Joy Oladokun: ‘You might want me to sing pretty love songs, but there are things I need to talk about’
For decades, West Hollywood’s Troubadour has been the place where singer-songwriters come to cut their teeth. The fabled venue played a crucial role in the rise of artists like Carole King, Jackson Browne and Elton John, and tonight it’s the turn of Joy Oladokun to take centre stage. It’s not an opportunity the 30-year-old takes lightly. Bathed in the spotlight, she starts talking about a song she wrote in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
“There’s no country in the world that kills as many of its citizens as we do,” she says, before pointing out that she was born in 1992, the year Los Angeles was shaken by riots sparked by police brutality. Three decades later and the same old bigotries persist. No wonder Oladokun found herself moved to capture the moment in music. “This is the best way I know to heal the world, and that’s why I do this job,” she tells the audience. “To make this world better for people like us, and people unlike us.” With that, she launches into an incendiary version of her perceptive single “I See America”, interpolating the crunching riffs and wailed lyrics of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to create a monstrous mash-up that reverberates like a scream of frustration echoing across generations.
It’s a heart-stopping moment in a show packed full of them, and one that Oladokun has come to realise can receive a very different reception depending on where in the US she’s performing. “There was a show I played at the Ryman in Nashville where a guy booed me and walked out when I was just introducing the song,” she recalls, speaking to me on the phone from her tourbus somewhere in “Pennsylvania-ish”. Needless to say, that experience has not deterred Oladokun from speaking her truth. “You might just want me to sing pretty love songs,” she says, “but as an artist there are things I need to talk about.”
Oladokun was born in Delaware, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and the first member of her family to be born in the United States. They moved to Casa Grande in Arizona while she was still young, a rural community she remembers as “cows and cotton in the middle of nowhere”. As a quiet, shy child she lost and found herself in her father’s extensive record collection, which stretched from the great Nigerian guitarist King Sunny Adé to country stars such as Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty as well as African-influenced Eighties pop by the likes of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. Onstage at the Troubadour, she joked that during an uncertain moment in her career she’d sat down to try to figure out: “How do I become the Black Bruce Springsteen?” The Boss is another long-standing inspiration, admired by Oladokun for his versatility as much as his longevity. “He’s someone who can put out all different kinds of music,” she says appreciatively. “He’ll collaborate with Bon Iver on a song and then put out a full-on E Street Band record.”
Likewise, Oladokun is adept at drawing on musical influences ranging from country to grunge and marrying them with lyrics that probe the inner workings of the human heart. On “Jordan”, one of the stand-out tracks from her 2021 major label debut In Defense of My Own Happiness, she sings about her Christian upbringing and finding her own way to faith as a queer woman. She tells the Troubadour the song was inspired by wondering: “How can God give a f*** that I like to kiss girls?”
Through her unflinching honesty, Oladokun has built a broad and inclusive following that brings together fans from all sorts of backgrounds. “When I look out at the crowd I see a lot of people who look like me and love like me, and a lot of other people who don’t,” she says. “I try to be unapologetically myself in the hope that people who wouldn’t necessarily want to engage with me because of who I am or how I live can see how much we have in common. If I write something about feeling lonely as a kid, that’s relatable no matter where you’re from or what you look like. I think if we can learn to be more aware of each other’s feelings, it could be a kinder, cooler world.”
Now based in Nashville, among a community of fellow songwriters, Oladokun is currently hard at work on a new album that she hints will feature appearances from some “dream” collaborators. Her latest single “Purple Haze”, which she recently debuted on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, was written in Los Angeles as wild fires raged nearby, filling the sky with smoke and turning sunsets violet. “I’m a Jimi Hendrix fan and a stoner!” she says with a laugh, explaining that the title nods both to the iconic Hendrix song and a potent cannabis strain by the same name.
It’s a gorgeous, lilting song that contrasts the endlessly depressing news cycle – “I’ve seen waters rise and strong men fall” – with the possibility of finding solace in romance and communion. “It’s pretty interesting to be someone who tries to deal in deep emotions at this time,” says Oladokun. “There’s a lot of fear, frustration and confusion about what the future of the world as we know it looks like. I think the day I wrote “Purple Haze” I was in that space but I wanted to make something that was really beautiful and simple and about what’s good about life, which is love, I think.” In capturing that complicated feeling, she’s crafted a song any of the great singer-songwriters would be proud of; the soundtrack to a kinder, cooler world.
‘Purple Haze’ is out now