Obongjayar is a Nigerian artist who found his musical footing in the UK after relocating at 17 to London. With a slew of contrasting foundations, Obongjayar’s style is eclectic in every sense of the word. With an Afro-soul core stemming from his formative years in Nigeria, he pulls influence from rock, jazz, blues and afrobeat, cohesively bouncing between genres across his different projects. Having released an EP titled Sweetness in July of 2021, Obongjayar experimented with electronic sounds while maintaining a soulful underlying nature. With a quick turnaround he followed with his debut album Some Nights I Dream of Doors. The album features jazz musician Nubya Garcia and further showcases Obongjayar’s versatility throughout the project. Tracks like ‘Wrong for it’ flaunt elements of jazz with rich saxophones and piano sounds, while retaining a dark undertone exploring themes of suffocation and a feeling of confinement. Describing himself as an antenna that will “go where the spirit takes him”, his single “Tinko Tinko (Don’t Play Me for a Fool)” which features production from Alex Cosmo and long-time collaborator and friend Barney Lister provides that Afrocentric core while displaying remnants of pain and betrayal. The album is a passage of emotions and feelings that embody the sporadic and probing nature he suggests governs his music.
Explaining to Acclaim that he never really resonated with any structure, Obongjayar is no stranger to existing in a cross-section of culture, exploring the themes of chasing fulfilment and wondering where he may fit in. We caught up with Obongjayar to discuss his origins, influences and gain some insight into the process and themes across the album.
How are you feeling with the release of your debut album?
It is a weird one. I don’t know, there’s always all this expectation on a debut album. There’s a debut album myth so I think I am feeling that. I mean I am excited but I’m nervous. I am controlling the things I can control and letting the things I can’t control figure themselves out.
I know you were born in Nigeria and moved to London. How was the experience of moving to London from Nigeria? Was it more of a choice to move to London or was it pushed on you?
It was pushed upon us, and it was also a choice. Growing up in Nigeria you don’t really want to be there unless you are super wealthy because you are afforded the luxury of going on holiday to certain places. I know that I didn’t want to stay in Nigeria if I could help it. My mum was over here in London doing her thing and she could afford to bring us over and take care of us so I was really excited to bounce.
I had a listen to Sweetness the EP, I really enjoyed that project which has a lot of electronic elements. I know you experiment with a broad range of music. Do you have a particular sound you like working on the most?
If you can tell from my music, there isn’t a set sound that I do. I’d say I always go where the spirit takes me. I don’t preempt anything. I go with what I hear in my head which are very diverse sounds and musical elements that go around in my head. I don’t want to play those down or neglect them because I am focused on one thing. I think that is boring and it ruins the spirit of music. I am open to whatever excites me musically. I let those feelings take over rather than being more mechanical. I think it’s more about the feeling than being calculated about music.
It’s hard to categorise the genre that you work in because each project is so different. Why do you think that is?
There isn’t a set genre of music that I make. It is more of a spiritual thing. As long as I’m an antenna and a receiver of that energy. I’m grateful to have it and will use it to the best of my ability. I will do my best to channel that from whichever source it comes from.
I hear an African influence, some jazz and a broader set of sounds. What do you think influences your sound and music?
The foundation of the music I make is based on where I come from and the culture that surrounded me growing up. That’s always going to be rooted in African music and structures. But I think just being someone who listens to a whole bunch of music and being influenced by a lot of different sounds. Be it electronic music, rock, jazz or blues. I’ve got such a wide range of influences and they seep into the music. I think that’s why the music I make sounds the way that it does.
You covered a lot of themes and emotions on the album. I hear a lot of mention of feeling lost and finding your way. What message were you wanting to convey with this album?
I see where you would get that theme of feeling lost but I think it is more of a search for something more. I think that was the main thing, this idea of wanting to escape and find a bigger purpose than where you are currently at. Exploring why we want the things that we want. What makes us want to go after those things and explore the naivety of the chase? The chase never stops, it never ends until the day we die. it gets to a point where it becomes a self-eating snake. That’s the beauty of this album for me especially. The record is ever revealing to me and teaching me stuff about myself that I didn’t even realise when I was writing it.
The self-titled single ‘Some Nights I Dream of Doors’ is a very soulful song, but I found it had very dark undertones. Would you say that is a fair assessment?
It is so dark, especially on that second verse. “Save me I’m dying, save me I’m losing this fight.” Not necessarily dying in the literal sense but time is catching up to me and I may not achieve this thing that I am chasing. It works across a whole bunch of different factions of life. You can plan whatever you want to plan but time is one of those things that is like gravity, it has a way of finding you and bringing you back down. The title song is a perfect representation of what the album is about. “Some nights I dream of doors. I need a way out, I’m suffocating.” Especially coming from where I’ve come from and just wanting something else. It goes back to what I was saying earlier on wanting to bounce from where I was at. I couldn’t see anything materialised from the situation that I was in. But the saviour there was the idea of leaving.
At what age did you leave Nigeria? How did you find that move when you got to London to be back with your mother?
I grew up in Nigeria and left when I was 17 to come to the UK. I lived in the South-West, just outside of London where my mother was. I stayed there for two years and then I moved to Norwich. I didn’t even spend that much time with my mother. I went to college, and I spent three years in London. I went to university in Norwich where I spent another 3-4 years before I came to London. So, I am more Nigerian than I am from London because most of my formative years were spent growing up in Nigeria. When I have conversations with friends and stuff, my reference point is so different to a lot of people.
You are very active musically and drop projects very frequently. You dropped Sweetness and have quick turnarounds between projects. Is this intentional and why do you like to release so frequently?
I have always been active. I am an activated guy. While I was making Sweetness, I’d already started working on my album and was making them simultaneously. I’m a musician, and that’s what I do. It’s not an assignment or a job to me it just is what I do. My whole life revolves around this and its who I am. There is no clock telling me when to turn it off, it is constant. As long as the spirits are flowing, I just let it be open and that’s how I operate.
Do you work with the band when you are recording or just when you perform?
I play with the band when I play live. When I’m in the studio making music, it is literally just me and Barney Lister in the studio together playing everything. On ‘Tinko Tinko’ we had a friend Alex Cosmo come down and play guitar so you can hear Alex on that on certain parts of the song. But generally, a lot of times it’s just me and Barney coming up with all those sounds and playing them. When I do live performances, I play with a band that I’ve had since I started and we’ve been working together for like seven years.
You’ve been the support act for artists like Little Simz, how do you find that when compared with doing your own tours?
The first support gig I did I supported King Krule and then now Little Simz. When you do support tours you haven’t really got any control over what the set design and stuff is, you have control over what you’re doing. I’m not working with a massive budget so I’m used to keeping it as simple as we can. It’s not that I don’t love all that stuff in terms of set design. It’s never the most important thing for me. The aesthetics of it all is not the most important thing. Its more about getting my band to sound tight and we’re all tied together and enjoying ourselves.
‘Wrong For it’, is one of my favourite songs on the album. Nubya Garcia has a great voice. How did that collaboration come about?
When we made ‘Wrong for It’ I knew it needed Nubya. The day we made it, I could hear Nubya in my head and I texted her and said I have something that I would really love for you to be on. She loved it and came down to the studio like a week later and laid that down. It was very organic. It is a beautiful thing because that is a friend of mine, I respect her and just to watch her work and have her compliment the song so perfectly it came together beautifully.
Thank you for your time and congratulations on the album.
Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Follow Obongjayar here for more and stream the new album ‘Some Nights I Dream of Doors’ here.