TOBi’s music has a knack for speaking directly to the times in which we find ourselves.
Earlier in 2020, the 27-year-old, Brampton-based hip-hop artist released a star-studded remix of his song “24,” that featured Shad, Haviah Mighty, and Jazz Cartier unapologetically addressing systemic racism, stereotypes, and racial profiling. Released in early May with a powerful, thought-provoking video in tow, it arrived just weeks before the world was rocked by the brutal death of Black man George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The song’s lyrical exploration of the precariousness of Black life was a sobering affirmation of a prevailing reality.
Likewise, TOBi’s latest release of ELEMENTS Vol. 1, his latest, 10-track mixtape project (released Oct. 21, 2020) is palpably urgent and relevant, following on the heels of the deluxe version of his 2019 debut STILL, which conveyed the cultural dissonance he experienced after moving to Canada from Nigeria as a child. (The STILL+ remix project now boasts a combined total of 17 million streams across all platforms.)
“[ELEMENTS Vol 1] is more about my approach to my artistry, and exploring different sounds, and exploring the depth of my artistry,” says TOBi, stopping short of calling the project his sophomore album – instead aspirationally likening it to Lil Wayne’s Dedication mixtape series. “Whereas STILL is a concise autobiographical story from start to finish. Boom, there it is. And [ELEMENTS] is more, like, for the mood, for the music, for experiencing different parts [of me] and seeing what comes up.”
The loosely exploratory approach on ELEMENTS Vol. 1 only underlines the impressive versatility and adaptability of TOBi’s vocals, which oscillate between singing and rapping with melodic ease, and lyrically draw on the poems or journals he writes before he enlists any musical accompaniment. While TOBi looks to Toronto collaborators like producer Harrison and singer Loony on the project, the connection with producers like London, U.K.-based Juls on “Dollars and Cents” is more emblematic of how the project sonically connects the global Black diaspora.
“I had these songs for a little while, and I wanted to get them out, but not in a traditional album format because they’re more experimental, you know, I’m trying different things on there,” says TOBi. “You know, there’s the grime record, the Afrobeats record. There’s the more contemporary R&B joints on there, too. But, you know, the overarching theme of the project is Black joy as a form of resistance. It’s been a lot of year for everybody, but especially I think the struggles of Black folk have been pretty evident this year. Even with COVID, compounding that the [George Floyd] protests going on, and with the [#EndSARS] protests in Nigeria, it’s just a lot going on. And I was just like, I gotta get to work. I’ve recorded so many songs in the past few months, it didn’t make sense for me to just keep it to myself.”
“We want to change the narrative without being martyrs”
“Made Me Everything” crystallizes the resilience that TOBi is talking about. While the song possesses an infectious energy, and is accompanied by a joyfully effervescent and eye-popping video, the song is ultimately about persevering to overcome the depths of despair.
“I definitely took heed from the sample at the beginning,” says TOBi, referring to Words of Wisdom-Truth Revue’s 1971 vintage soul track, “You Made Me Everything” which underpins the track. “In the song, [the lead vocalist] is lamenting, but it feels so spiritual, and it takes me into this ethereal space,” says TOBi. “I was reflecting on what pain meant to me, and not letting it keep me down, and acknowledging that it exists, but being better for myself, and being better for the people around me, and envisioning a brighter future. That’s what it’s all about.”
While intensely personal, TOBi’s music has wide resonance. The lines “Well-spoken for a Black man / That’s how you serve a compliment with your back hand,” that open the second verse of “Made Me Everything,” offer a perfect example.
“It seems every time when I talk to a Black man who’s heard the song, that line always comes up, because it’s just such an interesting phenomenon that you just can’t escape. You know what I mean?” says TOBi. “The fact that so many people have experienced it, it just means that it’s indicative of something that we can’t escape, which is white supremacy… It’s just what it is. And sometimes when I put the line like that in the song, I’m not even trying to make a point. I’m just being honest about what’s going on and how I feel. And I feel like, if so many people can resonate with it, there’s got to be truth to it, right? It’s not fabricated.”
The approach speaks to a larger goal in TOBi’s creativity. Not only does he want his music to be timely, he wants it to be timeless. “I wrote it [“Made Me Everything”] in 2019, before the protests this year really took off, right? And whether I wrote it in 2019, or 1996, or, like, 1984, the sentiment would still be the same, you know, it carries over through time,” he says.
“I think like so many other people in this world we’re, like, tired of re-living the same tropes, the same narratives, and we want to change that without being martyrs, or sacrificing our own inner peace and inner sanctity in the process. So, that’s, that’s really how the song makes me feel. It makes me feel motivated, it makes me feel empowered, it makes me feel validated. And I think a lot of people feel validated by certain lines in there. But this is just strength, man. Like, I’m grateful for the things that are going well, and the things in my control.”