Obongjayar Wants To Give Us Spiritual Ownership Of His Music

Words + Photography: Jesse Bernard

If you listen closely, really closely, you can still hear the Naija accent gently resting on Steven Umoh’s voice. It’s not all that surprising considering he moved to England when was 17 from Calabar, in the Cross River State of Nigeria. Although Obongjayar has only been living in the UK for eight years now, the Patta tracksuit and black beret he wore carried a steez that waited for him as he arrived.

Back home, Obongjayar spent his formative years procuring bootleg rap albums and mixtapes at a time when American rap was exploding worldwide. One eye fixed outward, beyond the continent, music was his window looking out to the rest of the world. “Me and my brother stole a pirate Nelly vs Usher CD and that’s the kind of music I was listening to,” he jokes. Everyday is a hustle in Nigeria; there’s a certain rhythm to life in cities like Calabar. A bootleg Nelly vs Usher album that doesn’t officially exist anywhere else in the world, that kind of ingenious piracy can only be found in Naija. Once called Akwa Akpa in Efik, Calabar’s coastal position once made it a major trading post and has since regained that status but Calabar Carnival, where Obongjayar used to frequent, is where the soul of the city lives every December.

“Moving here forced me to dig deeper into my childhood and there’s just so much shit man, it’s like a piggy bank but at some point you bust it open and there’s all of these things you forgot about,” he says. It wasn’t until much later, when he’d already moved to England, that Obongjayar really began to appreciate the music from home. “Then I heard Asa, a Nigerian singer who sang in Yoruba, but it was so beautifully done and it was the first time I heard production on that level. Then I remember being stunned at how brave it was, not just the subject matter but Fela being unapologetically him.” Absence sure does make the heart grow fonder.

Obongjayar is still learning, he admits. That much is true since only being in the UK for eight years means that he’s still discovering much about himself, his identity and the environment around him. To a degree, he’s uninhibited by the anxieties of growing up in the UK and then seeing quality of life take a plummet post-2010. Of course, life isn’t a breeze in parts of Nigeria; the UK was a new life entirely. “I feel like I can do what I want,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’ve adhered to what I’ve learned and how other people write. I was never into school like that but now that I make music, I wanna learn more and go back for it.”

There have been a number of attempts to classify and describe what pocket of music Obongjayar sits in. On any one given record, you’ll likely hear spoken word, rap, Afrobeats and R&B. However, 2017’s EP Bassey hints that the umbrella for the music is soul. “They’re your stories as well because you know where you were when you made it but artists can’t control how they want to feel,” he says. Soul music, in essence, moves through you, urging you to feel—whatever emotion that may be. “Whatever you think my music references, are that’s a reference to you and no one can deny it, not even me. Artists aren’t here to tell listeners how to feel.”

When he moved to the UK, eventually settling in Norwich where he’d attend university, Obongjayar arrived with his grandmother. In conversation, he speaks as though he’s seen the world twice over, and much of that is owed to the fact that being raised by a grandparent often means maturing well before you need to. “Funny thing is, it wasn’t until moving to London that I realised what I had. I didn’t really appreciate the rhythm and beauty of Nigeria because I was in it and it was just life,” he explains. Nowadays, he laments the life he had in Nigeria, but as frantic as it can usually be, Obongjayar still has an eye fixed on home—even if it’s through listening old Fela Kuti records.

“You can have an idea and make music but, once it goes live, you can’t control how people want to feel about it.”

“A lot of the music coming from Naija growing up was trying to emulate American music and I wasn’t put on game to Fela and King Sunny but I was young and didn’t care,” he says. “They were making music for Nigerians and coming here taught me to represent myself honestly and be true to my experiences.”

Last year, Obongjayar featured on Richard Russell’s Everything Is Recorded and not only did songs like “She Said” give him the opportunity to flex his sonic range, but it also challenged himself artistically. “I’ve been trying to be uncomfortable because that’s when you do your best shit. I’ve been challenging the surface idea of what I think a song is, or what it can be, and I just want to learn more.” Artists can often get lost in the pursuit of the perfect record but fundamentally—“Music is just grooves, man. The essence of it has always been a groove, regardless of what you’re trying to say. The ideas come after and the best songs marry those two things: ideas and grooves. It’s a science, in a way, working out the groove and how you can fit your idea within that sound.”

With his debut album fast approaching, that’s a comforting sentiment to hear. Although despite drawing on the percussive and rhythm-led origins of his iteration of soul, combined with the fragments of memories that are finding their way back to him, he tells me: “When I put stuff out, I always say ‘it’s yours.’ You can have an idea and make music but, once it goes live, you can’t control how people want to feel about it. At that point, the music doesn’t belong to the creator and if I’m about to give up spiritual ownership of my music, I want those listening to feel like it belongs to them.”

Posted on January 14, 2019