Words: Francis Blagburn
Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Photography Assistant: Zoi Pahtalias
Styling & Direction: Ade Udoma
Styling Assistant: Ivor & Losh Haje
Suit: ABAGA VELLI
Shoes: Trickers x Nicholas Daley
Stephen Umoh is finding his voice. We’re sat in the front garden of a café in Bethnal Green. It’s the first properly hot afternoon of the summer, the kind of day where the heat rises up from the tarmac and the guttural snarl of traffic seems to conceal a smile. He’s ordered the vegan fish and chips and sits primed while it sputters in the fryer, his eyes darting around, drinking in details.
“I'm not really a talkative person,” he explains. “It's always been difficult for me to express myself in a straightforward way. But now I'm trying to say things as straightforwardly as I can.”
Top: Nicholas Daley
Trousers: Michael Browne
His latest track Frens is a prime example of the new writing style he’s experimenting with. The song is built on a disarmingly simple affirmation of love: “You matter to me,” he chants over and over in a spiritual of personal affection. But that track aside, Umoh’s musical identity is hard to decipher. His output has rarely landed on a set pattern, ranging from the poppy warmth of Adjacent Heart to the soft anxiety of Creepin’. It’s a sonic journey that mirrors his enigmatic character – distinctive but difficult to pin down.
As a result, Umoh has been labelled everything from neo-soul to performance poetry, but his own inspirations vary from Fela Kuti to the poetry of Tracy K Smith. Having lived a varied life between Nigeria, Surrey, Norwich and London, he infuses everything with his current experience and sees no need for consistency just yet. “I could go start singing opera if I wanted to right now. You've just got time to build and to find your voice.”
In an industry populated by brash personalities with crystal-cut personal brands, Obongjayar’s ambiguity is intriguing. Adjacent Heart or Blue Skies might fit the neo-soul box more easily than others, but his performances can easily plunge into frenetic darkness on tracks like Set Alight, Carry Me or Endless. “At the moment I'm listening to a lot of punk and a lot of rock'n'roll,” he says. “If I was to coin [a name] I'd say that what I do is post-Afro. It's a mix of all these other different genres and different ideas, infused with where I've come from.”
All clothing: Nicholas Daley
Umoh’s earliest inspirations came from bootlegs of American chart rap like Nelly and Eminem, back when he was growing up in the port city of Calabar in Nigeria. Back then, he was rapping in an American accent and going by the rap name J.R; a take on Junior, which his mum used to call him. At 17 he moved to the UK to live with her in Ashford, just outside London, after she had moved from Nigeria. He went to art school in Norwich to meet other musicians and it was there he started playing a few shows with a band, ditching the Americanised raps for singing in his Nigerian accent.
It was a crucial moment. “We can't succeed if we're trying to emulate,” he realised. “My decision to stop doing the American accent thing or trying to be something else is almost in protest to that. I can do this by being myself – that's the starting point.”
He gave himself the new name Obongjayar, a portmanteau of King (Obong) and Junior (like his mum used to say), and dipped his toes in the water with 2016’s elegiac Home EP, a collection of nocturnal instrumentals and spoken word aphorisms. 2017’s Bassey EP built on that work, driving Umoh’s voice forward with the Afrobeat percussion of Endless, then enveloping it in the rich atmospherics of Spaceman, a track that seems to tumble backwards.
All clothing: Labrum
From featuring James Massiah’s poetry on Gravity to linking up with Yussef Dayes for Scum or jumping on Super Human by Kojey Radical, Umoh has drawn energy from a community of like-minded artists sitting somewhere between performance poetry, Afrobeat and the resurgence of jazz in the capital. His name was elevated last year when he was picked up by Richard Russell and featured alongside names like Kamasi Washington, Ibeyi and Sampha on the Mercury-nominated Everything Is Recorded. He quite literally wears that experience on his sleeve as we chat, on the military style Maharishi jacket he’s wearing, part of the brand’s collab with XL Recordings.
He points to designers and artists of Nigerian descent working in London as inspiration, like Mowalola Ogunlesi, or Skepta’s manager Grace Ladoja, whose Lagos-based Homecoming festival has hosted nights celebrating the impact of migration in music. “These people are going back to their roots, buying black and trying to just push that idea forward to greater heights.”
If there’s one uniting force behind Obongjayar’s music, it would be that idea. “It’s about shifting change and making young Nigerians proud of their heritage...” he says. Umoh is still embracing the joy of finding his distinctive voice, but his goal is to encourage kids like his younger self to skip straight to that step. “That is my mission,” he says, “to give people a kind of hope.”
Obongjayar’s new single Frens is out now