How Joy Oladokun's Career Bloomed In An Uncertain Year The Nashville-based, Nigerian-American artist writes songs that offer trustworthy empathy, delivered without romanticism — a tone that has connected with listeners during the tumultuous pandemic era.
NPR logo How Joy Oladokun's Career Bloomed In An Uncertain Year

How Joy Oladokun's Career Bloomed In An Uncertain Year

In the past year, Joy Oladokun has been tapped for visibility-boosting initiatives, performed on late-night shows and had her songs placed on primetime TV. Noah Tidmore/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Noah Tidmore/Courtesy of the artist

In the past year, Joy Oladokun has been tapped for visibility-boosting initiatives, performed on late-night shows and had her songs placed on primetime TV.

Noah Tidmore/Courtesy of the artist

The only true constants in the music industry during the tumultuous pandemic era have been fantastically sobering ones: lost livelihoods; interrupted career momentum; belated recognition of the brokenness of a system built on the exploitation of Black innovation and labor.

And yet, during this same period, Joy Oladokun's career has quietly blown up. The Nashville-based, Nigerian-American singer-songwriter has been tapped for timely, visibility-boosting, tech-powered initiatives, including Hulu's virtual Black History Month concert and YouTube's grant program for Black creators, while also benefiting from the sort of old-school, television-centric strategies that artists' promotional teams prioritized well before the streaming age, like performing slots on late night shows and song placements on primetime dramas. Oladokun's music has even appeared on Grey's Anatomy, that holdover from the aughts, twice to date.

As the buzz builds around her, Oladokun is observing it from a levelheaded remove, taking the long view.

"I think about the future," she says on the phone, "but in terms of, 'OK, I have X amount of money or influence with which I can do something that I've always wanted to do, like get involved in prison reform.'"

She goes on, "I've been trying to communicate that it's not even that I've arrived. It's been a journey and a process. It's one thing that led to another thing that led to another thing, and not just that I woke up and Jimmy Fallon was like, 'Do you want to be on the show?'"

I've been watching Oladokun go about her work with equanimity since 2019, when far fewer people were taking notice. Back then, she was a couple of years into a publishing deal with Prescription Songs, she'd relocated to Nashville, having concluded that she couldn't hang with the fast-paced flash of Los Angeles, and she'd just had a small songwriting breakthrough with the more personalized approach of "Sunday," whose lyrics considered the painful burden of evangelical homophobia. But not much had happened in the public eye with that song, or any of her others, beyond a bit of blog love.

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Oladokun started racking up placements precisely when that became hardest to do: after COVID-19 brought most filming to a halt, in turn, drastically shrinking the demand for music for movies and television. Last August, "Sunday" appeared in two different reality shows, Love In the Time of Corona and Catfish. "The most excited I think I've ever been was when they sent me a request for Catfish," she says during our fourth interview to date, acknowledging her own avid viewership.

To those whose viewing habits have introduced them to Oladokun's music, she may seem like a hot, new thing, but that status is amusingly at odds with her own outlook: She likes pointing out that she doesn't see herself as operating anywhere near the cutting-edge. "I'm not the artist you go to if you want to hear something groundbreaking," she volunteered during our initial meeting, at a tea shop later flattened by the March 2020 Nashville tornado. Late last year, during an interview for a WNXP Nashville Artist of the Month feature, she phrased the sentiment even more self-deprecatingly: "I'm not the artist that you come to to reinvent the wheel. I just tell an OK story."

But Oladokun's style of storytelling—not so much formal narrative as gently probing insight—is having its day. Sara Walker, an executive over sync licensing at Prescription, watched the few music supervisors who continued seeking songs in 2020 deliberately pull back from energetic, upbeat pop. "I've been doing this for 20 years," she emphasizes, "and for the first time, I also saw a really considerable shift in the type of music we were being asked for."

She began receiving what struck her as variations on the same request: "People wanted a song that said, 'OK, we understand what you're going through and we're in this with you.'"

To put it another way, they wanted a soundtrack that offered trustworthy empathy, delivered without romanticism, which happens to be an Oladokun specialty.

"With her music," Walker notes, "she's able to touch people across age groups—my 75-year-old mom loves her, and my 18-year-old niece—and across sex, orientation, race. I think it's just the fact that she writes these beautiful songs that are so thoughtful, so poignant and people connect with them."

Oladokun tends to apply pliant melodic shapes and melancholy shading to distress of either towering or tiny scale in the moment. "I wrote a song the other day for a friend whose grandmother passed away," she relates. "It was borne of, 'My friend is hurting and I want to help her.' This is why I do music. And sometimes I'm the friend that is hurting and needs help.'"

She muses, "I think I'm gong to put it out."

It's worth noting that, for her, a song that supplies private comfort need not always have a commercial use.

She texted the tune she'd penned for her friend to the Prescription team, with a caveat: "This could work for something, or it couldn't. But on a personal level, it might be nice to hear anyway."

Walker, who was on receiving end of the message, says, "She sends us these beautiful songs. We often all cry as soon as we hear them, and then we start to find a home for them."

The home they found for the string-swathed piano ballad "breathe again" was the popular family drama This Is Us, after which Oladokun was invited to sing the song on Fallon's show.

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"I didn't think that Jimmy Fallon would ever pronounce my last name correctly," laughs Oladokun, who proudly performers under her family name, as opposed to some anglicized alternative. "That's not on the vision board of my life."

She's prone to fixate on more amorphous signs of how she's doing: "I got comments on my YouTube [profile] when people were in the snow storm in Texas, saying, 'The lights have been off and my kids are crying and I'm playing "breathe again" on my cell phone, so we can just all relax.' I am glad that more people who need to hear the type of music I make are getting access to it. That's been the most exciting: hearing people respond to the music in the way that I hope that they would when I wrote it."

Oladokun possesses strong pop sensibilities, but what's probably mattered the most to the reception of her music is the close study of emotional undertones she's conducted over her lifetime. She has a remarkable ability to distill how forces at work in the world — police brutalizing Black Americans, white religious indifference, plenty else — ravage human trust, and she can make even social and political protest feel like an intimate, warmly human act.

Oladokun's parents immigrated from Nigeria and settled in the Southwestern U.S. to start their family, and at a pretty young age, she saw the value in having a faithful and nuanced sense of self.

"I often refer to myself as a 'third culture kid,'" she explains, "because I went to school in America and had American friends, but I grew up in a pretty Nigerian household." Entertaining her parents' Nigerian friends, eating Nigerian food and listening to iconic Nigerian musicians like King Sunny Ade were standard parts of life. "I was straddling two very different worlds from a young age, and I think that obviously lends to what I do now," she says.

Oladokun's family lived in an Arizona farming town. Their rule was that TV was reserved for weekends, and when Saturdays rolled around, she and her sisters were allowed to work their way through the collection of concert videos that their dad had recorded on VHS. It proved to be a pivotal viewing experience for Oladokun when they reached the tape containing the star-studded, 1988 stadium show in honor of Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday. One of the many performers on that bill was Tracy Chapman.

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"It was the first time I had ever seen a Black woman holding a guitar," Oladokun says, "and I was 10 years old, which is something interesting to say about representation, that I could have gone a decade without seeing a Black woman holding a guitar. But the power of it was that the moment I saw it, I was like, 'That is where I need to be.'"

Introvert that Oladokun is, the moment her parents got her a guitar, she disappeared with it into her bedroom and savored the private joy, pun very much intended, of writing songs, her first attempt inspired by her Lord of the Rings obsession. With the occasional exception — a song of encouragement penned for a bummed-out school friend; a tune presented as a gift on a parent's birthday — she mostly kept her self-expression to herself.

But when Oladokun was 16, she was asked to begin leading the contemporary worship choruses at her church, a responsibility that she took extremely seriously. "I went from writing my own songs about my own feelings to just regurgitating the ideas of different Christian worship songwriters," she says. "So it definitely did a weird thing to my relationship with music for a second."

Oladokun studied English in college and remained on the praise and worship career path for a time, but she eventually began to question how well she was actually suited for it. "There were a couple of warning shots that I had while working at the church," she says.

For one, she wasn't yet out as gay, and she reached an ethical impasse during a discussion with church co-workers. She recalls the exchange with puzzled indignation: "The way that they were talking about queer people and hemming and hawing over whether or not we should allow a trans woman into the woman's Bible study, I was like, 'Are you for real? You people are sitting here talking about me, and you're too stupid to realize that you could even be talking about me, and you're saying things that are not great. And isn't Jesus's whole gig that everybody is welcome at the table? So should my involvement as a queer person, or any other queer person's involvement, be a question?'"

Oladokun decided to leave the world that she didn't trust to be welcoming, even if it also meant leaving her stable income behind, and threw herself back into writing songs in her own voice. She lived in L.A. at the time, and found her professional options to be limited. But in 2017, she experienced a miniature version of a viral moment: A song she uploaded to a site where writers pitch their compositions for licensing landed in a celebrity baby announcement video and helped her secure her publishing deal.

Her music career now stamped with that modest mark of legitimacy, Oladokun moved to Nashville. She took every opportunity to co-write and record with established pros, and since she shared their regard for sturdy songwriting forms and was eager to sharpen her skills, she clicked with her collaborators. But continually adapting to the well-defined processes of other songwriters and producers began to make Oladokun worry that her vantage point was receding from view again. "I felt like maybe I was losing a little bit of my sense of how I write and how I how I wanted to create things," she explains

It was then that she made a significant decision, particularly by Nashville standards: to cancel writing appointments and work toward a more self-sufficient approach to music-making in her attic home studio. Teaching herself how to operate recording software and build beats, she would often lay down her own live instrumental accompaniment on guitar, keyboard and drum kit as soon as she completed a song.

Subtracting outside input didn't narrow her sound; it ultimately freed her up to wrap easygoing soul, pop-rock, folk and hip-hop textures around her singer-songwriter sensibilities.

"What started as me needing a break to reconnect with my lyrical writing voice ended up expanding what my voice is and what making music in my style entails," she says.

By the COVID-19 lockdown, Oladokun was already accustomed to working from home. Her daily routine remained the same, and her morning meditation sessions helped clear the way for the songs that would round out her album in defense of my own happiness vol. 1, released last July. As the title suggested, the self-defense she had in mind was emotional in nature.

"It's more like fighting against external forces, like greed or our need for self-pity," she affirms. "It's literally like I am setting up a fortress around the good things in my life and protecting it not only from outside bad forces, but from myself. I think the idea of defense was really more of an internal one than external."

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That shifted as she absorbed the impact of Black Lives Matters protests and a volatile election year into her writing, processing the topical and personalizing the political in songs like "i see america" and some of the other tracks that she's released in a steady trickle, en route to the future release of in defense vol. 2. Those songs fit right into the rounded picture of what she considers worth writing about.

"Hopefully, me documenting my experience and my worries and my hopes and fears will — if it reaches, you know, someone who maybe doesn't agree with me — I hope it opens them up to the humanity of my thought process and what I believe," she says. "Especially for queer people and Black people and women, for marginalized groups at this moment, politics is not a separate matter. My right to marry my partner was on the line, essentially, this last election. I think that there's been a little bit of an urgency for me to be really honest about what it feels like to have such an uncertain future in the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Meanwhile, the pitching of her songs for TV series panned out like never before, with nearly half the tunes on her 2020 album and several loosies landing in multiple projects. "There was a lot of building up this momentum and getting the [music] supervisor community familiar with her as a songwriter and artist," says Walker. "It was all this work leading up to this time period where people were really looking for either hope or inspiration or to be able to connect with a message, and that's what Joy's music does. I think it just ties into a lot of these story lines so well, like an end montage of somebody losing somebody or falling in love or having a child. I mean, with one song, she can hit all of these different emotions."

For evidence that TV viewers took note of the soundtracks of solace that Oladokun supplied beneath melodramatic montages, Walker pointed to the massive bumps the artist received on the Shazam Discovery chart when her songs appeared on primetime shows. Enough people grabbed their phones and utilized the Shazam app to find out who that was singing to make Oladokun one of the most-searched artists in the world on three separate occasions.

Back when Oladokun was able to play club dates, she did a lot of talking between songs, some of it endearing banter. Mostly, though, she shared about her daily habits, her emotional health, her creative process in ways that came off as companionable and reassuringly revealing.

She wasn't willing to give that up during the pandemic. As her audience expands exponentially, she's remained intent on letting her listeners in through weekly, casually off-the-cuff videos that she's dubbed "porch talks."

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"Those are ways in which I can continue to be an actual human being and not just an artist," she says, "to remind people, 'Yes, I make music, but it comes from the life of a real person.'"

I asked her whether she plans to put her YouTube grant toward jazzing up her future clips.

"I had a long discussion with the creative team," she tells me, "and the thing that I kept saying over and over again is that I just want to retain my humanity. I want to retain a sense of Joy as a person that wakes up and takes her dog out and tosses the Frisbee. A porch talk, that is where that happens."

She pauses for a beat, before continuing: "But will it be on a nicer camera in the next few weeks? Probably. Things will change a little bit, but I don't want to overdo it."