NATIVE Exclusive: BOJ is creating from a place of freedom
“I make the music I like and I know there’s people that will like it.”
“I make the music I like and I know there’s people that will like it.”
There’s a chance you may have heard the wonderful lore of how Bolaji Odukoya—performing under the moniker BOJ—laced the hook of an instant classic rap song. It’s a story that has been told consistently for nearly a decade but is yet to lose its lustre. If you haven’t heard it, here’s a summarised version of the anecdote: Looking to inject freshness into the Show Dem Camp catalogue, Tec got a Highlife-inspired beat from British-Ghanaian producer Juls, played it for BOJ, who briefly stepped out of the studio to connect with some higher vibrations, and returned to lay down the indelible hook within a matter of minutes.
“Feel Alright” the resulting song, is a seminal banger, the cornerstone to Show Dem Camp’s Palmwine Music’ series and Juls’ scintillating, hugely influential neo-Highlife-fusion explorations. For BOJ, it was one of the two collaborative songs that announced the singer as a distinct vocalist and etched him into the consciousness of Nigerian pop music. The other part of the breakout equation was Ajebutter22’s “Omo Pastor,” a humorous song with a bounce that remains unique till date. Both songs quickly established BOJ’s bonafides as a master of hooks and, thankfully, “Omo Pastor” has its own wondrous backstory.
“Butter sent me the song and he had a hook there already that he didn’t like, which he played for me,” BOJ recalls minutes into our chat over a Zoom audio call. Neither artist had met the other at the time—it was a connection fostered by mutual acquaintances, and the collaboration was pretty much based on vibes. “I went to the studio, I literally recorded something and I had to leave the studio for something, but I was going to come back and rerecord because I did not like what I’d done,” he tells me. Due to Butter’s insistence, he sent that initial draft without expecting positive feedback.
“I sent to him and they were all like, ‘Ye! This is the maddest thing,’” he says, adding that he was perplexed as to why they were enamoured by a rough draft. “I was literally fighting them that there’s no way this thing can come out like this, that I don’t like it at all, but they weren’t budging either. I was just like ‘fuck it’ and I was even thinking that they won’t release it.”
Usually, a new act gaining their first bout of widespread notoriety via features creates pressure, putting them in the difficult situation of hitting a commercially impactful home run with their next headlining single. After being the defining voice of two hybrid rap-pop hit songs, BOJ refused to overreact. Instead of swinging for the fences, the singer delivered a debut mixtape headlined by its title track, “BOTM.” Tilted towards the aspirational, the song, whose title is an acronym for “BOJ on the Microphone,” finds the singer revelling in the brightness of his future.
“BOTM” didn’t exactly put BOJ on the path of ubiquitous superstardom. It did, however, validate the confidence he had in his craft, receiving moderate attention and even winning the award for Best Alternative Song at the 2014 Headies. “I’ve always known I’m playing the long game,” BOJ says, with a palpable conviction in his voice. “I feel like I’m quite spiritual and God has already yarned me that as long as I’m doing what I have to do, putting the work in and making music, I’m getting where I’m going, no matter how long it takes.”
Debut albums are usually landmark moments for artists. For BOJ, it wasn’t—at least not for positive reasons. Three years after the Headies win, the singer’s debut LP, ‘Magic’, dropped under the direction of a label. Having sustained momentum in the intervening years with several singles and a handful of features, the album was meant to push BOJ up the ladder of popularity and mainstream reverence, especially with a stacked supporting cast which included Wande Coal, Simi, Banky W, Ycee, Olamide, and more.
On its merits, ‘Magic’ is an impressive debut where the moments of excitement outweighs its more tepid ones. Heavily tilted towards romantic concerns, the 15-track set is a suite of affectionate and assured performances over mostly sauntering and groovy beats laced by production duo, Studio Magic. It’s understandable that the album didn’t break the scale with regards to critical acclaim, but it was baffling that it barely registered to the wider Nigerian pop audience. There were clearly songs with hit song potential—the Simi-assisted “For Sure” was an obvious one at the time—but BOJ quickly moved on from the album, telling the crowd at a live show that he couldn’t “perform his recent shit,” barely two months after it dropped.
“Basically, it was a strategy misunderstanding,” BOJ tells me. “The label wanted to go a certain way and I wanted to go another way. When they didn’t want to lean towards what I wanted, I was just like, ‘Do what you want. This album, to me, is dead and gone.’” It’s not a unique situation, there’s several examples of artists citing irreconcilable differences with their label as the reason for commercial malfunction. In BOJ’s case, HF music wanted him to fully commit to the mainstream thing, but the singer wanted to maintain his alternative edge.
Despite the heavyweight feature list, there’s some justification to BOJ’s reasoning. As much as ‘Magic’ fit within the mid-tempo craze that had begun sweeping through Afropop the year before, it wasn’t reliant on the Banku sound Mr Eazi championed, neither did it lean on the ‘pon-pon’ sound that spawned mega-hits like Runtown’s “Mad Over You”, the basis for Davido’s dominant 2017 run. It was a pop album that wasn’t guided by trends—after all, “BOTM” and a handful of earlier BOJ songs already established his proficiency for mid-tempo pop jams.
Also, at the time, BOJ had emerged as a leading figure of the then nascent, liberally creative alté community, which prioritised independent expression over conformity. The singer was making alt-Pop music, and since his label was only focused on the pop, he decided to move on, deeming it another valuable learning period in his career. “I didn’t really dwell on it because there’s more where that came from, ‘cause I’ve never, for once, had any doubts of where I’m going to,” he confidently quips midway into our chat.
In the four-plus years since, BOJ has lived up to the bet he placed on himself, going on a productive run that has seen him masterfully hug the line between alternative and mainstream pop. There’s the delightful, summer ‘18 joint EP with Ajebutter22, ‘Make E No Cause Fight’, and its sequel with Falz the following year; he scored arguably his biggest song yet with “Awolowo”; and there’s his MVP-level showing on ‘Pioneers’, the well-received album from DRB—his rap-fusion group with Teezee and Fresh L.
That run has hit another pinnacle with the recent release of BOJ’s sophomore album, ‘Gbagada Express’, a highly collaborative effort with its creative beginnings rooted in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I started this album during lockdown when I was stuck in my house in Gbagada,” BOJ says. “That’s where my studio is, and because I wasn’t moving around, I was just being inspired by the sauce of Gbagada—of Lagos, really.”
‘Gbagada Express’ is a double entendre. There’s its obvious location nod to a central part of Lagos mainland, and the roadway that links directly to the third mainland bridge, which serves as connector between the island and mainland parts of the compact, densely populated city. On a slightly deeper and more consequential level, it’s an ode to making music that’s connected to your immediate environment, without being obligated to play by anyone else’s rules but yours.
“If you listen well to that Teezee skit on the album, that’s what it is. I’m just a guy from Gbagada expressing myself however it makes sense to me,” BOJ offers as context. While he spent his Uni years in the UK, and is currently splitting his living time over there because of work, being Nigerian, via his Lagos upbringing and affinity for the city, is the base of who BOJ is. Coupled with that Lagos to London privilege, the singer is also amongst a generation of digital era creatives who have grown up alongside technologically advanced globalisation, playing a role in his perception of the lack of borders to the music he can create.
‘Gbagada Express’ is a formidable exercise in melding identity with eclectic choices. The music ranges from sunny Afropop to R&B-tinged bops to mellow drill, while guests range from Nigerian pop superstars Davido and Wizkid to a roll call UK and Ghanaian stars like ENNY and Amaarae. In the middle of this whirlwind of choices is a devilishly assured BOJ, consistently setting a tone of excellence for his collaborators—even on songs he doesn’t open—and displaying a first-rate sense of knowing when to cede space and interject to regain the spotlight.
“Apart from just showing myself and my growth, I also tried to show my A&R skills,” BOJ tells me of his approach to making the album. For him, the sheer number of features and the range of music he dabbles in is emblematic of the freedom with which he creates. It’s also an acknowledgement that, as an artist, freedom is a two-way street and the only way to fulfil his end of the bargain is to deliver songs and albums that represent his ideals as an artist.
“I make the music I like and I know there’s people that will like it, so that’s who I want to mainly cater to. I’m not trying to force something down anybody’s throat. I’m all about expressing yourself how you feel, and that includes working with other people. I feel like I enjoy listening to myself more with other artists, even if the other artist has more vocals or whatever, it sounds nice to me like that.”
Nearing a decade since his breakout, BOJ is fixated on maximising every moment of his artistic journey. Occasionally, he’ll reflect on the seminal achievement of pioneering a crucial movement in urban African music, but he’s quick to admit that there’s more great music to make, more boxes to check, and more goals to accomplish. Consistency is a recipe for greatness, and creating authentically binds an artist to listeners.
“When people tell me things like I inspire them, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” BOJ says as we conclude our chat. “That’s what I’m here for, to let young people know that they can figure their stuff out and do things their own way—not even just in music, whatever it is—that’s what keeps me going.”
Stream ‘Gbagada Express’ below.
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