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Obongjayar on why artists have to say what’s on their mind

We speak to the Nigerian musician with a unique vision about using the past to create the future and his new EP “Bassey”

London-living Nigerian artist Obongjayar’s night crawler of a track “Creeping” debuted late last year, free from the grip of classification while sounding pointedly vivid, clear and purposeful. Existential abyss was articulated in lyrics like “Mirror mirror, will I make it out? / Mirror mirror, only you can see my doubts,” provoking unease but remaining ultimately uplifting by virtue of allowing the listener to project their own struggles.

24-year-old Steven Umoh’s sound draws from Afrobeat, vocal manipulation, soul and jazz. The singer, poet and rapper’s voice, while raw and guttural when he’s frustrated, is also deeply soothing, the long notes like a reassuring embrace. Since releasing his Home EP in 2016, Obongjayar has featured alongside Sampha and Giggs on Close but Not Quite, the debut EP from Richard Russell’s Everything Is Recorded project.

Last month Obongjayar released the video for “Endless”. Directed by Matilda Finn, the film is a reflection of the track’s celebration of life in death, depicting a funeral ceremony transported to a nightclub. It focuses on the unique euphoria experienced through dance acts as a visually arresting commemoration of having existed with purpose, showing us that being our best selves is crucial in these turbulent times.

Now he’s dropping Bassey, a four-track release that honours Umoh’s Nigerian heritage. But – thanks in part to production courtesy of Moses Boyd and a guest feature from poet James Massiah – it also feels firmly rooted in London, where Obongjayar has lived since moving to the UK in 2010 aged 17. The EP’s urgency resonates particularly strongly given the anger following the Grenfell Tower fire, but its optimistic tone offers hope. Most impressive is perhaps Obongjayar’s kitchen sink economy, which ensures every line packs a punch of mythical imagery or political commentary. “I carry crutches like my house keys, they’re twice as heavy as my skin,” he says in opening track “Set Alight”.

We caught up with Obongjayar to talk about the video, the new EP and his formative years.

One of the things that you were praised for when ‘Creeping’ came out was the originality of your voice. Did you always sing in this way, or was it a case of experimenting?

Obongjayar: I’ve always had it, but beforehand I was trying to sound like someone else. You can get caught up in all your influences and you end up trying to sound like them, but when I finally decided to use my own voice, that’s when it started working. It’s also having the courage to do that, because it is your voice and that’s so personal.

What gave you the courage?

Obongjayar: Moving to Norwich, and then working with Richard Russell. That completely changed my perspective on how things work. Before Richard I never worked in a proper studio setup, but working with him and being involved with the Everything Is Recorded project, being present while all of that stuff was happening, gave me perspective and the courage to forge forward and express myself the way I wanted to.

“(My music is) not trying to be a Fela Kuti record. It’s about using those sounds to create something new” – Obongjayar

What were you doing in Norwich?

Obongjayar: I moved for university then got a job working retail at this shop called Dogfish (an independent streetwear store). All the guys are sick guys, DJs, so all the music they played really got me thinking, ‘rah, this is what I should be doing, this is how I should be trying to express myself.’ I started doing nights around the city and playing music – old soul records, funk, playing old Afrobeat records – and seeing the response to it and reeducating myself on that energy and how important it was. That really influenced me a lot in terms of my knowledge of music.

Did your move from Nigeria to the UK inform the kind of musician you decided to be?

Obongjayar: It just made me a lot more aware of everything that was going on around. When you’re in one place, you kind of don’t see anything else. You’re stuck in that and you think that’s all that really matters. But moving around and moving down here, it kind of widened my gaze of the world and how I view things. That shaped me a lot and gave me the courage to look outside of myself, essentially, and that’s where the sounds come from. If I was still back in Nigeria, then it would have been a very different sound.

But sonically, your new EP Bassey does honour your Nigerian heritage in a big way.

Obongjayar: The first song we made on the project was ‘Endless’. We went in the studio with Moses (Boyd) and we just started jamming, man. We talked a lot, and it kind of kept on circling back to the sound, always went back to the beginnings of black music and that sort of energy and how it’s kind of lost in this new age – it’s there in a sense, but the essence, the family value of it, is disappearing. I feel like that sound shouldn’t be forgotten, so what the sonics on ‘Endless’ is trying to say is ‘this is where I’m from, this is who I am.’ But it’s not trying to be a Fela Kuti record. It’s about using those sounds to create something new.

What were you trying to convey lyrically?

Obongjayar: In my language where I’m from, ‘Bassey’ means ‘God’, from the word ‘Abasi’. But the way it’s spelled, ‘Bassey’, is also used as a name. So people get called Bassey, my grandma’s last name is Bassey. So that’s where the title came from – who is God, what is God essentially, that’s the question.

“I feel like with a lot of artists, black artists, there’s no real perspective, people aren’t saying how they feel... It’s good, it’s cool, I party to it, I turn up to it, but people don’t really take anything from it” – Obongjayar

On ‘Space Man’ you seem to be saying that God is within us, that we have to find that strength in each other.

Obongjayar: Yeah, that’s what it is. With the terror attacks and all that’s going on, it’s all centred around religion, essentially. So on that particular record I’m saying we should really be focusing on ourselves rather than looking to the skies for help. I used to be religious, but I’m not anymore. Look around you, focus on what’s going on here, rather than what you don’t even know about. That’s what that record is, that conversation about what we are.

You’ve talked previously about the importance of the message in your work and that seems to be the most pronounced thread connecting these new tracks.  

Obongjayar: Yeah. I feel like with a lot of artists, black artists, there’s no real perspective, people aren’t saying how they feel, they’re not really feeling anything – or they’re just recycling to the extent that they don’t even know what’s going on, they’re just churning it out. It’s good, it’s cool, I party to it, I turn up to it, but people don’t really take anything from it. And for me, that’s super important. Why waste an opportunity to say something or to reach someone or to say what’s on your mind? ‘Set Alight’ and ‘Space Man’ and ‘Endless’ as well, such a dark topic that no one really talks about. That’s what I’m saying, why waste the opportunity of saying stuff like that.

How did the ‘Endless’ video come about?

Obongjayar: Basically the first studio session with Moses was ‘Endless’, and immediately I saw the video, I saw the sentiment, I saw this was what we were going to do – it was in my head. Then I linked up with (director) Matilda Finn and I told her about the idea I had for the film and she was able to articulate it in little bits of genius. I feel like she really listened to the track, she brought it to light and gave it the energy that it has.

Where did you film it?

Obongjayar: We made it a few months ago, in April this year. We shot in a quarry, and the club scene is actually in a sex dungeon (laughs). It was two locations, two days. It was fun. A few of my friends came down, it was just good energy. And something of that magnitude, we had to get caterers, we had to get food. In comparison to ‘Creeping’, which was just me and Frank (Lebon), it was an experience man. I feel like it said what it needed to say and it said it clearly. It literally is the song – when you see it, you’re able to understand it instantly. That’s what great art does. It reaches you.