Joy Oladokun was recently named Billboard’s Pride artist of the month. She frequently shares photos of her girlfriend to her thousands of Instagram followers, and last year during Pride Month, she released a very queer music video. But in a way, she’s still in the middle of her own coming out journey.
It was only in the last two years that the 27-year-old up-and-coming musician told her religious Christian parents that she’s gay. Even now, her father is still struggling with the news.
“He is in a place now where he has to decide if his religious convictions are more important than his relationship with his daughter, and that is a place I do not envy as hard as it may be to understand,” she said. “We’re not not on speaking terms. I still talk to him a few times a week, but he doesn’t really ask about my partner. It’s still finding language to even say that I am queer, say that I am gay.”
Oladokun, a singer-songwriter whose songs fusing pop, folk, and R&B music have earned her millions of streams on Spotify, doesn’t shy away from talking — or singing — about her struggles. Her second album, “In Defense of My Own Happiness (vol. 1),” was released last month and deals with her religious upbringing and her experience as a Black, queer woman in today’s America.
“Making music in this time especially feels really important to me,” she tells GO from her Nashville home, where she has been quarantining with her girlfriend and dog during the pandemic. “And as a Black woman, the title ‘In Defense of My Own Happiness (vol. 1)’ takes on a different meaning when you’re talking about Black and queer culture in 2020. People like me are fighting for absolutely basic rights.”
Oladokun’s voice is velvety and piercing at the same time. Her lyrics don’t shy away from emotion or making the listener feel like she’s your best friend who you’re having a late-night heart-to-heart with.
“Momma says I’m up to no good again/ Couldn’t make her proud though I did my best,” Oladokun sings in “Sunday,” a song on her new album that deals with the fear that can come along with discovering oneself as a queer person. “Sunday carry me, carry me down to the water/ Wash me clean/ I’m still struggling/ Sunday bury me under the weight of who you need me to be/ Can’t you see/ I’m struggling,” the song continues.
The music video tells three queer couples’ coming out stories. It starts with a man talking about his struggle to come out before the two men are shown deciding to be open about their relationship and embracing happiness. A young woman dances by herself on a beach and is later joined by another woman in an embrace. A third vignette shows two women kissing and spending time with their children as a narrator can be heard talking about overcoming the shame and guilt she felt about being gay, and how, through accepting herself, she felt God’s presence.
Oladokun had a similar struggle with self-acceptance. Her parents are devout immigrants from Nigeria who settled in a small town in Arizona. The family is comprised of regular church-goers, and Oladokun spent five years in her teens and early-20s working at a church, where she planned the music for worship services and did pastoral work. But she was quietly struggling with reconciling her faith with the fact that she was gay, of which she became aware at a young age. At 22, she started coming out to some people in her life, and she left the church shortly thereafter.
“If God exists and He or She knows all things, then it’s not a surprise that I’m a queer woman in 2020 to God,” she remembers thinking. “No one could talk me out of it after that. I was like, ‘I think I have a responsibility to little queer girls like me who are super scared, and so they turn to Christianity to try to pray the gay away.’ I feel like I have a responsibility to live a loud and happy and spiritual life so that they know it’s possible.”
Still, some people from her past have yet to come around. “There will be this group of people who feel the need to comment on the decisions I make, saying, ‘I’m so disappointed in you for choosing this. I can’t believe you’re giving up God’s gifts to be a lesbian.’ And I’m like, ‘We’re five years out now, so at what point does my life stop being your business?’”
Oladokun released her first album in 2016, the same year she decided to pursue music full-time. In 2017, Ciara and Russell Wilson featured her song “No Turning Back” in a video announcing the birth of their daughter. She continued releasing music, amassing a growing following along the way. In 2018, lesbian YouTuber Shannon Beveridge featured her song “Sober” in a video, and since then, the two have been collaborating — with Beveridge making several videos for Oladokun’s latest album.
Oladokun found herself finishing up her latest album in the backdrop of two major world events: the Coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. Quarantined in Nashville, she was grieving deeply for Floyd and other Black people who recently died during or after encounters with the police.
“There was a week where I couldn’t even look at my phone,” she says. “I was like if I read I’m just gonna start sobbing and may not recover.”
It was out of that sorrow and anxiety that she wrote and recorded one of the songs on her album in the span of only a week. “I’m scared of getting pulled over ’cause of someone else I look like/ I’m scared of raising my voice ’cause everyone will think that I’m gonna fight/ This world was made for them/ This world was made for me/ How am I supposed to exist/ When a friend is an enemy,” Oladokun sings in “Who Do I Turn To?”
“As a Black person, you would expect … that people like me might be desensitized to hearing stories of Black people brutalized by the police, but it hurts every single time,” she says. But opening up and writing about these heavy topics — whether about being Black, queer, or her struggles with religion — comes naturally to her.
“It often keeps me up at night whether or not I would be more successful if I lightened up a bit,” Oladokun tells GO. “But I think as much as I do this for the audience and for other people to find their own healing and enjoyment, I do start out writing songs for myself. I am a person that is pretty introspective and pretty self-reflecting and really actually working to grow and do better every single day — and with that comes some heavy music sometimes. My goal is to put all the heaviness in the song so that it’s there, it’s on paper; I don’t have to take it downstairs with me.”
Oladokun’s latest album touches on other topics too, from dealing with a breakup in “Blame” to her penchant for smoking pot, featured in several of the songs. “I don’t wanna talk to God/I just wanna smoke weed,” she sings in “Mercy,” while her song “Smoke” opens with, “Yesterday I left my joint sitting on the counter/ Forgot to put it out.”
Since leaving the church, she describes pot as “part of my spirituality” and says it has helped her cope with her anxiety. “I used to not be able to clean my room or not be able to get out of bed to go to class, and there are simple things that weed has been able to bring my anxiety down to do,” Oladokun notes.
She views smoking weed as a contrast to what she was taught in church: to rely only on God. “I think in religious circles there’s this myth of homeostasis where you don’t need anything but God to be OK or to function, and it sort of permeates all the things,” says Oladokun. “I am still a spiritual person, but I just wanna do what I need to take care of myself.”
In between working on her music, Oladokun spends much of her time with her dog and girlfriend (she describes herself as “aspiring Jewish husband” in her Instagram bio, a nod to her Jewish girlfriend’s parents’ playful nagging that she should find “a nice Jewish boy”). She also enjoys gardening and playing video games and has a fascination with puppets (her friend made her a Sesame Street-style look-alike puppet clad in her favorite red sweatshirt that Oladokun shows off during the interview).
But she hasn’t exactly been taking it easy since releasing “In Defense of My Own Happiness (vol. 1)” last month. Oladokun is already working on the second volume, which she says will be released in the coming months. It’s her way of coping with a world that gives plenty of reasons for sorrow.
“I want people to feel like they have showered after they listen to my music, for it to be a cathartic and cleansing sort of experience,” she tells GO. “I know that sounds very mystical, but for me, songwriting is so healing. I start with something that’s pretty heavy, and by the end, I feel so much better. If I can take people on that journey and then inspire them to create and channel the things that they struggle with in their own lives, that is the dream.”
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