Joy Oladokun Reaches Out to the Mainstream With ‘Proof of Life’ Album

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This past awards season, Joy Oladokun was nominated for the Grammys’ first Song for Social Change award, for a song off her previous album called “I See America.” If all you ever heard — or heard about — was that tune (opening lines: “I saw God out on the block today / He was darker than the preachers say”), or know that Oladokun once called herself “the trap Tracy Chapman” (half-jokingly), you could easily leap to the assumption that she’s more of a protest singer than a pop artist. But can she be at least a little bit of both? She takes it as a compliment that anyone would use that second P-term in describing her third album, “Proof of Life.” Oladokun has been out on the road opening for John Mayer, and the new record is so radio-friendly — and just so friendly, generally — that it wouldn’t feel like a stretch to see her doing tour dates with someone like a Taylor Swift.

“I don’t know that I have ambitions to rock stadiums and be on, like, the Joy version of the Eras Tour,” she says. “But it’s so cool that the feedback to this record is that it’s mainstream; someone even called it a pop record — and I was like, that’s cool. I think my desire for things to be accessible to everybody is what makes it mainstream. As an artist, I think the the aspirations are mostly about: How many different types of people can we get to the table? Who else relates? We’re in such a fraught, weird, divided time. And it’s interesting because I am, as a Black queer human, a pretty divisive figure on paper. But I’ve been given this amazing gift to be able to make music, and I do feel like music is that one last open, safe dialogue that we’re having in humanity. So I want to create work that allows people to come to the table and to think, and to reconsider, and to have to hear my story, not judge it, and realize that they relate to it.”

Variety got on the phone with Oladokun on the eve of the release of “Proof of Life” to talk about subjects including her wanting to represent for queer kids and other outsiders; whether or not she identifies as an Americana artist; the new album’s duet with Chris Stapleton; turning down a duet with Morgan Wallen; playing a high-profile benefit in response to anti-drag laws in Tennessee; being signed to two labels, Republic and Verve; and why weed figures prominently into her persona and personal life.

People might have pegged you for a certain niche of music, but you have been out there succeeding in very commercial arenas — literally, when you’re opening for John Mayer on tour — and you have said you aspire to be the Black Bruce Springsteen. On top of everything else, there are songs here with hit potential. It seems like you are not considering “mainstream” a dirty word, at all.

I don’t know that like anybody would listen to the song I wrote about no one coming to my eighth birthday party (“Taking Things for Granted”) and be like, “This is a pop record!” But I do think that the journey of that song, and most of my songs, is about starting with the specific and the personal, and then reaching a hand out, whether that’s through a catchy melody or a guitar riff or whatever, and saying, “Do you also feel this way? Or am I just shouting my feelings out into the void?” And I think that’s what makes it mainstream.

I do think that for some people, encountering a Black queer woman at a John Mayer concert shifted their worldview a little bit, because they’re like, “I relate to this music, but I don’t relate to this person. So now I have to rethink how I would treat this person, if faced with them.” I think that that is the value of my work and what gets me out of bed in the morning is — the ability to not only represent a course for people who are like me, but also represent a change for people who are unlike me.

It seems like you’ve embraced wanting to be sort of an Everyman, or Everywoman, figure in a lot of ways, without losing the specificity of your story. And there’s a simplicity sometimes to the way you phrase things sometimes, eve around subjects like depression and anxiety — there’s a sweetness in the opening song in the way you sing, “It’s easy to feel kind of anxious,” that it’s easy to imagine being relatable for a lot of young people, not just the singer-songwriter enthusiasts who might have been your initial audience.

My favorite artists are conversational in the way they approach things. I want people to feel close to how they would feel if we were having coffee on my back porch when they’re listening to my music. Because I think naively, as a kid, that’s what I thought listening to records was, until I learned about personas and stage presence. I then sort of learned that there are things people can put on that then becomes the music. But as a lover of folk music at heart, there’s this real, innate desire for it just to be simple. And I want things to be beautiful and for there to be craft there, but I never want things to be overwritten; I always want it to feel genuine. And hopefully me overstating how genuine I want things to feel doesn’t become disingenuous. [Laughs.]

You said you don’t see yourself necessarily doing your version of the Eras Tour, but one thing you and Taylor Swift have in common is, you both have songs in your new albums about nobody wanting to be around you as a kid. So, maybe that’s what drives the great artists…

Totally. A hundred percent.

Up to now, at least, a lot of people have pegged you as an Americana artist. How much is that is people thinking anyone working out of Nashville is automatically that, or how much of it is how you identify? You play the Newport Folk Festival. But you cite some really mainstream rock influences, and this album does skew a little more pop than things that often fall under the Americana banner.

I think I put myself there (in Americana) a little bit, because as a human and an artist fascinated by what we brand specifically as sort of folk music, especially in this country, it’s cool to be part of the conversation, saying: Is music by a Nigerian American as American as music by Jason Isbell, or is it different? And if so, why? I like to sort of poke my head into the Americana and country music world, just as a reminder that I’m surrounded by about 20 guitars right now, and most of them are older than I am. There’s a deep relation there, even though the product doesn’t always come out the same. I like to be part of the conversation of, OK, what is Americana? Is it just things that Dave Cobb produces, or is it more? I bring myself back into that conversation.

I think the realistic thing is, I’m a singer-songwriter, because I write ’em and I sing ‘em — that’s pretty basic. But I like being part of the Americana conversation because there are some songs that I’ve written, even on this album, that creep their toes into those traditions. To be able to say, “I’m a person of color, and maybe I made a pop record, but I did do a song with Chris Stapleton,” and still kind of challenge some of the assumptions we have of what is or isn’t Americana, is really fun, for me. Probably for no one else.

Joy Oladokun performs during the 2022 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 24, 2022 in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images)
Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Ima

The Chris Stapleton duet (“Sweet Symphony”) had to feel like a big “get.” He has to field about 50 times as many requests to be on somebody’s record as he’s ever going to accept.

I feel so honored, not only that he did it, but that he was kind and engaged and really wanted to actually be part of it. Because I feel like some of those things can go either way. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Chris just did it for whatever his reasons were and never reached out to me and never communicated, so I love that he’s been so encouraging and excited. It’s crazy. I started that song by myself in my apartment five years ago, and my dream person to have on it was Chris Stapleton. I get emotional almost every time I talk about that song, because so much of it is the product of love from its origin to the fact that then Chris hopped on it, and then turned out to be a good human.

As an aside, there was a feature story on you in the New York Times that mentioned in passing you’d been asked to sing with Morgan Wallen, which seems sort of hard to believe.

Yes, twice. We are label-mates. And in my heart of hearts, I really do wish him the best and growth and health. I actually genuinely don’t believe in writing people off entirely. But I am really wary of who people show themselves to be after something happens. And I’ve just sort of always been uncomfortable with how people, whether it’s him or the people around him, have approached things in the wake of it. So I think whether it’s he needs more time or whatever, it’s just like it’s “no” for me right now, and probably forever. But it’s just an interesting life thing where it’s like, I get why people (asked). Of all the people in town, they’re not gonna ask Adia Victoria — because she’ll light their hair on fire. [Laughs.] I get why I was the one that they asked, and I also understand that they were surprised that I said no. But I think that’s the magic of my personality, that I am a sweetheart, but I have teeth. And I think drawing those lines and having boundaries in my career has been really important.

Speaking of labels, you’re on Verve Forecast-slash-Republic, which suggests a hybrid of some sort, figuratively as well as literally. Is there a symbolism to having both those two labels as your label?

Yeah, I have the coolest marriage of labels. I’m sure that conceptually, when it came about, it was maybe scary or nightmarish for them. But to me it’s cool to be tied to a label that is both legacy and cutting-edge like Verve Forecast — like, they have Maddy (aka Madison) Cunningham and Samara Joy, but also Gregory Porter. There’s such a deep history and respect for the craft, and an awareness of some of the things that I love that aren’t as mainstream, that I think have been really helpful to have Verve on my side. And then there’s Republic, which is, like, Taylor/Drake, cool and cutting-edge, specifically in terms of how they market things. What really excited me about Republic was wanting to be able to get people to understand that I do mushrooms and listen to Paul Simon, but I also watch “Real Housewives” on my free time. I think there’s been a really interesting dance of making sure people understand that I’m not 85 years old! [Laughs.] Verve and Republic have been so amazing. They work so hard. They’re totally flipping the narrative that we’ve heard about record labels all our life in the sense of, I feel really supported and heard, and accepted as who I am. And I think it’s maybe because I sort of fused these two babies together, but whatever it is, I feel really championed.

It’s understandable that you would say people sometimes think you’re older, because you’re somebody who knows and can speak about who Odetta is, but you’ll be mentioning your favorite videogames at the same time, so there’s that. And maybe you get some of your references through something else. Like, you’ve said you learned about Odetta through the Tracy Chapman influence. And then, you have an original song called “Purple Haze” on your new album, but it’s not your tribute to Hendrix, necessarily — there is a cannabis strain by that name you are paying homage to.

When we play “Purple Haze,” my guitarist plays the Hendrix line, because I’m also a Hendrix fan. And that’s why in the video, Jimi Hendrix and I fly the plane into a field of flowers, for a reason. [Laughs.] So that’s why I’m signed to Verve/Republic — that whole sentence right there. There are just a lot of cross sensibilities.

You also throw in an interesting range of covers, like when you play a snippet of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” at the end of your song “Somehow,” the closing song on the new album… Let’s talk about “Somehow,” anyway. You recently played that song at the “Love Rising” benefit at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, which was set up to fight the new anti-drag legislation, where you told the live audience and everyone watching via livestream about the meaning of that tune… that it was about escaping into the woods as a youth when you couldn’t deal with the pressure of being who you are. Can you talk about why that song was important to do at that show?

The “Love Rising” night was amazing. I really commend Allison Russell and the team of people that put it together. When things like that happen, you can’t understate what gathering together does for people’s morale.

Allison Russell, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Joy Oladokun and Amanda Shires perform onstage during the Love Rising: Let Freedom Sing (and Dance) A Celebration Of Life, Liberty And The Pursuit Of Happiness show at Bridgestone Arena on March 20, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The reason I chose that song is… The only reason I haven’t hightailed it out of Nashville for fear for my safety is because I think of young teenage Joy, living in a small town in Arizona. And I’ve been saying this a lot because I feel like it’s important for people to contextualize: Arizona is Texas without the character. [Laugh.] I think there’s an undercurrent of people that think I was in the desert and didn’t face some of the things that Black Southerners face, but I did. And then to be queer on top of that, and to be in a tiny religious town, where there was my Nazarene church and then “cowboy church” three miles outside of the city center…

I think that I chose that song to just sort of reach an arm out — first of all, to past little Joy, who never thought she would be in arenas, or truly would be alive at 31. I say that out loud a lot, because I don’t think people realize, whether it’s from mental health or the actual danger that queer and Black and marginalized groups face… we don’t always dream of bright futures. Specifically for “Love Rising,” I was like, if there’s one kid who’s livestreaming this in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio that can hear lines like “There’s this place in my hometown…” And I know the place that I’m talking about, but this might be a different park or lake or whatever to this kid, where they go to hide and process and to be afraid. And for someone young to hear that things get better over time through hope and persistence and awareness, I think, is helpful. Even if everybody else hated the song and there is one person that was like, “That was really helpful,” that is the goal.

And I think specifically for queer youth today… when I was growing up, I knew people around me were very vocally homophobic; I just don’t remember the government and the culture being so vocally homophobic. Maybe they were when marriage equality came up. But if I was a teen growing up today and I was having to listen to Ron DeSantis’ bullshit, or having to do shooter drills while my government in Tennessee bans drag queens, I would be so disillusioned and so fearful. So when I am doing these one-off appearances, maybe I just sing “Somehow” to say, “Hey, there is one adult human who is fighting and conceiving every day to make sure you don’t have to live in this weird world anymore.”

Singing at the White House for a marriage equality ceremony was probably not part of your vision board, growing up. So even though there have been lots of negative things happening in state legislatures, to be at an event like that where there’s something positive happening on the national level had to have been an exciting moment for you?

It’s amazing. If there’s anyone more confused by my trajectory than me, it’s my parents. Like, if they were taking bets on which of their kids was gonna end up at the White House, I was not the favorite. And I’m sending them videos of me smoking weed in Joe Biden’s dressing room. Anyway, I feel so blessed.

There’s a time when I was a lonely, fresh-out-of-ministry closeted person, just reading affirming literature in my studio apartment in L.A., and the thing that I couldn’t get rid of in my heart was: It can’t be an accident that I am this person right now, at this time on this planet. I just felt like being Black, being gay, being female-slash-gender-nonconforming — all of those things were coming to a head right as I decided to start pursuing music, or to stop doing what I was doing. So I think the thing that felt so significant about being able to go to the White House was, I was there for something that I never dreamed I would see our federal government acknowledge on that level. And two, I was there just as me. I didn’t pull any special strings, of being somebody’s cousin or something where they heard of me and they’re like, “For this day, this type of person might be a good representative.”

I’m one of those rare birds where it’s like, I don’t think I’m more talented and prettier than anybody else. I think that maybe the noise I’m making is consistent with what is happening during these times. And I just try to hold onto that, especially in moments where… not that I feel out of my depth, but I’m like, I can’t believe I’m at the White House, you know? And I just try to bring a sort of sense of confidence that comes from being like: There might be people who can sing better, but there’s only one me.

Speaking of weed in Joe Biden’s dressing room, you are very upfront about that, like when you were on Twitter the other day saying, “Smoking a joint in the sunlight, the way God intended.” There’s a lyric on the album: “Jesus raised me, good weed saved me.” Do you feel like you need to tell people that this is OK to help deal with daily life, and that it’s helped you?

Yeah. It’s funny, I lit a joint, as you started this question. [Laughs.] There are a few brands of stoners. I’m not one of the brands that thinks it’s for everybody. But I do think that cannabis as a plant is really medicinal, whether that’s me ingesting THC because I think it helps me focus and deal with anxiety a little bit, or my mom putting it on her muscles because they ache after a long day of work, and it’s just CBD and she’s not gonna eat Lucky Charms and pass out to “The Simpsons,” she’s just gonna go to bed. [Laughs.]

I try not to be secretive about the fact that I use it, and I also try not to be irresponsible, like, “Everybody do this.” A lot of people ask me how I get so much done, which, number one, is hilarious. But there used to be a time in my life where I wasn’t able to get as much done because I was so anxious that I couldn’t just sit down and focus on anything. So now if I have a joint with my tea in the morning, I can knock out emails for an hour while my eyes are at the bridge of my nose. And then I use it as needed to sort of bring down the anxious energy that I sometimes ride around with. I try to be open about it, just in case people need it.

Is there a song on the new album you’re most proud of?

I’m really proud of the album as a whole. It’s the only album I’ve ever made that I listened to… I haven’t heard “In Defense of My Own Happiness,” which makes everything that’s happened since even more confusing. It’s kind of awesome.

You never listened to that after it was done?

No. I listened to it during the mixing/mastering process, but after release, no. And there was a good chunk of time between mastering and release, so who’s to say what it sounds like?

Why can you listen to this one, then? Is it the way it was produced, or do you like the material better?

Honestly, this is true of “In Defense of My Own Happiness” too, but I think maybe it’s just the growth. I guess I hear this person that made a record in their attic like three years ago, who now made something that not only has Manchester Orchestra and Maxo Kream and Chris Stapleton on it, but is honest and vulnerable and interesting, and they’re the same person. And as I’m processing the things that have happened to me, this album has been a good guide because the way I write is almost like re-reading my journal. It’s allowing me to get a real sense of my bearings as an artist and a human now, which I need.

All my favorite artists are bands or pop stars that seem to be like in competition with themselves, if that makes sense — the Gagas and the Beyonces and the Charli XCX-es, but also the Sturgill Simpsons, people who chart their own course. And so I’ve taken a lot of… caution is not the right word, but I’ve been really intentional to be able to say my only goal as a musician, as a songwriter, as a producer, is to feel like I’ve moved the goalpost a little bit further. And that’s what I feel like this record is. I don’t know that it’s the coolest record ever made. I just feel like, as an artist on a journey of evolution, it feels like it’s growth, and that feels exciting to me as a human.

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