Register For Free
By Jon Freeman
Joy Oladokun recently started re-watching Nashville, the soapy TV series centered on country music dreams and drama that helped usher in a wave of big change in the Tennessee capital. She had been thinking about her own place in Nashville — mainly, if she should stay as the state becomes increasingly hostile to marginalized people — and feeling depressed about the way the town’s music industry fosters Olympic levels of jealousy for anyone who catches a break.
“The way it’s depicted on that show is honestly kind of perfect — this Southern, bless-your-heart, backhanded jealousy competition,” Oladokun says. “It’s been really interesting to navigate as someone who’s not competitive, and who didn’t sign up for sports, so is confused as to why the energy’s in the room in the first place. There’s almost this fear that if someone gets something that it takes it away from someone else.”
Oladokun is taking sips of a frothy concoction at Matryoshka Coffee, a tiny, colorful shop that’s a designated LGBTQ+ safe space and just far enough off a main Nashville thoroughfare as to minimize bachelorette-party traffic. She’s wearing a striped purple t-shirt and a black hat with the phrase “Keep Going” that alternately faces forward and backward at various points in our conversation. And she’s understandably still jazzed about her time in front of arena crowds on John Mayer’s latest tour. (“He was really supportive. It was a really, really great experience,” she says.)
That low-key refusal to play the game at any speed but her own is one of Oladokun’s calling cards. It frequently puts her at odds with the nonstop hustle mindset of Nashville, where she’s lived since 2016, but it’s also one of the reasons her music has such a heavy impact. In this time of shifting priorities away from work toward self-care and connection with others, Oladokun is offering a master class in those subjects with each subsequent release. Her breakthrough third album In Defense of My Own Happiness was steeped in empathy and hope, making her specific experiences feel universal, even taking on American racism and homophobia with uncommon grace.
Oladokun probes these ideas even deeper on her new album Proof of Life, a collection of songs that search for the positive even when there aren’t necessarily answers available. Hope and love are out there in abundance, but not always easy to hold onto. And putting good into the world is worth it even when — especially when — there’s no immediate reward. Oladokun does all of this while also addressing her own emotional well-being with the same self-aware calm and gentleness.
“It’s just become so important to feel good, and to be able to identify when I don’t feel good and to say it and to ask for help,” she says. “There’s been a lot of growth in that sense and this album marks an awareness and a spirituality that doesn’t need to be labeled that I think I’ve been circling around.”
“JESUS RAISED ME/GOOD WEED SAVED ME,” Oladokun sings in “Hard Way,” which recounts an arduous trek to finding a healthy headspace. “Keeping the Light On” and “Trying” also deal with hope, and the actions connected to hope, in ways that feel realistic and honest — one of her main goals as a songwriter. That means that sometimes the exhaustion of having to muster that hope also shows itself. In “Somebody Like Me,” she advocates for her own comfort and care.
“Hope is what keeps me alive, as a human on a Joy-as-a-person level, not Joy-as-a-musician. Hope is something that drives me day-to-day,” she says. “I can make the world better. I can get better. I can feel something I’ve never felt before and make it through it. But I don’t always feel hopeful. And to put something out that always presents as hopeful would be dishonest.”
Musically, Oladokun spreads out on Proof of Life, on which she produced tracks as well as Mike Elizondo, Dan Wilson, Ian Fitchuk, and Alysa Vanderhym. “Keeping the Light On” has a funky, West African-style bassline, the Chris Stapleton duet “Sweet Symphony” is classic, earthy soul, and Houston rapper Maxo Kream turns up for a few bars on “Revolution” (“People underestimate how much of an influence hip-hop has on me as a person and writer,” she says). There’s enough lyrical flair to please word nerds but also a really refined sense of craft when it comes to writing melodies and hooks. Oladokun chalks it up to her genre-agnostic, playlist-friendly listening habits.
“I listen to the Backstreet Boys as much as I listen to Bob Dylan,” she says. “There are some people who are pretentious about what they listen to, or they’re precious about it. And I’m like, if it slaps, it slaps. I don’t care who made it.”
“We’re All Gonna Die,” a duet featuring Noah Kahan (with whom she’ll tour this year), is Nineties-indebted grunge pop à la Weezer that pokes fun at the absolute absurdity of existence. It’s a lively, funny counterpoint to some of the album’s sadder moments.
“The album’s fun because it’s not the album I thought I was going to make, but it’s absolutely the album I wanted it to be.” Asked what album she thought she was going to make, she responds, “I figured I was going to make a legacy Americana type thing. Didn’t we all?” and then cracks up — a deep, raspy laugh that’s impossible not to laugh along with.
But that’s one thing that makes Oladokun’s presence as a queer Black woman in Nashville so powerful: she’s working at a high level in the music industry and isn’t afraid to stand up for she feels is right, even though that’s not exactly encouraged. Others in the industry say that example makes Oladokun feel like an agent of change as well as just plain trustworthy.
“The way she navigates the industry without having to minimize any part of who she is, that is what opens doors,” Holly G, founder and co-director of Black Opry, says. “I know if I go to a Joy Oladokun concert, anybody who’s familiar enough with her to go is going to be safe for me to be around. It’s not just enough to be in the room, you have to speak up.”
There are a handful of moments on Proof of Life that look back to Oladokun’s younger years growing up in Casa Grande, Arizona, the child of Nigerian immigrants in a town that was almost exclusively white. The swirling “Taking Things for Granted” recalls with sadness a childhood birthday party that no one attended, and how that feeling of isolation still creeps into her consciousness every now and then.
“That’s what some of the songs on the record do is say, ‘Hey, there’s this kid, somewhere in the past and somewhere in you who feels like no one pays attention to them or feels like no one cares that they’re suffering,’” she says. “And it’s OK to say, ‘I see that person and I’m going to do what I can to take care of them.’”
In Nashville, she’s learned to “follow the love,” as she puts it. Folks like Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, and Maren Morris — who all shared the stage with her at the Love Rising benefit concert in March — have befriended her and shown their appreciation. And when she starts to feel hope running a little low, Oladokun has a few trusty, low-key approaches to refilling her reservoir.
“I go on a lot of walks. I fix my guitar. I work on my truck. I pet my dog,” she says, pulling up a cellphone picture of Joni, so named because of Oladokun and her fianceé’s shared love for Joni Mitchell. “Simple things that have fruit but whose stakes are also kind of low are really helpful for me to maintain hope.
“Everything else is big. You can’t control other people. You can’t control the world,” she adds. “You can sort of only control what you bring to it and how you connect with it, so I’m always trying to connect with it in a peaceful, appreciative way.”
We want to hear it. Send us a tip using our anonymous form.
Rolling Stone is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 Rolling Stone, LLC. All rights reserved.