Obongjayar — Between Worlds

Photography:
Benjamin Breading
Styling:
Carolina Augustin
Words:
India Hendrikse

Obongjayar wakes up at the crack of dawn to journal. Every day. It’s how he processes the intricacies of the day before, the small nothings that could be the lyrics to his next song, the observations he might want to immortalise. “I think it’s necessary, because I don’t like to leave certain things to chance, because then you’re not paying attention or you’re waiting to be inspired,” says the Nigeria- raised, London-based musician. To Obongjayar, this practice is crucial for his creative process. One that’s cemented his forthcoming debut album, out in May. Here, we chat to Obongjayar about dreams, fitting in and trusting timing.

Bottega Veneta jacket & trousers

Paul Smith jumper, Louis Vuitton trousers, Bleue Burnham necklace

Burberry shirt & trousers, Hermès belt, Oakley sunglasses, Bleue Burnham square ring, Hatton Lab heart ring, Obongjayar’s own jewellery worn throughout

     “The record’s still revealing itself to me,” says Obongjayar. “The more I listen to it, the more it opens itself up to me and becomes different things. It has its own biology.” After a slew of successful EP’s and popular collaborations, the musician is now coming to terms with the release of his first studio album on May 13th, titled Some Nights I Dream Of Doors. “My album is this living, breathing thing and it’s very weird. I’m excited for people to hear it but I’m nervous as well, as it’s quite a personal record. It will be interesting to let it go from my tentacles,” he laughs, waving his hands around.
To the public, the record is new – a slew of upbeat, some- times surprising and vulnerable songs, delivered with the signature Obongjayar ability to switch between Afro-pop, rap and spoken word with ease. But to the artist, the record isn’t new – in fact, the album has had time to unfurl in his mind, the songs taking on new shapes since he started writing the body of work two years ago.
Just before diving into his 2020 EP Which Way Is Forward?, the now album name Some Nights I Dream Of Doors came to him. But he held onto it, awaiting the right moment. “The timing wasn’t right. I had the name and I knew what it was going to be about, but it didn’t feel right, I didn’t have it,” he says. “As soon as I finished Which Way Is Forward? it was a surge of energy that just came, a rush, a gust of wind. I was like, ‘Boom, okay, straight into the studio’. I knew what it sounded like, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Possessing one of those rare personalities that makes you feel as though you’re old mates upon meeting, Obongjayar is as deep as he is casual and joyful. He talks with his hands, genuine enthusiasm rushing to his infectious smile and attentive gaze. His London accent is unexpected if you’ve listened to his music, which reflects his Nigerian tongue more than a conversation with him does. “Y’know what I mean?” is a London-ism repeated constantly, and Obongjayar admits the accent came largely from his desire to fit in.

Labrum jacket, Oakley sunglasses & Obongjayar’s own earrings

Bianca Saunders jacket, Saint Laurent sunglasses

Nanushka shirt, Bottega Veneta necklace

     “A lot of Nigerians have this,” he explains. “When I moved to the UK [from Nigeria] I felt like I had to fit in and blend. I didn’t want to be different, so it was really important for me to put on the accent. But it stuck.” Talking to his Nigerian friends and family is the only other place – aside from singing – that his childhood accent comes out. “It’s not difficult for me to make that switch when I’m making music because that’s from my heart, that’s who I am,” he adds, motion- ing to his head, the origin of the inner, authentic voice he once felt pressured to quell.
Finding his musical voice was a long road. Now, he’s as comfort- able with soft, sweet song as he is with croaky, raw vocals and boppy West African beats. But growing up in Calabar, Nigeria, rap was his reason and he felt sure the genre would be his trajectory.
But dreams change; for any of us, a vision that was once so clear can become a shaft of light before shifting to shadow, no longer needed.
Obongjayar took the concept of closing and opening doors and applied it to Some Nights I Dream Of Doors. “When I was rapping, I was like, ‘That’s it’, and then you get there and do it and it takes you to another thing. Going through those doors is growing up. It gives you the realisation that you might not see when you’re having the dream; you think you want something, but it’s a constant thing: when does the dream begin, when does it set in, and when does the dream die?”
Through the process of making his debut record, Obongjayar says he stepped back into the rooms that he’d left behind, men- tally revisiting the spaces he’d left for new adventures. “The basis of the record was going back into my life, going into myself and into my past and going into things around me in my past,” he says.
“I was really trying to understand why I chose the path that I’m currently on.”
As it turns out, the path he chose has aligned itself well; midway through last year, Obongjayar released his collaboration with Afrobeats producer Sarz. The 80’s-inspired EP, titled Sweetness, has its heart in romance, a transition from Obongjayar’s previous music which explored the more grisly topics of racism and war. Then, in late 2021, Obongjayar featured on British rapper Little Simz’ song Point and Kill – a work that’s racked up nearly eight million plays on Spotify (Little Simz has since gone on to win the 2022 Brit Award for Best New Artist). Around the same time, he also appeared on British rapper Pa Salieu’s single Style & Fashion. Seemingly, Obongjayar is zeroing in on the zeitgeist.

Bethany Williams top & trousers, Bottega Veneta necklace

Bianca Saunders jacket & trousers, Bleue Burnham ring, Bottega Veneta rings, Saint Laurent sunglasses

     This year, the wave continues. And whilst Obongjayar is fulfilling his personal dreams, he stresses his music is made for everyone.“If I was just writing for me, that’s quite a selfish thing to do and is quite narcissistic,” he says. “My experience is not unique to me. There’s people going through the same stuff, who have come from the same place. It’s not for anyone in particular, it’s for everybody.”
True to his word, the first release from the debut album is titled Message in a Hammer. It’s a selfless piece of activism; accompanying the track is a music video that depicts “fighting against the powers that take and steal and rob from us,” as he previously described it. It references state corruption and police brutality in Nigeria, most notably by SARS (Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad).
It’s clear that Obongjayar’s music is informed by the various places he’s lived. From his up- bringing in a Nigerian port city to a move to be with his mum in England, first relocating to Surrey and then Norwich to study art, Obongjayar has been changed by his surroundings. “It takes you outside of yourself and you can learn a lot about yourself when you’re ejected from one place to another place. It’s the shock; a new environment, a new situation, new responsibilities.”
Self-development was prompted through external forces. “It made me more attentive to my environment and I could take information from growing up in Nigeria or being in London and apply it to this new situation,” he explains. “That moulded me to now be able to take what made sense to me to move on; shedding the bad shit and carrying other qualities forward and picking up other qualities in the new place.”
Being a musician that’s made a name for himself by stepping outside the limiting walls of defined genres, it’s no surprise that Obongjayar’s taste in music is as diverse as his own voice. “I listen to a lot of guitar music, a lot of heavy, alternative punk shit. That’s what I’m on at the minute,” he says. “But sometimes I just listen to pianists. I listen to a lot of weird, experimental rap. It’s all about the timing and the situation that I’m in that influences or dictates what I’m listening to.”
At the core of Obongjayar’s interests lies people. “I get inspired by watching interviews and listening to people’s processes and how passionate they are about their shit and how they got to a certain place,” he says. “That stuff makes me look at the music differently and inspires me to get up and want to write. I get in- spired by writers, I get inspired by people. The product is great but I’m more inspired by the people that make the thing, not just the thing itself.”
So long as someone loves their art and has purpose behind their “thing”, Obongjayar is on board. Confidence is core to the Obongjayar way. “Do whatever the fuck you want,” he says. “The thing is, you have to be brave enough to do that – it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Order your copy of issue 15 here
Photographer: Benjamin Breading
Styling: Carolina Augustin
Model: Obongjayar
Groomer: Tomi Roppongi at Julian Watson Agency
Photographers assistants: Andrew Broadhurst & Kane Hulse
Stylist’s Assistant: Bronwyn Stemp
Production: Giorgio T-D at The Curated

 

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