was pretty terrible,” he says. “You’re not really learning anything, it’s more like a social hierarchy. People would beat you up and take your money. You had no respect until you got to the final year when you could do the same things to other people.”
Despite artists as wide-ranging as Fela Kuti, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna providing the soundtrack to his formative years, Obongjayar didn’t attempt to turn his early talent for rapping into a career until he arrived in the UK. “At the time the hub of everything was in Lagos, and even when you got to Lagos we didn’t have a music industry. Everything was all over the place and the internet at the time was really bad,” he explains. “Here it’s a clear path. You’ve got SoundCloud, you can put stuff out on YouTube, or you know a friend who’s got a studio or someone who can get you on radio.”
But as well as knowing he was good at music, Obongjayar was also keen on art, and after college he decided to study graphic design at Norwich University of the Arts. There he became friends with a group of fellow creatives working in a streetwear store. Girls and music soon took precedence over his degree and eventually he quit, returning to London where he began recording at the studio of an early supporter, XL Recordings boss Richard Russell.
READ MORE: Obongjayar Will Make You See Beyond Your Ego
Obongjayar cites Russell’s Everything Is Recorded project as the time when he met most of his collaborators and developed his preference for crafting music from scratch rather than singing over beats and instrumentals sourced on SoundCloud. Working in this way also allowed Obongjayar to experiment. “I play percussion on ‘Endless’,” he says. “There’s a kalimba on ‘Gravity’. I wouldn’t say I’m a professional at any instrument, but when I fidget with things I can make them work.”
While Home saw Obongjayar trying to work out who he was and where he belonged, on Bassey he searches for guidance and accountability. “It’s not necessarily having or believing in a spiritual god,” he says, “but looking around you and understanding who plays the god role in your life, questioning those things and trying to figure out: Is there anything? Am I my own god? This person that I think is my own god, what is he doing, is he trying to help me out, or does he or she even know that they have this much impact on what I’m trying to do?”
Obongjayar has stated in previous interviews that music should be used as a platform to say something of validity and that it’s important to lead by example, which is why he decided not to use the N-word in his music, which he finds degrading. His choice of collaborators – poet James Massiah features on “Gravity” and Obongjayar appears on Kojey Radical’s “Super Human” –suggest he’s associating himself with those who comment on the issues of the day. But when I suggest that an even stronger sense of social responsibility emanates from Bassey, he gets uncomfortable, stressing he never wants to come across as preaching. “I’m not trying to force a conversation, I’m having a conversation,” he says. “I’m not putting my views on people, I’m just saying this is how I feel about it, how do you feel about it? If it convinces you to see things the way I see things, then great. If it doesn’t, cool – I’m not going to fight you.”
After the success of his first EP, Obongjayar slowed down with his second project. “Home was like being on a bus and feeling like you’ve got to write about every city you go past, whereas on Bassey it feels like you’ve gone to the city, you’ve got, like, four days, you’ve had a coffee in the morning, walked around and taken notes down, spoken to the people that live there.” He’s in an even more collaborative mood now, writing his forthcoming album. Although he won’t say much about it, he reveals he’s been working with Danny Brown producer Paul White. “I’m really excited about that,” he says. “Making this project with my friends has been beautiful. It’s incredible to be in that space and to be even more comfortable with making the music and knowing that this is what I’m doing.”
But however contented he is with his professional relationships, Obongjayar is deeply affected by what’s happening around him, and this feeds into his music. “I was in a session with a friend of mine and it got a bit dark for me so we had to stop,” he says about recording shortly after Grenfell. “It’s a pretty fucked up situation if you think about it, the fact that there hasn’t really been any resolve and we don’t know the amount of people dead. No one’s getting any closure, it’s a bit like, whoa, OK, that’s where we are.”
As our interview draws to a close, conversation turns back to Obongjayar’s most powerful weapon – his voice. I ask how he looks after it. “Whistling,” he says. “It’s like controlling the air and stuff, that’s my theory.” But the whistling doesn’t stop at vocal warm-ups. “I whistle on ‘Gravity’, on ‘Creeping’ and on ‘Spaceman’,” he says. “I don’t think there’s enough whistling in music – I’m bringing it back.” Where does this enthusiasm come from, I wonder. “One of my uncles was really good and I really wanted to learn so I kept saying teach me, teach me, and he said, ‘Nah, I can’t teach you.’ So I stayed up all night just trying to figure it out and finally I got it.” He pauses, and for the first time since we started talking two hours before, gives himself all the credit: “I practised and practised, dedicated my time and my sleep. Mate, it wasn’t easy. I’m proud.”
Kamila is a writer based in Manchester. You can find her on Twitter.