“I think that my place now, as a human and in my art, is really to show people what it means to just be yourself and not fall to pretense or to trends,” says singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun. “It’s just, ‘What are you feeling, what are you saying, what do you feel like the world needs to hear?’—and really reflect on that.”
With her deeply personal and striking songs, Oladokun is open and honest about her experiences as a queer woman of color, along with her astute observations about what it’s like to go through such tumultuous times. This mix of introspection and empathy is evident on her latest album, in defense of my own happiness, which will mark her major label debut when it’s released on June 4 (via Amigo Records/Verve Forecast/Republic Records).
“I, like everyone else, have been inside for a year—and during that year, I just made songs,” says Oladokun of this new material. “I look at the world that we’re living in, and the things that we’ve witnessed while not being able to be in the community in the same ways that we’re used to. I’m saying, ‘Hey, I saw what you just saw, too, and this is how I processed some of it, and I hope it helps you as you process it.’”
This approach proved particularly successful for Oladokun throughout this past year as she released a string of singles: “sunday,” “breathe again,” “sorry isn’t good enough,” and “jordan,” as well as two notable collaborations, “Bigger Man” (with Maren Morris) and “wish you the best” (featuring Jensen McRae). These tracks earned Oladokun prominent performance spots on NPR and a variety of major network TV shows, as well as a flood of critical praise.
Oladokun is modest when speculating about the reasons why her music resonates so strongly with listeners. “Part of it could be the times,” she says. “I think that in 2021, people need to hear from people like me. Black people and queer people and women and people who have been marginalized by society. And so, I think people are maybe looking for something a little different, and I am something a little different.”
By her own admission, Oladokun has always been a little different (but the outspokenness came later). Although she has lived in Nashville for a few years now (which she says “is one of the more supportive artist and songwriter communities I’ve been a part of”), she grew up in a small farming town south of Phoenix, Arizona, the daughter of immigrants from Nigeria. “I grew up queer in a very Christian community. I grew up black in a very white community,” she says, “and I think my entire life, my instinct was to shield or assimilate or make myself smaller, maybe, just so I could get by.”
Oladokun’s introduction to music came from her own parents, who were avid country music fans. At the same time, she says, “I grew up when country was having this moment and everybody’s hero was a white dude in Wranglers with a guitar.”
Oladokun was also making musical discoveries on her own, drawing particular inspiration from Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and The Beatles, as well as “Anything that came out of Motown, ever and always,” she says.
Especially important folk influences came to Oladokun when she discovered black female singer-songwriters such as Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman. Seeing them, she says, encouraged her to feel that “I have a place here, too. I saw a video of Tracy Chapman singing at Nelson Mandela’s 70th [birthday celebration], and I immediately begged my parents for a guitar.”
Still, Oladokun didn’t plan on becoming a professional musician. Instead, she moved to Los Angeles to attend college, where she majored in English. With writing work hard to find, she found work playing guitar and singing backup for various musicians. It wasn’t long before she realized that she wanted to focus on her own artistry instead.
“Black Lives Matter was becoming at the forefront of the cultural conversation. Mental health was becoming more of a discourse,” Oladokun says, “so I just started writing an album in my small studio apartment, and I Kickedstarted it.” Her resulting debut album, Carry, came out in 2016. “It really just came out of, ‘I think I have something to say,’” she says.
During her time in Los Angeles, Oladokun had some epiphanies that have informed her distinctive and bold lyrical candidness ever since. For example, “I realized if God exists, they really just don’t give a shit about my sexuality,” she says. “With the world literally being on fire, they can’t be focused on it. I was just doing so much damage to myself and to other people by not being honest to myself.” Finally tapping into what she feels is true, she says, “translates to my music. The honesty and the vulnerability and maybe the confidence, I think it just comes from, I know how poisonous it is to bite your tongue until it is nothing.”
Even though she feels she has important things to impart to audiences, though, Oladokun admits that “It’s still a little bit shocking to me that people listen! It’s a real gift. Music has always helped me, and I hope I give to people a little bit of what my favorite bands and artists have given me.”
Creating songs, Oladokun says, can be very intense: “My songwriting process is very emotional.” When sitting down to write, she says she asks herself, “What am I feeling? What’s in the air around me? What did I read in the news today?”
Like the English major she once was, Oladokun usually finds that the right words readily come to her. “I’ve always had a fascination with words,” she says. “Even before I got my first guitar, I would write poems, so I think I’ve always had this relationship with language and trying to find an outlet for my feelings and emotions. I think that turned into me grabbing a guitar and writing songs.” That urge still drives her today: “I find music really healing. I find that the process of writing, it’s really helpful for me, so I write every day.”
As Oladokun prepares to release work into the world, she says it can be anxiety-inducing. “There is a part of it that feels like you showed up to a high school dance naked!” she says with a laugh. “Especially in the age of Twitter and Instagram. As soon as my work is out, people will formulate opinions, good or bad, and let me know on various avenues.”
With her major label debut sure to raise her profile even further, Oladokun says she intends to take both positive and negative feedback in stride, as she has always done. “I’ve been trying to not let any of it stick and just be like, ‘This is my experience, and this is what I made, and this is my offering,’” she says. “I’ve just been trying to stay as grounded as I can.”