'Art is a weapon': how Tobi is using music to heal
The Toronto artist's Polaris shortlisted album, Elements Vol. 1, confronts generational trauma and masculinity
Tobi's genre-melding Elements Vol. 1 jumps from fluid Afrobeats to glossy and anthemic production to gritty blues on the first three tracks alone. If the album sounds like a trip through his myriad musical influences and personal tastes, that's intentional.
"I don't like the feeling of being bored when I'm listening to music," Tobi told CBC Music. "I don't like when things sound stuck or too repetitive."
The album was shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize and it's the second full-length from the Toronto musician, whose real name is Oluwatobi Feyisara Ajibolade. The artist's look, when he was rolling out his last album, 2019's Still (which was longlisted for the 2019 Polaris Prize), was dapper, with a felt fedora and slick suits — the natural attire of someone with a silk voice and golden pipes.
Tobi grew up in the Pentecostal church and began singing in his church choir. There's a noted lineage of R&B singers who got their start in church and gospel choirs, including some of Tobi's favourite singers: D'Angelo, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé, to name a few. On Elements Vol. 1, Tobi flexes his vocal skills even more, adapting his delivery to the needs of the varied sonic styles the album explores.
Back when he first emerged on the scene, around 2015, he quickly proved that he can go toe-to-toe with any rapper. As a teen in Brampton, he started battle-rapping and that's how he began honing the other side of his voice. Now, he effortlessly flows between sorrowful crooning and spitting incisive bars — sometimes even on the same track.
Elements Vol. 1 is expansive not only for the breadth of its musical influences, but also its thematic underpinnings. From the typical sophomore album theme of contemplating newfound attention to questioning how to heal generational traumas, Tobi has penned a mighty tale of redemption, forgiveness while exploring vulnerability.
On the album's final track, "Still Singing," he asserts that he has come out triumphantly on the other side, not in spite of his hardships but because of them. The lyrics, "Feel every word so my tongue won't forget it/ thru these keys let my soul sing," reveal Tobi's devotion to reckoning with the adversity he has faced.
CBC Music spoke with Tobi about how he brought Elements Vol. 1 to life, how making the album became a saving grace throughout the pandemic and how he heals through his music.
We'll get into the album and everything you're working on, but I wanted to start by asking how it feels to be shortlisted for the Polaris Prize.
It's amazing to be recognized and shortlisted — that's the thing that I've always wanted. When I was releasing my previous mixtapes and EPs out into the world, they weren't getting a lot of recognition, so to be in that space now, it's a beautiful thing and I'm very grateful for it.
What was your motivation to include influences from various genres into the album?
As a listener and as a music fan I've been making a playlist called "Elements" for years. It's just how I engage with music. Wind is lo-fi, more lyrical, soothing music; water is something fluid like Afrobeat or Afro-fusion; fire is something more anthemic that just raises my energy, and earth is grounding music with a stabilizing energy, maybe there are affirmations in the lyrics. I didn't even have to put that much thought into how I wanted to incorporate all these sounds into the project because it comes so naturally.
You have more collaborators on Elements Vol. 1 than you did on previous work. What was it like working with other artists like Juls, Sango and Loony?
It was very special. It's so wild because I worked with all of them remotely during the pandemic. In a way, Elements really helped me get through the pandemic, because it kept me active. To be able to collaborate with Juls, who's across the Atlantic in London, Sango [based in Seattle, Wash.] or even with Loony, who's from Toronto but we just met a month ago since we were stuck in the crib, is one of the beauties of the internet — to connect with people all over the place. It's so cool because there are even programs where you can actually work on a session simultaneously with anybody with a good internet connection.
Throughout the album you're questioning Black masculinity, tapping into your own emotionality and trying to heal traumatic cycles — how do you go about portraying these themes so authentically?
I wrestle with that so much because I'm like, "How do I get this point across without sounding like I'm trying to tell you what to do?" I don't want to be in a place where I'm the all-seeing eye of knowledge and wisdom because that's just not true. I'm also a subject in this experience. I'm just telling my truths and how I interpret the world. Also, with some of my favourite artists, I feel like they're full-frontal, like Kendrick Lamar or Nina Simone, they're so open about the highs, the lows, the full picture of who they are.
Do you find that you heal through music-making?
One hundred per cent, since the very moment that I started. Music is one of those places where we can communicate things that we wouldn't normally say in everyday conversation, in a medium that is accessible and also free of rules. That's a powerful thing. Art is a weapon for a reason.
Another theme on the album is fatherhood. On the track "Family Matters," you rap on the subject with such conviction that I assumed you were a father. But you're not, right?
Fatherhood is such an important theme for me, but that song is actually about a friend of mine. Four years ago, I sat down with him and I've known this guy for 10 years, but he just says, "Yo, you know me but you don't really really know me." I asked him what he meant by that and we talked about it for so long and he opened up and shared so much with me and remnants of that conversation are in the lyrics of "Family Matters." I often draw inspiration from the people in my life. I'm definitely inspired by their stories because it's real and what's going on in my immediate circle is happening in every corner of the world. We're all just going through the same stuff, just in different settings.
There's a lyric on "Shine" where you're talking about breaking the cycle of feeling detached from your own father: "We was talking 'bout our fathers/ how we'd never be them/ shit, I forgave mine, he only human/ and to be truthful/ you know the fruit don't fall far." What does it mean for you to be able to reconcile in that way?
There's a point where a child's eyes open and they see their parents as human. That can be complex for a lot of people — it certainly was for me and my close friends. Learning that everyone has their story, everyone's taken a certain path to reach where they are right now. For me with my dad, I had to recognize that this guy has a whole host of traumas that he needs to unpack and deal with so I'm gonna do it right now.
Work through it when you're young.
I don't want to wait until I'm 48.
Your tour starts in the fall. How does it feel to finally get to perform in front of a real crowd again?
I've missed the exchange, the interactions with people in real life. Zoom is cool and all, but it still feels kind of weird. To be able to engage and touch hands and see people feeling in real time, oh my goodness, and dancing and moving. I can't wait to get my cardio up.
You're currently in Los Angeles working on your next project. What can you tell me about it?
I feel I'm working on the best music that I've ever made in my life. It definitely challenged me because it was necessary for me to put some things into song but I wasn't sure if I was ready to go that far. I'm working primarily with one producer, Alex Goose, who produced a couple tracks on Elements and we've developed a real cohesive relationship. Like Elements, it's going to be all different genres, but it's going to feel like one world.
Do you see yourself mostly working out of L.A. for the foreseeable future?
I'm going to be back and forth. There are so many things in Toronto that aren't here that I love, like Caribana, Little Jamaica and the African restaurants. I realized I need those things that make me me. I hope people feel the intention behind making Elements. It really is a reflection of Toronto in the sense that it's a melting pot of different sounds, different cultures and different flavours. I think that's what makes it such a special project. I want people to feel the words and the nuances because I put a lot of thought and intention behind each record.
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.