The elite boarding schools of Lagos were dominated by the frustrated offspring of politicians and tycoons, and governed by tyrannous Christian fanatics. Kids there grow up fast. Tony Njoku was no different.
Between the abuse, both mental and physical, meted out in the name of religion, and the almost daily battle to defend himself in an institution where student violence was endemic, sometimes weaponised, by the time Njoku was transferred to school in London at 14 his experiences had taken their toll. He had become someone he was not.
“I moved in the middle of winter. The first thing I noticed was how much calmer London was than Lagos, and how orderly everything was. But most of all, I didn’t have to fight at school anymore. At least not as much.”
“Back then, for us it was fight-or-flight. So ever since i’ve had to unlearn harmful habits I picked up along the way. When I moved school I continued to fake a macho persona, but as I realised what was important to me, that faded away. Moving to London felt like a second lease of life.”
Before coming to London, Njoku’s first attempt at making music, at the tender age of 12, was a foray into hip hop. The genre felt counterintuitive. In the capital, it wasn’t long before he found his own voice.
“[In Lagos ] I was in a toxically masculine and homophobic environment, and as a boy anything other than that was beaten out of you. Literally. So when it came time to express myself I immediately hid behind aggression and smart wordplay. The music I was really drawn to, however. was far more feminine. Bjork, for example, But removed from that environment I became less rigid in my definition of what it means to be a man” recounts the softly spoken 23-year-old.
“You can even sense it in the last two hiphop albums I made when I was 16: a marked shift in the content of the music, and in my lyrics. I was becoming more comfortable with my vulnerability.”
Slowly but surely, rapping gave way to singing and experimentation. Fast forward 7 years and Njoku in his current musical iteration is a firm fixture on London’s underground art scene. After debut album ‘In Greyscale’ (2016) was met with universal acclaim, Tony went on to win the 2016 Green Man Rising competition with a performance that Huw Stephens and festival organiser Fiona Stewart declared the highlight of the weekend. A headline tour was to follow, leading to a series of notable support slots with such avant luminaries as Rival Consoles and Anna Von Hausswolf.
Since he first put his hand to experimentalism, just three years ago, Njoku has emerged as the real deal, in that, like all greats – Eno or Wire, latter-day geniuses Bjork and Laurel Halo – he has the uncanny ability to convert the ideas and aesthetics of high art into sonic form, and expand on the meaning. Many of Tony’s favourite artists are given new life on his upcoming, second album ‘H.P.A.C.’
Much like the recording artists who inspire him – Arca, Anhoni, Bjork – making music has been for Njoku about self-reification through metamorphosis; the reinvention of a person who will not let the past define him.
But the destination he has arrived at has given rise to old issues with identity for Njoku. In a London avant garde scene dominated by white performers and patronised by a largely affluent bourgeoise, Njoku feels once again like somewhat of an outlier: stranded in a cultural liminal zone just as he was amongst the rich kids of Nigeria. “Two white for the black kids, too black for the white kids” as he puts it.
“In the avant garde music circles of London you just don’t see many artists like me doing what I’m doing. Though I’m sure they’re out there. They’re just not very well represented is all”
“And I’m sure there are artists of colour in these circles working with an afrocentric palette, but I hardly hear of them.”
Recently a fan told Tony that given the type of music he makes they were surprised, on meeting him, that he was black. He explains that, to a certain degree, he understood their surprise.
The question of race in music is a complicated one for Tony, just as it has been for many artists of colour who operated in a typically ‘white’ field of music – who transcended what The Au Pairs called the ‘boxes of control’ – from The Bellville 3 to Bad Brains, A.R. Kane to Asian Dub Foundation. Njoku feels, however, that he has come to terms with the age-old conundrum.
“When I was younger I was often called ‘Oreo’ because of my musical and artistic preferences” he remembers “I was also beaten up out of annoyance when I was 12 for not having any “black” music on my iPod, other than Kanye’s 808’s album. I was told that I was “trying too hard to be different””.
“But does my love for this kind of music undermine my cultural disposition? Am I less of a black man because I behave in a manner counter to what is expected of me? Am I a sell out or even racially biased against my own race? Of course not.
“And you have to remember, many of the white artists I take influence from are heavily influenced by artists of colour, so everything comes full circle”.
Njoku’s new album ‘H.P.A.C’. is available now via Silent Kid Records.
12th May 2018 @ Off The Cuff- Brixton, London (headline)
“A world of swirling synths that float on top of Njoku’s buried but distinctive vocals” (DIY)
“Fusing abstract beats with his angelic tones” (MOJO)
“Tony Njoku makes nice swirly sounds” (I-D)
“He’s a very quizzical performer, which I think in the live scene is pretty rare. He’s an amazing talent” (Drowned In Sound)