TOBi Is Still Singing Songs of Liberation | Northern Clutch

In our debut episode of Northern Clutch, the Nigerian-Canadian rapper-singer opens up about his lifelong struggle to preserve his ethnic identity.

“We notorious,” goes the opening line in the Rascalz’ 1998 CanCon classic “Northern Touch.” Two decades later, that statement rings especially true for Canada. Whether it be the top of the Billboard charts or the sports world, the Great White North has found a new gear, producing more world-famous talent at a higher rate than ever. So we’re capturing a few of those rising stars before they go supernova. This is Northern Clutch.

Back in the Before Times—a couple months prior to the pandemic hitting and the world erupting in protests over the killing of George Floyd—we sat down with TOBi in his Toronto studio for a chat on things of resounding relevance today: the Black experience, systemic racism, and negotiated identity.

Of course, while you may be hearing about those topics more often in the current news cycle, they’ve been at the top of TOBi’s mind for most of his life. Born Oluwatobi Feyisara Ajibolade in Lagos, Nigeria, he moved to Brampton, Ontario at the tender age of nine. At 26, he’s gathered everything he’s faced as a first-generation African-Canadian immigrant—alienation, discrimination, learning, unlearning, the struggle to reclaim one’s ethnic identity—and wrung catharsis out of it in the form of soulful, shapeshifting, diasporic hip-hop and R&B. On his debut album STILL—the deluxe version of which, STILL+, he was putting finishing touches on when we met—you hear him vocally soar and spit fire while radiating the strength of a man finally comfortable in his own skin.

TOBi didn’t know it at the time, but one of the tracks from STILL+, “24 (Toronto Remix),” would hit especially different months later amid the present fight against anti-Black racism and police brutality. Like 2020’s answer to “Northern Touch,” it’s a defiant posse cut featuring critically acclaimed Toronto MCs—Haviah Mighty, Shad, and Jazz Cartier, as well as guitarist Ejji Smith—who each take turns expressing the struggle of being young and Black and trying to live in the face of racial profiling and social inequality. The video sees the rappers performing in front of police cars while going in on oppressive stereotyping and the anxieties of just wanting to survive another 24 hours.

“When I wrote ‘24,’ I got Black artists to tell their stories and what growing up felt like for them in North America,” TOBi told us this week, reflecting on the song’s accidental prescience. “I didn’t give instructions. We just told the truth and unfortunately we witnessed it play out in real life. It was eerie and heartbreaking because I think as an artist you think if you pen something in a song, it might be fixed in real life. I’m tired of waiting for a light at the end of the tunnel, because we are the light.”

In the debut episode of “Northern Clutch,” we capture TOBi in his creative process (above), and sit down with him for a candid conversation about ethnic identity, working with The Game, and the universality of the Black experience.

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You moved to Canada from Lagos with your father when you were only 9. Obviously, it’s hard to put something like that into words…

It was sudden, and it was, like… just confusing. I was just so confused. Like, the first little while, it was just like, ‘Man, what's really going on now?’ Now I can contextualize it, you know, as an adult and say, “This is what was happening.” But it was a time where, because so much changed so quickly, I turned to create music as a coping mechanism. And in addition to that, I felt like I was becoming more and more passionate about this thing that I couldn't explain to anybody but myself. And it just felt good. I felt like it saved me, to be real. 

What kinda stuff were you creating?

Some of it was like short stories that I would turn into songs. I remember I was so fascinated with The Matrix at that point too, with Neo and shit. I created an alternate universe, kinda like the Matrix, and I just thought that was cool. So I made that a song. It's just like fantasy, you know what I mean? Creating your own fantasy worlds. 

I think the first line on your album is “I call this shit post-traumatic growth.” What does that mean?

The concept of post-traumatic growth, to me, just means turning a difficult situation or a series of unfortunate events into a positive thing. Using that as a catapult, using that as a springboard, whatever you call it. I learned later that post-traumatic growth is an actual term that people use. I think clinicians use that term, which is cool. Super dope. Just the idea of healing, you know? That's what it felt like. That album felt like healing. 

What’s the trauma you’re referring to? The experience of attempting to assimilate into Western society?

That's part of it for sure. I think there are experiences I went through as a youth that a lot of youth go through as well, especially Black youth. People of color. I don't think my experiences are super unique, or that I'm the only person who's been through it. I think a lot of people have. And that's what connects us, right? The fact that we may feel like silos, but we all have these bridges that connect us, and how are we supposed to know if we don't talk about it? 

"I think there are experiences I went through as a youth that a lot of youth go through as well, especially Black youth.... And that's what connects us, right? The fact that we may feel like silos, but we all have these bridges that connect us."

Speaking of that, I watched your interview with Sway and he seemed almost taken aback by the way you sing about the Black experience. He said, “Some of the things you talk about, it feels like you could’ve grown up in the United States.” I guess he was surprised to hear that as a Canadian, you’ve faced a lot of the same obstacles that Black Americans have faced. So it speaks to your point: the things you’ve faced as a Black man are in some ways universal. You've experienced it too in Canada. 

Absolutely. The border walls, they're invisible but ideas flow through those walls all the time, you know? So for Sway to say that, to me that justified the idea in my mind that, like, there are things that exist in our world right now that don't just stop in our backyard. You know, it's literally everywhere. And I think ideas and art and dialog and discourse, that's the way that way we undo a lot of those things. 

I read that for a while you were a youth worker, and helped lots of young Black kids in Toronto. What did you learn from that experience?

Yooo man. Like, doing it full time, I learned so many things. I learned that everything is connected, you know? Which was kind of wild to think about, like, everything is connected, from businesses to incarceration to the economy to mental health. All these disciplines that feel like they exist on their own independently? They all have these lines that cut right through them. And I think looking at the youth population is a good indicator of how well the society is doing with all those different variables. Like, if we're working on all those different sectors, we should be raising kids that match that, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs.] The kids, the population mirrors the ideals of the society. That's my perspective on that. So, if you have happy people in a society, then something has to be working. If not, or there's a huge amount of injustice or whatever, something's not working. So we just got to get that done. 

And based on what you’ve seen, how is Canadian society doing right now?

I think the good thing about Canada that I like is people here try. I think there are people who try to undo systemic issues, which is awesome. You know, there's a lot of work to be done for sure. But I think there are people who are committed to that every day. So, I mean, Canada's doing a lot better than a lot of places on this planet, man. We are. I think there are a lot of change-makers here who try to do their thing. 

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You've had a couple big co-signs from some West Coast legends. First Snoop Dogg sung your praises on Twitter, then The Game invited you to work on his final album Born 2 Rap, and even hopped on your remix of "City Blues." How did you wind up linking up with The Game? What was that experience like?

He reached out on my IG like a year ago. And he was like, "Man, I like your stuff. Let's work." And then I flew to L.A. like four days later and I was in the studio working on his album. Worked on mad songs. It was amazing. It was a life-changing experience. Kind of switched a little gear in my brain. But that was one of the songs that he was working on and when I heard his verse the first time, I was like, "Yo, this is crazy. This is crazy." My role, like my intention when I got there, was just to sit down, absorb the room, see what's going on, and contribute as much as I could. Like, show them why you deserve to be in the room, you know what I mean? So that was really cool because, you know, every time a song came on, regardless of whether it was my song or not, I would just write something to it. Even if people weren't hearing it, I would just be writing stuff to it, anyway. And then I'd just go record it. And they were like, "Yo, and this crazy." So I just kept doing more and more. 

You were talking earlier about change-makers. You’ve been running UNPACK, a mental health conversation series for creatives in Toronto. Tell us about that.

In addition to making music, mental health has always been very important to me, not just on a personal level, but just on a societal level as well. Just understanding what it really means to have a mental health issue. And also, if we were to do a report card on the mental health of a society, where would we rank? I don’t know. That's not my job but it's an interesting question to pose. What are the factors contributing to that? I think there are several, like resilience. I'm big on resilience. I think it's an important domain of our personalities. So with UNPACK, my aim is to not just develop the conversation and make it more mainstream, but also to get into proactive measures. I think folks who have experienced certain things can be a light to others by sharing what they overcame, how they overcame it, and helping the next person not fall into those same pitfalls. Not everybody has to learn by mistake.

In your music there's a throughline of yearning to retain your ethnic identity and your background. Why is that so important to you? And how do you incorporate that identity into your music?

I actively make a conscious effort to tap into that, you know? I remember I used to tell my parents, "Speak to me in Yoruba" on purpose. For me, it's like a sense of self-preservation. Well, Yoruba is my tribe, and there's like 40-plus million people in that tribe, so that language isn't dying anytime soon. But I want to be one of the people that it continues to live through. It feels good to have it, for real. So I understand when people speak to their kids in a certain language that's not the dominant language. I think it's powerful.

Because language is identity.

For real. It's identity. And your world is also shaped by the language you speak because there's so many words in English that aren't in Yoruba. And there's so many words in Yoruba that aren't in English. You can't even translate it. So if you speak that language, you can picture a reality that you can't in another language, which is kind of trippy. But it's cool. That's one of the beautiful things about language. On the last album, I consciously used my full name,  which felt good. It felt liberating to put that on a song, like consciously put my full name. You know, a name that at one point in my life, I didn't feel good about saying in public because it was different. And I guess it wasn't cool. Supply teachers would fuck it up all the time. [Laughs.] It felt good to just be on the record and say it with pride, happiness, and joy. You know, things like that and singing different melodies I heard when I was a kid, when I was 5 years old, remembering them and putting them in songs in 2020. As an adult? It feels good. I'm going to keep doing that as long as it feels natural to me.

Where do you want to go from here?

I want to go to the stratosphere, man. I really want to connect this music and my art with people all over the world. I think my intention is to liberate. I want to liberate myself and liberate the listener when they hear me. Make them feel something. I just want to take it global. 

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