In honor of Black History Month, I am exploring the work of musicians of color who are reclaiming their musical heritage while taking us forward musically and socially. The first two in this year’s series featured Allison Russell and Kaia Kater. For the MLK weekend, I featured the work of Ruthie Foster. Today we’ll celebrate the music of Joy Oladokun.
Nigerian American singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun was born in Delaware, raised in Arizona, and is now based in Nashville, that hotbed of country and Americana music. Yet in many ways, Oladokun reminds me of the folksingers of my youth. She has a beautiful and soulful voice, often heard over the delicate sound of her acoustic guitar. Her songs are poetry for today’s America, sung with pain and passion.
Oladokun is a Black Christian lesbian singer-songwriter who works to connect with people across the full breadth of their emotional experience. Billboard touted her album in defense of my own happiness as one of the “top 10 best LGBTQ albums of 2020.” As Nikki Birch of NPR wrote for her Tiny Desk concert, “Oladokun shines a light on the subjects of grief, politics and life in America via the lens of someone who looks and loves differently.”
Taking the Heat, performed for her Austin City Limits debut as well as in her Tiny Desk concert, is dedicated to the late rapper Mac Miller. As Birch notes, “the song examines the way we, as consumers, treat the artists who create the music that resonates with us: ‘Does anybody ever wonder when the legends die young / If there’s anything we could have done…'”
I See America (seen here from Jimmy Kimmel’s show and also on the NPR concert), is introduced on the latter with the admonition to be strapped in for a “deep dive into my mental health, or lack thereof.” The song is written as a response to “the low value placed on American lives, be they Black or other.”
Oladokun opens her Tiny Desk performance with If You Got a Problem, “a sweet ballad that pledges unconditional friendship through the lonely and the messy times.” It concludes with Sunday, a tale of identity crisis. Birch notes that “While the theme is heavy, the delivery is uplifting, once again demonstrating how Oladokun’s penetrating gaze into the human psyche yields beautiful storytelling in spite of the pain that surely inspired it.”
Oladokun’s website bio — written in her all-lower-case style — tells how Tracy Chapman changed her life.
the daughter of nigerian immigrants, she was the first in the family to be born in america. after some time in delaware, they moved to arizona. dad’s record collection included hundreds of titles, and he introduced joy to everyone from phil collins, peter gabriel, and king sunny adé to conway twitty and johnny cash. as mom and dad stressed academics, she wasn’t allowed to watch tv on weekdays. on saturday, they would “either rent a movie from blockbuster or watch the thousands of hours of concert and music video footage dad had recorded since coming to the states.” one afternoon, she witnessed tracy chapman pay homage to nelson mandela during his 70th birthday tribute at wembley arena.
it changed everything…
“i grew up in casa grande, which is in the middle of nowhere in arizona,” she goes on. “i was surrounded by images of white dudes with guitars. i was programmed to believe people around me listened if somebody had a guitar. as a shy kid and one of the only black children in town, i had a lot of social anxiety. seeing tracy chapman up there with a guitar in front of a full stadium was such an empowering moment. i ran into the next room and begged my parents to buy me a guitar for christmas—which was six months away,” she laughs.
As Oladokun has reached a wider audience, she is joined in duets and onstage by some of Nashville’s brightest artists and up-and-coming musicians. Bigger Man, performed with Maren Morris, begins with the powerful lyrics of what it means to be marginalized in America.
Here you go again | Still loud | Still right | Still not listening | How it’s always been | Doesn’t make it | Make any kind of sense
Oladokun’s duet with the always amazing Chris Stapleton, Sweet Symphony, is already becoming a classic “wedding dance” song. Not bad for a folk/soul singer-songwriter and an alt country/bluegrass legend … and you gotta love the puppets in the video.
In this 2021 concert footage from the Ryman, the uber-talented Jason Isbell stops by to play some sweet lead guitar, joining Elliott Skinner on keyboard and Jaime Woods on backing vocals, as Oladokun covers Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me.
And singing alone, with just her guitar, Oladokun does one of the most beautiful and heartfelt covers ever of Paul McCartney‘s iconic Blackbird. As the former Beatle has noted,
“You were only waiting for this moment to arise” was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It’s not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it’s a bit more symbolic.
Joy Oladokun’s songwriting is “brutally honest, yet inviting, as she fearlessly tackles tough topics.” Coupled with a powerful yet welcoming voice, hers is a talent one wants to revisit again and again. And she wants us to immerse ourselves in her music. Her website biography ends with this note:
“when you listen to me, i want you to feel like you’ve taken an emotional shower,” she leaves off. “that’s what i’m trying to accomplish for myself. to me, music is a vehicle of catharsis. i write a lot of sad songs, but i always push for a sliver of a silver lining or glimmer of hope it could be better. that’s why i’m writing in the first place. i want you to be changed when you hear me, and not because i’m special, but because i make music with the intention to change myself.
Let’s go out with Judas from the in defense of my own happiness album.
More to come…
Image credit Joy Oladokun
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