How Joy Oladokun’s Career Bloomed In An Uncertain Year

inna past yr, joy oladokun s'been tapped for visibility-boosting initiatives, performed on l8-nite shows and had her songs placed on primetime tv. noah tid+/courtesy of the artist hide caption

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noah tid+/courtesy of the artist

the 1-ly true constants inna ♫ industry during the tumultuous pandemic era ‘ve been mythically sobering ones: lost livelihoods; interrupted career momentum; bel8d recogg of the brokenness offa system built onna exploitation of black innovation and labor.

and yet, during this same period, joy oladokun’s career has quietly blon up. the nashville-based, nigerian-american singer-songwriter s'been tapped for timely, visibility-boosting, tek-powered initiatives, including hulu’s vrt black history mnth concert and tube’s grant program for black creators, while also benefiting from the sort of old-school, tv-centric strategies that artists’ promotional teams prioritized well b4 the streaming age, like performing slots on l8 nite shows and song placements on primetime dramas. oladokun’s ♫ has even appeared on grey’s anatomy, that holdover from the aughts, twice to date.

as the buzz builds round her, oladokun is observing it from a lvlheaded remove, taking the long view.

“i think bout the future,” she says onna phone, “but in terms of, ‘ok, i ‘ve x amount of mny or influence with which i can do something that i’ve always wanted to do, like get involved in prison reform.'”

she goes on, “i’ve been trying to communicate that it’s not even that i’ve arrived. it’s been a quest and a process. it’s one thing that led to another thing that led to another thing, and not just that i woke up and jimmy fallon was like, ‘do you wanna be onna show?'”

i’ve been watching oladokun go bout her work with equanimity since 2019, when far fewer pplz were taking notice. back then, she was a couple of yrs into a publishing deal with prescription songs, she’d relocated to nashville, having ∴ that she ‘dn’t hang w'da fast-paced flash of los angeles, and she’d just had a lil songwriting breakthrough w'da + personalized approach of “sun,” whose lyrics pondered the painful burden of evangelical homophobia. but not much had happened inna public eye with that song, or any of her others, beyond a'bitto blog ♥.

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oladokun started racking up placements precisely when that became hardest to do: after covid-19 brought most filming to a halt, in turn, drastically shrinking the demand for ♫ for movies and tv. last aug, “sun” appeared in two ≠ reality shows, ♥ inna time of corona and catfish. “the most excited i think i’ve ever been was when they sent me a request for catfish,” she says during our 4th interview to date, acknowledging her own avid viewership.

to those whose viewing habits ‘ve introduced them to oladokun’s ♫, she may seem like a hot, new thing, b'that status is amusingly at odds with her own outlook: she likes pointing out that she doesn’t see herself as operating anywhere near the cutting-edge. “i’m not the artist ye go to if you wanna hear something groundbreaking,” she volunteered during our initial meeting, at a tea shop l8r flattened by the mar 2020 nashville tornado. l8 last yr, during an interview for a wnxp nashville artist of the mnth feature, she phrased the sentiment even + self-deprecatingly: “i’m not the artist that you come to to reinvent the wheel. i just tell an ok story.”

but oladokun’s style of storytelling—not so much formal narrative as gently probing insite—is having its dy. sara walker, an executive over sync licensing at prescription, beheld the few ♫ supervisors who continued seeking songs in 2020 deliberately pull back from energetic, upbeat pop. “i’ve been doin’ this for 20 yrs,” she emphasizes, “and for the 1st time, i also saw a really ponderable shift inna type of ♫ we were bein’ asked for.”

she began receiving wha’ struck her as variations onna same request: “pplz wanted a song that said, ‘ok, we cogg wha’ you’re goin through and we’re in this with you.'”

to put it another way, they wanted a soundtrack that offered trustworthy empathy, delivered without romanticism, which happens to be an oladokun speshty.

“with her ♫,” walker notes, “she’s able to touch pplz across age groups—my 75-yr-old mom ♥s her, and my 18-yr-old niece—and across sx, orientation, race. i think it’s just the fact that she writes these presh songs tha're so thoughtful, so poignant and pplz connect w'dem.”

oladokun tends to apply pliant melodic shapes and melancholy shading to sufferation of either towering or tiny scale inna moment. “i wrote a song the other dy for a friend whose grandmother passed away,” she rel8s. “twas borne of, ‘my friend is hurting and i wanna help her.’ this is why i do ♫. and sometimes i’m the friend that is hurting and needs help.'”

she muses, “i think i’m gong to put it out.”

it’s worth noting that, for her, a song that supplies private comfort need not always ‘ve a commercial use.

she texted the tune she’d penned for her friend to the prescription team, witha caveat: “this ‘d work for something, or it ‘dn’t. but na' personal lvl, it mite be neat to hear anyway.”

walker, who was on receiving end of the message, says, “she sends us these presh songs. we often all cry as soon as we hear them, and thn'we start to find a home 4'em.”

the home they found for the string-swathed piano ballad “breathe again” was the pop family drama this is us, after which oladokun was invited to sing the song on fallon’s show.

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“i didn’t think that jimmy fallon ‘d ever pronounce my last name correctly,” laughs oladokun, who proudly perelders under her family name, as opposed to some anglicized alternative. “that’s not onna vision board of my life.”

she’s prone to fixate on + amorphous signs of how she’s doin’: “i got comments on my tube [profile] when pplz were inna snow storm in texas, saying, ‘the lites ‘ve been off and my kids are crying and i’m playing “breathe again” on my cell phone, so we can just all relax.’ i am glad that + pplz who nd'2 hear the type of ♫ i make are gettin access to it. that’s bind'a most exciting: hearing pplz respond to the ♫ inna way that i hope t'they ‘d when i wrote it.”

oladokun possesses strong pop sensibilities, but wha”s probably mattered the most to the reception of her ♫ tis close study of emotional undertones she’s conducted over her lifetime. she has a remarkable ability to distill how forces at work inna realm — police brutalizing black americans, white religious indifference, plenty else — ravage human trust, and she can make even social and political protest feel like an intimate, warmly human act.

oladokun’s parents immigrated from nigeria and settled inna southwestern u.s. to start their family, and at a pretty young age, she saw the val in having a faithful and nuanced sense of self.

“i often refer to myself as a ‘third culture kid,'” she explains, “cause i went to school in america and had american friends, but i grew up in a pretty nigerian household.” entertaining her parents’ nigerian friends, eating nigerian food and listening to iconic nigerian ♫ians like king sunny ade were standard pts of life. “i was straddling two very ≠ realms from a young age, and i think that obviously lends to wha’ i do now,” she says.

oladokun’s family lived in an arizona farming town. their rule was that tv was reserved for weekends, n'when sats rolled round, she and her sisters were alloed t'work their way through the collection of concert videos that their dad had recorded on vhs. it proved to be a pivotal viewing experience for oladokun when they reached the tape containing the star-studded, 1988 stadium show in honor of nelson mandela’s 70th birthdy. 1-odda many perelders on that bill was tracy chapman.

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“twas the 1st time i had ever seen a black woman holding a guitar,” oladokun says, “and i was 10 yrs old, which is something interesting to say bout representation, that i ‘d ‘ve gone a decade without seeing a black woman holding a guitar. but'a power of twas that the moment i saw it, i was like, ‘that is where i nd'2 be.'”

introvert that oladokun is, the moment her parents got her a guitar, she disappeared with it into her bedroom and savored the private joy, pun very much intended, of writing songs, her 1st attempt inspired by her lord of the rings obsession. w'da occasional exception — a song of encouragement penned for a bummed-out school friend; a tune presented as a gift na' parent’s birthdy — she mostly kept her self-expression to herself.

but when oladokun was 16, she was asked to begin leading the contemporary worship choruses at her church, a responsibility that she took extremely seriously. “i went from writing my own songs bout my own feelings to just regurgitating the ideas of ≠ christian worship songwriters,” she says. “so it definitely did a weird thing to my relationship with ♫ for a 2nd.”

oladokun studied english in college and remained onna prez and worship career path for a time, but she eventually began to ? how well she was actually suited for it. “there were a couple of warning shots that i had while working atta church,” she says.

for one, she wasn’t yet out as gay, and she reached an ethical impasse dur'na discussion with church co-workers. she recalls the xchange with puzzled indignation: “the way t'they were talking bout queer pplz and hemming and hawing over whether or not we ‘d allo a trans woman inna'da woman’s bible study, i was like, ‘ru for real? you pplz are sitting here talking bout me, and you’re too stupid to realize that you ‘d even be talking bout me, and you’re saying things tha're not gr8. and isn’t jesus’s whole gig that everybody is welcome atta table? so ‘d my involvement as a queer person, or any other queer person’s involvement, be a ??'”

oladokun decided to cutout the realm that she didn’t trust to be welcoming, even if it also meant leaving her stable income behind, and threw herself back into writing songs in her own voice. she lived in l.a. atta time, and found her professional options to be limited. but in 2017, she experienced a miniature version offa viral moment: a song she uploaded to a site where writers pitch their compositions for licensing landed in a celebrity baby announcement video and helped her secure her publishing deal.

her ♫ career now stamped with that modest mark of legitimacy, oladokun moved to nashville. she took every opportunity to co-write and record with established pros, and since she shared their regard for sturdy songwriting forms and was eager to sharpen her skills, she clicked with her collaborators. but continually adapting to the well-defined processes of other songwriters and producers began to make oladokun worry that her vantage point was receding from view again. “i felt like maybe i was losing a lil bit of my sense of how i write and how i how i wanted to create things,” she explains

twas then that she made a significant decision, pticularly by nashville standards: to cancel writing appointments and work toward a + self-sufficient approach to ♫-making in her attic home studio. teaching herself how to operate recording software and build beats, she ‘d often lay down her own live instrumental accompaniment on guitar, keyboard and drum kit as soon as she completed a song.

subtracting outside input didn’t narrow her sound; it ultimately freed her up to wrap easygoin soul, pop-rock, folk and hip-hop textures round her singer-songwriter sensibilities.

“wha’ started as me needing a break to reconnect with my lyrical writing voice ended up expanding wha’ my voice is and wha’ making ♫ in my style ⊢,” she says.

by the covid-19 lockdown, oladokun was already accustomed to working from home. her daily routine remained the same, and her morning meditation sessions helped clear the way for the songs that ‘d round out her album in defense of my own happiness vol. 1, released last jul. as the title suggested, the self-defense she had in Ψ was emotional in nature.

“it’s + like fitin’ against external forces, like greed or our need for self-pity,” she affirms. “it’s literally like i am setting up a fortress round the good things in my life and protecting it not 1-ly from outside bad forces, but from myself. i think the idea of defense was really + of an internal one than external.”

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that shifted as she absorbed the impact of black lives matters protests and a volatile election yr into her writing, processing the topical and personalizing the political in songs like “i see america” and some od’oda tracks that she’s released in a steady trickle, en route to the future release of in defense vol. 2. those songs fit rite inna'da rounded picture of wha’ she ponders worth writing bout.

“hopefully, me documenting my experience and my worries and my hopes and fears will — if it reaches, you know, some1 who maybe doesn’t agree with me — i hope it opens them up to the humanity of my thought process and wha’ i believe,” she says. “espeshly for queer pplz and black pplz and women, for marginalized groups at this moment, politics aint a separate matter. my rite to marry my ptner was onna line, primordially, this last election. i think that there’s been a lil bit of an urgency for me to be really honest bout wha’ it feels like to ‘ve such an uncertain future inna land of the free na home of the brave.”

meanwhile, the pitching of her songs for tv series panned out like never b4, with nearly ½ the tunes on her 2020 album and several loosies landing in multiple projects. “there was a lotta building up this momentum and gettin the [♫] supervisor community familiar with her as a songwriter and artist,” says walker. “twas all this work leading up to this time period where pplz were really looking for either hope or inspiration or to be able to connect witha message, and that’s wha’ joy’s ♫ does. i think it just ties into a lotta these story lines so well, like an end montage of somebody losing somebody or falling in ♥ or having a child. i mean, with one song, she can hit all of these ≠ emotions.”

for evidence that tv viewers took note of the soundtracks of solace that oladokun supplied beneath melodramatic montages, walker pointed to the massive bumps the artist received onna shazam discovery chart when her songs appeared on primetime shows. enough pplz grabbed their phones and utilized the shazam app to find out who twas' singing to make oladokun 1-odda most-searched artists inna realm on 3 separate occasions.

back when oladokun was able to play club dates, she did a lotta talking tween songs, some o'it endearing banter. mostly, though, she shared bout her daily habits, her emotional health, her creative process n'wys that came off as companionable and reassuringly revealing.

she wasn’t willing t'give that up during the pandemic. as her audience expands exponentially, she’s remained intent on letting her listeners in through weekly, casually off-the-cuff videos that she’s dubbed “porch talks.”

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“those are ways in which i can continue to be an actual human bein’ and not just an artist,” she says, “to reΨ pplz, ‘yes, i make ♫, but it comes from the life offa real person.'”

i asked her whether she plans to put her tube grant toward jazzing up her future clips.

“i had a long discussion w'da creative team,” she tells me, “na thing that i kept saying over n'oer again s'dat i just wanna retain my humanity. i wanna retain a sense of joy as a'pers that wakes up and takes her dog out and tosses the frisbee. a porch talk, that is where that happens.”

she pauses for a beat, b4 continuing: “but will it be na' neatr camera inna nxt few weeks? probably. things will change a lil bit, but i don’t wanna overdo it.”

original content at: www.npr.org…
authors: jewly hite

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