Explosive and heartfelt, introducing the music of the Nigerian London-based artist.
Rings GEORGIA KEMBALL, first shirt PHOEBE ENGLISH, second shirt XANDER ZHOU, jeans LEVI’S, short on top FENG CHEN WANG, shoes CAMPERLAB x KIKO KOSTADINOV
Obongjayar is a Nigerian-born, London-based artist, in constant search of his identity. King ‘Jayar’ has been using music as a way to slow down and contemplate his present, by looking into his past. His most recent EP “Frens” is about giving back, and showing love and care to “his people”.
Authentic and soulful, there is nothing like Obongjayar’s sound. Merging traditional Nigerian influences with electronic, it makes for an explosive fusion. And the vocals take us from one extreme to another – going from soft murmurs with “Adjacent Heart”, aggressive in “Endless”, to high pitches with “Never Change”. The feeling in his voice depends on the mood and the message it carries.
Perseverance and passion are key when it comes to Obongjayar’s success. His path to become a legend has already begun.
We sat down with the artist and talked growing up in Nigeria, boredom and life values…
(LEFT) Rings GEORGIA KEMBALL, necklace APC, shirt BIANCA SAUNDERS, waist coat STELLA MCCARTNEY, belt ST-HENRY, trousers ST-HENRY, shoes CAMPERLAB x KIKO KOSTADINOV
(RIGHT) Sunglasses STYLIST’S OWN, shirt and trousers MARNI, shoes NICHOLAS DALEY
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Obongjayar, Steven Umoh
Why ‘Obongjayar’ – is there a meaning or a story behind it?
My name is Steven after my father’s name, so I am Steven Junior. When I started to make music, my first music name was ‘Jayar’ but it didn’t feel real. It wasn’t authentic. I stopped using the name ‘Jayar’ around the time I was starting to make music that I wasn’t trying to copy, I wasn’t trying to do the American hip hop thing anymore but just starting to be myself. I was trying to find something that spoke to me, that was authentic. I went back to my heritage – I am from a place in Nigeria called Calabar Cross River State and ‘Obong’ means King or God and ‘Jayar’ comes from my name Junior or Jr. It’s a contradiction to have them both together. I find this fascinating. No one else has this name, it is unique to me and to the music that I make. I was trying to do something that was me. I think the name kickstarted everything and here we are today! My name is very significant to who I am as a person, as an artist and human being.
What are your memories of growing up in Nigeria? When did you move to London?
I walked around a lot, and it was very hot. That’s what pops into my head. I remember putting on a lot of clothes and layers under the sun – long sleeve shirts, buttoned all the way to the top. It was pretty cool at the time though. My mother had been living in London for a while whilst my brother and I were still in Nigeria with my grandmother. We both moved to London in 2010 when I was 17 going on 18 years old. My mother had always been trying to bring us over here but it was very difficult.
How was growing up in Nigeria and moving to London in your teens? What did you learn from this mixed upbringing?
It’s crazy because I learned a lot about Nigeria and my own culture being here in London. It’s weird. Sometimes when you’re young you aren’t always interested in where you are, you don’t pay attention because you think it is always going to be here. My upbringing in Nigeria is a huge part of who I am. Living in London it is a completely different world, it is almost like night and day in comparison to where I grew up.
What do you think this mix of culture brought to your music?
By the time I moved to London it wasn’t as easy to make or listen to music in Nigeria. I think London gave me access, and opened my eyes up to a whole bunch of music because of the internet, YouTube and being able to listen to whoever I wanted to. I got knowledge. London blew my mind. It was a completely new perspective on music, what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to be seen.
What do you value in life?
Honesty is huge for me. Being able to look in the mirror and be honest with myself – who am I? What do I want?
(LEFT) Sunglasses STYLIST’S OWN, shirt and trousers MARNI, shoes NICHOLAS DALEY
(RIGHT) Rings GEORGIA KEMBALL, shirt MIHARA YASUHIRO, trousers NICHOLAS DALEY, shoes CAMPER LAB x KIKO KOSTADINOV
When and how did you start out making music?
I’ve always sung and gravitated towards music. I used to make songs on the spot since a very young age. The trigger that really got me into music was this “Usher VS Nelly” CD me and my younger brother stole from my cousin’s house whilst on holiday. But my house wasn’t musical, there was nothing in my house to listen to, so that CD was on rotation constantly. Everything sort of spawned from that CD. Then I started a group during my second year of school, called kensten3.
If you could interact with any artist from the present or the past, who would that be and why?
I would want to be around Fela Kuti and that energy. I find it so inspiring and fascinating. I feel the best way to be inspired by something is to be around and observe, without having to be too close. This can create a spark in you and help you create your own thing.
How do you manage to work on your own compositions so freely when the music industry is so framed?
We live in a time where you can do whatever you want, there are no more gatekeepers in the music industry. Just do what you feel is right, and if it works, it works. That is the sort of approach I take. I have got a good team of people around me, who I trust and who can advise. No one is a one-man army; it is always good to test what I am making by sending it to my manager or musicians I respect and who are my friends, to see what their thoughts are. It can be so easy to exist solely in your own head, and that’s not healthy.
What genre is your music?
Nowadays genres are out the window, music is universal. Coming from my background and joining the British background, it is a mix of a whole bunch of things. I would call it Afro but it is not quite, it’s a mix of different influences rooted in Afro music. I’ll called it Post Afro.
Do you feel anxious about releasing songs that are aligned with your emotions?
Yes, definitely. It is a scary thing, because I’m talking about things that come from inside me, things I really care about. I’ve learned to let it go, once the music is out there, there is nothing you can do, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. As long as I’m happy with the music, it doesn’t really matter if people respond to it or not.
There are loads of meanings and hidden symbolisms in each of your songs – evoking themes such as religion, death, moral, fatherhood or even politics – is music a way to discover your real self and reconcile with it?
100%. I can be really passive, but music allows me to stop and put the pieces together, ask questions to myself and document some stages of my life. Music is definitely therapeutic for me. It helped me look back and understand things better. I’ve learned a lot about myself and. My surroundings through music, it is like meditation. It has helped me look at the world through a bigger lens.
I remember you saying that you get bored quite quickly of things – how does that work in your professional and personal life?
It helps because you are always searching to make things better. I always try to elevate myself by trying new things and making life better. I don’t want to get comfortable. Getting bored is good, it is a reminder to find ways not to be bored, to continuously evolve into more exciting things. I guess it depends on how you look at it, you can be bored and quit, or you can keep evolving. As a human being, I just want to get better and be better. This covers all the bases, professionally and personally. If you keep doing the same thing you’re gonna hate your job, your life and I don’t want to have that. I love what I am doing too much and I love the people in my personal life too much.
Do you worry about your future or do you just live day-to-day?
You got to think about the future, you can’t live day-to-day, I think it is just careless. It gives you a motive, a focus, an objective, a plan. My plan is just being smart with life and being responsible.
What’s coming next for you?
Album possibly, more music, more art, life.
Rings GEORGIA KEMBALL, waistcoat QASIMI, shirt FENG CHENWANG, t-shirt MAHARISHI, trousers A-COLD-WALL*, socks CARNE BOLLENTE, shoes NIKE
Lea Federmann and Arielle Grasser
Set design and photo editing
Styling and words
Noah Marley Elwin