Music

Nigerian Afrobeat Star Omah Lay on Music, #EndSARS and More

"I was just a normal guy some months ago."

When artists bare themselves to the mercy of their listeners, they key into universal experiences of the human condition. Last month, Omah Lay, ran into controversy after a performance in Uganda where he was detained afterward. When he eventually returned to Nigeria he didn’t speak very much about the ordeal, opting to channel the emotions through the music. This introspective approach is key in the story of Nigeria’s biggest breakout star Omah Lay.

The 23-year old released his debut EP Get Layd in May 2020, which featured the singles “You” and “Bad Influence” and gained over 120 million streams. Born Stanley Omah Didia, Omah Lay’s arrival took the mainstream by storm; by means of his vivid storytelling, vivacious melodies, and music highly-instrumental production, the Port-Harcourt native is a world apart from his peers.

Omah Lay’s strength is in his ability to thrive in his carefully curated world, delivering a fusion of sounds he has termed ‘Omah Lay Music’. His second EP What Have We Done? featured 6lack on a remix to the single “Damn” in an effortless synergy that displayed the global potential of “Omah Lay Music.

After an amazing breakout year, Omah Lay is on a steady upward trajectory. We spoke to him about creating introspective music, speaking up during the #EndSARS protests, and his upcoming album.

Teen Vogue: Your music touches a lot on your personal life, how important is it to you that your music is a representation of your true self?

Omah Lay: I don’t like being put in a box. There’s no fun when you can’t express yourself, there’s no fun with not having fun with my music. It’s really important [that] I express my story, say what is mine regardless of what the listener feels. I can’t tell a story that’s different from mine. I always try my best to be me.

TV: Did you have any fears your music won’t be accepted?

Omah Lay: Actually before I put out Get Layd I wasn’t sure if it’ll be accepted. I wasn’t so confident about it but I enjoyed making the project. When I listened to it I had no reason not to put it and everyone around me loved the songs on the EP. To be honest, before I wasn’t sure but my process is about just putting out the music I love. It doesn’t have to be “boom” or “a hit.” It’s not about numbers. It’s about making music that touches people’s lives. My music is about my experiences, it’s me, my life.

TV: How does it feel to be part of the new age Nigerian acts taking the sound to a refreshing new height and a more global stage?

Omah Lay: First of all, it’s a blessing to be where I am today. Sometimes I feel like I won’t be here if Wizkid, Tuface, Davido, Burna Boy, and a lot of others I didn’t mention. These guys made Afrobeats what it is today and I have to give credit to them because they made it possible for us to be here. It’s amazing to be here and be one of the select artists selling African music to the world. Last year was a big start for me. There’s nothing I can say to quantify how big of a blessing it was. I was just a normal guy some months ago and then Get Layd changed everything.

TV: Tell us about your new EP, What Have We Done?. What does the standout track “Godly” mean to you?

Omah Lay: Part of the inspiration for What Have We Done? is what happened with Get Layd. You know what happened with the first EP was all so fast, from when I put it out, a lot of people turned it down. I had a lot of comparisons with everything on social media, a lot of people said some bad things [that the project wasn’t good enough or what they expected]. Then at some point, the narrative sort of changed, and a lot more people started listening with positive reviews and things kept going up from there. My fans showed me so much love. The initial EP would be step 1, and I had a lot more steps to go but my fans took me straight from the first zero to step six. Looking back at everything, I was like bro, “what have you done?” The love was so much, it felt like I wasn’t even ready for it.

Bringing everything back to God, I just had to do a song that I’m thanking God for him being God and where I’m also talking about what has really happened in such a very short time. I think that’s the inspiration behind “Godly.”

TV: You were a strong voice during the #EndSARS protest. How did it all affect you, and what pushed you to use your platform as a tool to educate and speak out against the violence faced by young people all over the country?

Omah Lay: I honestly can’t say I’ve gotten over the #LekkiMassacare and I don’t I’ll ever get over it. I still dream about it, write lyrics about it, I mean my upcoming album probably has like three songs centered on the Massacre and everything we collectively went through during that protest. I’ve been a victim of SARS [Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad] on three different occasions. First time was back when I was in Port Harcourt and the other moments were when I was in Lagos. I survived the SARS attack in Lagos, barely, because I had a song that people recognized at that time. That’s why it was different from when it happened in Port Harcourt, that was worse because then I was just a regular guy. I was handcuffed and thrown in a van, basically violated, and had my rights taken from me. The second time was almost similar, and even though I was released because I was Omah Lay I still had to almost empty my account because I was a young guy in a Benz. It’s crazy that just seeing a young person in a Benz, with a good phone is enough to get harassed, and being an artist I’m always out late coming back from shows, clubs, events, I’m always a victim of SARS.

Whatever I could do at the time to speak up or just make people aware of the situation was my duty. Saweetie was really interested in what was happening in Nigeria, so using my platform we both went live on Instagram because people outside Nigeria needed to know what was happening. That was it really.

TV: What has the production process been like for you and how does it influence your music when you're on the boards?

Omah Lay: I’ve been a producer for a very long time. I was actually a rapper, then I switched to being a music producer and I did just that for about three years. I just stuck to making music for others as a producer. Then last year I decided to put out my own project.

I enjoy music production even though these days I don’t have the time. Being a producer you know what you want, that's one of the advantages. For Get Layd I produced two songs and also co-produced “Damn” but for the new project I have less time now to sit on the board so I only produced one song off What Have We Done? which is “Confession”. It’s a sweet thing making music and being a producer makes it even sweeter and more fun.

TV: With two amazing projects already under your belt, what can we expect from you this year?

Omah Lay: There’s going to be a lot more of me. Like I said earlier, I just want to make my people happy, sad, to basically feel everything through my music. I’m going to be dropping my album this year. I don’t have a title yet or any song recorded for the EP at this time but I’ll be dropping the album very soon.

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