Being a Black man in North America historically has never been an easy feat. Almost as soon as they begin to utter their first words, they are immediately taught to be the tough guy. Showing affection to your relatives? Basically forbidden. Tapping into your feminine side? No no, that was for the weak-minded. Thinking about crying? Don’t let anyone even see as much as sniffle lift your nostrils.
These were the struggles that Nigerian-Canadian rapper TOBi experienced while growing up. Born Oluwatobi Ajibolade in Lagos, Nigeria, TOBi later moved to Ottawa, Ontario at nine years old. Now 25, the artist had to unlearn all of those societal lessons that constricted his true self. Soulful melodies helped him find an answer.
“I speak the language of music — like, I’ve been writing poetry and verses and songs since I was eight years old,” he tells Billboard. “They were rudimentary songs at first, of course, but it’s just always been my go to. It’s been instinctive for me to just write a song.”
TOBi continued to explore his passion while studying biology and psychology at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University, which has led to the release of his debut album STILL. Released today (May 3), the project digs deep into topics that were once made uncomfortable for Black men to face: vulnerability, empathy and unconditional love. Throughout the album, the rapper’s voice cracks, sinks low, soars high and overall reflects a strength he now carries because he’s no longer afraid to just be. It sends a message to his fellow brethen that it’s okay to tear down those toxic walls that confine their masculinity, and tap into their emotional side with confidence.
Below, TOBi breaks down the personal growth he went through that led to creating his debut album — from embracing his Nigerian heritage to learning how to process love in a healthy manner.
Who were some of the artists you connected with the most growing up?
I used to listen to a lot of East Coast hip-hop music: Lox, The Diplomats, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, Nas, Fabolous. But I also used to listen to soul music too, I just used to find these random records in my dad’s possession, like Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye. I didn’t even know what it was at the time. I was just like, “What is this? Why is it doing this to me?” It moves me internally, good music. I just close my eyes and it takes me to a different place, like an out-of-body experience.
Do your Nigerian roots influence your music as well?
Absolutely. I used to listen to, when I was young, Fela Kuti, Sunny Adé — these are Nigerian legends. Magic System, African legends. Also, I speak Yoruba, which is my ethnic language. I’m not the best at it, but I’ve been re-learning it, because I feel like I pushed it away when I was young. I was kind of like, “No, I want to be cool, I want to follow this Western lifestyle.” But in the past five years, I’ve really made a conscious attempt to reconnect to my cultural heritage.
And it’s made me feel so good. Like saying my full name in songs, speaking some of my language in songs on the album. It just feels good. It feels like I’m doing the right thing.
The talent in Toronto has been overflowing, especially after Drake skyrocted. How are you able to find your own lane within the sea of artists coming out of your city?
I think the lane that I’ve kind of made for myself is an amalgamation of everything that I listen to. I don’t really care about following trends or the waves. When I put out “City Blues,” people told me “Yo, this is different, I haven’t heard this in years.” You know what I mean? Like, it sounds retro. And I was like, “Well, it just pulled me.” I don’t listen to trends, I listen to how it makes my core feel, like my gut. That’s what I listen to.
I’m going to get into some of the highlights on the album. The opening track “Growth” sounds like you’re trying to blossom in both your career and in your personal life.
It’s like I’m lamenting on the record, you know? I’m being open and candid with you about what’s going on. I think in order to move on in life, you need to address the past, accept it and then you can be free from it. I think awareness and acceptance is tantamount to growing as an individual. And that’s all it is. It can be scary to acknowledge our inner battles, but it’s important.
What were the battles that you faced that inspired any of these songs?
The process of assimilation into a new culture, not feeling like I belonged for a long time — which has an effect on your core being, your mental health, how you interact with the world around you. [You] feel like, “Yo, like what am I doing here? Where do I belong? Like, where’s my place?”
Did that start when you first came to Toronto?
Oh, that definitely happened when I first came: my voice, clothes, style, not understanding the cultural nuances. It’s just what it is. And then watching your parents leave pretty decent careers back home to come here to do a job that they’re extremely overqualified for. But, they just have to do what they have to do. They never complained to me. But I could see the toll that it had on us. So, it was motivating.
Just listening to the music, your mom seems to have a great impact on your life. Now that you’re making more money and getting more recognition in music, do you feel like you have to carry your family along with you through this journey?
She’s definitely a very strong, independent woman and she’s always taught me that if you’re going to do anything, you make sure that you do it right and to the best of your ability, and that’s facts. I definitely feel like I have to hold them down, because they sacrificed so much for me. My siblings were all hardworking as well. Our parents ensured that we became contributing members of society.
Your mom is also featured on “conflict, still,” with her asking you to come home. Why did you decide to include her voice on the album?
I needed her voice on there because that experience, I feel like it’s a universal experience like there’s so many people who have gone through that, especially black males like teenage black boys. That’s an experience that a lot of us have shared — overanxious mothers — due to this society.
“City Blues” was the first song that I heard from you. The main thing that really stood out to me was that jumped off the gate to talk about misogyny. As a black woman, obviously I deal with that on the daily. So it’s very encouraging to hear a black man target those issues in a song.
There’s multiple reasons why I included that, especially in the beginning. So I wrote the song last year and at the time, I was seeing that there happened to be this gender divide online. It was almost like a debate between both sides; it was a bit polarizing. And I just thought I’d bring that to light because I think we should be allies, and allyship is one of those things that I believe will progress the humanship in whatever capacity. When it comes to race, when it comes to gender, when it comes to sexual orientation, we need allyship. And I just wanted to bring that to light in my music, because I think as an artist, it’s my duty to do so.
There’s one line that also stood out to me, it’s right in the beginning of the hook: “Monetize my pain and commodify my frame.” Being in this industry, have you experienced any times where you feel like people may have been pressuring you to maybe write certain things, or feed off of your fame in any way?
I’m blessed to say that that hasn’t happened to me. I don’t know what the future has in store, but I’m a pretty self-aware individual — I’m not going to do something that doesn’t feel right with me. But I feel like that’s something that has happened historically, the commodification of the black body: not just in entertainment but just in general. You know, I’m actually glad that you brought that up, I didn’t think people would really explore it. I feel it’s one of those “if you know, you know,” type of deals.
I connected with “Locked In” the most because you talked about how it’s easy to get locked in place. There’s been plenty of times in my life where I don’t want to go the extra mile. Were there any times where you caught yourself in a state of sameness and you had to break out of that stagnant mentality?
Absolutely. When I was doing my undergrad, it was probably some of the roughest times of my life. Because it’s like, “Where am I going? Like, what am I doing this for? I have this thing that’s burning me up that I have been doing since I was 10 years old, how come I’m not pursuing that?” There were points where I just wanted to give up, and just say, “Hey, fuck it” to both. Honestly. But it’s easy to just be a nihilist and say, “No, there’s no use in doing anything.” But I assure you, there always is. Just the mere action of getting up and challenging yourself is a liberating feeling.
“Sweet Poison” is one of the few songs where you dive into the topic of love. And I wanted to get your point of view of any tribulations that you may have had being in love or relationships or the lessons that you’ve learned, whether good or bad.
I think as people, sometimes we get attracted to the wrong things. But it’s just part of the learning process, right? And it’s a bit of a paradox, because I’m saying, “Yeah, I’ve been wrong before, but yet here I still am, still wanting this thing that’s not necessarily good for me.” And whether that’s a strange or unhealthy relationship, whether that’s a habit or a vice that you have — it’s common, it’s a universal human experience. And I’m not going to shy away from that topic, because I feel like when artists make music or people make films that directly correlate with an aspect of your life, it feels good because you know you’re not alone. So that was my purpose behind that one.
The final song I wanted to talk about was “24.” I heard the Daytrip production tagline in the beginning and knew it was going to be dope. How did you guys connect?
[Take a Daytrip] are actually managed by my manager as well, and I had cut a bunch of records on their beats. And this one in particular, it was one of those songs where I had the idea all ready but I just needed the right canvas for it to go on. Then I heard the beat and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect for it.” And that was it. I recorded that in Toronto, went out to New York, and we pieced it together. It had to go on the album ‘cause it fits with the preceding song and the succeeding song and the narrative. So it worked out.
They’re very prolific. When I was with them in New York, they banged out so many records in like three days, it was unbelievable to watch. Their work rate is just so quick. Even between me and them, I probably cooked up like, six, seven records with them — one of them being a song that I released last year called “January, December.” So I write fast, they produce pretty quickly, so it was simple.
As black men, you’re stereotypically not allowed to show emotions and cry. But in your music, you cast it all aside and really put your feelings out there. What song on this album was the most difficult for you to write?
Probably “Growth.” Because every time I listen to that song, it’s just cathartic because I’m being open about a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally tell somebody. That’s the interesting thing about art; it’s gonna be a bunch of new people listening to these records that I don’t know. And they’re getting a glimpse of my innermost details. So I was scared. But it’s important for the reason that I mentioned before, because I know there’s going to be other people who can relate to at least one aspect of it.
So yeah, that song was definitely the most difficult because I did have fear in putting out such details of my life to the world. But it’s necessary. I want to model that behavior for other young men to be like, “Yo, you can be vulnerable, you can process your emotions in a healthy and safe manner, and I’m not going to judge you for it.”
When people hear about TOBi, what do you want them to remember you as?
Paradigm shift. I want to usher in — not that this has been unexplored before — but continuimg to explore honesty, vulnerability, processing emotions like healthy masculinity. Also shed light on important social issues and bring people together. Bring people of all creeds, of all walks of life together. Absolutely.