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“Just Show Up”: An Interview with Obongjayar

Nigeria-born Obongjayar is a meticulous writer and creator, and his debut album reflects just that. He breaks it down for Audiomack World.
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This article previously appeared on Audiomack World.

Obongjayar’s music feels like a series of portals. Whatever your gut desires, there’s a song to transport you there. With his debut album Some Nights I Dream of Doors, released last month, the Nigeria-born artist makes the richness of his music a fully developed character. Opener “Try” invites a smattering of attractive textures, and later, on “New Man,” these textures are amplified by a sharp introspection. Obongjayar’s vocals quite literally lift the spirit (“Tinko Tinko”). They rouse the body (“Message in a Hammer”). They are entirely novel.

“It’s like a moth to light—I’ve always been drawn to sound,” Obongjayar tells Audiomack World. “Growing up, the household wasn’t very musical, apart from being in the car going somewhere. I just believe there’s some part of my DNA that is drawn to this thing and it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Music takes precedence over every single thing.”

Ready to lay down a melody into his phone no matter the setting, showing up for his art is everything. “Inspiration hits, and we all know what that is when you’re in a state of flow. But I picked this up from writers and musicians I respect: they show up. Just show up every day, whether you want to or not. Sharpen those skills. Nothing might come out, but as long as you keep that part of your brain working and write even just a little bit, it’s something.”

It would be easy for someone with this level of range and technical prowess to slip into autopilot, to let the novelty become a fixture above the craft—but Obongjayar is sensitive and meticulous. Some Nights I Dream of Doors feels like an album to appreciate and live with and not a product to consume and throw away.

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What were the early inspirations that drove you to start exploring being an artist?

Around [age] 10, 11, Nigeria was a really weird place. The music that was floating around—it was weird country music playing somewhere—hip-hop and pop was big as well. Celine Dion, there was a lot of that kind of music floating around. Around that time, my sensibilities helped me form a relationship with writing.

Even the country stuff, and gospel as well, helped me form my writing sensibilities. Especially with the pop I was constantly around. Cowboy movies were a big thing, and the soundtrack is those Western guitars, but lyrically, it’s so poignant and heavy, and direct. Being drawn to music and enjoying it, it started to form how I then communicated my own perspectives when I figured out who I was.

I didn’t [initially] know who I was. The music I was creating at that point was a carbon copy of what I heard around me: Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Kanye West. I gravitated to that and started almost impersonating that. When I did have that conversation within myself to take myself seriously, and I knew what I was capable of… My music had to be in my own voice and my perspective.

How would you define your voice?

I’m just honest! I’m not trying to do anything. If something hits me in a certain way, my response is an honest reflection of what that thing has done to me.

I don’t have musical influences that override what I do. I just feel it and let it come out. It comes from the source, and out. You could probably describe my sound better than I would. I can only tell you what I hear.

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Are you the kind of artist who waits to get inspired, or are you always working to manifest inspiration?

Both. [Ask yourself], “How do you feel?”

There’s always an opinion or feeling, so record these things. I do that just to sort it out and have a piece of the day that belongs to creating. That makes you a lot more primed to receive inspiration. If you’re sat with intent, when you go back to [what you’ve written] it opens up a door or pathway to somewhere else. The main thing is to just show up. I think Zadie Smith said that.

As time goes on, you stack up a wealth of things. It’s attached to you now because you’ve explored it. And when you are inspired, you have to record it, because those things disappear. You think you’ll have it forever, but they usually disappear in an hour.

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I’ve never deleted any of my writing for that reason.

Yo, I’m a hoarder. It’s so much stuff: my old computers, phones. I’ve got everything I’ve ever written on in my house. There’s a drawer full of all these things.

I use a typewriter for my longer projects, so there are papers everywhere.

I used to write a lot in notebooks, but that’s not my main medium because I find handwriting, you’re making a lot of mistakes. It takes up so much space. Another thing I do when I do show up is go to the notebook and see what sparks something.

What was the blueprint song for the album?

I watched Hoop Dreams, and for some reason, it really resonated. I felt like what I was going through was not the same in any stretch, but the human element of it… The wide-eyed excitement of being younger, “I’ve got this talent that’s gonna take me to the promised land.” Everything feels possible, and then time goes on and reality starts to set in, and life itself could potentially divert you. That’s what gave me the title of the album, the idea of being in a position to have a talent and excitement, but you don’t know what’s behind that door. That was the beginning of everything.

Was there a song you had to cut that you still think about?

I don’t do that. When I work on projects, it starts with the subject and what it is I’m trying to explore. I make songs that fulfill my communication of that subject. When it’s complete, it’s complete. I don’t just throw anything at it—I write with a purpose and I’m not just making songs.

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It’s more of trying to understand what I’m exploring. I focus on the ins and outs of the subject and then, when I’ve explored it to the fullest, I know it’s done.

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