Meet Toulouse, The Nigerian Enigma Quietly Killing It This Year

Mihailo Andic
Cover art for "I Will Follow You" by TOULOUSE.

"I try to do things differently,” says the soft-spoken, ‘Sister Act’-loving singer connected to Apple and the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise.

Why can’t you see Toulouse’s face in the above picture? Because he hasn’t (publicly) shown it to anyone yet. The mysterious singer-songwriter has yet to play live or take a press photo that reveals his visage, but his name is becoming far from anonymous: “I Will Follow You,” Toulouse’s somber interpolation of Peggy March’s 1963 No. 1 smash “I Will Follow Him,” was featured in an ad for Apple’s iPhone 7 late last year, and a new song, “No Running From Me,” will be included on the star-studded Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, out Feb. 10.

"2017 is so wide-open,” Toulouse tells Billboard. "Last year was a little bit of a runway, and now I can go anywhere I want to. This year is all about building the foundation.”

So what do we know about Toulouse? He was born in Nigeria and came to America in 2004, when his family moved to Columbia, Maryland. He graduated from NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and after working on instrumentals for a handful of commercials, he signed a deal with Immortal Music, Downtown Records’ publishing arm. “I Will Follow You” is only his second officially released song; the first, the rhythmic and sleek “So I Know You Care,” was hailed by Zane Lowe as a ‘World Record’ upon its release last August. And recording “I Will Follow You” was inspired by — what else? — Whoopi Goldberg’s brassy performance of “I Will Follow Him” in the hit 1992 comedy Sister Act.

"I try to do things differently — even if I’m mandated to do something a certain way, I will always find a way to twist it up,” says Toulouse, whose “I Will Follow You” was picked up by Apple in September. "For this particular song, I’ve been in love with it for such a long time… My father traveled a lot as part of his work, and he always brings back something for me from other places. One of the things he brought back one time was the DVDs of Sister Act and Sister Act 2. That song was in there, and it was a jam! It made such an impression on me, so I decided to conceive the song in a more solemn direction. With this opportunity with Apple, in hindsight, I made the right decision.”

The reaction to the ad sync was instant: “I Will Follow You” opened at No. 2 on Billboard and Clio’s monthly Top TV Commercials chart last October, and has tallied 3.6 million Spotify streams to date. March, who recorded “I Will Follow Him” over 53 years ago, told Billboard of the song, "It’s so well done and Toulouse did a great job. It’s very modern and very pretty. He didn’t bastardize it in any way, and why not have a different rendition?”

Toulouse adds, "I’m not a good social media user, but when the ad came out, people replied to the song or commented on Twitter or Instagram. I clicked on a couple of the profiles and was like, 'This is surprising!' Men and women, everybody from every racial background, every age group — I had messages saying how touched they were, how important the song was for them.”

Next up for Toulouse: a five-song debut EP coming in February, and a live show to configure, which is set to arrive later this year. Until then, continued facial anonymity -- and a spot on one of the biggest soundtracks of 2017. Along with tracks by Taylor Swift + Zayn, Halsey and Sia, the Fifty Shades Darker compilation will boast a new Toulouse track titled “No Running From Me.”

For Toulouse, the major thrill of the Darker soundtrack is seeing his song right next to John Legend’s “One Woman Man” on the track list. “Because of John Legend, I got into songwriting in the first place!” he exclaims. "When I first came to college, I wrote my application essay about a John Legend song [’Show Me’] that inspired me. It’s surreal for me to see our names so close together."

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