Africa & the DiasporaBritish MusicFeatures

Obongjayar: a new sensation in the UK music scene.

At an early stage of his music career, it is already clear as day that Obongjayar is a force to reckon with. Without our ear’s knowledge, Steven Umoh known under  his musical alis Obongjayar has been contributing to the world’s music scene for more than half a decade. Taking inspiration from neo-soul, R&B, afrobeat and a variation of music genres he was exposed to as a child born in Nigeria, Obongjayar was able to create his own unique experimental sound.

I. Early Career

It may seem as if it is the first time one comes across his spiritual yet airy vocal style as a listener however, Obongjayar was never too far away from our favourite acts and music playlists. Let me explain: his first known big emergence was as a featured artist on the 2018 EP, Everything is Recorded by music producer and co-founder of XL recordings Richard Russell. Under the same extended play, another London based artist named Sampha makes an appearance on tracks “Close but Not Quite” & “Everything is Recorded”. As a relative newcomer during the recordings of Russell’s EPs, it gave us a glimpse to which direction the Calabar-born musician was heading towards. 

In 2019, Steven takes an unexpected turn by appearing on Danny Brown’s rap album uknowhatimsayin¿, a Detroit alternative rapper loved by many. Showcasing his versatility and ability to compliment anything he touches, I could say that Obongjayar made his first mark right there and then as an artist with no boundaries. Perhaps his most acclaimed collaboration yet took place on the single “Point and Kill” by Little Simz on her well-received album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. As a guest, Obongjayar takes the lead and plays a prominent role in the delivery of a powerful chorus. In the same year, Obongjayar finds his way on Pa Salieu’s catchy song “Style & Fashion” from the EP, Afrikan Rebel, choosing to serenade us on a joint project titled “Sweetness” with Nigerian music producer Sarz. 

To gain an understanding of the character that is Obongjayar, I believe it would take us to his debut EP Home on “Creeping”one of the first song uploaded on his Youtube channel in 2016, possessing  a daunting undertone and uncompromising lyrics about his past living situation and rough neighbourhoods that he frequented. It is as almost as you can hear him fighting for his voice explaining the hardship of life in the city. During interviews, he opens on his unfortunate childhood, his abusive father and his mother escaping to the UK, leaving him and his little brother behind in the care of his grandmother before moving to England to rejoin his mother at 17. While he describes his grandma as a safety net during these difficult times, their situation was far from perfect living in a home without electricity sometimes and attending schools still practicing corporal punishment.

 

Perhaps a fan favourite happens to be “God’s Own Children“, from his 2020 mixtape, Which Way is Forward?  serving as a fast paced & rhythmic folk anthem. Throughout the humming and raw vocals, Obongjayar can be heard screaming words of encouragement to his kinfolk & reminding them of their grace and resilience. At this point in life, the singer had completely abandoned  imitate American accents instilled from hours of listening to Eminem and Snoop Dogg; choosing to fully embrace his Nigerian and English roots. Obongjayar explains that it was a process to accept his natural voice and recognize the beauty and strength behind his heritage.

 A perfect duet was realised on Gone Girl from the 2021 Sweetness tape. Melodically accompanied by Sarz, Obongjayar sings about a girl he no longer is seeing. Tinko Tinko is an undeniable hit song from his debut album Some Nights I Dream of Doors, portraying a fun and carefree side of the artist with an incomparable sound. Obongjayar makes mention that when he’s recording, he looks for a feeling and lets his spirit guide him towards the stories he must share. As a result, this allows him to progress on any sounds that are presented to him and with collaborators closest to his West-African roots, creating what can only be described as timeless music that can be played as much in the villages in Nigeria as uptown London.    

       

II. Debut Album

On May 13th 2022, after teasing the release date for weeks, Obongjayar finally released his long awaited debut album Some Nights I Dream of Doors, a twelve track long collection of spiritual themes and breathtaking rhythms.

In this body of work, the music artist takes us on an intimate and vibrant journey, revealing the hardship that comes with growing up in underprivileged circumstances and the fortitude it took for him to become the man he is today. With the use of his vast imagination, Obongjayar is able to create an entire musical universe, dabbling into the genres of funk/soul, R&B, afrobeat and rap. The music is similar to the album cover photographed by Bolade Banjo, the music is colourful in its versatility and expression. One could say that Obongjayar was trying to depict an accurate version of life, where things are not just black and white however, but every colour in between. 

 

 

This project is a follow up from his well-received EP Which Way is Forward? in 2020 with songs such as “Still Sun”, “Frens” and “God’s Own Children” known to be a fan favourite. In celebration, Obongjayar took to his instagram to caption; ‘This has been a dream of mine since I can remember and saying I’ve released my first album is such a moment for me! But saying I did on my own terms with no compromise or sway means even more! We did it on our own terms, with our own sound and our own perspective!’

If there is one thing we can take away from this album, then it is that Obongjayar is an act here to stay. One may say that through the music, he convinces his audience that he’ll always bring something new to the table and never stick to the comfort of  current success. From his first EP ‘Home’ to the latest of his releases, Obong always makes sure to display growth while pushing the boundaries by any means necessary. And as long as he wishes to, he will keep on experimenting on his own terms, each time taking us by surprise and giving us music we were not even aware that we needed to hear. 

 Words by Lauren Southe.

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