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Joy Oladokun:”I love that people from all walks of life can find themselves in my music”

American singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun on vulnerability, music as activism and being queer and Black in the country music scene.

Photo: Lexander Bryant

The singer-songwriter, who grew up as the child of Nigerian immigrants in a religious community in Arizona, does not want to commit herself to one genre; her three albums released to date, which range between folk, Americana, country and pop, have earned her a broad fan base and critical acclaim.

In 2022, she performed at the White House as part of the signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act. Her latest album Living Proof, on which she collaborated with Chris Stapleton, Noah Kahan, the Manchester Orchestra and Mt. Joy, among others, was voted Album of the Year by the Nashville Scene. 

We met with the singer-songwriter at the end of February before her first show in Germany at Berghain-Kantine to talk vulnerability, music as activism and Joy’s experiences as a queer Black person in the country scene.

Hi Joy, how are you? Is this your first time in Berlin? 

I’m very excited! I haven’t been here before, we just got here. I’ve been walking around a bit and had a burger at, what’s it called, Burgermeister? It was so good! 

Growing up in a small town in Arizona, how did music come into your life?  

My dad is really into music, so I just lived in a house with a lot of music in it. We weren’t allowed to watch TV Monday through Friday. On the weekend, we could either watch a movie or watch hours of music videos and concert films and stuff like that. Because we wanted to watch a lot of TV, we would always pick the music videos.

If I had another job, I would still be writing songs at the end of the day

And finally, when I was ten, I saw a video of Tracy Chapman playing guitar. It was the first time I saw someone who looked like me play a guitar, and for some reason it just opened my eyes and I really wanted to do it, too. I was a quiet kid, so I think I needed to find something that helped me express all my feelings. I got my first guitar and sort of played ever since. It truly is my favorite thing to do.  

In your lyrics, you’re negotiating a lot of intimate things from mental health and religious trauma to navigating the world as a Black queer person. Is it scary to draw so much from your personal experience sometimes?  

The only time it doesn’t feel good is when it feels like my vulnerability is being taken advantage of. But for the most part, I love it. I try to write music that I can always learn from. Even if I wrote about a certain experience a few years ago, I want to be able to sing it today and still connect with it. I feel really lucky in the sense that I love the music I make, and I feel connected to all of it. And I feel really connected to the people who are coming to see the shows everywhere I play. Any fear of being alone goes away when I’m in rooms like this, because I’m across the world and for some reason people are coming to listen to me.

Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

You’ve said that your intention while making music is to help yourself process everyday life, and to help other people process everyday life too. Do you aim to be relatable? 

When I’m making something, it’s usually just because it makes me happy. It somehow worked out that I am an artist and songwriter for work, but if I had a different job, at the end of the day, I would probably still come home and play guitar and sing. But then there’s a part of me that chooses to open up and share all these things, because I feel like there’s a thought or an idea here that might help someone else. At least for the time being, I want to keep sharing the things that I think could help someone in this moment in time. Because the best part of this job is the people, you know? 

It’s like building a community with music.

Totally! The best part of this job is being able to come to Berlin and to process the fact that there are people in Germany who know who I am, who listen to my music and feel like it helps them. That’s so, so beautiful. I think it’s very similar to my culture, which is all about bringing people together, about eating good food and laughing and making sure people have what they need before they go on their way. I want my shows to feel like, hey, we’re just going to hang out with Joy for a little bit. Like having a glass of wine with a friend. 

Your Instagram bio says “your dad’s new favorite artist”: Your goal is to make music for everyone, even people you don’t agree with. Why is that important to you?  

I love seeing how everyone who comes to my shows is so different. There will be older men with beards, then all these queer couples and then all these moms in the back. I think it’s a really beautiful thing that people from all different walks of life are finding themselves in my music.

I want my shows to feel like…having a glass of wine with a friend. 

That is what I aim for, so that maybe when we encounter each other in the real world, we’re just more gracious and more understanding. You know, if some old white guy can hear my music and relate to it, then I hope that when he sees a queer person in the street, or a Black person, he thinks of it differently. I think that’s what I try to do: to humanise myself in hopes that other people might embrace their own humanity and then treat other people better.  

Do you view that as a kind of activism, too?  

Totally. It’s always been very important to me to be as much myself as possible all the time, so that when people are encountering me, they meet a real human being. I’m not like a rockstar of an artist, I’m just me, you know. I love what I do and I love connecting with people. I just try to do that every day.  

Cultivating this sense of openness and bridge-building seems like a rare thing nowadays.  

I think it’s rare because it’s not easy. The music industry doesn’t always create space for people to feel like they can be vulnerable and charitable and open and also be safe. I try to walk the line of, I am not a pushover, but I’m kind and I care and I work hard. The artists that I’m friends with, I’m friends with them because I love them and I treat them like I would any other friend that does any other job.  

Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Is that why you moved out of L.A.?  

Yes. More power to people who can survive in L.A., but I wanted to have a community and I wanted to feel like if I was sad or struggling, that there would be people around to pick me up.  

If you’re saying you want to make music for everyone, does that mean you’re pushing against being put in a box of a certain genre? Do you strive for pop stardom? 

I think about accessibility. It’s maybe less about a beautiful package and more about communicating an idea. I want to write something that is for everybody, but also something that speaks to my spirit and communicates what I’ve been through. Ideally, this will allow someone else to think about what they’ve been through and create a conversation between myself and the listener. That’s the ultimate goal.

That can be pop, it can be folk, it can be anything as long as it’s honest. I call it folk because folk music is the music of the people, and I’m trying to make music that feels like it’s created by an everyday person. My goal is truly just to write down my life as accurately as possible, and then open up the conversation to see what other people have been through.  

Everyone who comes to my shows is so different… Older men with beards, queer couples and then all these moms in the back.

The other day you posted a picture of you and Dolly Parton, captioned Make country music Black again”. You’ve collaborated with country artists like Maren Morris or Chris Stapleton. For the longest time, country music has been predominantly white space – is that finally changing?  

Actually, at the Country Music Hall of Fame in the States, they’re unveiling an exhibit with some of my stuff tonight. I think that’s really funny! I do sometimes write country songs; on each record, I would say there’s one or two songs that I would just fully describe as country. But living in Nashville, it’s been very interesting to see people do the mental gymnastics that they need to do to say that that doesn’t fit into the country genre or the world that they’re trying to build. 

Photo: IMAGO / USA Today Network

Is fighting for space in this industry something that’s important to you? 

I’ve been pretty outspoken about it. I’m not trying to be a country artist, so I point it out, but I don’t fight about it a lot because there are Black queer people who are actively trying to be country artists and I don’t want to take away from their space. But I do think it’s funny that I can work on songs with several really famous country artists, and get zero support.

I sometimes joke that people in Nashville don’t like me very much. If they were going to pick a Black person to put on the radio, they wouldn’t pick me because I like to talk about the difficult things. I think it would be easier to just pick someone who is silent. The country music industry is still a microcosm – it’s like a small picture of the American government! (laughs

With Beyoncé becoming the first Black woman to top the US country charts, it seems like her success is going to force a bigger conversation about these white-dominant narratives after all, right? 

I love 16 Carriages. That’s my favorite of the two. Remember when Lil Nas X charted on the country charts? They took him off. Beyoncé is too famous for them to remove her. As much as they want to lock Black and queer people out of country music, they can’t do that now because it’s Beyoncé! As much as people wonder what the greater ramifications of Beyoncé going country will be – someone will notice if Beyoncé goes missing from the country charts, you know? So I wish all the Dans and Stans good luck with that. 

Photo: Joy Oladokun

You’ve cited Tracy Chapman as one of your icons. How was it seeing her perform at the Grammys this year? 

It was so moving. I remember when she came back before the 2020 election, that was the first time she had played in years. She went on a late night show and didn’t say anything. She just played a show. Then she walked off and there was a little sticker on the back of her head that said: Please Vote.

She’s been very intentional about what she does and what she doesn’t do. And it was really cool to see her receive love for something that she gave to this planet so long ago. For her to be able to be in a room decades later and see a whole new generation of people who appreciate it, I think that’s really special.