Share this story!
Joy Oladokun found her purpose and her voice when she was 10 years old.
The year was 2002, and the moment arrived in the form of a video of singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman performing at London’s Wembley Stadium for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday.
“It was my first time seeing a Black woman play a guitar,” Oladokun says. “As someone who was having a hard time finding my own place and articulating my emotions, to see someone bravely, by themselves, express their feelings and vulnerabilities was transformative to me.
“I had seen people with guitars before,” she adds. “My dad loved Randy Travis and Tom Petty and all these all-American country and rock stars. But it wasn’t until I saw Tracy Chapman that I realized this thing that I loved was something I could participate in. I begged my parents to buy me a guitar for the next Christmas, and started my lifelong process of processing and expressing my emotions through music.”
This “process of processing” is now Oladokun’s passion and profession. In the little over two years since she self-released the album in defense of my own happiness, critics have praised her deeply emotional songwriting and her insights on life, love, racism, LGBTQ+ issues, and spirituality.
She has wowed audiences with her performances, signed a major-label deal, and even performed at the White House during the recent signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act. It’s been an exciting journey for a Black, queer, first-generation American woman who found her voice through music, and it’s a journey that’s just beginning.
An all-American African kid
Oladokun’s parents immigrated from Nigeria in the mid-’80s. Both healthcare professionals, they eventually settled their family of three daughters in the town of Casa Grande, Arizona.
“I was an American kid of sorts, growing up and going to school in American culture,” Oladokun says. “But also growing up in a house that was culturally Nigerian regarding food, language, and a lot of emotional standpoints.
“Growing up in Arizona was cool and exciting, but there weren’t a lot of kids like me. I was socially anxious. The idea of talking to strangers really freaked me out. When we went to a restaurant I would tell my mom my order, so she could tell the waitress.”
But Oladokun was never shy or hesitant about her passion for of music. “I’d make my dad take me through his record collection,” she says. “There’s a really deep, passionate community of country music fans in Nigeria. So when my dad came to America he was already a fan of Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and more. When he got here, he expanded his tastes even more. Genesis was one of his and my favorites, because they used a lot of West African instrumentalists and influences.”
“I do everything I do for the kid who feels like I did — confused and unsure how they fit.”
— Joy Oladokun
Oladokun’s jump from music fan to music maker was always bigger than simply learning to play an instrument. “I think I started writing songs the moment I picked up a guitar,” she says. “It was like, ‘I have this thing, and I’m going to use it to talk about the things that I love and the things I don’t like.’ I would write my mom songs when she had a bad day at work. Or later, when a friend was going through a breakup, I would make them a mix tape and then at the end put a song that I wrote about their situation. Songwriting was the key to communication, and I ran with it.”
While music provided the means to express herself, Oladokun’s shy nature meant she didn’t dream of stardom. “I wasn’t the kid who was dreaming of having a lot of people listening to me and my guitar,” she says. “I played through high school and worked at a church as a music director essentially through college, and a little bit after. What appealed the most about music, and still does, is the communicative aspects. Not only through the storytelling of a song, but also through the instruments used. All of it is about communication.”
In many ways, Oladokun’s work as a church music minister seemed to be the perfect position for her talents and demeanor, but there was a deeper conflict. From an early age, her own sexuality conficted with her parents’ traditional Nigerian culture and with the church they attended.
“At one point I came out to some select friends and church leadership, but their response was, ‘Cool. We’re going to help you not be gay,’ ” Oladokun says. “I eventually decided I was going to come out of the closet because I felt pretty sure that God didn’t care, but that meant I was going to lose my job. I had to start thinking about what my future outside the church music world looked like.”
Out West, out of the closet
Oladokun landed in Los Angeles, where she began building a new life for herself while working to resolve the conflicts of her sexuality and spirituality, her creative ambition and her timidity, and even her cultural background and racial identity.
Now Oladokun jokes that her unusual mix of first-generation Nigerian immigrant experience mixed with White American pop culture makes her feel like, “a middle-aged White guy trapped in the body of a 30-year-old queer Black woman.”
“Black [American] culture is beautiful and rich, and not at all monolithic in the way that it’s expressed,” Oladokun says. “It’s something I’m still learning. It’s like a whole language I need to learn and speak, partly because of the assumptions that are made when people meet me, and also because as an American I’m part of that community.”
She continued to write, and began recording her own material, self-releasing her first album, Carry, online in 2016 and scoring a publishing deal with the L.A.- and Nashville-based Prescription Songs. She also backed other musicians, including work with L.A.-based singer, writer, and record producer Andrew Watt. “I was writing for other people, but everyone told me my songs and my voice were so specific I should just put them out myself.”
In 2018, after several writing trips to Nashville, Oladokun made the move to the Music City. It was a leap of faith, but one that felt undeniably right. “I had no friends in Nashville,” she says. “I was the only person in my circle of friends that ever even thought about moving to Nashville, but Nashville was where all my favorite songwriters were.
“To me, Nashville is, historically, deeply, and passionately, Music City. I love living someplace that I feel like is haunted by the ghosts of all my heroes. It reminds me of what I can aspire to and what I can accomplish. I feel that people who live in Nashville tend to make music for people. My aim is to make music for people and myself to just help with life, so Nashville is easily the best place to do it.”
With a new home and a new focus for her career, Oladokun was ready to put herself into her own music with a new boldness. In 2019, she released the single “Sunday,” an unflinching look at the conflict between some religious doctrine and sexuality.
“The video is one of my favorite creative things I’ve ever been a part of,” Oladokun says. “It’s the story of how queer people of faith have to reimagine themselves after they come out.” But the song also reflects the moments of clarity that can arise when anybody experiences a crisis of faith.
“That’s the process I try to follow for everything that I write,” Oladokun says. “Yes, it’s my story, but if I expect people to listen to it, I have to ‘open the table’ a bit. With ‘Sunday,’ it was important to me to write about my experience, but hopefully everybody can relate to the pressure of feeling like they have to be something that they’re not.
“Expressing that and making something that helps people to process that feeling and break free is always the most important goal. My records are a balance of some really specific information about my life along with posing the question, ‘How about you? Have you felt this way?’ ”
“Black [American] culture is beautiful and rich and not at all monolithic in the way that it’s expressed. It’s something I’m still learning. It’s like a whole language I need to learn and speak, partly because of the assumptions that are made when people meet me, and also because as an American I’m part of that community.”
— Joy Oladokun
Writing deeply personal material while also connecting with universally shared emotions is the Holy Grail for any songwriter. Oladokun’s ability to do so was confirmed by her subsequent singles, as well as in her follow-up self-released album, in defense of my own happiness (vol. 1), in July 2020. Conceived as Part One of a larger album, the 10-song collection drew immediate praise for its deft songwriting and mix of pop, R&B, and folk styles. The deeply contemplative songs address such universal themes as rocky relationships, redemption and forgiveness, the persistent specter of racism, and the ghosts of the past. The album also attracted major-label attention, and Oladokun signed to Verve Forecast in May 2021. Part Two of the album followed, with a “complete” version released in July 2021.
“I’m still processing how my life changed after that record came out,” Oladokun says. “I feel grateful for the city of Nashville. These are songs that I write in my attic about my feelings, and anything else is extra. That people are listening and coming to shows is just nuts to me. I feel really lucky and blessed and grateful for the next chapter of my life.”
‘Proof of Life’
The next chapter includes, naturally, another album. Proof of Life was written over the past two years while Oladokun was on the road. Recording took place at a variety of studios, including three days of sessions at the historic Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, hallowed ground for a dyed-in-the-wool Jimi Hendrix fan such as Oladokun.
“It was amazing, and some of my favorite songs on the record came from those sessions,” Oladokun says. “I would go to the studio from 10 a.m. to 5 [p.m.], go do a show, and then come back to the studio to finish. It was a whirlwind.”
The album’s title reflects a freeze frame of place and time in Oladokun’s continuing journey. “I have a desk in my studio that’s full of little tchotchkes — rings, figurines, pictures of my family and friends,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘What would happen to all this stuff if I died? It would be like a snapshot of what was important to me, what interested me, and what I cared about.’
“The record is 12 or 13 songs that aren’t ‘little items,’ but they are something that could answer the questions ‘What did Joy care about?’ or ‘What did Joy believe in?’ I turned 30 while I was recording it, and I realized life is happening, and it’s powerful and beautiful. I wanted a record that reflected the moment I was having, but also the moment we’re all collectively having.”
As to where the new album falls in her personal and musical development, Oladokun is philosophical. “I love people who are in competition against themselves. People who are trying to get better and meet their personal best.
“For me, this record feels like growth,” she says. “It’s not better than my first record. in defense of my own happiness will always have some of my favorite songs and words and feelings on it. But I hope Proof of Life is proof that I’ve become a better songwriter, guitar player, and collaborator. I’m really excited to share it with people.”
As an instinctively shy person, Oladokun freely admits that writing and recording will always be her favorite part of making music, but live shows provide a purpose, especially in regard to a certain hypothetical audience member.
“I don’t have to share my songs with people to get what I want out of them,” Oladokun says. “The process of writing them down and recording gives me satisfaction, but to share them with others gives me a sense of purpose.
“I like to think I do everything I do for the kid that feels like I did — confused and unsure how they fit. Maybe they’ll see me finding my way in this world, and maybe that will give them a little hope to keep going forward. That is 100 percent the goal.”
Joy at the White House
On December 13, 2022, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act.
The bill guarantees Americans in same-sex and/or interracial marriages the same rights as all other married couples in all 50 states, even if the Supreme Court were to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges or Loving v. Virginia, which legalized same-sex and interracial marriages, respectively.
The signing ceremony was typical of such events. Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff were there. So was Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Pictures were posed for. Hands were shaken. The pen was presented to Harris, a longtime LGBTQ+ rights champion.
But first, there was music.
And sandwiched between performances by longtime and outspoken gay rights megastars Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper, there was Joy Oladokun.
She wore a vividly colored jacket. Her trucker cap exhorted onlookers to “Keep going,” as the sticker on her guitar urged them to “Keep hope alive.” Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she performed “Sunday” and “Jordan” from her 2021 album in defense of my own happiness.
Then she watched through tears of, well, joy, as Lauper performed ’80s megahit “True Colors,” a song Oladokun claims “saved my life a few times.”
“The signing of the Respect for Marriage Act means a lot to me as a queer human,” Oladokun said on Facebook at the time. “Yes, it means that I have the ability to marry someone I love, but I think it also serves as a reminder that the loving and accepting world I longed for as a queer kid is not a myth. It’s a reality that we have to build brick by brick every single day. Grateful for the help of President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for helping build that world and protect that reality.”
— Kristin Whittlesey