Born Oluwatobi Ajibolade in Lagos, Nigeria, TOBi moved to Ontario, Canada at the delicate age of nine. At 25, he’s taking all that he’s witnessed and endured as a first generation – assimilation, the immigrant experience, cultural dissociation, negotiated identity – and crafting soulful rap out of diasporic blues.
“I am the child of African-American music, Yoruba culture, Western education and Eastern philosophy. Like most people, everyday I wrestle with childhood learned beliefs in the constant tango of learning and unlearning. Themes of religion, race, class and survival circle my daily. My ‘racial’ and ethnic identity have shaped who I am today,” declared TOBi as part of his artist manifesto on the night before the release of his debut album, STILL.
“On this project and new music going forward, I am embracing the playfulness that I discarded too early as a child. Learning to incorporate my whole being has been a challenge, but important in my development. Every falsetto note, trill and yell feels like a slash at the shell that had been built around my identity for so long. Live performances are the times I feel the freest and most alive to dance like no one’s looking. I am learning to channel that energy in the studio on this project.”
For TOBi, part of returning to – or reclaiming, rather – what he feels is the essence of who he is and where he comes from is reckoning with what his parents compromised in the process of trying to make lives possible in a new place.
“I saw the things that [my parents] had trouble adjusting to even though they were adults and they already had this cemented worldview, but a lot of it had to be challenged because they moved into a new system. Part of that was buffering expectations, like their employment for example. They came from pretty decent admirable jobs, to jobs that they were overqualified for,” explains TOBi, who speaks with a methodical approach unlike many of his 20-something peers.
“Seeing the way that they adjusted to that, mentally as well, looking at it as a way to put food on the table was inspiring to me. To just do what you have to do to get sh*t done. For me, it’s the emotional aspect of watching their growth and watching them assimilate into the North American way, then seeing them now, grow into loving and regaining their cultural identity as much as I have.”
After a near-decade of balancing school, work life, passion and familial responsibilities (the onus was on TOBi to earn a degree before he go off and “have fun” as a musician), TOBi is delivering a full-length studio project that is “mind-blowing” in its final form. “You can expect a wide range of music. It’s diverse, but it's going to get you moving physically and emotionally as well.”
TOBi, who credits the likes of everyone from Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar to Fela Kuti and Sunny Adé as some of his greatest models, stops by to talk all things music, leading up to his album’s debut of May 3. We take away gems related to songwriting, the current state of Black people and more. Get acquainted.
On Breakout Single “City Blues”
I wrote City Blues for people in the diaspora [and] people who also may appear like they have things together on the surface but behind closed doors it may not be the case. I think there are a lot of themes in City Blues. When I wrote the song, it was literally a stream of consciousness and it felt natural for me. I’m talking about my experiences, I’m talking about my friends and people that I knew but also society at large.
On Personal Influences
I’ve been listening to so much music from so many different artists. I have a tiered system. At the top, which is the Mt. Rushmore of my favorite artists, I got Kendrick Lamar for sure. I got Pharrell. I got Frank Ocean on there. That’s who I can think of right now for that top portion just because of their musicality and their themes.
Some of my favorite artists are people, if you listen to them speak you can hear that they’ve either gone through some intense sh*t or they’re supremely well-read: Saul Williams, Gil Scott-Heron, Kendrick Lamar, Marvin Gaye. There’s a lot—Eartha Kitt, she really inspires. That’s not all I listen to, but those are artists that I love, even outside of their work. Just hearing them speak and things like that. I don’t just consume that kind of art, but the stuff that really moves me and inspires me is in that realm.
On the State of Black People
If I were to draw some parallels between the American experience and the Canadian experience, I would say folks who are descendants of the Transatlantic slave trade, a lot of them aren’t home-owners. A lot of them don’t own property, equity, and certain things.
They can’t acquire inter-generational wealth because of that. It’s limiting. It’s limiting in other aspects of your life. Instead of taking the time to pursue certain dreams or pursue certain passions, you have to focus on what’s here and now, which is survival. Any human being needs to have those needs met so that they can take the next step which is to thrive. That’s the primary thing that I can think of right now.
The other thing would probably be the sense of identity. I think a lot of people feel like they’re in a system where they don’t necessarily belong or they’re ostracized in a system that they were born into, which is a strange paradox for any group of people. You were born in a certain land that you feel like you don’t belong there. That’s strange. It’s un-human.
The legacy I want to leave behind is of bringing people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, creeds, orientations and spiritual beliefs together. To recognize that our commonalities outweigh the differences. And to instill a sense of hope and optimism in people—children and adults, in general.
(Photo: Evans Alexandre/BET)