Obongjayar is the moniker of Nigerian-born, London-based artist Steven Umoh.

With afrobeat, soul and hip-hop influences, Umoh has created a bold, genre-defiant musicality. His debut full-length, Some Nights I Dream of Doors represents an exploration of everything from familial expectation to self-seeking politicians; there’s a boldness and a confidence to every track. ‘Message In a Hammer’ pulses with Fela Kuti Zombie-esque rhythm and urgency (Obongjayar soundtracked and narrated Akinola Davies Jr’s short film ‘One Day Go Be One Day’ tracing Fela Kuti’s legacy in Lagos), while in ‘Parasite’, he offers a searing takedown of, ‘conservative leaders trying to tell people of disadvantaged backgrounds how to live and to better their lives, when they have no experience or understanding of our lives.’ In softer moments like ‘Wish It Was Me’ – a song about his younger brother – and piano ballad ‘Wind Sailor’ there’s a powerful vulnerability in Obongjayar’s lesser-heard singing voice.

Some Nights I Dream of Doors has been many years in the making. Growing up in Calabar, Nigeria, OB remembers his first love was US hip-hop. ‘Kanye, Lil Wayne, Nelly; everyone wanted to rap. I could always sing but rap was the cool thing and I never questioned doing anything else.’ Aged seventeen, he moved to London to be reunited with his mother. He continued making music, but after a few years, realised something wasn’t right. ‘I didn’t know why I was doing it, I just clocked; I am not American, so why am I rapping? That’s not my background, that’s not where I’m from and it’s not at the core of who I am. It made sense when those artists because the US is where rap was born, that was their form of expression. I had to find out what my own was.’

At 21, OB left London to move to Norwich. ‘If I hadn’t gone, I’d be making drill or rap now. Instead, I worked in a shop and I met DJs who listened to soul, afrobeat, all this Detroit cool shit; I listened to Radiohead, Billy Bragg, Fela Kuti; I fell in love with musicianship, I didn’t want to just rap over the PA, I realised I could be myself, experiment, do my own thing, and Obongjayar became a blend of everything; the singing, the spoken word, rap would come into it but it wasn’t the singular thing I was doing.’ Ever since working out his formula, he continues to experiment, while accolades and co-signs continually rolled in -early guest spots on Richard Russell’s Everything Is Recorded project (alongside the likes of Damon Albarn, Giggs and Sampha) and contributions to Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s 2019 album, U Know What I’m Sayin?. But it was his own EP, Which Way is Forward? that cemented him as one of the UK’s most exciting artists: ‘God’s Own Children’ won ‘Best Song Musically And Lyrically’ at the 2021 Ivor Novello Awards.

Despite the difficulties of working in a pandemic, Obongjayar is unstoppable. Last year he went back to Nigeria and teamed up with Afrobeats producer Sarz on Sweetness; a four-track EP that reflects on the early stages of romance. Full of eighties-influenced synth-heavy pop songs, it’s like nothing he’s done before. This year, he featured on Pa Salieu’s ‘Style & Fashion’, as well as lending vocals to Little Simz’ ‘Point and Kill’. Both are zeitgeist setting collaborations, but for Some Nights I Dream Of Doors, OB kept the features to a minimum. “I’ve just got so much to say” he explains, “if that connects with other people, then cool, but as an artist, it’s my duty to express the world in the way I see it. I don’t want to make motifs, I want to make music that is relevant and timeless.”

Some Nights I Dream of Doors is out May 13th



I-D Interview – Obongjayar: “No one’s doing what I’m doing”

Loud & Quiet Interview – Obongjayar: race, trauma and spirituality in modern Britain