The name Tolani means deserving of wealth in the Yoruba language and the singer-songwriter is deserving of just that. Tolani, just like her music, is so easy to relate to, speaking to her was like catching up with a friend that you’ve haven’t seen for years but the conversations just immediately flow.
We caught up with her to discuss her single ‘Badman’, the ‘lazy’ genre labelling of African artists, her song-writing process and growing up in between the UK and Nigeria. She also has some amazing ideas on how to take music to the next level, think music, food and lights!
Tomi: Is your latest single ‘Badman’ autobiographical? Are you addicted to ‘bad boys’?
Tolani: It’s based on true stories sadly [laughs]. I’m ashamed to say that most of the stuff I write is based on real life experience. Yeah ‘Badman’ is one of those, it’s pretty self-explanatory and it’s just like ‘what’s wrong with us’? What’s wrong with girls and boys? You see the thing that you should want and should like on this side but you always go the opposite way to the thing that you’re like ‘huh’. Every experience that I’ve had has told me this is not the way to go but somehow you end up there.
How do we stay away from these ‘bad boys’ Tolani? Give us some tips.
Oh gosh! If I knew I wouldn’t be writing songs about it, now would I [laughs]? I mean I think it’s about coming to some sort of awareness, they say awareness is the first step in changing things so now that I’ve written this song and put it into the universe, I feel a bit of pressure to do better now. So yeah just trying to decide what’s good for you as opposed to what’s just exciting which is not always an easy call to make right? Sometimes the things that are good for us are not all that much fun in general but yeah I’m making those hard choices. Making those choices for your future and being like ‘okay in a year, this thing is going to be better for me rather than this other option’.
2020 has been a year like no other…
Oh my gosh! I can’t wait ’til 2026, you know how people are like I can’t wait ’til 2021, I can’t wait ’til 2026 where 2020 is so far behind us [laughs].
What’s it been like making music during this time? Has it been easier or harder?
To be honest, it’s been up and down. At the start, you know I’m one of those people who’s a homebody anyway so I was just like ‘what government sanction, staying at home, that sounds great’. So in the beginning I was cool, I was like I get to spend time at home because I don’t mind being at home, I get to spend more time winding down and having more introspective moments. In the beginning writing was good, writing wasn’t hard and I liked this time I was having to myself, had time to go through my repertoire and work on songs that were unfinished. But then one month in, two months in and by month two and half going on three, I was like wow this is not that exciting. Now you’ve been at home for a while and you’re not going out, you’re not getting inspiration and you’re not having experiences and after a while it does get a bit much. Writing became not so easy, I just felt like I want to get out now and resume the life that inspires my writing. It’s been a bit of both, now I’m really happy, like now I’m talking to you from the park and I’m really happy to be outside, getting some fresh air.
Are you thinking to put out a project this year or would you prefer to put one out next year?
At this stage, I’ll probably wait ’til next year. The plan was to put out a project this year. I’ve been working on my debut project for a while and the plan was to put it out in summer 2020 but obviously that didn’t happen. I’m going to wait and then put out a couple of singles before that project, which has kinda worked out well. I think that an artist can never have too many singles that draw more and more attention to you. So by the time you put out your debut project, people know more about what you’re about and they’re expectant. I’ll wait ’til next year just so that it gets that attention that it deserves.
If you could describe your music with your own made up genre, what would you call it?
Oh wow…ooh that’s a hard one! I’ve never thought about that because I’ve always been made to describe my music with genres that already exist. I’d call it ‘experiential Afro-pop’, that sounds weird maybe ‘Afro-pop soul’, you know because I write from experience a lot. Most of the songs that people love that I’ve put out are songs that I’ve written quite quickly because it was based off the back of an experience or based off a feeling that I’ve had. I’ve found it hard to write music…I know as I grow in my career, it’s actually a skill to write music from a place of imagination but mostly right now I can only write from a place of experience. So you know there’s the Afro element which I don’t think has to necessarily be instrumental. I think when people hear Afro, they think it has to be one particular rhythm but I think Afro can be anything, you know I’m African and I think the way that I sing, my cadence, my choice of words, that’s the Afro that’s in it and doesn’t have to be just the sound. I often say pop instead of music because it blends music of popular culture whether it be influenced by a bit of R&B, hip-hop or soul, it’s popular culture’s language. Then I also like to write with a bit of soul, put a bit of myself in the music so yeah ‘Afro-pop soul’.
When you’re an African artist they label everything as Afrobeats.
Oh my gosh right! It’s just like no guys, it’s extremely limiting for us and I think it’s understanding, you know when people come across something they don’t understand, they want to give it an accessible, bite-sized label. But I think it does our music a disservice because there’s so much breath in African music and just because someone is African, it doesn’t make their music Afrobeats. Africa is so much more than just Afrobeats so I’m hoping that in time, people come to recognise that.
There was a discussion around Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’ project and if it would do justice to Africa. Have you watched it and what did you think about it?
I have watched it and I think it’s good. I think that any kind of appreciation of the breath of Africa is something that I’m happy to see, any kind of understanding that there’s so much beauty and depth. But I think that people…you know with ‘Black Panther’, the villain was angry with Africa because it left him, there’s a different perception. You know there’s Africans all over the world and this project was good because it tells a story to Africans that are not maybe in Africa about what their heritage is, so I love that about it. I think that it’s great, a lot of Nigerians were like ‘what is this and why is there paint on her face?’ and I’m thinking guys this is beautiful, this is not for us. It’s not for us that see painted faces everyday on Nollywood but it’s for the Africans in diaspora that are in this time especially looking for a connection to who they are and where they came from. I love that about it!
You grew up in both the UK and Nigeria, what did you love about growing up in these two places?
I was born in Nigeria, my first years of life experience was over there and I love the rich heritage, that rich inputting from our families. On the one hand when I came to England, I was like Nigeria is so stifling but on the other hand, that thing of you’re not an individual just by yourself even though it can get frustrating, there’s some beauty in that. In Nigeria, you’re part of a community, you’re part of a family and you’re so-and-sos child, they barely call you by your own name. Although it has I admit, some of its negative sides. There’s definitely an individualistic culture in the UK that is not always that great because especially during this lockdown, nobody wants to be alone and nobody wants to be just an individual all the time. So I missed that part of Nigeria and it added to who I am when I came here because I tried not to lose those elements and stay connected to my friends and my family. But the UK has its great sides which is a lot more independence, that sort of if you want it you can go after it and get it attitude. I think if I had stayed in Nigeria, I probably wouldn’t have branched out and did music.
You collaborated with Reekado Banks last year on the song ‘Ba Mi Lo’. Which Nigerian artist would you love to work with next?
Oh my there’s so many, where do I start? Of course king Burna, that’s obviously fresh on my mind, I love Wiz, Temz, there’s too many to name. It’s only a matter of time, I love collaborations as it brings out a different side of you and it brings out more beautiful music when different styles and experiences come together.
What concept would you like to try in your music? Say you have an ‘unlimited’ budget.
This sounds nuts but I’ve always wanted… so I love food, I’m a massive foodie and I’ve always wanted to try and find a way to merge music and food. You know you go to these things where it’s a multi-sensory experience, taste, sound, sight, it’d be really cool to do something where music was the sound element and at the same time you’re tasting food, seeing things. I think that would be really dope right? So the music…you know how they pair wine and food? They would pair music and food, have lights so basically all of your senses all like ‘woah what is happening?’. Something like that would be nice, I told my manager once and she told me to chill out [laughs].
What can we expect from you outside of music? What kind of projects would you like to work on?
Fashion is something that I love, I think there’s a huge space for what I call ‘comfortable fashion’. I think there’s room for baggy clothes with swag, with comfort and great fabric. Just easy fashion that’s beautiful! I love kids so I have some philanthropic dreams, I love young kids and I’d love to show them what their potential is. It’d be nice to use your voice for something other than yourself.
How have you been spending your time at home? What shows are you currently binge-watching?
You know when you’ve binge-watched so much that I don’t think I can look at the TV screen anymore. At the start of the lockdown I was eyeballs deep in…I have a weird obsession with K-Dramas. I’ve been watching them since I was 12, like deep in my mind I’m Korean [laughs]. I love foreign movies, I love cooking and eating, hence why I’m in the park because I have to undo some of the damage I did.
When you get a moment to PAUSE, what do you like to do for self-care?
I developed this during the lockdown, during this season so I’m now a massive believer in the power of meditation. I think we don’t realise how all over the place the things in our minds are. I used to think I was really mindful until I started meditating but then I realised the power of a mindful individual and the mind that can control itself is big! It sounds counterintuitive because you think meditating is quite self focused but it allows you to see outside of yourself, be a bit more compassionate, loving and be aware of other people.