"A lot's happened, bruh."
TOBi can most definitely say that again. Since we last spoke with the rapper-singer earlier this year, some shit's gone down: a global pandemic, a collapsing economy, the reopening of racial wounds across North America, and most recently, senseless brutality against protestors calling for an end to the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in his home country of Nigeria. When he invited us to his studio in February to shoot the debut episode of Northern Clutch, none of us foresaw the whiplash we'd get from the insane turn 2020 decided to take.
"The world has been flipped, turned upside down," TOBi continues, chatting with us this week prior to the drop of his new mixtape ELEMENTS Vol. 1. "But still we stand."
Resilience has been a throughline in the Lagos-born, Brampton-bred artist's work. Hell, his debut album was named STILL, a reference to his resolve to keep on moving, and celebrating, in the face of the discrimination and cultural dissociation he experienced as a first-gen African-Canadian immigrant. It's music rooted in truth—his own, but one shared by many others, too.
So it shouldn't be surprising that his new project, recorded right before the world went to ever-loving shit, explores themes still pertinent as ever at this moment: Black joy as a form of resistance, finding strength in struggle, diasporic lineage, holding loved ones near in spite of distance.
TOBi says he envisions ELEMENTS—his first release since signing a partnership with Same Plate Entertainment/RCA Records—as a recurring mixtape series similar to Lil Wayne's Dedication or The Drought Is Over. Like Weezy on those tapes, he indulges his lizard brain on this project, freely and wavily glissading between genres as disparate as Afrobeat, drill, and soul with the lightness of a feather. "There's no narrative or storyline on ELEMENTS," he says. "I'm just experimenting with different sounds and different styles."
Recruiting a ragtag, international crew of producers—from L.A.'s Alex Goose ("Made Me Everything") to Hackney-by-way-of-Ghana's Juls ("Dollas and Cents")—he slays every beat, sliding back and forth from hot-buttered croons to hard-edged rhymes, tying it all together with a patinated-yet-weightless voice that melts in your ears like sonic hot fudge. It's a voice that's got a story in it—real, recognizable pain—yet still soothes the soul like a big rip from a premium, CBD-heavy pre-roll. And that's something all of us could really use right now.
We talked to TOBi about the new tape, the #EndSARS situation roiling in his native country, and how he's been using art as a weapon.
So TOBi, how's life been since we last saw each other?
I mean, I think like everybody, it's been a rollercoaster. You have your high moments, you have your low moments. and it's just been lots of adjusting. I think a lot of people have learned how to adjust to it. You never know what's next, you know? But I've just been productive with the things that I can control.
And you've been in Toronto this whole time, right?
Oh, actually I went to Jamaica. Yeah, it was a vibe. I went for a week in September. But their COVID game is super tight, though. Like, you've got to do a video check-in on an app every day. You've got to do a temperature log every day. There's sanitizer everywhere. Their protocol is on point. It made the experience pretty good.
Did you find inspiration there?
I definitely did. First of all, the food is amazing. And the people... it was my first time there and I was connecting with them like it was just natural. It was just great vibes. And Iet's not even talk about the salt water. The salt water does things for your body, man. It was a vibe, still. And the music? Crazy.
"I think that the power is in the youth's hands right now. And I think the African diaspora is taking note and artists like myself have been connecting with other Nigerian artists to amplify their voices and just get justice for the common man."
Awesome. So maybe we'll hear that inspiration on the next ELEMENTS tape.
You will, still. You will, bruh. I'm over there, at the end of the week I'm speaking patois. [Laughs.]
Well, let's talk about ELEMENTS Vol. 1 first. Tell me how this project came together.
I'm a feeler, you know? When I'm in different spaces, I take in my surroundings. I try to connect with my surroundings as honestly and as truly as I can. And a lot of these songs, they came from my experiences in these different places. Some of them I recorded in L.A., so I was inspired by my time there. One of the songs in there, "Family Matters," I recorded that in London, England, when I was over there for like four days. I cut a bunch of songs last year, but that's my favorite one. The elements are, if you remember chemistry class, just abundant, right? It's just all these parts of who we are. So these are mine right there—all the parts of me as an artist. [I was inspired by] places I've been physically and emotionally, as well. Mentally. I bring it into my world. This is the TOBi world.
That's really cool. I like the idea of being inspired by the different people and places you've encountered, and incorporating it all into your music. I mean, that's what personalities are, right? We collect bits and pieces from different people and we integrate them into ourselves.
Real talk. That's real. It's true, man. If we really want to break it down, we are a composite or a mosaic of so many different people and so many different things. Everybody is, you know what I'm saying? And that's what's so special about these songs. We're about to get metaphysical here about this human experience. [Laughs.] But it's true. We literally take so many things, ideas, thoughts, sounds, even body movements—like we learn it from each other. And then we choose our favourite ones and it becomes us! [Laughs.] So these are just my elements.
Let's talk about the TOBi world. Where's your mind been?
My mind is just on creating my ideal world, you know? A big part of my world is joy. Like, experiencing joy and enjoying life even through the bullshit, even through the heartaches, even through the years of institutionalized discrimination. We recognize these things exist—we're not looking the other way, as evidenced by the events of this year. We know that these things are present. But this world right here is what I can control, and recognizing that these things exist, but finding the space to be joyful, finding the space to be open and celebrating. That's what "Made Me Everything" is. It's a celebration. "Dollas and Cents" is a celebration. "Shine" is a celebration of friendship and relationships.
"The music is healing folks who listen to it consciously and subconsciously, and it's healing me in the process. It feels good for me to take themes that we may not talk about in every day conversation, and slide it in a song."
It's like you say on the last track, "I'm still gonna sing." That's a really powerful message, and one that people really need to hear, especially right now. Resilience has always been a big theme in your music.
You know, when people go through things in life, it's so powerful.... If you want to go back to the blues era or the spirituals that the slaves sang when they were in chains, or the music that we listen to in church, gospel music, it's very uplifting stuff. It's healing, you know? And I think the central ethos of this project [is] this idea of Black joy as a form of resistance. That's what this music is doing. The music is healing folks who listen to it consciously and subconsciously, and it's healing me in the process. It feels good for me to take themes that we may not talk about in every day conversation, and slide it in a song. It's liberating. And we can't stop. I've connected with so many people during this pandemic. It's been so interesting. Like, we've all been locked at home, but I've been on Zoom with mad people all over the world. I feel like we need to connect now more than ever, and take on other people's struggles and other people's fights for liberation that are happening.
I like that you're inspired by the different places you've been, but where you originally came from is still a major part of your work. Like, "Dollas and Cents" is very Afrobeat-inspired, the video takes place partly in Lagos, and was directed by Lagos native Ifeme C.S. I read you were planning on returning to Nigeria for the first time since your childhood for that video shoot, right?
Yo, literally. I just got my Nigerian passport renewed in February. I was like, "Yo, I'm about to fly out of here." The plan was to go there and shoot the video, amongst other things—I wanted to reconnect with family there and the industry. But since the pandemic happened, it was locked down and travel was restricted. We shot the video remotely. I still wanted to get someone on the ground to shoot the video. Honestly, that was a really cool experience because we had we had the director in Lagos and we were shooting our parts in Toronto and we merged the files together and he edited it in Nigeria. We made it happen.
But it's important for me to highlight where I came from, because I never forget where I came from. And I never forget what I came here to do. I need to have that in the back of my mind, my mission, because it literally propels me in whatever I do—to know that I have a home that I love, that needs my care and attention and... to be truthful with you, it needs work. It needs a lot of work, you know? It's not in the best shape. It's not in good shape, actually. I'm talking about Nigeria.
Yeah, asbolutely. Well, obviously Nigeria's been in the news lately with the protests against SARS, and the brutal response to those demonstrations. Can you speak on that? What are your thoughts on the situation happening there right now?
Well, SARS has been around for quite a while. You know, it's just now coming into real prominence because a) I think people are frustrated. They've reached their breaking point. And b) I think a lot of folks, a lot of people worldwide are more amplified to fight injustice wherever they're at. Based on what's been going on in the U.S. with the BLM movement, I think it's validated a lot of folks worldwide and given strength and courage to folks worldwide to actually stand up against injustice in their hometowns. Because SARS is not new. SWAT is not new. Government corruption in Nigeria is not new. You know, my parents have been lamenting on these things for the last 20 years. And so have my elders, uncles—this has been talked about within ourselves, within our community, for years. But this year is the first time that it's had such attention. And I think it's going to... I hope it causes an unraveling in how the government operates in Nigeria so that the people who are not rich, who are not well off, the people who are not privileged, can get justice that's so deserved after all these years.
You know, my only concern is people who are on the frontlines not being safe. But I think that the power is in the youth's hands right now. And I think the African diaspora is taking note and artists like myself have been connecting with other Nigerian artists to amplify their voices and just get justice for the common man. That's what it's about.
It's just fucked up to see that, you know, government corruption and police brutality is sort of a universal thing we're seeing around the world.
Yeah, it's so wild [to see] how many places in the world this exists in, you know? And sometimes as an artist, like, I don't feel powerless because I know that art is a weapon. Art has the power to create movements, and to empower people. And that's a big part of the imagery that we use with this project. With "Dollas and Cents," we use the Pan-African colour scheme on the artwork and on the visualizer. The "Made Me Everything" music video shows people of colour, dancing and celebrating with joy on their faces amidst the pain. You know, it's these things, these visual cues, they're powerful. They reflect back on people who are feeling certain things or feeling isolated or alone, to see that we're standing in solidarity. Art is powerful.
Definitely. It's very cathartic. We were talking earlier about incorporating parts of different people into ourselves. If you were to break down some of the artists that you've incorporated into yourself, who would they be? Who's on your Mount Rushmore?
Man, that's a great one. The Mount Rushmore is tough because there's literally so many. But I'll sum it up a little bit. I'll say Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the last one, let me round this out.... I would say Frank Ocean.
OK, that's a solid Rushmore. I'd definitely listen to that. I know last year you had some of the big dogs reach out to you and show love, like Snoop Dogg and The Game, the latter of which even hopped on your "City Blues" remix. Have any other larger-than-life figures reached out to you since then?
Yeah, I mean definitely. There've been some people who've reached out, some who have expressed interest in working together. I don't know if I can divulge that right now, because it's still kind of in limbo. So, I might just keep that until the songs are ready. But yeah, I had some big dogs reach out, unsolicited, showing love. I'm always grateful for that. But you'll hear the songs, man. I don't want to get too ahead of myself, but there's a song on ELEMENTS that might get a crazy remix. A crazy, crazy remix. But we'll be in touch with y'all when that's confirmed. You'll hear the songs soon enough. [Laughs.]