Joy Oladokun on How Vulnerability Drives New Album ‘Proof of Life’

Joy Oladokun had an epiphany one day while sitting in her bedroom studio, surrounded by her personal belongings ranging from photos to action figures. As she was looking at these mementos, a specific thought came to mind: “What happens to this stuff after I die?” She imagines that the room would become like a museum, the items that were important and interesting to her while she was alive on full display. Her new album, Proof of Life, offers that same perspective.

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“I wanted to write a record that was if you put it in a vault and 100 years from now someone opened it and listened, they would get a decent sense of who I am and what I believed in and what was scary to me and how I dealt with life,” Oladokun explains to American Songwriter. “I’m really proud of the songs on this record. I feel like I have been more vulnerable than I have in the past.” 

One of the ways Oladokun gets vulnerable on the record is by exploring her “role in my own suffering,” as reflected in the song “You at the Table.” She wrote it from an honest perspective about addiction in her family. “[I’m] learning how to be a better daughter and partner and friend and person in this life and acknowledging when I mess up or when I’m messy,” she explains of the song’s meaning. “Little things like that where I challenge myself to say it.” 

A core theme of the album is change. The singer lives by the motto that the only constant in life is change, a notion she explores across 13 thought-provoking songs. “Life is both changing fast and slowly all at the same time, and I think if I was going to write a record about why, I had to be able to embrace or at least explore my relationship with change,” she expresses.

The Arizona native cites “Changes” as one of her favorites on the record. The second verse addresses how she was born the same year as the LA Riots in 1992 after the Rodney King beating at the hands of police through such lyrics as I was a baby during the LA riots / And I’ve seen cities burn again / Cried for the innocent a thousand times / And people still don’t understand / What it’s like to hope again and again / Knowing that heartache’s gonna be there ’til the end. As an almost 31-year-old, Oladokun admits that she’s seen history repeat itself, yet she doesn’t let that dash her hopes of a brighter future.

“There are a few lines in that song where I really acknowledge that I, as a person, fight for change, hope for change, believe in change and understand that most of the time, it feels like nothing’s happening,” she observes. “I think that in the past, I’ve always tried to put a positive spin on things. But I think this is the first time where I go, ‘I don’t know if it’s getting better, I just know that I’m trying.’” 

Oladokun also digs deep into vulnerability with the striking acoustic ballad, “Somehow.” She reveals she wrote it during a time of deep depression and some of the most challenging few months of her adult life. Sitting down at the piano, the singer thought about a manmade lake in her hometown that she visited alone as a child who endured bullying for being a queer, Black young woman who was closeted at the time. “I was one of the only people like me,” she shares. “So it was one of the only places I could go and be alone and be honest.”

Oladokun literally takes listeners inside her head with lyrics that find her addressing the negative voices in her mind as she sings When you’re losing your mind / ‘Cause your friends don’t care / And you’re out of breath, you’ve been running uphill / No one carried you there. But she gets to the heart of the song’s message in its chorus where she relays, I know what goes up comes down / And if you stick around / Life can change with the weather / Oh, somehow things just get better. It’s this sense of realism that Oladokun is intentional about pouring into her work.

“I think that vulnerability is what drives this record,” she says. “I’m trying to hold on to that because I really do think that’s the only thing that makes my work significant.” 

Describing herself as someone who has spent her life looking down at her feet when she walks, Oladokun says that making Proof of Life from the depths of vulnerability has given her a renewed sense of purpose that she hopes connects to those who need to hear it.

“I think it’s opened me up to the possibility of my value,” she professes of how the album has impacted her. “I’m trying to make something good and real and hopeful that if people are open to listening to it, they can walk away with a half chorus that makes them feel good and proud.

“I thought I was going to be dead at 20, and even if that’s the value, I put out this album and it flops, but three Black queer people listen to it and it sets them free, that’s worth it. I think I’m learning how to be okay with that,” she concludes. “And that’s another change.” 

Proof of Life is available now. 

Photo Credit: Brian Higbee / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

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