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Music

The Kinetic Poetry and Spirituality of Obongjayar

by Carl Terver

OBONGJAYAR, Nigerian, Calabar-born, London-based artist is a greatly talented singer. I stumbled on his work in February via a YouTube music video ad when I logged onto the YouTube app to catch up with the latest in music videos. His song which interrupted the video I was about to watch was “Try” or “Message In A Hammer”—I can’t recall which it was, but well, both singles are a prelude to his Some Nights I Dream of Doors album forthcoming on May 13 from the London-based record label September Recordings. It wasn’t the ibex-like horns on his head in the music video of “Try” that was curiously striking to me. For more than a minute, there’s Obongjayar’s melodious singing on a slow but rising tune before a full beat comes on. He holds your attention with a soulful “Please, don’t lose your head / Down this rabbit hole”; then switches his vocals to a grating “Spirits flow through my body / I don’t know stop, I go”; then tunes down his vocals to a dulcet “We used to be invincible”—one man in three acts, all in less than two minutes.

In the video of the same song, the visuals are a panoply of abstract imaging including psychic scenery, a fragmented plotline, and a choreographic display evoking the spiritual, which blends into the song’s rhythmic character as Obongjayar alternates his vocals, altogether underlining a psychedelic groove. It is a few inches from being extremist in his aesthetics. Most of his visual content is like this, priding in unconventionality, in the same direction his music aspires to. It is a bold statement to his to-be fan about the kind of artist he is. But even at this, he is not the alté-alté artist or the musician whose unconventional style is so eclectic that it is alienating and cultic, missing the pulse of the contemporary. With an obvious influence of Fela, combined with various sounds encompassing jazz, hip hop, funk, electronic synths, R&B, soul, blues, rumba, and more, he is a virtuoso whose music defies placement; sound is a ritual of performance to him to achieve something greater—something close to being spiritual.

Perhaps, an outstanding example of his spirituality I came across is his spoken-word-styled rap on a live session track “Scum” with Yussef Dayes, who matches Obongjayar’s lyricism with a kind of underground drumsticks combination, both artists raving psychedelic. Obongjayar’s gift is his vocals which he contrives to achieve the spirituality he wants. Will Pritchard writing in Pitchfork describes Obongjayar’s vocals as having a “magnetic, elastic quality: Half coo, half gravelly, wizened intonation.” More than singing words to his listeners, Obongjayar fashions his vocals foremostly as his instrument of contract with us. This spirituality prepares us and allows him to present his music to us as a kind of poetry. After this, we are then introduced to the poetry of his songwriting.

“I get too big sometimes that I cast shadows on everyone around me,” he sings in Carry Come Carry Go. “Born in troubled waters / Every stroke is war / They drowned the ones before us / But we’ll make it to shore,” he sings in Message In A Hammer. “Let the sweat from your smiles fall like rain and drench the world beneath you,” he sings in God’s Own Children. These are rather carefully selected examples, but in the songs they appear, as the words and lines move in tandem to their beats, we get a sense of Obongjayar’s poetry in motion, and its beauty, the absence of tedium or any highbrow designs. “Dreaming In Transit” where he composes a delightful ballad in form of a nursery rhyme—”When I was young I waved at planes / Hoping one day I’ll fly away / Nobody told me I have wings / Nobody told me I have wings”—tells us he’s not that kind of artist.

Obongjayar & Yussef Dayes – Scum (live session)

In his growing catalogue, Obongjayar belts four EPs. Home (2016), Bassey (2017), Which Way Is Forward? (2020), and a collaboration EP with Nigerian producer SARZ, Sweetness (2021). I have not listened to Home yet—except the track “Creeping,” from it—but I have exhausted the last three EPs which all sufficiently present Obongjayar’s range. Bassey (with 4 tracks) chronicles an inner spiritual itinerary of the artist and issues of race as a black boy in England. WWIF?, his most standout EP, presents him as a troubadour on issues of blackness and liberation, and of survival, self-doubt in love, and the importance of true friendship. And Sweetness is thematically built around concerns of romance and the sensuous.

In Which Way Is Forward?, running for 23 mins, no second is wasted. This, after all, is from an artist who edits his songs. To him, editing songs is about being “very architectural” and “very structured.” In an interview with Highsnobiety, he says: “Editing in terms of how it’s written and how it comes across, specifically what the structure of the song is and how you want to get your point across.” The EP is a unique performance on its way to becoming a classic, if counting two years isn’t enough to declare it one yet. It is a testimony of the artist who must have searched for his sound, after taking a 2-year-plus break from his earlier projects, to create something solid. Every song on it is complete. I am incapable of grading them. Like the Irish musician Hozier, whom every song in his catalogue can be counted as his best song, the songs on Obongjayar’s WWIF? are about mood or timing of listen. For physical metabolism or the groovy, there are the fast-paced tracks “10k,” “God’s Own Children,” and “Frens.” For a meditative listen, there are “Soldier Ant,” which awakens the spirit of Fela, and “Carry Come Carry Go.” “Still Sun,” its first track, a self-assurance creed, uplifts the spirit; “Dreaming In Transit” espouses revolution while maintaining a light mood.

As a credit to his virtuoso, he scores a hit with the mellifluous “Gone Girl” track from Sweetness EP. Masterfully produced by SARZ, it is an evergreen record; its electronic sound and Obongjayar’s whispering vocals bring to mind The Weeknd, as felt also in “If You Say” of the same EP. The eponymous track “Sweetness,” carries in its sound 80s America pop era. And in even these, Obongjayar doesn’t perform as an outsider.

For conscious music, especially for an age losing its compass, becoming more devoid of imagination, where algorithms navigate our thinking, Obongjayar’s vigilance through his music renews faith about what is important. It was interesting to read in this interview his position on political consciousness. While social media might start conversations, he feels it only has a half-life to sustain it. In a time when younger people, especially in African countries, are almost powerless to stand up to power—well, Nigeria had its #EndSARS watershed—his is a daring proposition, for us to wake up from the ephemerality of online activism and be boots-on-ground. But while we cannot get agitating at every second because of the precarious aftermath we often face—as we tweet, we should galvanise our communities into political awareness, too.

Obongjayar channels these sentiments in his music. “Soldier Ant,” “Dreaming In Transit,” and “Message In A Hammer” are examples of songs about revolution. The last song nods to and celebrates the #EndSARS protest, and charges for a time of change in his home country Nigeria; its refrain, perhaps, the most protest-charged lines against evil governments in recent music history: “You can beat me, shoot me, kill me / Throw me in jail / You can strip me, use me, abuse me / Till nothing remain / We won’t take it kindly / Take it smiling.” The song continues:

I have seen the future
In the future we won
We have been reborn
To build we must destroy.
I don’t want peace, oh
We can talk till we tire
I won’t say please, oh
We fight fire with fire
We are the people
We won’t sit and be quiet

Amidst the poetry, he is telling us it is always time to get up, to act, or to become aware, and to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. But not just in this aspect. Even when he’s not being conscious, his poetry lingers; he reminds us, he makes us think, he makes us love and want to be loved, he makes us human. He is a true artist whose art is not just projection, so that even when he sings about himself, he’s singing about everyone. He takes the big risk of being that artist, strangely in today’s world, whose music is concerned about the state of affairs in the world, singing to uplift and provoke, a tradition lost to the generation of Bob Marley and conscious artists like Nas and Damian Marley.

Perhaps for now, “Try” stands out as one of his most accomplished songs, alongside the tracklist of Which Way Is Forward? EP, prominently the songs “10k” and “Frens.” In May, not far away anymore, we shall witness his debut album of 12 tracks, Some Nights I Dream of Doors. An interesting title. His postponed 2022 live tour in the UK and EU will begin September 18, to October 1. It is my dream to be in London to watch him live. It is a great time to be alive alongside African music renaissance, and Obongjayar is a monumental appearance on the scene whose music will outlive all of us.◙

“Message In A Hammer”

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.