Ibejii is deliberate. His 11am is 11am; no African time. This shouldn’t be strange but around Nigerian artists it is. It is a wet weekend afternoon in a COVID-gripped Lagos. Earlier in the day, a text dropped in my phone which reads “gentle reminder about today’s conversation by 11am.” Barely two minutes past the time, I am on to the reclusive singer. It is meant to be an interview but it becomes more than a Q&A session, more of a dialogue about music intelligence and cultural values.
Listening to the hermetic character feels like sitting in the office of a smooth-spoken lecturer of cultural pride during his freest and in-the-mood time. The British-born Nigerian singer speaks views forged by primarily bicultural experiences. He doesn’t pretend that his views are typically Nigerian or roundly foreign. He told me, “when I mix my Yoruba values with the best of my international views, I get essentially who I am. I get the things that drive me.” Ibejii was born in the UK, where he has lived more than 70% of his life. Yet, he shows as much cultural awareness as any Lagbaja bred in communal Nigerian communities, raised with folk wisdom and who knows the name of the land. On the phone, Ibejii narrates esoteric Nigerian stories with his charming British accent. He tells me about the ‘‘cultural waves” between his two ancestral towns (Ogun and Osun) which shapes his “Yorubaness”, narrated his “Yoruba initiation”: a fun first visit to Nigeria as a seven-eight-year-old returnee fascinated by the agrarian life of early ‘90s Nigerians, and his exploratory entry into music composition.
In one word: explorer. Ibejii ticks all the boxes: nonconformist, adventurous, and religiously self-discovering. License to practice law in the UK, US, Nigeria is a surer path to wealth and riches than a music career as a niched act in a chancy climate such as our industry. It is obvious that music to Ibejii is not for financial gains. “I am interested in more esoteric things.” These things include love, life, nuance, history, which are expressed through music. He dabbled around four years prior, during a Tennis game with friends. It started as a challenge, led to a session with Reinhard of Chocolate City, and then Green White Dope – his first body of work. The encounter has led to an experience of 4 years, 5 projects, and one purpose. Ibejii delivers a sound which reflects his expansive esoteric sonic taste, experimenting with local and international cultures. His effort reaches the ears of a group of esoteric music fanciers who enjoy intimate experience with music; people who the message of the music matters to. The kind that privately enjoys the melodies of Beautiful Nubia or wakes to sweet Sola Allyson choruses. He admits to me that the feedbacks reveal a perception of similitude between his music and that of the philosopher-musician. This comparison, according to Ibejii, “happens only every other day.” He suspects it’s about the shared storytelling element of their music, albeit Ibejii believes his is more “socially diverse.”
Ibejii is extra careful to choose the right words, but more importantly, he is protective of his words not to be misunderstood. His meticulousness is the reason some of his responses are stretched. It’s also why he corrects me that the similitude between his music and Beautiful Nubia’s is perhaps in the sonic ‘texture’, not ‘delivery’. I imagine his music creation process. I bet the process is just as deliberate, perhaps even more. Ibejii reveals to me that he entered the studio around December to record a dance project with “happy sounds” to meet the market demand. The sessions resulted in 22 songs, trimmed to 16, which make the “Lagos Shuffle ” album. The plan was shuffled for reasons Ibejii doesn’t quite explain but he says “it’s the most grateful thing” he ever did because COVID happened shortly after and the public mood changed. “If we had pushed Lagos Shuffle in 2020, we will have been completely insensitive.” “It would have been happy sounds, deflective music in a season when people are reflective.” It is a period where the policies of the Trump administration in the US is stirring conversations on cultural politics around the world. Ibejii seems to have landed a response, then he adds, “the thicker the air got the more relevant the need to do an introspective project.”
2020 is proving to be a period of unfolding shocking events. The times are hardest for the black man: the world in general is facing a global pestilence which makes it unsafe to be outdoors, yet blacks cannot sit at home in silence about what seems like targeted crimes against black lives in the US and UK particularly, compounded by the concern-causing responses from people in power. The black man is facing attacks from multiple angles, to which Ibejii believes he offers answers in Ilu Ilu – his fifth and latest album. Ibejii describes it as “a weathering through a season of introspection and reflection”, where he sought to answer one complicated question with a simple solution. The question is “how do we remind our people in a season in which they are told they are not good enough, without getting overtly political, that ‘you do have things that matter’, ‘you do matter’, ‘you are worthy just the way you are?’” The answer is a 9-track project, which reflects on life, humanity, government. The album mines the beauty of the Nigerian culture, playing on nostalgia to celebrate the old days of “innocence”, before interactions that takes away the esteem of the black man.
While the message is profound, the question is ‘is the audience interested’?The Nigerian music scene is opening up to new ways of doing things. The signs are there: the digital revolution of the music consumption experience, the happening diversification of mainstream music, the unusual reign of music like African Giant about cultural pride. The correctness of the message of Ibejii has never been in doubt, now the signs suggest the timing of his album is impeccable. Respected critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo wrote “Ilu Ilu is mood music for these times.” Ibejii himself is fully aware of the current mood, which inspires his optimism about the acceptance of his message. He tells me, “the market will judge whether I am just an indigenous storyteller” or represent something bigger.
This article was written by Ibironke Oluwatobi. He tweets via: @ibironketweets