February 24th | Rough Trade
Finding calm in the middle of a storm is by no means an easy task. From Trumpian politics to the Brex-shit show and the literal everlasting torment of Dennis, we’ve got a lot to feel rather chaotic about. Tucked away in the comfort of Rough Trade, Obongjayar embraced the storm and came alive in its wake.
His support act, a young Radio 1xtra favourite, Tobi Sunmola, is humble and fun. He brings in a crowd with an impromptu tambourine performance from an unlucky front-rower and raspy bars from his radio approved ‘Casino Royale’. He makes us chuckle, empathise and thrash about all in the space of fifteen minutes. He’s a fitting support for Obongjayar, whose band are flitting around behind the sound deck right up until OK and go.
As he wanders up to the stage, I wonder if Obongjayar can see anything under the lip of his bright orange beanie hat, but soon realise it really doesn’t matter. He sees his sounds vibrating in front of him, wrapping his lyrics around them with his throbbing, husky voice. He’s been likened to a young Fela Kuti, a soul singer, and of the same realm as James Blake’s hiding-in-the-shadows pop, but it is his modern take on all of the above that really gets you ticking.
“I’m under your skin / I’m inside your head,” he hisses into the mic, opening ‘Soldier Ant’ with an experimental clashing of cymbals and bass strings. It’s one of his most poignant tracks on his new EP, Which Way is Forward? reflecting on and interrogating our understanding of what it’s like to be a black man in 2020. He wails, “It follows me like a bad smell,” over and over and over, wrestling with his own identity at every refrain.
He has a knack of balancing the lived-in realities of Fela Kuti and the otherworldly notions that futuristic Afro-pop plays with. Warbling sounds of spaceship engines revving intersect with Africanised rhythms and blasts of the trumpet before leading into ‘Never Change’, a single released in 2018. His falsetto tickles the top of his range before plummeting back into his trademark husk. It’s all up in the air then deep underground, both in his voice and the messages he’s conveying.
Song by song, he becomes more animated on stage, eventually shedding the orange beanie. He delves further into his latest EP, piecing together auditory fragments from his upbringing in gospel churches in Nigeria with similar ease to Kamasi Washington. It inspires his lead single ‘10K’ sonically, but emotionally – on a live stage – it feels like super charged Dave meets Sampa the Great – all at once feverish but still maintaining a sense of composure.
An intoxicating talent, Obongjayar has proven himself a firm favourite among a Bristol crowd.
See Obongjayar perform ‘Still Sun’ here: