Obongjayar Will Make You See Beyond Your Ego
The Nigeria-born, UK-based musician on how his enchanting new ‘Bassey’ EP is a political, spiritual realisation of the self.
Obongjayar wants to meet at the Soul Of A Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern. Subtitled with "Art in the age of black power" and a celebration of artists working in the US amid the Civil Rights Movement, the exhibit poses a series of important questions. One of them, written inside the leaflet we're handed on entry, is: "How should an artist respond to political and cultural changes?" Seeing as we live in a turbulent, challenging era – one of austerity, discrimination, displaced residents, lapdog Theresa and her offensively cherubic overseas counterpart – the question is as pertinent as it's ever been. Before stepping into the ooze though, let's introduce Obongjayar. Those who don't already know him should. He's a rare breed of musician – the kind so uncompromising with his vision, who speaks and creates so freely, it's hard to really compare him with any contemporaries.
His debut EP Home, released last year and backed up by an impressive video for lead single "Creeping", presented a unique voice: one that navigates darkness with nocturnal, near-spiritual hymns. The latter song and video is also loosely based in the English cities he'd found himself in after moving from Nigeria in his late teens. Today we're speaking about his latest release Bassey, a record named after a derivation of the Igbo word for God, which uses music as not only a means to create but a tool for exploring the wider themes of self.
"I was Christian for a while. But luckily for me, the church I went to in Nigeria was almost like a family-orientated church," Obongjayar says a few hours after we meet, as we sit in a cafe eating lunch. "We would talk about life, situations we'd been through that week, things that went on. Taking references from the Bible but making it suit our lifestyle." The result of those reflections is an EP that looks at God not as a metaphysical deity but as something part of ourselves, our actions, the people we meet. "God could be your government, it could be money, your parents, your woman," he explains. "It can come in so many different forms and that's what this project focuses on."
Clocking in around a neat 16 minutes, Bassey progresses through these themes with deep intent. Lead single "Endless" is a rumination on one of life's greatest taboos: death; the legacy we leave behind, how there's a celebration in the afterlife. Closing track "Gravity" focuses on Obgongjayar's relationship with his father – in this case his fatherly God – how he was let down "again, again again", betrayed by someone he looked up to. Then there's "Set Alight", album opener, an overtly political song about being black, frustration, carrying "crutches like my house keys, they're twice as heavy as my skin". Each track is packed with similar visual imagery; if it's not political then it's spiritual, and it's all bound together with thundering yet airy production, a sound that feels as natural as the earth.
Hearing Obongjayar speak on these topics, both on record and off, he exudes a sense of bold self-assurance – one that comes from somewhere beyond ego. As he says during the intro to "Spaceman", over crackling tree branches and shattering glass: "I see all, I feel all, I hear all – for I am spirit. I love all and all is loving me now." To get to that point, Obongjayar has gone on a journey of self-discovery and emerged on the other side, no longer succumbing to expectations of what he should or shouldn't be doing – just simply being.
When Obongjayar was five, his mother – pregnant with his baby sister – left Nigeria to head to London, ultimately searching for a better life for her children. Because of visas and the expense of travel, Obongjayar didn't see her again until he was 15. He was instead raised by his grandmother. His mother is now a lawyer and Obongjayar moved to the UK to join her when he was applying for college, where he enrolled at Kingston and later moved to Norwich to study graphic design at the University of the Arts. Coming over here changed how he saw the world, widened his outlook. "Every country is corrupt but some countries do it more covert and it doesn't affect the citizens as much," he says, comparing Britain to the "dark shit" he says the Nigerian government is getting away with.
Still, Obongjayar wasn't comfortable with himself. Back in Nigeria he'd grown up on "bountiful" bootleg CDs. Listening to Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Nigerian acts like Fela Kuti, he says, weren't on his radar. He bought a CD once, another bootleg with three local tracks on it, but initially didn't understand the significance. "I didn't really get it, he wasn't from my area, people didn't really talk about him like that, my grandmother could give a fuck," he explains. It was only years later when he moved to the UK that he started to do his research, to learn about the music of his country, listing musical pioneers such as King Sunny Adé and newer acts like Wizkid alongside Kuti, who he says makes music "no one had heard before" and "gives people hope".
Starting out in the UK, Obongjayar wasn't singing in his accent. "I was battling with myself: what is this, why do I sound like I'm from New York or something; I'm not from New York. I'm not even from here," he says, referring to the UK. "I had to take a step back and think 'What do I want to do, how do I want to portray myself?'" But studying the music from home, he shed certain parts of himself. "I'm almost repulsed by the fact I thought it was cooler to sound a certain way, to be accepted by a certain demographic of people rather than be myself," he continues, touching on how all he knew growing up was American rap acts, so that was deemed as the only route to success.
"All I'd known is that it's a lot better to not be Nigerian. That's how I've been conditioned to think – that people wouldn't take me seriously if I was Nigerian. That was the mentality." So Obongjayar makes music, he says, "to let a Nigerian kid be like 'OK, I can do that too. This guy is Nigerian, he has the accent on his record, he sounds like someone I can relate to – and he's making really good songs.'" But it also goes deeper than that: Obongjayar isn't just writing songs, he's exploring what it means to be alive. "It's seeing shit that's around me, observing it, saying my piece on it – and saying it well. Not just throwing words around, gassing, chatting shit – which is very predominant now in music."
He continues: "One of the things that made me really happy... I was in the kitchen before the EP came out, playing 'Gravity', and my stepdad was like, 'That's you right? That's your voice, isn't it?' And I'm like, 'Yeah it's me.' That's such a small thing but having your own voice be recognisable… you listen to me and that's me; you hear it and that's me; you see it in the flesh and that's me. It's not two separate entities; it's one person. If I was playing the stuff I was copying he wouldn't recognise who it is. That's such a huge thing for me: being able to do things and feel comfortable."
We speak about what makes a good song, how it needs a head and a tail, to be more than a good beat – to be memorable and take the listener somewhere. Bassey is full of these moments. One of the most awe-inspiring comes from the poet James Messiah who delivers a close to three-minute soliloquy on "Gravity", packed with couplets about sex, sin, "crazy, natural magnetism", suicide, "doubts and demons", lines, red wine, "making love but not falling into it". It's an unforgettable verse, one that – like Obgongjayar's work on Bassey – looks beyond ego. Its setting in London and its placement as the last thing we hear on the EP neatly ties the record together, acting as its tail – bringing Bassey from Nigeria and back to the UK.
And so to the Soul of a Nation exhibition. Since self-realisation is an inherently political act, Bassey is also an inherently political record – presenting certain viewpoints and ideologies. As we walk past the work, the paintings and the installations, the print publications and the photographs, the footage of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Obongjayar speaks about the need for a modern artistic community, a robust dialogue between musicians and artists to create a new movement. "No one wants to be a follower. Everyone thinks they're a leader but they're not leading anything… We don't have the Martin Luther King in Britain in 2017."
He speaks about social media, something he isn't completely opposed to but believes dilutes important conversations, helps people check a box of support then tune out – a kind of shock barrier for people's anger. "The powers that be don't go on Instagram, like 'rah, these guys are annoyed man'. With the political power and where they stand, they don't give two fucks. Theresa May don't go on Twitter, she doesn't care." When it comes to social movement, he sees a lack of structure beyond posting something online. In the days of the Civil Rights Movement, he says, people had to be aware of what was happening, to be active, to go to meetings. "But now you can tweet something and go about your day."
All of this, he says, comes down to ego – that thing he's managed to remove from his music. People are out for themselves, to look good, to flex online rather than truly support something else for more than a minute. To combat this, he wants to set up a regular meeting spot in Deptford, southeast London. Today he photographs some old flyers in the exhibition, taking them as inspiration for how he's going to organise things when they're up and running, to start building some structure. "I don't see myself as that person, to foot the bill. But from the outside in there's no one doing that man. If it gets to a position where my perspective is that powerful that people want to follow what I'm doing, calm – I'm willing to do that."
Listening to Obongjayar speak, hearing the statement of intent and passion, you get the sense it's something that's destined to happen; not for himself but because like everything Obongjayar has done so far, it's what he truly believes. It isn't done to fulfill anyone else's expectations. And what a great place that is to be in. As he says at one point, about coming into himself and peeling away everything else: "It's almost a relief. It's very freeing. It's a little step to owning you and being proud of your own."
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