Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our June selection: Joy Oladokun.
When she thinks about it, singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun says that she’s actually doing better than she could have imagined in the midst of a global pandemic. “If, for the rest of my life, I could wake up, garden a little, smoke a little pot and work on music all day, I would absolutely thrive,” she says with a laugh.
Quarantined at her home in Nashville, Oladokun has also been filling the rest of her days with one-on-one time with her partner Rachel… and with her newest hobby, TikTok. “We were about a month into lockdown, and I got on the app, and I think I spent two hours just watching videos,” she says. “It’s kind of how it happened with my music — I consumed it, I began to appreciate it, and kind of started to participate in it as a means of expression.”
Music, though, has been her main focus while stuck inside, and this month, fans finally got to hear the product of her hard work. On July 17, after four years of writing, recording and releasing singles, Oladokun shared her sophomore album, In Defense Of My Own Happiness (Vol. 1). The 10-song full-length shows the artist at her very best — baring her soul through emotionally resonant songwriting while simultaneously commenting on the state of our world.
It took a while for Oladokun to come around to the idea of releasing a full-length — she says that earlier on in her career, she had a moment where she felt as though she “lost a little bit of direction,” resulting in a period of time where she wasn’t releasing but still writing a lot of songs.
Eventually, in 2019, she had started to get back in the groove of her career as an artist. “There were songs I kind of gravitated to, because I could see how the songs would feed into other songs,” she says. “Once we found the title and the thesis, I was like, ‘Great, here are the songs that I think represent that first part of the journey.’ And we went after it.”
That thesis was simple — Oladokun came to a realization that, throughout her life, she had made a habit of standing in the way of her own happiness. Despite her name being Joy, she says that she would find various ways to rationalize and justify various reasons why she shouldn’t allow herself to feel that joy.
It was only after reading her friend Brit Barron’s book, Worth It: Overcome Your Fears and Embrace the Life You Were Made For, that she saw exactly what she was doing. “She talks about her wife as a mirror to who she is, and I think that’s been the perfect example of what being in a relationship with my partner is,” she says. “I’ve started noticing all of these little things that I would say or do to undermine what we had together, just because I didn’t believe I deserved it. One day, she pointed it out, and it just blew this door wide open on all of the ways I’ve maybe done that my entire life.”
Listening through her album, Oladokun’s songwriting, instrumentation and vocal stylings evoke comparisons to Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman, all of whom she grew up listening to. It was Chapman, though, who materially inspired the singer to pursue music — Oladokun recalls being 10 years old and seeing a video of the folk-rock star’s career-defining performance for Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium in London.
“To see a black woman up there expressing her experience in front of thousands of people by using this instrument, it just took me,” she recalls. “My whole family will tell you, I was not the type of kid to sit in my room and focus on anything for more than two minutes, until I picked up a guitar. Having that representation there for me, it changed the trajectory of my life.”
In Defense of My Own Happiness (Vol. 1) covers a variety of topics — on a song like “Sunday,” Oladokun explores the dissonant relationship between her coming out as a queer woman and her relationship with religion. The singer says she felt it was an important song to include, simply because it contains a message she wishes a younger version of herself got the opportunity to hear.
“I want kids like 12-year-old Joy not to panic in their room after youth group because they thought they were going to go to hell,” she says. “It’s just so dumb and not true. If anyone tries to talk you out of that, they are very incorrect.”
The album also explores her relationship with marijuana (“Too High”), her anxiety (“Mercy”), and forgiveness (“Bad Blood”). But its most poignant moment comes halfway through with “Who Do I Turn To?” The haunting, heartbreaking song follows Oladokun as she wonders aloud where she’s supposed to find hope in a world that sees her skin color as a threat.
“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,” she sings in the song’s introduction. “This world was made for them, this world was made for me/ How am I supposed to exist, when a friend is an enemy.”
The song was borne out of a conversation Oladokun had with her friend, The Highwomen star Natalie Hemby, following the death of George Floyd. The singer says she unleashed her feelings, telling Hemby (who eventually co-wrote the track) exactly how she felt in the middle of a national reckoning with the reverberating effects of racism in America.
“It felt like progress was happening, but also being Black in America, we know that the appearance of progress doesn’t mean that progress is actually happening,” she recalls of the conversation. “There is no logical person that actually thinks this is an argument of right and wrong. Anyone who is actually using their brains can say, ‘Yes, Black lives do matter, and Black lives have been devalued in America.’”
Reflecting on the last few months of protesting and calling for justice, Oladokun says that this reckoning still isn’t enough; as she points out, Breonna Taylor’s killers still have not been arrested since her death in March. “She was shot almost in her sleep. So if we are found threatening at literally our most non-threatening state, we cannot be the problem,” she says. “There is a sorrow that this country has given me as a Black woman that I will live with for the rest of my life, but my responsibility and my gift on this earth is to share my experience.”
Oladokun plans to continue that experience — just two weeks after releasing the first volume of her project, the singer says that she’s already reached the halfway production mark for the second volume, which she hopes to release in the coming months. Production has been the latest part of Oladokun’s musical education — after spending time in recording sessions where she felt cut out of the musical process, the star has spent the last year learning and honing her production skills. On her next album, she hopes to have production credits on most of the songs therein.
“In the same way that my writing is really vulnerable, I think the way that I use instrumentation is just as powerful,” she says. “So I want to have as much of a say as I can.”
Ultimately, Oladokun says that her goal is to create a space in her music where her fans can come and unpack their own baggage without judgement. She hopes that by doing that herself, she’s encouraging others to follow suit.
“I want it to feel like a kind of church, in the sense that literally everybody is welcome, and everybody gets to cry here, everybody gets to laugh here, everybody gets to process trauma and build something new,” she says fondly. “I want it to feel like everybody has a seat at the table.”