I always want to be a source of warmth to people, through my music”, said the soft spoken singer, Odunsi the Engine, somewhere deep in our conversation. It’s exactly how I would’ve described his music had the words come to me. In the midst of the cacophony of loud, yet very infectious beats, and equally loud voices, with catchy melodies and sometimes nonsensical phrases, Odunsi the Engine provides a solace for those who are not always as “on” as a lot of mainstream Nigerian pop music requires us to be. His voice and the energy he conveys through his music, reminds you to breathe in deep and exhale slowly. As for the 22-year-old himself, the same is true. Odunsi is very honest yet somehow still diplomatic. His default expression is neutral, giving very little away, and while that can initially throw you off if you rely on facial expressions to guide you in conversation (which is fair), you soon realise that he is listening, pondering on it so that when he does respond, you understand that this is a person who doesn’t wish to waste his words or your time; he wouldn’t talk just for the sake of filling the silence. He is very happy to sit and stew in it. This made my interview with him both a very chill experience and perhaps one of the most interesting of the series so far.
Here, Odunsi, who is working on his debut album now, shared his thoughts on mental health, toxic masculinity, his love for Sade, the importance of stage presence, and much more. – SONIA IRABOR
Let’s talk about stage presence. As you grow bigger in the industry, performing around the world and on bigger stages, how important is the stagecraft aspect to you?
The stage factor is super important because I feel like that is where you are able to define yourself and your personality more to people who might have heard about you [and those who] haven’t. It is also a part of the music but equally separate, like plays in theatres. It is something that might take you a while to get the hang of but it’s very important. I haven’t played a lot of shows since I started – I can count how many I have done to be honest – so for now, I’m just learning, watching stuff, building confidence.
Because that’s a huge part of it, isn’t it? Confidence? To be able to even move about on a stage.
Yeah! Because you also don’t want anything to go wrong with the song so you’re very conscious about that too. You don’t want to do too much. At the same time though, you need to do something so that the people are engaged. They’re not just focusing on the song, they’re [also looking at] your character, your movements, the show as a whole.
There was an interview where you mentioned acts like Trybesmen as an early influence. They were pioneers of a certain type of sound in Nigeria at that time. What was the major influence of these musicians for you?
For me it was their fearlessness, especially in a time when there was no money [in the industry]. I think that was what made them fearless. They felt like they were doing what was in their hearts, what they were inspired to do, so there was no dilution. It was all innovation, trying to make things work.
Their songs, videos, style, and writing; everything was very strong. It was all about the passion for them and I respect that.
In comparison to now, when we have access to so much information and equipment that earlier acts like StylePlus weren’t opportune to have, some people still argue that it hasn’t influenced the quality of content in music…
I think that has a lot to do with the current situation in the country. The music industry got a lot of investment at one point so the people who were popular at that time might have been the ones who made complete pop music with minimalist lyrics and heavy beats. Eventually that became the go-to style. So minimalism just became a style and is breaking into all sides of the world not just Africa. So it is hard to think outside the box because it is literally what you see everyday. It would take a different experience altogether – something external – to bring something else to the public. The record labels also add to the system. Most of them are set up to make money not to make good music.They are more interested in signing up acts to make more money… and the cycle continues.
There is also an interesting theory that because of the way the country has been, people prefer to listen to that kind of music as a means of escapism, what do you think about that?
That theory is quite false, because I feel like no one needs to be necessarily talking about the things happening in the country. Fela was more like an insider than an outsider. He made informative music [exposing information about] the government that the newspapers wouldn’t tell you. Today, I can easily get access to any information I need so we don’t need a Fela anymore [in that sense]. Music has always been a form of expression of similar mindedness that is meant to connect with your emotions. So when an artist shows you something whether in a song or an artwork and everybody who is feeling that emotion connects to it, it might heal you or trigger you but whatever it does, is like a cleansing process. You tend to feel some togetherness or belonging to whatever that is.
The major aim of African pop music is to make you dance. It is spread out in clubs, parties, wedding celebrations. You dance and you feel merry. At other times, there isn’t enough music that serves other purposes: [when you’re] feeling down [for example], or music that explains the dynamism of relationships, mental health, how to deal with depression. All that space is empty so I think that is what people are trying to fill up.
On the issue of mental health, I saw a series of tweets where you talked about your experience with depression. Why did you feel it was important to share that?
There was a whole lot going on for me at that time, even before I decided to do music, and I fell into depression. I thought that if I went through all that and still managed to function, then people needed to hear about it. There was a girl on Twitter who had [shared] disturbing tweets at the time, I could relate to that because I had suicidal thoughts too. I reached out to her on a level I felt she could connect with, in terms of relativity. I did not try to offer encouraging words or reasons why she shouldn’t be having suicidal thoughts. I only asked her if she had thought about suicide thoroughly and [if she was] convinced that was what she wanted. I did that because I was experiencing the same thoughts and I thought it was the best way to get to her. We got talking and luckily, we were able to get her the help she needed. It was after that incident I decided to open up to other people. Before then I had never told anyone what I was going through. I reached out to platforms on social media that were involved in mental health [initiatives] and the response was great. I connected a lot of people experiencing depression to those platforms.
That’s so amazing to me, so many are still afraid to speak up, to seek help because of the way our society has handled mental health.
What are your thoughts on the issue of toxic masculinity hindering a lot of men from seeking help in cases of depression and other forms of mental health challenges? Is there a truth in it or you think it is just an idea?
There is definitely a truth in it. It is not something I realised early in my life though I feel like I realised it earlier than some men do. Maybe because of the type of women I was surrounded by. I had watched them experience a lot of things and so I started to gain more consciousness, just generally on how it would be to be born a woman. I started to understand why it was important to ask some questions when dealing with stuff like, why do I have to do some things? Am I doing it from a place of the society that tells me I have to be a man or am I doing from a place of a person with emotions, which is natural? You know, how society has placed a lot of expectations on the men in the aspect of weakness. I learnt that I cannot control everything and I decided to accept it. Twitter helped a lot too. my friends and I became closer and we learnt to share. I think when the consciousness grows, people will start to understand that talking about your problems is better than just keeping them inside. My life was made better by that.
And self-reflection is so important. People really are too afraid to address themselves because of what might come up. We often just bury them.
[The lack of] self-reflection is the reason why there is a lot of phobia. That is the reason why people take drugs. People would rather not think about a situation in case it is connected to them. Like a son finding out that his mum isn’t really his real mum. I think masculinity should be balanced, some people think you have to be extreme or you have to be soft but it is wrong, you just have to be a little of both.
I think if Nigerian men can learn to come together to have real conversations about real things it would help a lot in various aspects of our lives.
Circling back a bit. Was your music – or your creative process – in any way impacted by you sharing your journey with depression or reaching out to the lady and other people on Twitter who were experiencing mental health challenges? If it was, in what way?
Yes, it was. It influenced me, energy-wise. I always want to be a source of warmth to people through my music. That [experience] made me make music that was soul touching. I like to think that, with the people following me and my music, slowly I might have made them change the way they feel about things, to be less aggressive or less dismissive about certain things. In the future, when I organise a concert, if someone loses their phone. I want it to be that [the audience and I] could all decide to [help them] find it. That is the kind of energy I want to bring and the only way to achieve that, is for me to be in touch with my masculine and feminine sides. For example, women are seen as the hot water while the men are seen as the cold water. My aim is to bring both together. To let women also feel like men, and the men also feel like women too. That seems like a problematic statement, but it is also a real statement. I would rather fuse them both together. So that was how it affected my music.
What is the one song that you feel has impacted you the most?
My earliest memory of a song that I really connected with was Sade Adu’s “By Your Side” I was probably too young to even understand what she was saying but it was cool. I remember I used to dream about her then and in my dreams, she would come to me. Sade is very important to me. Basically I’m her fan like a lot of other people, [but] there are probably some things about her music that I wouldn’t know. On a deeper level
though, there is more to [my love for her] than that. It is spiritual and inspirational.
What music concert changed your life?
I didn’t grow up attending shows but last year’s Afropolitan Vibes [featured] Danfo Drivers and Shina Peters. It was one of the craziest concerts I ever went to and it was amazing. [Shina Peters’] performance was awesome. To think that his sperformance [only gets better]. He’s even better than he was when he was younger, which was sort of weird. I was impressed. It was super entertaining.