Oxlade enters a room and immediately commands your attention. The first thing you notice about him are the vibrant red highlights worked into his chin length natural hair. Faded at the sides and styled into tiny twists that curtain his brow and frame his powerful jaw, the do has become his signature, a refreshing tangent from the sea of locs that has become the uniform of every upcoming Naija popstar. Graffitied up his arms are tattoos chronicling his life and influences, a map for the discerning and a promise to himself never to settle for a ‘normal’ life.
“The Oxlade of Eclipse is totally different from the Oxlade of Oxygene.” He announces as we start the interview that will morph into this profile.
This seems an odd way for anyone to introduce themselves, but Oxlade is the one exception where it all makes sense, especially to fans who have followed his journey since his first feature in 2018. He is grounded, unphased by the frenzy that surrounds him as his very young entourage works to make sure he is always on top of his many requirements as he flits from studio to studio as part of a promotional tour for his second EP ‘Eclipse’. We squeeze a meeting into that busy schedule, and get to work sifting through the mythology around the de-facto leader of the Naija Post-Alte Indie scene.
It is hard to imagine Oxlade doing anything else other than making music and being an international pop star, but save for a few moments of kismet, all of this almost didn’t happen. His journey to stardom is so linear that Oxlade can perfectly remember his tipping point.
‘The day I made the decision to drop out of LASU.”
That decision was the first in a chain of serendipitous events that led to Oxlade’s big break. For years, he had been dissatisfied with formal education, but had gone through the motions to appease his extended family and dispel the assumptions that he would turn out ‘wayward’ because he didn’t grow up with a strong maternal influence. But his disillusionment peaked in his final year, a week before his graduating exams. Sensing that tiding over that last wave and completing his degree would only lead to even more pressure to ‘try’ paid employment and relegate his passion for music into a side hobby, he dropped out, returning to his family in Surulere short of an undergraduate degree.
His family’s insistence that he rewrite JAMB and start another undergraduate programme felt like an attempt to wrest the control he’d fought hard to assert over his life. Rather than fight them or endure passive aggression, Oxlade chose to emancipate himself, leaving his family home and couch surfing with his friend Nyah. Nyah introduced him to Ojahbee, who would eventually become his manager and an important co-pilot for his career.
Unwilling to be a burden to his friends, Oxlade hustled, racking a gauntlet of blue collar jobs that included working as a server at parties, a studio rat for a number of producers, a BRT ticketer at Barracks, Surulere and a cybercafe secretary, the same cybercafe where he worked when he recorded the hook for BlaqBonez’s ‘Mami Wata’. He also got his first tattoos, a promise to himself to not settle for a ‘soft’ life.
No matter what he was doing, he found a way to keep making music, even if that meant joining a gospel acapella ensemble. The persistence led to an opportunity to drop vocals for a project veteran artist and producer Alpha Ojini who produced Acapella soundtracks for the group Oxlade sang with. The song he lent his vocals to was ‘Sour’, a collaboration between Alpha Ojini and rapper and varsity rap legend BlaqBonez. This very thin sliver of opportunity was all Oxlade needed to get people to finally listen.
‘BlaqBonez was the one who reached out to me, he DM’ed, told me he was blown away by my flow and insisted I had to do the chorus for his single Mami Wata.’
Oxlade jumped at the opportunity and dropped a verse but it still took some pushing to get the single out. BlaqBonez’s management felt the song didn’t quite align with the image they were building for him as a rap purist and for a while the song’s status as a single was in limbo. Oxlade forgot about the song and returned to his hustle until the day he got a second life changing call from BlaqBonez.
‘He didn’t even waste time,’ Oxlade reminisces,‘he told me to go and download Twitter immediately and search for my name.’
Up until that point, Oxlade’s focus had been on making the music, not how it would be received. Joining social media expanded his horizons, showing him in real time the love his verse on Mami Wata was getting. People who he had idolized from afar were looking for him, and in the light of that kind of validation, the insecurities he’d accumulated from years of unrealised ambition seemed transient, a momentary roadblock on what was now a clear path to realising his dreams. Now that he had Nigeria’s attention, it was time to work.
Following the unprecedented success of ‘Mami Wata’ and a couple of pivotal live performances (including a stellar live recording of Wait For You at Clout Studios), the calls for a full length project from Oxlade grew from a trickle into a deluge. Still, despite his undeniable talent, and the streaming numbers to prove he was commercially viable, the record deals weren’t forthcoming. Oxlade waited a while, expanding his reach with strategic features with renowned producers while he waited for one of the big labels to step up and take a gamble with him. That meant he had to hold off on his big ideas but this period of waiting gave him time to grow into his brand and more creative control over his sound.
When he felt ready, with an optimized team and a comfortable budget, Oxlade conscripted the best collaborators to elevate his ideas and began the task of crafting his debut project as an independent artist.
“Oxygene was born from a place of love and heartbreak. It was a period when I was really in love and got heartbroken, so I just channeled all the emotions into my voice and pen.”
With his features, the emphasis was usually on offering a stellar assist for his collaborators. But on Oxygene, he could really channel his gifts to themes that were personal to him, chronicling experiences that were universally experienced by his fans. Oxlade went high concept for his debut project, exercising creative control over every aspect of the album including its album art. The result was an album that was brave in its vulnerability, the kind of unabashedly romanticism that Nigerian music hadn’t seen since Styl Plus. These musings on love, channeled through Oxlade’s throaty trill, had a near hypnotic hold on his fans. It seemed nothing could go wrong, till it did.
Days before the album was to be released, Nigeria announced that it had recorded its first Covid-19 case somewhere in Lagos. He and his team waited with bated breath as the government hedged for the first week, announcing that they had the pandemic under control. Reassured by the aggressive approach the government had taken to combat the spread of the virus, the team decided to go ahead with the release. Then in a complete turn-around, the Federal government announced that it was joining the rest of the world to institute a rigid 6 week long lockdown, hours before the album was supposed to be released.
‘I felt cursed.” Oxlade says, “I called my grandmother and just let out all my frustrations.
She comforted him, reminding him the universe had aligned in his favour up until that point. And she was right, because with the world holed up in their homes, music consumption habits changed. Listeners began favouring full length, thematic projects over buzzy singles. Oxygene came at the right time, allowing people wallowing in their feelings and cementing Oxlade’s status as a powerhouse in his own right. By the time the lockdowns eased and the first smattering of live performances were permitted across the country, Oxlade was one of the new names fans were clamouring to see live.
“You learn, the hard way, that if you want to stay on top, you have to work harder than you did the day before, every single day.’ he tells me, what it felt like to enter this new phase of his career, ‘You have to give the fans what they want but still try to maintain your original essence.’
Everyone has their formula for protecting that essence. For Oxlade, his secret is his devotion to family. His relationship with his grandmother has been a pivotal force in his life and career. He was raised by her, an arrangement that was necessitated by the passing of his mother when he was a child. He has her tattooed on his body and has made it known, he works as hard as he does just so she and his younger brother never have to experience any kind of hardship.
Having solid roots has informed Oxlade’s principles and his choices, and his grandmother has been a grounding force for him in situations where things felt like they were spiralling out of control. That principle of stepping up to responsibility is in part how Oxlade and his manager Ojahbee ended up one of the faces of the 2020 #EndSARS movement, marshalling protesters to stand up to government oppression and experiencing the crushing brutality of Nigeria’s military state. He is understandably reluctant to revisit that experience but eager to talk about brighter moments in his eventful career, like his new country wide hit ‘Ojuju’ and his new EP, Eclipse.
“‘Eclipse’ is a perfect balance of darkness and light. I was facing a dark moment in my life and having the darkness overshadow everything I was experiencing was fuel for my music, I burned through it to create my own light.’
Eclipse pushes the boundaries of Oxlade’s artistry, because for the first time in his career, he has had the opportunity to build an entire project from scratch with a dedicated team of producers and engineers. A lot of the project was spontaneous, as was his collaboration with Dj Coublon. Fresh off the tumultuous end of a relationship and forced by the pandemic to sit in his feelings, Oxlade started channelling what he felt into ‘Ojuju’ the lead single off the new EP. He produced the album under the management of Troniq Entertainment and worked exclusively with veteran producer Dj Coublon who allowed him use the process to journal his break up and find catharsis, while ensuring they found a balance between honest and marketable.
‘Apart from the emotional toll mining my experiences was taking on me, everything came easily to me so I actually I enjoyed creating this album,’ he confesses, ‘There is a feeling to Eclipse, it’s like you are worshipping in an African church, where the choir is singing about love in all its complexities. ”
Having a safe space to truly process how he felt, complete with a few breakdowns in the booth is the secret sauce that makes this EP so good. This partnership has allowed Oxlade to evolve from the neophyte who recorded Mami Wata into this self-assured maestro on Eclipse. He has embraced a darker, more resonant sound, moving away from the earnestness of his earlier records, but growing in its power and its ability to command an audience. He has fond memories of that time, but is more than ready to take on new challenges.
‘There have been many interesting things that have happened since that first single,’ he tells me, ‘but nothing really solidified how much I have achieved until 02.’
By O2, he means getting invited by Wizkid to join the lineup on his sold out show at the 02 Arena in the UK in 2019. At the time Wizkid broke ground by being the first Nigerian artist to sell out the O2 Arena, solidifying his position as a global super star. Performing beside Wizkid and Tiwa Savage, his first international show in a major venue and watching thousands of Africans in the diaspora sing his songs back to him was validation, proof that his music had crossed over. There have been many more personal triumphs since then, none as important as his time in Paris in 2021 where he was on a writing camp working on songs for his debut album and was invited by Virgil Abloh to perform at the launch of the Off White Store in Paris as part of the brand’s fashion week presentation and the Daily Paper Carnival. He is going on tour in the United States later this year, introducing this new, more self assured Oxlade to American audiences in preparation for his debut album which he implied will most likely be released in early 2022.
While world domination is in his immediate plans, Oxlade’s long game is to make as many people as he can happy with his music. He wants to make music that helps people make sense of a messed up world, to provide the comfort he didn’t have when he experienced the biggest loss of his life. To honour his mother’s legacy by making music that outlives him and immortalizes her.
`Everyday I do this, I’m doing it to honour her.”