Ojerime is looking towards the future
“The majority of my videos I’ve directed and created the treatments for,” vocalist and producer Ojerime explains over a Zoom call, her small dog Santi nearby.
Born in Lewisham, Ojerime is south London and proud, and her visuals often reflect this. They’re shot in front of tower blocks or up winding estate staircases. The clip for I Know Now (2003), taken from her 2018 EP 4U, features local landmarks like the Peckhamplex cinema and the much-loved pink staircase at Peckham Levels. But there’s something else at play in these personal works: nostalgia for 90s R&B visuals, particularly the videos by Hype Williams. As well as those Peckham identifiers, I Know Now (2003) features Ojerime leaning out of a car, hair riding the wind as she races through a tunnel in slo-mo.
© Udoma Janssen
Full look: ABAGA VELLI
Sunglasses: Jean Paul Gaultier from Silhou Archive
“I experienced Trouble TV, Channel U and early MTV Base when Trevor Nelson was on there,” she says, recalling her inspirations. “I even remember first hearing Amy Winehouse, Ms. Dynamite, Mis-Teeq and all of the forgotten R&B, Black British girl bands that people kind of… don’t bring up.” She credits her love for music partially to her brother, who was obsessed with collecting CDs, but mainly her parents. Her father is Nigerian, her mother, Jamaican – two cultures that have historically and systematically been pitted against each other, particularly in the UK. “My dad has always embraced Blackness, he’s never cared about the whole African and Caribbean divide.”
Ojerime says that when she was growing up, her father was strict, but fair. “When you’ve just come from Nigeria to make a life for yourself you want your kids to do the same. Now I’ve completed my degree, and I’m doing music [inspired by what] he showed me growing up. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even know about my favourite artists.” While Ojerime’s mum put her on to Janet Kay and a lot of lovers rock, her dad introduced her to Fela Kuti and other Nigerian artists. “Then as we grew up my dad got quite strongly into roots reggae, for some reason,” she laughs. “Not even joking, he went to Jamaica for some work and when he came back he put us on to Gyptian.”
© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Charli Cohen
When it came to creating her own music, her first forays were re-fixes of well-known songs – Drake’s Hold On, We’re Going Home, Aaliyah’s Rock the Boat – posted to SoundCloud. Gradually, she began refining a sound that was her own. A child of the 90s, her sound represents a new strain of progressive and eclectic R&B that draws from the melodies and imagery of SWV and Brandy, but layers in the uniquely Black British sounds of garage and grime. The smouldering Give It Up 2 Me, taken from 2020’s long-awaited debut album B4 I Breakdown, smears ambient vocals over a slow and psychedelic guitar riff, offering the listener space to get lost in. Where Ojerime really dominates, though, is the precise way her songs capture the reality of modern love: “Picture me jus’ rollin’/ Two puffs and I’m zonin’/ Your body is my sofa/ Come closer wanna hold ya” she sings on 4U. “Love in London is very unique,” she says. “There is less of the wining and dining and more of the smoking and chilling.”
© Udoma Janssen
Jacket: Napa by Martine Rose
Trousers: Charli Cohen
Speaking to Ojerime and listening to her music, there’s a sense that she knows herself well and wants to speak her truth. Her songs frequently tackle her mental health, and on Kids With Depression she speaks to the mood of a generation when she sings: “I’ve been down and out/ So repressed/ I’m so depressed.” She attributes this openness to her mum. “Her degree was in social sciences so she’s always been a very open-minded woman. We used to do a lot of talking therapy growing up,” she explains. True to this, she has spoken candidly about a breakdown that saw her hospitalised for six weeks in 2019, and which abruptly halted her career. In an interview, published by gal-dem earlier this year, she opened up about how the pressures of being DIY can take a toll on an artist’s mental wellbeing, and the ways the industry is failing Black female artists. Talking to me, she is unflinching and direct: “It was a very traumatic experience, it was very surreal.”
B4 I Breakdown, released last spring, provided an opportunity for Ojerime to take control of her narrative. “Although I recovered from what happened, in my life things were matching up to the image that people had of me,” she recalls. While the release was only a “rough mixtape”, the act of putting it out so soon after her experience was cathartic. “I just thought I owed it to everyone that supported me. I think, years ago, maybe you could have got cancelled or thrown in the bin for something like this. I still pinch myself now that no one focuses on it. If anything, the only messages I get are from people who say I helped them during a tough time. That’s what’s allowed me to be open now.”
© Udoma Janssen
Trousers: Silhou Archive
Bolstered by this newfound confidence, she only has eyes on the future. “I feel like I’ve finally mastered how to make an Ojerime project,” she affirms. “And I just want that to grow even more. More music videos, more shows, more merch and more creative outlets.” Outside of the music industry, though, Ojerime has her sights set on something closer to home: “I really like cooking,” she reveals, her face lighting up. “I think, as a musician, you can get so wrapped up in doing one thing that you neglect other passions that you can learn,” she explains. “I don’t want to just learn how to make Nigerian food, I want to master it.” She laughs an infectious laugh. You don’t doubt her, either.
B4 I Breakdown is out now via Fang