Steven Umoh, the musician known as Obongjayar, bangs our cafe table hard, and not for the first time. A waitress looks slightly alarmed. Discussing his debut album, Some Nights I Dream of Doors, he’s emphatic, unreserved, even rather forward at times. “What makes someone think that they deserve anyone’s ear?” he asks with passion. Being an artist, he decides, is about “being brave enough to think that”.
His music is a heady mixture of electronic, alternative, hip-hop and west African influences; earlier standouts include the wondrously rhythmic, touched-with-genius collaboration Gone Girl with producer Sarz, though it’s last year’s feature on Little Simz’s Point and Kill that put him on many radars. He’s a master of tone – flitting between his Nigerian and British accents, his voice is by turns gravelly and lilting, regularly sounding subdued, coaxing and militant all at the same time. Giggs, Sampha, Pa Salieu and Danny Brown are among the other stars whose tracks he’s graced, often stealing the show.
Now, on his album, he grapples with family, self-confidence and hardship and wins the battle, finding beauty and calm. I Wish It Was Me is a loving ode to his younger brother: “You’re at home, I’m in love and in envy of you,” he coos over dense synths, while firm yet gentle affirmations of his happiness sit on top of sweetly whistled notes on Wrong For It (featuring jazz star Nubya Garcia). It is a life-affirming record. “Certain things I’ve written, I’m like, ‘Wow, where’d that come from?’” Umoh says. “Whatever I was possessed with when I wrote them, it’s actually a blessing.”
He is often pinned as a progressive face of Afrobeat, but he playfully rolls his eyes at the mention. “What is genre? What does that even mean? Call it whatever, it doesn’t matter to me. If you create something and put it out in the world, it’s not really up to you what people do with it. Like, I can use this fork now to eat soup. The person who made the fork, it’s not his problem.”
Born in Lagos, he spent most of his early life in Cross River State in southeastern Nigeria. He was a shy and reserved child, and puts his quietness down to being “unwilling to share my perspective. I was like, ‘You guys don’t get it.’ The bulk of the people around me were just on some surface shit. I’ve always had that thing of seeing things differently, and knowing that I’m better than this.”
His household wasn’t especially musical and he didn’t have access to cable; there was a single spot at home where he could access Rhythm 93.7 FM, a radio station based in distant Port Harcourt, without any static. Positioning himself strategically on the corner of the balcony, he’d hear songs by Aṣa and Fela Kuti – but often only halfway, before the radio cut out. American rap and R&B were popular in Nigeria while he was growing up, and he became attuned to the sounds of 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg and would rap in an Americanised accent; he and his younger brother learned Usher and Nelly lyrics as means of competition. The older Umoh would start a band at boarding school partly as one-upmanship with his younger sibling.
This school, he says, was one of “the best and worst experiences” of his life. He runs through harrowing tales of sleeping on bare metal bunks without mattresses, swerving beatings from staff, having to fight other kids in order to eat. In a macabre way, it bred his determined attitude and future creative process. “That’s what life is – you get through or you get trampled over,” he says. “If you have something, hold on to it and guard that shit with your whole life! If not, someone’s going to just shake you down and walk all over you. I carry that shit to this day, man; no matter how dire your situation is, the world does not stop for you. So shake it off and keep it pushing.”
This outlook also provided grounding for working through familial hardship. He was separated from his mother from the age of four until he was 14; a survivor of domestic violence and pregnant with his younger sister, she relocated to the UK and worked to arrange visas for Umoh and his brother. Primarily raised by his grandmother in Nigeria, he softens and speaks fondly when talking about the female caretakers in his life.
“She started college again, went to university, law school. She had to start fresh,” he says of his mother. “But it was never lonely. The brilliance of my grandmother was creating an environment where we felt we were safe, and shielding us from everything [to the point] where we didn’t know that anything was wrong.”
He finally moved to England in 2010, aged 17, for a fresh start with both family and music. He would occasionally bunk off school to work on the latter, and butted heads with his mother – the two of them were tasked with relearning their relationship. “It was a new experience: this is my mother but I don’t really know her, and she doesn’t really know me,” he recalls. “Our relationship was very, very rocky. I was still her baby in her eyes and she was very worried about where my life was going. As a teenager you’re so angry and angsty you can’t see the nuances or the bigger picture.”
Umoh studied graphic design in Norwich and credits his time there with broadening his musical horizons – a friend encouraged him to drop his US rap-influenced accent and speak in his own voice. Drip-feeding his music on to SoundCloud eventually bagged him a manager and led to the release of his debut EP, Home, in 2016.
It has been a steady rise since then: in 2021 he won an Ivor Novello award for writing his track God’s Own Children. Six years between that first release and his debut album – has he been frustrated with the pacing? “Those things don’t matter,” he says. He defies external influences and relies on where “the spirits” take him. “That’s the beauty of where I stand and what my whole discography has been so far, it’s all about feeling,” he says. “You would never catch me doing anything that I don’t love for whatever reason. I can be dead broke, but you wouldn’t catch me doing some bullshit.”