Obongjayar Finds His Voice

The Nigerian-born, London-based artist has taken his Afrobeats roots and morphed them into an entirely new sound.

Obongjayar wearing futuristic sunglasses
Photograph by Lea Winkler

Ask Obongjayar when he first realized he wanted to make music for a living and he’ll tell you about a dream he had when he was six years old. At that time, he was living in his hometown of Calabar, a port city in Southeastern Nigeria, with his grandmother and a handful of uncles. He awoke from a vision in which he saw himself performing for a crowd, and trooped into the den to tell his family members all about it.

“They laughed me out of the fucking room,” the artist, born Steven Umoh, says on a recent afternoon in New York City. “I was so quiet and shy, they were like, ‘Haha! You? Yeah, right.’”

But a “challenge accepted” outlook on life has led the now 29-year-old English-Nigerian musician to make music his life’s work. Since 2016—when XL Records founder Richard Russell discovered his Soundcloud and signed Obongjayar to release his debut EP, Home—the singer has released three more EPs, (Bassey, Which Way Is Forward?, and Sweetness), and has been tapped for features on songs by Lil Simz, the British rapper Pa Salieu, Sampha, Kamasi Washington, and Danny Brown, among others. In May of 2022, he released his first full-length LP, Some Nights I Dream of Doors, after six years of navigating the peaks and valleys of the music industry while honing his sound and figuring out what the hell he wanted from his chosen vocation.

It’s been a winding journey, to say the least, but it’s one that’s led Obongjayar from Calabar to Los Angeles, and, on one particularly hot summer afternoon in Lower Manhattan, a park in Chinatown. Wearing silver Balenciaga sunglasses and his locs in a high ponytail, the musician tells me about his very first trip to America, which has consisted of traveling to L.A. to record and meet with executives in Hollywood, then jetting to Manhattan for more meetings and a handful of interviews like this one. In person, Obongjayar is a lightning rod of energy, gesticulating wildly as he speaks, his conversation peppered with British slang (he says “dj’ya know wot ah mean?” about every other sentence). But his mixed background—growing up in Nigeria, then moving to Surrey, England at the age of 17—has provided Obongjayar with a colorful palette of inspiration for his music, which he insists falls under no genre, but is an eclectic mix of electronic, jazz, Afrobeats, pop, and rap.

As a kid, Obongjayar subsisted on a steady diet of Nigerian musical legends like Fela Kuti, plus Bob Marley, and whatever snatches of popular American music he could catch on the computers at Internet cafés. One of his “cool uncles” with whom he lived would buy bootleg tapings of the Grammy Awards on VHS years after the show had aired, and the family would crowd around the television to watch them. Even though the material was somewhat old, Obongjayar was still enthralled.

“It’s Nigeria, man,” he explains. “By the time you consumed any of the new media, it was a year or two on. But those moments were still so pivotal.” He began experimenting with different sounds, singing American country music in his bathroom, making his “voice old-timey, deep, and Southern as fuck,” he says, laughing. “We didn’t have cable in my house, so when I’d go to school, all the kids would have MTV and know all the new music. To compete and be cool, I’d make up songs on the spot and be like, ‘Yo, you heard this one?’ They’d be like, ‘No, that’s really cool, we’ve gotta check that out.’” Once Obongjayar moved to Surrey to join his mother, who’d moved there years before to escape an abusive relationship, he began consuming all the media he had trouble viewing back in Nigeria.

“YouTube!,” he cries out, sending a circle of pigeons nibbling on crumbs nearby flying into the air, jolted by the noise. “I just wanted to go on YouTube and search songs and watch them with no interruptions.” Equipped with the power of the Internet, he spent hours at home in Surrey watching Kanye West videos, then Googling West’s samples, then watching YouTube videos of the original songs used on Ye’s tracks: Al Green, Radiohead, Gorillaz. He started experimenting with his own style of hip-hop by rapping in an American accent, emulating the voices of artists like 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg. At that time, he’d befriended some English DJs and would hit local venues to rap live with an accompanying band. “A girl who I really liked came to one of the shows, and afterward, she was like, ‘Yo, Steven, you need to sing. I was like, ‘Okay, bet.’”

Photograph by Lea Winkler

That passing comment from Obongjayar’s crush caused the artist to completely change tacks. “I went back to my house after the show, sat in front of the mirror, and asked myself: What do you like? What are you doing? What is it that you want? You’re not American, for starters. Rap is not your background,” he recalls. “When I was rapping, there was no me in it. For it to be believable and for me to have a point of view and say something that cuts across, I need to be myself. From that point on, I was like, I’m gonna figure out what my thing is."

He heeded the young woman’s advice and started singing, writing songs that were rooted in his Afrobeats beginnings, but inflected by the international experiences and pieces of pop culture he’d been exposed to later in his life. “I started doing my own thing based on how I felt, just going off of my pure heart,” he says, noting that self-discovery and understanding his own psyche is an integral part of the musical process. “I’m like a journalist—I tell you what I see, I report what I see around me.”

Photograph by Lea Winkler

In a world of algorithm-driven music and popular songs seemingly made from a uniform template, Obongjayar comes in like a breath of fresh air. Not necessarily interested in giving people music they “want to hear,” he says he’s just making what feels good and putting it out—navigating his career with the creative, experimental, and artistic freedom of a Kendrick Lamar or a Björk.

“I can’t stay in one place and just do that one thing,” he says. “My influences come from all over the place: when I watch movies or listen to music, these things subconsciously go into my mind and stay somewhere. So when I do make music, I can’t necessarily pull from one source—they all merge together.”

I ask him whether he’s ever considered giving a name to this new thing he’s doing, this merging of genres that’s become something of his signature.

“I did go through a phase of thinking, I’m gonna call it post-Afro,” he says, a bit bashful at the notion. “But that’s so narcissistic, to create something and name it myself. You have to remember it’s all for a better purpose. And my better purpose is, I could be the first one in line for someone else. That’s the thing that gives me joy: even if I don’t eat from the fruits of my labor, someone else will pick up where I left off.

“I was watching this Paul McCartney documentary on the plane, the one with Rick Rubin, and he said something like, Even if you’re pulling from a reference, you’ll do it in a style that’s yours, which creates a new thing. If you just copy, it doesn't hold any weight or value, because you’re still in a long line of motherfuckers who’ve done that same shit. I don't want to be that. What excites me is fucking up, failing, and waking up until you get it right.”