Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

“Music can cure, it can empower…”

Obongjayar has endured in a musical ecosystem controlled by gatekeepers, algorithms and ephemeral virality. An afro-psychedelic coda, his debut album affirms his standing as this generation’s soothsayer, creating legacy and living on in our collective conscious. 

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

Steven Umoh, or Obongjayar as he’s known to the masses, understands the curative power of music on the soul for those who are soul-searching. In a banner year for releases providing relief from the mire of political turmoil and televised hyperviolence, Obongjayar’s debut full-length, ‘Some Nights I Dream Of Doors’, is a pledge for inner peace. The album landed on a warm springtime day in May, the same day Kendrick Lamar’s final TDE masterwork set the internet aflame with fiery conjecture and commentary. “I’m pissed Kendrick released on the same day I did because it’s all I can think about,” Umoh says with wry adoration two weeks later. 

Navigating the axis between spiritual self-talk and the rapture of love songs, Umoh projects a more radical optimism in his work, less confronting than Lamar’s. “Kendrick knows how to pursue his truth in his work. It actually reminds me of Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’, like therapy in song form,” he continues. Talking to Umoh is akin to therapy. He’s inquiring and judicious; his demeanour shifting from voluble simulation to bracing introversion as we tackle his history, expectation, the disease of landlordism and of course, K-Dot’s legacy. He notes Lamar’s intrepid instincts and disregard of the “messianic” cult of personality constructed around him. “Music can cure, it can empower but, on this album, he’s saying look within yourselves and not to me. He’s saying ‘I’m not your saviour’ and that’s something I can relate to.”

— 

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

Steven Umoh was raised by his Mother, and later his Grandmother, in the sleepy port city of Calabar, Nigeria, a Southern enclave far removed from the metropolitan influence of Lagos. His first tangible memories of music came from the consumerist appeal of turn-of-the-millennia rap. “The stuff that was already popping in America wouldn’t pop until a year later where I lived in Calabar,” he explains. “I was late on Nelly, I was late on Jay-Z, I was late on Kanye’s ‘Graduation’ which left a profound mark on me. To us Nigerian kids there was a sense of awe-inspiring wonder about this world.” 

Umoh was so enthused with the commodified decadence of US rap and its impact on youth culture, he’d emulate his heroes to the point of mimicry. “It was a good and bad thing,” Umoh laughs. “I became a student of music at that point. I learned the basic technicalities of songwriting that put me in the position I’m in today but I completely became a Kanye West or Lil Wayne clone. I call this phase my early education; something I could implement in a new sound that I was harbouring inside.”

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

Umoh moved to England aged 17, choosing to study at Norwich University of the Arts, crediting his time there with pushing his worldview outside the barometers of subscribed popularity and into the realm of paradoxes and misfits: He found refuge in the maverick spirit of Detroit rapper Danny Brown (manifesting guest appearances on two songs off Brown’s 2019 interplanetary odyssey ‘uknowhatimsayin¿’), revisited the transgressive indie-folk of original “alt-girl” Aṣa and found the programmed interiority of Thom Yorke congruous to his own experiences with melancholia. 

Obongjayar has the wherewithal to write his own manual on preserving artistic integrity in favour of commercial viability; his career thus far has been defined by a series of gradual but intentional steps. Umoh’s earliest offerings were co-signed by XL Recordings impresario Richard Russell, who upon hearing a SoundCloud demo released his debut EP ‘Home’, which signalled the elegiac slam poetic style he’d tap into with his future material. Even though he sees the release as a foundational building block, Umoh expresses disenchantment at being shoehorned into the “progressive rap” scene after the release. “Truthfully, I was still a little bit lost then,” he reflects. “The words were mine; the feeling was mine but I felt the energy wasn’t fully representative of where I was coming from.” 

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

With 2017’s ‘Bassey’ came Obongjayar’s reinvention; a chronicle of on-the-cusp-of-adulthood ruminations, followed by 2020’s ‘Which Way Is Forward?’, which calcified thorny ideations of Black selfhood and masculinity; of an urbanite reconciling his roots, moving at breakneck pace between the quagmire of uncertainty and visions of a better future. The instrumentals evolved into a more rootsy terrain; heftier percussion overlaid with guttural, full-throated refrains and falsetto: Obongjayar the vocalist had arrived. “’Bassey’ was me starting again and ‘Which Way Is Forward?’ was me having even more conviction in my ability as a singer. There wasn’t just a voice and instrumentation behind it, it was understanding both things and how they intertwine,” Umoh says.

Umoh speaks frequently about the never-ending pursuit of creative autonomy and the habitual ways we limit ourselves and renounce our own freedom. “I’m an individual within what it is I’m doing; it’s a window into my life and my perspective,” he explains. “Whoever listens is instantly transported to that place and will have a deeper understanding of me. I’m working towards a place where listeners have a unique perspective of my work and insight into what I create. It’s a lonely road because you’re not conforming and following a path that industry people want you to follow.” 

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

On ‘Some Nights I Dream Of Doors’, Obongjayar excavates the trauma of growing up in the shadow of state-sanctioned brutality – his aversion to authority who wield power through falsehoods and brute force evoked through the militant anthemics of Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. On ‘Parasite’, Umoh raps: “I don’t listen to no teacher, preacher, pig or politician/Point their fingers, calling me a leech when they do all the leeching.” Conscious about elevating his lyricism beyond songbook tropes, Umoh channelled the socially-conscious auto-fiction of James Baldwin and poetry of Tracy K. Smith, artfully weaving in and out of parables and personal memoir; a non-prescriptive approach that grapples with community and kinship, existential malaise and higher purpose without devolving into empty bromides. 

The writing unfurls through a series of dream-like sequences; portals, paths and routes overflow in the vastness of Obongjayar’s inviting words and the space in producer Barney Lister’s sound design. I ask Umoh if he’s a realist or dreamer, a question he ponders for a moment. “To attain anything, you have to be a bit of both. If you’re a dreamer without being practical nothing gets done. Those dreams really never get actualised, they stay as dreams,” he explains wistfully. “I know what it is I want and that’s why I’m able to actualise certain dreams of mine. On this album I’m exploring the saying: Be careful what you wish for.” 

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

The practice of spirituality is infused within a record that feels and sounds like a visit to the confessional. I theorise the album is steeped in a quiet but resplendent personal devotion. “Why do you think that?” this isn’t the first time Obongjayar gently pushes back against my take on his work. I say he sings his songs like hymns, touched by the Black gospel tradition in lieu of overt references to organised religion: “I agree. The harmonies on this album do resemble hymns, I recognise that. How can I not be influenced in some way by elements of faith inherited by the caretakers in my life?” 

I ask Obongjayar if he believes in a higher power; an omnipotent force guiding him through chapters in his life: “I believe there’s a higher power but ultimately my resolution is that I can’t completely entrust myself to something I don’t know. I remember having long conversations and debates about it with my family when I made the decision to not to be a practicing Christian anymore. Now, there’s an understanding that our worldviews are not so dissimilar.”

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

As much it doubles as a soliloquy, Umoh lines the album with familial anecdotes and invocations addressing the people that know him intimately. ‘I Wish It Was Me’, a tender tribute to fraternal affection, was recently memorialised with a performance in front of the song’s focal point – his brother – and the rest of his family. Umoh touches on the performance and redemptive power of music as a way of healing past conflict. “That was a full circle experience because it took a while for my Mum to come to terms with this whole music thing,” he explains. 

“We fought a lot about my education and what route I was taking. So, to be in a position where I can go back with a camera crew, sit in front of her and perform this song means she believes in this thing because it’s right in front of her.” For Obongjayar, the importance of preserving a legacy, not through streams, awards or public adoration, but through memory and the practice of deeds cannot be overstated: “You have to make a dent or a mark, leave some kind of legacy with relationships that exist with you and around you. That’s how you never die. You’re always a memory in someone’s mind. The record is me asking myself: What have I done and can I do more?”

The transportive evocations of Umoh’s words on ‘Some Nights I Dream Of Doors’, the surrealist and impressionistic ways he tells his story, is also mapped out in the imagery. Umoh was mindful the symbolism reflected in the artwork were composite parts of a greater whole; the cover art for each single shares the apparitional effect displayed on the album cover – Umoh flanked by warped variations of himself, approaching a door emblazoned in blinding light.  

“The idea for the cover was to express the different versions of me. There’s a line on the song ‘New Man’: “Don’t play down your nuance.” There’s no one thing that can actually encompass who we are. What’s behind that door? You can’t really see. It’s just light. You don’t know what’s going on in there. You know that’s where you want to go but what’s behind the door is unknown, and there’s beauty and there’s trepidation in those unchartered terrains,” Umoh explains.

Obongjayar doesn’t have all the answers. ‘Some Nights I Dream Of Doors’ concludes with the searching prayer of ‘Wind Sailor’, a number languishing in quiet resignation and dwindling faith, a recognition of tough days ahead and the fortitude we need to survive them. “There’s no cheat code to life,” he proclaims. “Everyone’s got their struggles and what it is that they have to deal with on a daily basis. You just have to let go and be the best version of yourself you can possibly be. That’s the attitude I wanted to close the record with and the attitude I came out of this record having.”

Obongjayar’s vocal contributions on East London rapper Jeshi’s song ‘Protein’ – one of the best crossover anthems released in 2022 this side of the Atlantic – is the buoyant soundtrack to day-to-day subsistence we need. Much like Umoh’s album, it’s driven by a forward momentum; a lifeforce projecting him through whatever door he next dreams about. “The future lies in continuing to exist and existing through the art I make. I’m already shaping the next era,” he shares gleefully. “I know exactly what we’re doing. I’m an artist – my life is this! There’s no stopping, there’s no waiting to see how this album does.” I ask him if he’ll ever commit to writing a novel or a collection of poetry reflecting his roving experiences, such is his dexterity as a lyrical writer. Obongjayar laughs, “I admire the discipline of writers but I don’t have that kind of discipline in me yet. I promise you I don’t want to write a “how to” book either but what I will say to anyone that wants to listen is: be yourself and be brazen about it.” 

Not Your Saviour: Obongjayar Interviewed

Words: Shazhaib Hussain
Photography: William Spooner
Fashion: Harry Clements
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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