It's been remarkable to watch singer-songwriter Joy Oladukun's professional success, despite the pandemic: Her music keeps showing up on popular scripted shows like Grey's Anatomy and This Is Us, leading to live performances on late night shows with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert — all without really leaving her base of Nashville, Tenn.
On June 4, she released her third studio album, in defense of my own happiness, where she sings affectingly about her relationship with her father, identity as a queer Black woman and the process of grappling with religious trauma. It took her some time.
"I think if I had written about my experiences too close to them, I would have said things that I regret," she says, in an interview with All Things Considered's Ari Shapiro, "and I think that the distance helped that."
For the full interview, listen in the audio player above, and stream Joy Oladukun's latest album below.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the last year, a lot of musicians have struggled without live shows and tours to keep them afloat, so it's remarkable to see how Joy Oladokun has emerged into the spotlight.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOY OLADOKUN SONG, "BAD BLOOD")
SHAPIRO: She's had songs on popular shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "This Is Us" and live performances on "Jimmy Fallon" and "Stephen Colbert." Now, she has a two-part album out called "In Defense Of My Own Happiness."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BLOOD")
JOY OLADOKUN: (Singing) Precious like a diamond ring - I was wrapped up in you. You tore me like a paper thing, stole my love and my youth.
SHAPIRO: When we spoke this week, Oladokun told me about the musical inspiration that started it all for her - Tracy Chapman.
OLADOKUN: My dad loves music, is obsessed, and has, like, hours and hours of, like, concert footage, music videos, like, just all on VHS. And so I was 10 years old. And I remember exactly where I was. There was this, like, gray fuzzy carpet in our back living room. And I was sitting, like, watching this concert. And Tracy Chapman gets introduced. And, like, it's just her and her guitar in front of a stadium full of people.
And I was a really socially anxious kid. I grew up very conservative Christian in a very conservative town. And I'm queer, so I just - you know, and I knew at a very young age. So I just - like, I had a hard time expressing myself. And so to see someone that looked like me was life- and trajectory-changing for me.
SHAPIRO: There are a lot of places on this album where it feels like you're singing to that kid in Arizona.
SHAPIRO: You know? - like the song "Sunday."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) Mama says I'm up to no good again, couldn't make her proud though I did my best.
SHAPIRO: What are you trying to tell that Joy through this music?
OLADOKUN: That Joy learned to be sort of, like, a perfectionist and a coverer at a very young age.
SHAPIRO: A coverer?
OLADOKUN: Yeah, someone who covers. Someone who like - like, I didn't want to, like, say when I was struggling or when I was sad or when I was afraid. And I think that "Sunday" is to that kid who grew up needing to be a pastor to impress some white dude in the sky, saying, like, God does not care who you kiss, you know? God cares how you treat them, you know? And writing "Sunday" was just, like, a watershed moment of like it - like, enough of the fear. Like, it's...
OLADOKUN: It's OK. You're OK. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be straight. You don't even have to be a Christian any more. You can just exist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) Sunday, bury me under the weight of who you need me to be. Can't you see I'm struggling?
SHAPIRO: And as a person who's now left the church, left organized religion, what do you make of the fact that so much religious imagery still keeps finding its way into your songs? I mean, I think of a track like "Jordan."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JORDAN")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) They drowned me in the Jordan. Then they tried to wash me clean.
SHAPIRO: It's clearly still with you.
OLADOKUN: Yeah. I'm dating a Jewish woman. And I thought - I was like, sick, I'm going to avoid all my religious trauma.
OLADOKUN: But actually...
SHAPIRO: Surprise, we have our own religious traumas in the Jewish religion.
SHAPIRO: Hate to break it to you.
OLADOKUN: Yes, I have learned. But what I find so amazing about Jewish people is there is, like, this culture of curiosity that Christianity has not allowed itself to possess in a long time. And so I think that early on in our relationship, I was very anti-talking about my past in the church. But she was like, it's just always going to be a part of who you are and a sort of lens through which you see things. So you can either, like, try to, like, run from it or you can - you know, it's sort of like Rafiki says in "The Lion King" - you can either run from the past or you can learn from it. And...
SHAPIRO: So many influences (laughter).
OLADOKUN: (Laughter) Too many influences. A lot of Disney influences. Anyway, I just - like, I'm still - sometimes I still get sad about, like, how I was treated after I came out by my Christian friends, you know? And "Jordan" helps me deal with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JORDAN")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) Now we're building our own promised land. On this new ground we stand.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying some of these are songs that you might not have been able to write five years ago, that you needed the distance from being embedded in the church. You needed the distance from the trauma of breaking with the church to be able to explore some of these themes.
OLADOKUN: Yes. Because I also - when I left, I was - I had a lot of emotions. But the one I am just now realizing was sort of this energizing undercurrent all along was anger. And I think had I written about my experiences too close to them, I would have said things that I regret. And I think that the distance helped that. There's a song on this album about my dad - my relationship with my dad.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOY OLADOKUN SONG, "LET IT BE ME")
OLADOKUN: He grew up in Nigeria, and it's illegal to be gay there. And he had a hard time - like a really, really hard time - when I came out of the closet. But he also has, like, let himself expand as a human, you know?
OLADOKUN: Like, I was home a month ago with my girlfriend. And, like, they were, like, talking about pocket knives in the kitchen and, like, feeding the chickens, you know?
OLADOKUN: It's like - it was crazy. And I - like, I think that I'm glad I didn't write about my feelings when they were fresh.
OLADOKUN: Because I do think people are people, and they have their blinders on, and they have their beliefs. And I had my blinders on, and I had my beliefs. I'm sure people from that period of my life have plenty of complaints about things that I did or said, you know? And - I don't know - just wanting to honor that.
SHAPIRO: Let's listen to that song that references your father. It's called "Let It Be Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT BE ME")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) Let it be you who's proud of me sort of 'cause blood is blood at the end of the day.
SHAPIRO: I love the lyric, let it be you who is proud of me sort of.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's such a perfect little tweak.
SHAPIRO: You know?
OLADOKUN: Just, like, a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOY OLADOKUN SONG, "LOOK UP")
SHAPIRO: Your parents come up in various places on this album. I mean, you sing about being scared of your father. You sing about trying to make your mother proud. You said your father was obsessed with music. How do your parents feel about this amazing breakout year that you've had?
OLADOKUN: They were scared at first. I'm sure - like, I just - parents want their kids to do well. And I think at first when I became a musician, we were a little at odds because they're like, I'm sorry. You're saying musician, and I want you to be saying doctor (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Right, right. It's the classic child of immigrants story. Like...
SHAPIRO: ...Unless you're going to be a doctor, we're not going to talk about it.
OLADOKUN: Yeah. Like, how much higher education will this require?
SHAPIRO: But then when they hear your voice on a massively popular show like "This Is Us," it has to be a moment, right?
OLADOKUN: Yeah, those are the moments I get to share with my family. But it's also amazing to be like, hey, mom and dad, the thing that we have been, like, sowing our, like, energy and hope into is starting to pay off. Like, and that's the type of stuff I can, like, share with them. And that's...
OLADOKUN: That's really fun and beautiful and, like, confidence-building for everybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK UP")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) So don't tell yourself it's raining. The clouds are in your head.
SHAPIRO: Joy Oladokun's new album is called "In Defense Of My Own Happiness." Thank you so much. It's been great talking with you.
OLADOKUN: It's been great talking with you. Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK UP")
OLADOKUN: (Singing) Before you fall again, before you lose it all again, look up. Do you see the sunlight? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.