TOBi's Journey from Mental Health Advocate to Canada's Rising R&B Star

"When I wake up, I envision a brighter future for myself and for the world. I always want the outcome to be me creating a better world."

Photo: Patrick Duong

BY A. HarmonyPublished Nov 17, 2020

The day before TOBi's latest album, ELEMENTS Vol. 1, dropped, Lagos State was on fire. Ongoing anti-police brutality protests there took a violent turn in late October, when, according to witnesses, soldiers opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Lekki. Across social media, protestors on the ground in Nigeria shared grisly accounts of the bloodshed and subsequent fire at the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge. Already impossibly dark, the pall over the African diaspora somehow became dimmer.

As such, on what should have been a celebratory day, TOBi, 27, took to Instagram to share both his new album and his sorrow. The Nigerian-Canadian's plans to visit Lagos in March were stymied by the pandemic — it would have been his first trip back since immigrating to Canada when he was nine years old. And he felt a certain powerlessness when checking in with his friends and family back home, but not being able to actually be with them. Despite his heartache, his Instagram post had encouraging words for those who, like him, were simply spent: "No need to fear. We need love and support for each other in times like this. Enjoy the work and be well."

It was not a platitude, but a rallying cry. In response to an especially tumultuous year, ELEMENTS Vol. 1 is a deliberate exploration of Black joy as a form of resistance.

"[There] is so much stress and trauma that Black folks are experiencing, in such a concentrated amount. I never want it to seem like the 'Pain Olympics,' or measure [one] person's pain versus [another] person's pain — it's been a very traumatic year for everybody. But [Black] folks? From what I've been seeing? The level of trauma has just been so high," says the Brampton-based artist. "I've been seeing so many people [who] are just tired and upset, angry, frustrated. We're living in a world where it feels like your issues are a trend or your issues aren't important. We're stuck inside. There aren't many outlets to release. So, I wanted to do something that provided hope and joy for folks."

Don't confuse TOBi's approach with toxic positivity. His goal isn't to mask justified sadness, rage or grief, but to incorporate it into the fabric of his existence, to use it as a catalyst for growth and a reason to embrace every triumph. He illustrates this beautifully in the video for "Made Me Everything," where, staring squarely at the camera, he delivers frank, hold-no-punches lyrics about the Black experience:

"Ooh, well-spoken for a Black man / That's how you compliment with your backhand / Routine stop ain't no talking back / Save your breath, keep your two cents and invest in a dash cam."

He doesn't sugarcoat his words, but keeps a genuine, million-dollar grin on his face as he recites them. Jubilant horns punctuate his bars and he stays in perfect step with the lively dancers who surround him, not missing a beat of their spirited choreography. It's a visual manual for how to push forward in chaotic times: take things in stride, stay steady on your feet and capture joy when it appears.

That message is the common thread throughout ELEMENTS Vol. 1, and also informs TOBi's actions outside of music. The son of a counsellor, TOBi, born Oluwatobi Ajibolade, studied biology and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University before becoming a youth engagement coordinator in the Peel Region. He specialized in conflict resolution and family mediation, working with young people in the middle of stressful family disputes. "[I was] working with kids from all different backgrounds; rich, poor, white, Black, Asian, gay, straight. I think the experiences I went through definitely influence how I create," says TOBi.

As is common for many children of immigrants, earning a degree was a non-negotiable condition set by TOBi's parents. Still, throughout his studies, there was always a drive in him to do more than mental health work. For a while, the burgeoning talent felt torn between two very different careers — the creative, often unpredictable life of a performer; or the safer, more parentally acceptable route of youth counselling. "The music never left. I was doing music even when I was working full-time, even when I was a student. [But] when I was doing my undergrad, I was definitely going through a huge period of confusion and self-doubt. You know that fork in the road? [Thinking] am I going to wake up one day and say 'I regret'? Am I being who I want to be or something I think I'm supposed to be? That was a very tough time," TOBi recalls. "In 2016, I put out an EP called FYi and that was the moment where I was like 'I have what it takes to really do this, and I need to jump right now and just fly.' It was like an epiphany."

Listening to TOBi on ELEMENTS Vol. 1, it's hard to conceive of a time when he ever doubted his direction. On this, his first effort since signing with Same Plate Entertainment and RCA Records, TOBi is confident and forward-thinking, establishing himself as a legitimate superstar. He transcends labels with his sprightly delivery — to call him a rapper would be to ignore his soulful, gravelly singing; to label him hip-hop would dismiss his jazz and dancehall influences. He blends all of the music he grew up with to create a distinct feel that sets him apart — not an easy feat in a noisy music market replete with soundalikes.

"ELEMENTS is my way of showing the different dimensions in my life, the things I'm influenced by, the things that make me move," explains TOBi. "I listen to grime, Afrobeats, Afropop, R&B, hip-hop, boom bap, dancehall. This is what I listen to when I'm at home, when I'm on the road. So, [ELEMENTS] is the perfect place for me to put that part of me out."

In his work as a mediator and now as a full-time artist, TOBi's constant has been his ability to be a bridge between people from different worlds. He capitalized on this skill with the production on ELEMENTS Vol. 1, assembling an international team of producers to help him showcase his versatility. The standout "Faces" brings producers Wax Roof (Oakland) and Sango (Seattle) together for a breezy, meditative track dotted with spry percussion for TOBi to flutter between. On the single "Dollas and Cents," TOBi taps UK beatmaker Juls for a thumping fusion of hip-hop, house and Afrobeats. He has an incredible ear and uses it to develop his listener's palate. "People who wouldn't normally listen to Afrobeats [but] listen to my music for the R&B and hip-hop stuff, they now like [Afrobeats]. I'm curating an experience for folks who wouldn't normally listen to that," says TOBi. "I am cognizant of the message that I want to put out, or [my] style, or choices. I am intentional when it comes to certain choices."

The video for "Dollas and Cents" was one of those deliberate decisions. It was directed by Lagos-based director Ifeme C.S. and was shot remotely, partly in Lagos and partly in Toronto. The simple, true-to-life images of TOBi and a friend bonding over a video call take on more significance when TOBi tells the story behind them. "This was [shot] at the beginning of the pandemic. I had the plan of going to Nigeria in March to shoot the video. I got my passport renewed and everything," he remembers. "Give thanks for the Internet, give thanks for technology, give thanks for making connections on the ground. [Because] I had a director in Lagos that Juls connected me with. And we just started the idea of shooting the remote video, using footage from Canada and footage from Lagos. We tried to do something new and fresh. I think it turned out beautifully."

"Dollas and Cents" is just one example of TOBi's ability to spin gold out of any circumstance. In everything he pursues, he prides himself on his ingenuity. Like many enterprising creators before him, TOBi has his own rhythm and is happy to push against convention. "Historically, I've always liked artists who march to the beat of their own drum. I think of Eartha Kitt, for example. She was commercially successful, but listening to her philosophy, she didn't give a fuck! She didn't care about societal standards and norms and I took a lot of influence from that," he says. "André 3000 is another [influence]. Kendrick Lamar. Marvin Gaye. There are so many historical examples of people who make amazing music without feeling like they need to be completely on the mark of what contemporary sound is. And I think that's influenced a lot of my creation."

His unique style has already earned him glowing support from Snoop Dogg, Tiffany Haddish and Jamie Foxx to name a few, and on ELEMENTS Vol. 1, TOBi displays more comfort than ever before. When asked if he's ready to become the global sensation he's poised to be, TOBi answers immediately, singing a fitting Phil Collins lyric. "Absolutely! I've been prepping. 'I've been waiting for this moment for all my life.'"

As his music career grows, TOBi continues to be an advocate for mental wellness and mental health support. In 2019, he organized a series of panel discussions called UNPACK, which brought psychologists and musicians together to talk about mental health in the music industry. And once he noticed the impact that the pandemic was having on the entertainment industry, he convened an online event called Creating Still, where he invited artists from around the world, like Jamz Supernova and Jesse Boykins III, to speak openly about the effects that social distancing and isolation have on mental health. "I just love people, you know? I love connecting with humans. [Creating Still] was one of those moments that brought people together to speak about something we're all experiencing at one time. I aim to continue to do that," says TOBi. "I support groups that educate people on mental health and how to take care of their own, how to have better practices for themselves. Wellness is an ongoing practice and I'm committed to it."

In everything that TOBi does, he is decisive and self-assured. He has a clear vision and is ready to walk the path he's created for himself — one of an artist committed to advancing mental wellness in every space he occupies — with quick, confident steps. There was only one question during his call with Exclaim! that gave him total pause. When asked what mark he wants to leave on the world, the spitfire remained silent for over a full minute, carefully contemplating his response.

"When I wake up, I envision a brighter future for myself and for the world. I always want the outcome to be me creating a better world," he says earnestly. "On my first EP, I said, 'I'm coming for all heads.' That just means I am coming to make things happen. To create. To connect. Let the world be ready!"

We certainly are.

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