i-D's music class of 2017: obongjayar
We meet the writers, thinkers, players, and performers who are creating, crafting, and composing the future of music right here, right now.
Obongjayar wears jumper AG Jeans. Trousers and shoes model's own.
Stephen Stephen Umoh — so great they named him twice — has released very little music to date. But "Creeping," with a video directed by Frank LeBon, is all it took for us to fall in love with Obongjayar. Part poet, part griot, part thinker, part singer, the 24-year-old Nigerian-born London resident brings to mind everybody from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Fela Kuti and the Last Poets. He creates an utterly unique take on what music was, what music is, and what music might be.
Name: Stephen Stephen Umoh aka Obongjayer
From: Calabah, Nigeria
Lives: With my mom in Ashford, 'cause I'm broke as hell!
Occupation: I'm a musician. I've grown to understand that to be what you want to be, you have to project and put it into the universe. I'm very, very shy, believe it or not. I get more shy as you get to know me. So lots of people didn't know I made music until very recently. I didn't share my SoundCloud page for a long time, but you have to live your truth. Once you start proclaiming what you are, you become that.
Can you describe your childhood in Calabah?
When I grew up there, it was amazing — a really clean city, quite small, nice people. Everyone seemed to know everyone, it was very peaceful. But apparently it's not so peaceful now. I don't know too much; my cousin just came over from Nigeria, she's staying at our house, so she's telling me how the government has stopped caring about what the last couple of governments did to preserve the culture of the place — keep it clean, keep the tourists coming — but the new government has completely abandoned that. So it's not as quiet and peaceful as it was, although this is all just hearsay from my cousin. I will go back at some point.
What does your name, Obongjayer, mean?
I started as a rapper in Nigeria. I called myself J.R, 'cause my mom calls me Junior, but I spelt it Jayer, as you do [laughs]. When I started taking it all a bit more seriously, I wanted to personify my being, who I am, in my name. I dug into where I'm from, my roots, and "Obong" means king in my language. So Obong and Jayer — King Junior, essentially!
When did you move to the UK?
I was in Nigeria until I was 17 years old and then I moved to the UK, to Ashford in Surrey, just outside London, and that's where my mom had a house. I did two years at college and then I went straight to university. I moved to Norwich to do graphic design at art school, but I didn't do too well there. I did well in my first year but in my second year, I got really invested in the music. I always knew I wanted to be a musician, since yea-high, so going to art school was really more to meet other musicians so I could make music with them. I ended up not doing a lot of work at uni in my second year — it was much cooler to make music [laughs]! I'd miss lectures, or go in only to check out girls and stuff. I'm gonna go back to uni and complete it when I'm in the right frame of mind and I've established myself as a musician.
Presumably the world of design and music are quite intrinsic though?
Yes, of course. I paint, that's what got me into art school, but it felt like I was juggling. It became very stressful, I felt I was giving both things 50%; I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. So I left uni and focused. I didn't want to go home without having anything to show for my two years, so I stayed in Norwich did some shows, recorded — and then when I came back to London, I had something to show.
Which includes "Creeping," the track we heard and fell straight in love with!
I think people are reacting to it because it's a completely different sound. There's a lot of noise right now, a lot of sounds similar to each other, there's not much thought or experimentation. I think "Creeping" strays away from what's really popular, beat-wise and there's not really a sound like that, so I think that reels people in. Lyrically, it's cohesive. It has a start, it has an end, it has a sentimental meaning. It's like having a conversation with someone. I wrote the song because I like to think of myself an observer; I observe and I report to my notebook, write it down, and it becomes a song. I think people are drawn to that. It's not noise, it's not plastic, there's something in it.
What do you want to say through your music?
I want my music to always have a message. I can't pinpoint how I might feel at a certain time, but I want it to always have a message and a structure and a fluidity to it that says something, that has a message. On "Creeping," I'm talking about people who are don't allow the construct of time to dictate what they're trying to do. They will go all night, through to the next day, to get better at what they're doing. I want my music to always have meaning; I strive for that everyday, even though it can be difficult. I want everyone to relate to my music; my grandmother listened to "Creeping" and she cried. I want my music to have an impact without certain words — I don't, for instance, use the 'n-word' ever. When I'm onstage, I don't want to look at a white person in the crowd singing along to my music and saying that word to me.
What are your thoughts on Britain post-Brexit?
Oh my god, don't get me started. While it was happening, it bought out a lot of different characters. [It's] similar to what we saw in America with Trump and Clinton and the amount of racism and sexism that has come out of the shell. At that period of time, I was working as a fundraiser for a charity in Norwich. I would knock door-to-door and so I heard all kinds of crazy opinions. They've made the word 'immigrant' homogenous, like all immigrants are poor people here to milk the system. Brexit allowed those people who had long held those opinions to feel free to express them. And post-Brexit, we've seen a rise in racist, and other, attacks. There are still people who believe it's the best thing to have happened to us, but it's obviously not. It's about to get a lot worse for people like me who came here to make a better life in a better situation, bringing our skills, our education, our experience… It's going to be tougher for anybody to come in.
What other big issues do you think young people are facing?
Opportunity. There's not a lot of opportunity for young people like myself, especially in the creative industry. You really have to eat dirt to get to where you want to. For someone who's just finished university, it's really hard to get a job. I think people need opportunities to shine, cos if you haven't got an outlet to express yourself, it kind of dies.
Who inspires you artistically?
I'm very big on Fela Kuti, that's my guy. That's the first record I bought with my money, a pirated CD. My grandmother and my mother are also very pivotal influences in my life and how I approach things. I didn't grow up with my dad around, so it would have been very difficult for me to develop into the person I am now without those influences. They were really influential in my originality, being myself, the way I carry myself, the way I treat people, the way I talk to people, the way I'm able to pursue my passions and keep focused — that is from my mother and grandmother.
Where is your father?
Well, he's somewhere. He's been very in and out of my life. I might see him three times in a year, if that.
What does your mom do?
She's a lawyer, an immigration lawyer; she has her own little firm. It sounds impressive, but people fail to realize the struggle we've been through. We've been through hell and back — my mother especially for her children. She had to flee the country with my sister; she came here, pregnant with my sister. She was a made woman in Nigeria at the time; she had finished university, she was working and providing for her family. She had to come here, and start again, at the bottom, go back to college, university, law school, graduate, work as a lawyer and make her own life happen to provide and make life for her three children comfortable. She's the pinnacle of my strength; she is what inspires me to get up when I'm down. It can be easy to give up, but she didn't and that drives me.
Who do you want to work with?
The painter John Baldessari.
Who are you tipping for 2017?
Moses Boyd and Rhythm and Reason.
What are your plans for 2017?
I want to be able to make music and be comfortable from making music. I want to be able to live my truth.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Hanna Moon
Styling Max Clark
Hair Maarit Niemala at Bryant Artists using Moroccan Oil
Makeup Athena Paginton at Bryant Artists using Kryolan
Set design Mariska Lowri
Photography assistance Alessandro Tranchini, Ilenia Arosio
Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic
Hair assistance Benjamin David, Mikaela Knopps
Makeup assistance Billie McKenzie