On Lagos and London, masculinity and expressing himself.
Tony Njoku is a songwriter and electronic music producer based in London, where he has lived since he moved from Lagos aged 14.
He released his second album H.P.A.C in April, a 12-track project rich with overlapping synths, undulating rhythms and falsetto vocals. His individual sound is informed by a range of genres – Tony’s cited Arca, Anhoni and Björk as major influences, while his debut album In Greysacle, self-released in 2016, contained jazz, soul and psychedelia elements.
He portrays music as a tool for self-reflection and reinvention, as well as a vehicle to start conversations and explore sensitive topics. Indeed, H.P.A.C’s lyrics are refreshingly intimate and honest, exploring his personal struggles, growth and identity.
We found out more from Tony about Lagos and London, masculinity and expressing himself.
So you lived in Lagos until the age of 14 – did you listen to artists from there growing up?
Not really, I couldn’t have named you many Nigerian artists around that time. Many that I liked any way, the main one that really comes to mind is Fela, mainly because I’ve been listening to him recently and my dad always championed him in the house. I was more exposed to music from the West back in Lagos, America and the UK to be specific, there never seemed to be much support and infrastructure for the local artists, not like now anyway.
Which artists still influence you today?
I’m guessing you mean in general and not just from Nigeria? If so Nils Frahm is probably the biggest one right this minute. As a producer and sound designer I love the sounds he makes. He’s just really good at designing and engineering sounds, everything serves a purpose, no moment seems wasted.
You’ve mentioned that you were surrounded by quite a hyper-masculine, even homophobic environment at school. Did you feel you could freely express yourself through music there?
I mean at the time I was super young and didn’t know any better. I just did what I had to do to fit in, in hindsight I now understand that I wasn’t being true to myself at all. Though I’m still trying to figure things out. I feel like most people never feel like they can freely and truly express themselves you know. Like be totally unfiltered, no gimmicks, just being. It’s hard and scary, especially when that urge is being systematically and socially suffocated.
How has your perception of masculinity changed over the years?
Well the biggest shift for me is understanding that masculinity is almost totally a cultural invention rather than a biological one. The faults in the issues we’re facing to day regarding gender are more so rooted in power and ignorance as opposed to it being due to innate differences in the sexes. For me understanding that has allowed me to accept myself and be compassionate to others in that respect.
Have you become more open and vulnerable with your lyrics?
I’d say I’m not totally there yet. I do wish I could be super bold and just flat out say how I feel, like “hey I’m feeling suicidal, I need help” or “hey I feel amazing and untouchable,” rather than having to be metaphorical and cryptic (which is also fine) about it. I want to be totally comfortable with pouring my heart and soul out and being ok with screaming my lungs out when I have the urge; rather than having to think twice about how it would be received, whether someone will judge me and all that. That’s often my biggest creative block, lack of self confidence and worry about what others think of me, if they like me or not, just being insecurity. I’m working on it though, now when I have those feelings I’m very aware of them, so I’m sure I’ll get there.
Do you think of music as an important medium to explore themes like masculinity?
Yes absolutely, art in general is a simulacrum of life. I believe we can do and say anything in art without it having a direct effect on real life and so it’s the best and safest place to explore any themes or concepts or what have you.
Your new album H.P.A.C. was released in April – how would you describe its sound?
Juxtaposed. It’s soft, ethereal and quite tranquil in places and then at the same time it’s psychedelic, intense and problematic in others. That’s the main meaning behind the title, a complex configuration of negative and positive themes and emotions, the good the bad, the sweet the sour etc.
What does “H.P.A.C” stand for?
Hyper Pink Anxiety Complex.
How has the feedback been?
Amazing, there’s been a lot of love surrounding it, i’m just grateful it’s being heard, it’s only part of a long journey.
Your 2016 debut album In Greysale was also really well received. How do you think you’ve progressed as an artist with the new album?
I’m a much better artist and person; more aware, more confident, more intelligent, more compassionate and all that. So the more I grow in myself and the more I continue to work on my craft the better my work will be. H.P.A.C. is a much better album than Greyscale, and I’m proud of that fact.
Who are you most proud to have collaborated with?
I’ve recently done a track with my friend Oliver Rudge that i’m really proud of. It’ll be on the next album.
Is there anyone else you’d love to work with next?
My brother New World Ray. I’ve finally started a project with him, I can’t wait for that to come together. Other than him I’m really interested in Kanye West as an artist right now. To me, as an artist he seems extremely brave, I try not to get triggered by all the controversial stuff, it’s just so enthralling to see him be so free and deliberately naive in his explorations. It’s like watching a three year old child figuring something out. The thing is a child can’t hide behind a mask, you know what they’re thinking and where they’re at, but that’s more of an artistic thing than a music thing, musically I’d say Arca or Nils Frahm. They’re both amazingly skilled practitioners.
So moving to London at 14 – was it a culture shock? What did you think of London?
Not at all. I had been here before then. It was like my final move from Lagos when I was 14. There are a lot of crossovers though, also London has a massive Nigerian community and I had grown up knowing so much about London anyway, it wasn’t that big a shift. The weather was the biggest shock really.
How has culture in London influenced your music?
I don’t really pay attention to that I won’t lie. I love London, it’s home, I feel like I can explore and express myself with little judgement, in comparison to other places i’ve lived.
We read about how a fan told you that given the type of music you make they were surprised, upon meeting you, that you’re black. You’ve also mentioned that at the age of 12 in Lagos you were beaten up for not having much music by black artists on your iPod. How do you respond to assumptions and expectations like these?
That was quite a few years ago. I had very little online presence so it was like they didn’t know what to expect but wouldn’t have guessed that i’m black. And the iPod thing was such a strange situation looking back on it. It was like they were musically xenophobic, it really made no logical sense. I guarantee you those guys would never do or think in anyway like that now, they were the product of being young men trying to find themselves in a hostile environment.
But in answer to your question, if I’m faced with that now, I think I’d respond out of compassion and intrigue, it’s more an issue to do with the other party and not me. I can be negative or frustrated about that. Unless it were a situation where I was being held back or marginalised by it, by my race, then i’d take issue. For the most part i’m chilling.
In that context, has it been difficult staying true to your own artistic preferences?
Not that difficult, maybe when I was a kid I would make what I thought I was supposed to make but now I make sure it bares no burden on my practice. If I feel something like that creeping in or any other outside pressures (like financial pressures, social, cultural etc), I just fight it off. It’s a battle being an artist. I feel like you have to fight for your right to express yourself, as truly and unapologetically as possible. Like I said earlier, I’m just wanting to reach a point of total artistic freedom, no self inflicted barriers.
It seems like you have a really strong understanding of both yourself and who you are as an artist. Moving forward, what do you have coming up and how do you want to evolve?
I’m getting there. Moving forward I’ve got tour plans for the autumn, just waiting to finalise all of that. I’ve also got new music in the works and I may finally rekindle my installation work, that’s still very far from being realised but it looks promising. And in terms of evolving I just want to do better, be a better artist, musician, businessman, friend, lover, brother, all of that! A better and more useful person.