The Engine That Drives Odunsi

“I think what sets me apart is the conversation.”

In recent years we’ve seen a number of artist rise up from the cracks of the underground and captivate the masses with their homespun sounds. The world is embracing sonics ringing from Spanish Town, Jamaica to Lagos, Nigeria, which takes us to the reason why I’m sat here in a Danish cafe waiting on the leader of that cultural revolution. He goes by the name of Bowofoluwa Odunsi, but he’s most notably known as Odunsi The Engine.

2016 saw the birth of his afro-fusion sonic, 2018 found him re-model his unique sound into a debut album ‘rare.’, and today we meet up to discuss the upward and downhill thrills of his journey. I arrive early to the location so cannot resist scanning the menu and whilst I marvel at the exotic selection of teas, Odunsi walks into the cafe. Wearing a cotton black trouser and a knitted maroon jumper under a leather jacket, he appears to be wary at first, but as we break the ice he warms up to a degree and just as our drinks arrive, we begin to talk.

There are thinkers and then doers; Odunsi falls into the latter with his first taste of success arriving early in his career. His earliest collaboration ‘Situationship’ featuring Aylø was one of the tracks he achieved this with by slotting a top 5 position on Spotify’s viral tracks chart in 2016. As curiosity fills me I clutch my pen with the rough grip of a getaway driver switching between gears and start with the opening chapter of his story. Riddled with doubtful opinions he released ‘Time Of Our Lives’, his first project, on a whim; “people weren’t doing EPs and when you drop a body of work it means that’s what you’re using to say that you’ve arrived after you’ve had two or three hits. That was the culture at the time, and a lot people discouraged me. They said you’re wasting so many songs by putting them on a project. People don’t really know you yet.” In spite of the doubt for him “it was the first set of songs I’ve recorded. Let me just put it out.”

I read somewhere that Odunsi had initially started out as a producer, but the frustration of making music with others was the trigger for his trip into making music as a singer. He waits for me to finish my statement before politely correcting me with the truth, “it was a mixture of observation and frustration.” The trademark fusion of R&B, pop and disco that fill the core of his music did not always tantalise his peers’ tastebuds. “Anytime I made a beat I had to be in contact or explain to the artist what vision I had for it. Most people weren’t buying into it yet because I was very fusion proposed and that was my agenda — fusing sounds together.” I draw a comparison between his story and the rare bunch of rapper-producer hybrids that have left a mark in the industry, such as Mac Miller, MF DOOM and, of course, one of his biggest inspirations, Kanye West.

I picture a young Kanye West sat in the studio with both hands on the board and eyes fixed onto a screen with an unshakable gaze. A mantra that instructs producers to lock themselves in a room and produce 5 beats a day for 3 summers straight pops into my brain. Although, I question the statement it becomes the stimulus for my next inquiry. I ask how he went about making the transition into a recording artist and, at this moment the noise levels begin to rise as guests enter the café, he leans in closer for clarity. This time I reference the Kanye West anecdote and having understood, he perks up “I was definitely producing a lot of beats a day,” he laughs in a way that would make you think “a lot” was an understatement.

A lot of days and nights found him skipping class and staying up till late hours like any other hungry producer. But unlike them, Odunsi dedication to the craft found him eating and breathing everything music. “If I wasn’t working, I was watching something about music or watching documentaries or tutorials”, he says. “I just surrounded my whole mind around it”, he tells me, right up until he reached a point where he was confident enough to share his work in spite of the disconnect between his peers and his music. I commend him on what seems like an overnight success, but any logical person would understand that a long period of hard work precedes a breakthrough. “I was basically just tired of making beats and having only one person who understood my production style which was Santi”, he continues “he gave me my first proper feature.” What song was it? I ask, and just as he’s about to speak, it clicks and we simultaneously say ‘Gangsta Fear’.

The distinct dancehall chimes that you hear against the juxtaposed tones of ‘Gangsta Fear’ struck many with its genre-defying features. The Alté movement is a platoon full of many artists disrupting the narrative with their palette of sounds from beyond the continent. With genres such as r&b, soul and dancehall slowly taking precedence in the stomping ground of street rap and afrobeats. These stark sounds are in no way constricted to one location as some artists have began to barter their music with live shows on foreign soil. The reason why society seems to be accepting of the Alté, or alternative, sound is somewhat paradoxical. Mayuyka Kanadu sums it up best by defining the sonic as “a youthful sub-genre that tackles preconceptions of what African music is and can be”.

There were articles that described me as self-indulgent almost like who are you to even create such music.

With that said, I push forward with my Alté agenda and we briefly speak about Nigeria and a commonality we share in being young Nigerians. We also share common knowledge on music and its impact in a country that is rather conservative than progressive. Legendary musician Fela Kuti challenged society and its structures through his music. Today, we see the impact of his music through the longevity of some of his songs. Similarly, the Alté movement is breaking ground in Nigeria and it has been a big topic of discussion that has left many divided. “There were articles that described me as self-indulgent almost like who are you to even create such music”, Odunsi says bluntly. You can assume that driving change isn’t easy at all, but when has breaking boundaries been an easy task.

“We have to put it in the cadence of being from Nigeria. A country in west Africa with people highly geared towards making ends meet, art is seen as something that is luxury.” So when we discuss the challenges that come with the misconceptions of his music he speaks candidly. “To exercise that courage or risk to want to express yourself without the fear of failing, it is assumed [that] you must have a lot of money. But it wasn’t because [of] any reason specifically or it was like I was talking about money or wealth, meanwhile they will still listen to Ed Sheeran or Beyoncé.” Odunsi is the free bird that Maya Angelou once wrote about, he dares to take flight and claim the sky while the caged bird only dreams of it. “A lot of people see my music as kind of pretentious and like [you’re] from Nigeria. How come you don’t make, maybe, afrobeats?”

The conversation takes an emotional turn and, though Odunsi remains poised in his speech and motion, it’s evident to see that he’s been met with a lot of doubt, but yet he rises from it. To bring our conversation to a much lighter note, I ask Odunsi what it is that separates him from his peers. Without as much as a thought, he says “I think what sets me apart is the conversation.” His answer naturally rolls off his tongue as though it was his first instinct. “From my earliest memory there’ve just always been polarised opinions about me. With me I think it was like people hated me or liked me, and then bringing their opinions to the table to a place like Twitter where everyone’s opinion can get it.” He doesn’t regard their opinions as hatred, but jokingly shares that people express their love in a weird way.

I vaguely remember coming across his music online, but my curiosity grew when I caught the picturesque cover of his recent album floating on Twitter. ‘rare.’ is a body of work that soaks up life experiences and chops them into 14 tracks that stem from growth, love and self-discovery. His debut album was created in the space of two years, but it particularly draws from childhood memories which shape the sound of the album. Some of which include him growing up by a brothel across his house and hearing the loud music being played, and others through his older bother’s taste in music. “I had a brother who was 12-13 years older than me. So the music he was listening to, I was listening to.” When you strip back the layers of the album, tracks such as ‘take me there’ which features Hamzaa, includes a sample of a friend talking about Odunsi at a low point in his journey. “The complexity of life would expose a lot of the things that had been hidden in your mind,” he says with his head lodged below shoulders. I can’t quite tell how he’s feeling, but the thoughts that linger across his mind must be weighing him down.

Odunsi had revealed on Twitter that he had been dealing with depression and even considered taking his own life on several occasions. I tread carefully like a therapist trying to dissect his clients thoughts and ask him to elaborate on his struggle with mental health. “I think it just was understanding music business is different from music,” he says, “I didn’t know that earlier on because I felt like anyone who would like my music would like me or want me to do well”. The challenge that comes with occupying uncharted territory will have you feeling vulnerable, but to be an artist is to accept that feeling and actively resist it. “You would wonder why someone is doing that and at first you would take it really personal. You think that they’re doing it directly at you, but they’re just doing it to themselves”.

Freedom is the ability to do what you want without always thinking about how people respond to it

On the topic of his debut album ‘rare.’ which features a bag of big names and striking newcomers such as Amaarae, Solis & 234jaydaa. The trio make up the tangent that appear on the penultimate track ‘hectic’, a song with an overwhelming femme energy and one of the few songs Odunsi takes the backseat. The opening track ‘rare’ is a sacred segue to his album and a sequence in which the rising British singer Hamzaa takes us to church. Listening to ‘rare.’ you’ll soon realise that women contribute to the album just as much as their male counterparts. I ask him whether this was a conscious decision, and he replies with an unyielding yes. “The people I work with inspired me, and I just felt like the only thing that would have led me not to work with them is just me being selfish; or what people even claim me to be self-indulgent.” He speaks so highly of the women on his project and when asked about his favourite track, he chooses ‘angel’ featuring Duendita. The straight face Odunsi wears a smile as he explains his decision “when I heard her [voice] I was like this is definitely someone that’s going to be so special man.”

At the end of the day when it’s all said and done Odunsi is chasing after a feeling rather than a goal. It’s bigger than a five year plan, bigger than a Grammy accolade, bigger than a sold out show at Madison Square Garden. “Freedom is the ability to do what you want without always thinking about how people respond to it. It’s not to be free to do bad or kill anyone. I just believe in doing what I want as long as it’s not harming people.” 

Odunsi recently released the music video to his latest single ‘Tipsy’ featuring Raye. Watch the music video here.