Black History 365: Joy Oladokun
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With a guitar in hand, baseball cap over her eyes, and hooded sweatshirt loose, a woman sings with all of the poetry, pain, passion, and power her soul can muster. She is a new kind of American troubadour. She is Joy Oladokun. The Delaware-born, Arizona-raised, and Nashville-based Nigerian-American singer, songwriter, and producer projects unfiltered spirit over stark piano and delicate guitar. After attracting acclaim from Vogue, NPR, and American Songwriter, her words arrive at a time right when we need them the most.
“Words are such a powerful tool,” she states. “I remember all of the best and worst things anyone has ever said to me. I love and respect the ability of words to touch on the physical realm. I’m very intentional with my words. I’m grateful and try to be as encouraging as I can, because I’ve been in situations where that has not been the case and it’s hurt me or others. People are traumatized by words or uplifted and encouraged to change their lives and careers by them.”
The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she was the first in the family to be born in America. After some time in Delaware, they moved to Arizona. Dad’s record collection included hundreds of titles, and he introduced Joy to everyone from Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and King Sunny Adé to Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash. As mom and dad stressed academics, she wasn’t allowed to watch TV on weekdays. On Saturday, they would “either rent a movie from Blockbuster or watch the thousands of hours of concert and music video footage dad had recorded since coming to the States.” One afternoon, she witnessed Tracy Chapman pay homage to Nelson Mandela during his 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Arena.
It changed everything…
“I grew up in Casa Grande, which is in the middle of nowhere in Arizona,” she goes on. “I was surrounded by images of white dudes with guitars. I was programmed to believe people around me listened if somebody had a guitar. As a shy kid and one of the only black children in town, I had a lot of social anxiety. Seeing Tracy Chapman up there with a guitar in front of a full stadium was such an empowering moment. I ran into the next room and begged my parents to buy me a guitar for Christmas—which was six months away,” she laughs.
With her new Christmas gift, she went from crafting her first song about The Lord of The Rings to penning songs dedicated to her mother after rough days at work. Eventually, the local church needed a guitar player, and she ended up working there full-time for almost six years.
After college in Orange County, she relocated to Los Angeles where writing became a job…and she finally came out. “I quit the church and came out of the closet,” she recalls. “I got to a point where I was like, ‘If God exists, he does not care that I’m gay. With all of the things happening, he cannot give a shit’. I feel like it’s not an accident I’m a queer black woman writing and making music.”
She wrote and recorded countless songs alone in her Los Angeles apartment, even playing six instruments. Her music and story galvanized a growing fan base as she completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to release her independent debut, Carry. Her song “No Turning Back” soundtracked a viral baby announcement by Ciara and Russell Wilson, opening up the floodgates. She landed a string of high-profile syncs, including NBC’s This Is Us, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q. Around the same time, she settled in Nashville, TN and continued to create at a feverish pace. On the heels of in defense of my own happiness (the beginnings), she garnered unanimous critical praise. Billboard touted the album as one of the “Top 10 Best LGBTQ Albums of 2020,” while NPR included “i see america” among the “100 Best Songs of 2020.” Predicted as on the verge of a massive breakthrough, she emerged on various tastemaker lists, including Spotify’s RADAR Artists to Watch 2021, YouTube “Black Voices Class of 2021,” NPR’s 2021 “Artists To Watch,” and Amazon Music’s “Artist To Watch 2021.” Not to mention, Vogue crowned her #1 “LBTQ+ Musician To Listen To.” She kicked off the new year by making her television debut on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon with a stunning and stirring performance of “breathe again.”
Ultimately as she releases new music, Joy’s words might make you cry, and they might make you think, but they’ll definitely make you smile.
“When you listen to me, I want you to feel like you’ve taken an emotional shower,” she leaves off. “That’s what I’m trying to accomplish for myself. To me, music is a vehicle of catharsis. I write a lot of sad songs, but I always push for a sliver of a silver lining or glimmer of hope it could be better. That’s why I’m writing in the first place. I want you to be changed when you hear me, and not because I’m special, but because I make music with the intention to change myself.”