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Obongjayar and Sarz on the eruption of West African culture

Having dropped a retro, 80s-influenced EP together, the genre-defying artist talks to the Wizkid producer about afrobeats, Lagos, and how there are no rules to making music

At first glance, there don’t seem to be many parallels between the artistic trajectories of Sarz and Obongjayar. The former, born Osabuohien Osaretin, is a celebrated record producer who caught his break crafting bacchanal anthems for Wizkid and Wande Coal as afrobeats started to morph into an international sensation in the middle of the last decade. UK-based Steven Umoh (Obongjayar)’s afrobeat-influenced, genre-bending, music has won critical praise for its propulsive search for identity. Still, despite what might seem like a point of divergence, the duo have more in common than meets the eye, with a Nigerian heritage near the top of that list.  

When Sarz and Obongjayar meet to discuss one afternoon in July, there’s a sense of camaraderie between the pair as their conversation moves rapidly between music to life as a Nigerian while taking turns in English and pidgin. The cultural experience of being Nigerian that Obongjayar remembers from when he left the country over a decade ago, is markedly different from the present reality due to the swelling popularity of afrobeats and Nigeria’s eruptive cultural scene.  

Even within afrobeats, the last three years have seen a subtle rewiring of its sonic texture, with a slicker sound emerging. Not many have done as much to advance this change as Sarz has done, with three prior projects in the last two years capturing the experimental spirit of the times. Meanwhile, Obongjayar has been inching closer to the roots of his identity with “Still Sun”, the first single of his 2020 EP, Which Way Is Forward, defiantly declaring: “I know who I am.”

Obongjayar and Sarz’s assured approach to making unfamiliar music collides on their recently-released Sweetness EP, adding a 80s retro sheen to afrobeats that makes the four songs on the project music both hazy and meditative as they explore the early stages of a romantic relationship and the uncertainty and elation that comes with it. 

Sarz, you’re predominantly based in Lagos, while Obongjayar operates from London. How have these cities shaped your sounds?

Sarz: I grew up in Lagos and, even though I think my music is very broad, there’s always an element of chaos to it because that’s just Lagos for you. There’s an element of that fast life that you have in Lagos – that’s the essence of afrobeats. Because Lagos is a mix of different things and people, a lot of things just come into the mix. As Nigerians also, we consume a lot of pop culture from the western world and I have been able to mix those inspirations with the madness in Lagos. I think that’s what makes my sound unique.

Obongjayar: Being in London, or just the UK, has shaped the way I make music or even the kind of musician I am because until I moved to London I had no real idea of my culture. I lived in Nigeria until I was 17, but it was that time when everyone was looking outward, like Sarz said. They were looking to America for music and culture, no one was really proud of what Nigerian music or culture was doing.

Coming to the UK made me appreciate what we had because I was in a completely different ecosystem. It was inspiring for me because I was able to use what I got from living in London and what I lived in Nigeria to bring the two worlds together. That’s why my music has all of these elements from different places but still feels very unified. You can see it from what I’ve done with Sarz and my album and it still sounds like me, that’s the beauty of being here but having roots there, because I’ve lived longer in Nigeria than I have in the UK.

Now, there’s a change in how people view Nigerian culture…

Sarz: For starters, you can go to America, England, and all these countries today and speak in your accent and it feels really cool. People will dig you. Being African is definitely cooler now than it used to be, and it’s not like I experienced it first-hand, but just hearing the stories from family and friends that moved overseas just lets you know there’s a difference in perception. I’m sure Obong has experience with this. 

Obongjayar: Bro, I’m a living testament to that.

“The music industry has reshaped how Nigerian and African culture is perceived and how people interact with us and our culture. It’s really a good time to be alive” – Sarz

Sarz: Right now, the music industry has reshaped how Nigerian and African culture is perceived and how people interact with us and our culture. It’s really a good time to be alive and it’s only going to get better. 

Obongjayar: I agree with your point absolutely. It feels so great to be comfortable in your skin and be able to carry yourself as a Nigerian. When I moved here, it wasn’t a time when it was really that cool to be Nigerian and I was still young with a malleable mind, but I’ve always been a survivor so I was able to stay afloat. At that time, my mind was hyper focused on surviving in this place and, in hindsight, it was not the right approach to take because it was unhealthy. But the older I got, the more I started to recognise that I didn’t need to rap in an American accent or talk about things that are not my experiences. 

That’s when a switch happened. I started to engage with my life intimately and the stuff that has made me the person I am. That’s why my music sounds the way it does. With that new cultural wave, it’s all about getting better because, for me, it’s a constant process and just because, psychologically, it’s not easy to break out of that mentality. The hope, ultimately, is that Nigerian kids who have not gone overseas can be proud of who they are and where they are. 

By virtue of where you live, you have varying experiences of the Nigerian identity. How do you understand being Nigerian? 

Sarz: It’s very visceral for me. Being Nigerian just makes you want to get it at whatever cost because everything in Nigeria holds you back. It’s like everything is against you, so if there’s anyone in Nigeria making waves, that person needs to be applauded because it’s so hard here. We don’t have a structure for support but we always find a way to make things work. 

Obongjayar: Facts. I think being Nigerian makes you have a tough skin in whatever you do. 

Sarz: I don’t know if that’s a good thing. It has good sides but at the same time…

Obongjayar: It’s good but it’s not supposed to be like that. It’s not something we’re grateful for even though we’re thankful for the lessons and growth from that. For me, coming to the UK made me see how fucked things are in Nigeria. Obviously, there are problems in the UK but at least there’s some structure and somewhere for you to land if you go broke or fuck up. In Nigeria, if you’re done, you’re done. Like Sarz said earlier, if you see someone from Nigeria making waves, and their papa no get super big bucks, you have to applaud these guys because it’s not easy. I think you can hear it in both our sounds – that hunger is still there because, subconsciously at the back of our head, there’s still that warning that this thing could just disappear at any point. Regardless of where you are, you can’t be super comfortable and you have to keep going. Even my experiences here are still related to Nigeria because I’m always on and thinking about what’s next, even if there’s a cushion here. 

When did you first hear about each other?

Obongjayar: There’s this song... what's that record you did with Wiz a while ago?

Sarz: “Samba!”

Obongjayar: Oh boy, I heard “Samba” and my head wanted to burst! (laughs). I was like, ‘Who is this Sarz guy?’ I’ve known about Sarz from time, before even meeting you. I’ve always been a student of the game, of music. So, I listen to everything from everywhere and stay clued up about it all. But away from that, I was just a fan of what was going on, way before afrobeats was afrobeats. This was a point where the genre was just figuring out what it was, and to hear what Wiz and Sarz did on that almost felt like a new tide.

Sarz: I heard about Obong from my management. I just started thinking about what I could do with his talent from then. I was excited to meet and the day we met was the day we created the first track on the project. It was a really seamless exchange and after that song, I knew I wanted to make more tracks with him. From then, it was super easy. 

Obongjayar: It’s interesting, when my management asked me if I wanted to work with Sarz, I was like, ‘Really, Sarz?’ It just seemed far-fetched at the time and, now, it feels like a full-circle moment. We were supposed to meet in London at first but Sarz couldn’t make it and I was really pissed off. I remember feeling like, ‘Why this guy do me like this?’ We eventually linked up in Nigeria which was really fun, I remember waiting for Sarz downstairs at Eko Hotel and he was taking so long, I was there for a while!

Sarz: But I compensated with suya (a West African spicy meat dish), remember? 

Obongjayar: Yes, Sarz took me to go and eat suya. That was sick. He also introduced me to Amapiano. I was like, ‘What’s this?’, and he was like, ‘You don’t even know’ (laughs). 

Sarz: This was way before the Amapiano wave hit Nigeria. I think this all happened in 2019. I try to keep my ears on the ground for new music as much as possible. I also try to keep myself open to any sound possible to see if it moves me. That’s what I look for in new music: the capacity to make me tap into certain feelings. And to be honest, once a certain genre hits the mainstream, I’ve probably already rinsed it. Once people feel like something is the wave, I’m onto the next thing. I’m always looking for new stuff, do you get me

Obongjayar: I do. I’m always on the lookout because I’m a student of the game. Like the new sound coming out of Nigeria and, I’m not even trying to blow up Sarz’s head here, but I’m looking forward to the new sound of what afrobeats can be. It’s very well-thought-out lyrically, sonically, and structure-wise. There’s a lot of consideration for these aspects of things, and I’ve just been on to it. 

What was the process of making the Sweetness EP like?

Sarz: It was interesting for me to work with Obong because if you listen to his previous projects, you’ll realise where he is coming from and I never want to take an artist out of their world. I never want an artist to feel like they have to make very Nigerian music or ‘proper’ afrobeats. I don’t think that’s the way for an artist to express themself. From listening to his sound and knowing what I like to make, I had to think of a way to fuse both worlds together and that’s how we came up with the synthwave, retro-feeling, afrobeats sound.

“With music, I love to challenge myself because I know what I’m capable of. I know I’m a soundman” – Obongjayar

Obongjayar: With music, I love to challenge myself because I know what I’m capable of. I know I’m a soundman. I know I hear things differently, and I don’t like to keep doing the same thing over and over again. If I feel a certain way about how a song should sound or what it should be about, I’ll try to do it the way I can hear it in my head. For the Sweetness EP, especially because it’s about love and attraction, it made sense to go in the direction Sarz talked about. It also made sense to make it, unlike anything I’ve done in the past because, in my head, there are no rules to making music. I do what I want and no one can tell me anything. Also, in terms of the writing, it was an opportunity for me to stretch my palette and get better in areas I don’t usually get to flex and work on techniques I don’t usually get to work on. And that’s what I like, that’s what gets me excited about music: the opportunity to do something new and fresh that I enjoy. 

Sarz: It was really fluid. In the beginning, we weren’t necessarily working to make a project, we just kept working on songs and eventually, we thought we’d just put the songs together and make a body of work. It was as simple as that. 

Obongjayar: It also helped that we interacted like we’d known each other from time. It was all so organic how everything happened – not a case of asking for beats and going back and forth, the working relationship was just really smooth and cordial.

It sounded like a really enjoyable process. What are the things you took away from working so closely with one another? 

Sarz: It reaffirmed that there were no boxes for me. More than ever, I’m ready to think way outside any box. I’m ready to be like 100 miles outside because I can’t see the box anymore. 

Obongjayar: Same.

Sarz: I think that’s the take-home from this project: limitless possibilities. 

Obongjayar: I learned a lot from you. It was relatively a new area for me to jump into and I learned from Sarz about structure and placement. He’s not just a producer, he’s an actual musician in the way that he hears things. 

Sarz: So sweet (laughs).

Obongjayar: But it’s true. He’s got a lot more experience than I do in the realm of production and there’s a lot I learned from Sarz and I’m a lot better for it as a musician, and as someone who loves sounds because of certain ways he showed me to approach things cadence-wise and tempo-wise. He elevated my music for sure.

Obong, what is your reaction to people trying to marginalise your efforts based on the color of your skin and Sarz, based on how unappreciative of producers the Nigerian music industry is?

Obongjayar: I don’t care because once you start to think of those things it starts to bug you down. I just make the music with my heart and everything else takes care of itself. Whether you want to limit me somewhere doesn’t concern me, I just focus on what I want to make. You can’t stop me because of my skin colour or where I’m from because I know what I’m capable of. I am sure there are limitations, but I tend to not think about those things or worry about them.

Sarz: I’ve spoken about this extensively and I think it’s part of my life’s work to enable producers from Nigeria to have it easier than I did through my academy. I’m also trying to do it by attempting stuff people are afraid of trying so they can know that regardless of where you are from, you can achieve whatever you want to as a producer. I believe there is a reason for everything and, as Obong explained, I don’t like to dwell on the shortcomings of the Nigerian music structure. I just want to enable a handful of producers and I’ve been able to do that because some of them are doing really good. I look forward to keep doing that and amplifying that effect.

Sarz and Obongjayar’s Sweetness EP is out now