Is Joy Oladokun making worship music for a diverse, scattered, and traumatized world? I think so.
In the lead-up to the release of her fourth studio album, Proof of Life, singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun posted frequently on her creative and entertaining TikTok account. In a March 2023 posting, she acted out a playful conversation between her current self and herself ten years in the past. Her present self begins the exchange by informing her past self that she is “not a pastor anymore”. Past Joy expresses mild surprise. “No way,” she replies. Her present self follows up with more context. “Yeah,” she relays to her past self. “You’re super gay now.” Past Joy ruminates without surprise. “That makes a lot of sense.” She then informs herself that she now has an incredible job making and performing her music and sends her past self into shock with the news that future Oladokun is about to play her first arena show. It’s a humorous digital narrative of a journey.
Proof of Life is a fuller expansion of that journey, both a snapshot of a moment and, as the title suggests, a testament to the present and future of a life lived honestly and to its fullness. “This album is evidence of how I live,” Oladokun shared with writer Marissa Moss in a recent New York Times profile. It’s an attempt to connect with others who are struggling, hanging in, and moving forward, a connective invitation that traverses musical genres in its call. In a way, it fleshes out the overarching themes of the playful TikTok video. We are rooted in a moment, but we come from somewhere. We carry our past selves and experiences in ways we might not wholly untangle, but they often lead to surprising vistas unseen from previous perches in time.
Oladokun grew up in a small farming town in Arizona with devout Christian parents, both Nigerian immigrants. Joy’s early life included frequent church attendance, often, she recalls, going multiple days a week. In a 2019 interview with NPR’s Jewly Height, Joy shared that her burgeoning musical interest and church involvement converged with an invitation to lead worship as a musician at around 15 to 16 years old. She did this for several years, moving away from it in her early 20s as she became more open about embracing her sexuality and encountered how forms of Christianity withhold that acceptance. She told Height that these early experiences entailed learning to form communities with music while making sure the music conveyed her sense of God and spirituality in ways authentic to her developing sensibilities. “It totally influences who I am as an artist now,” she told World Cafe during an interview in 2019.
Worship music hinges on music’s power to tap into human yearning. In Faith, Hope, and Carnage, a series of conversations between musician Nick Cave and journalist Seán O’Hagan, Cave suggests that among music’s effects is the ability to lead us, if only temporarily, into a sacred realm. By this, he asserts that music makes us feel less alone and invokes a spiritual connectedness to ourselves, others, our surroundings, and to that which slips our grasp. Such music requires honesty and vulnerability. Because it often lacks full-bore honesty, contemporary church worship music fails to grasp the fullness of life, much like the theology of her and many others upbringing fails to embrace the full humanity of those who fall outside the heterosexual binary.
Playing with Cave’s musings, a case can be made that Joy Oladokun’s work—especially in Proof of Life—is a clear-eyed, full-throated call to embrace life in all its depth, not shying away from the hard stuff and not cutting off the possibility of bliss. One could rightly claim that Joy Oladokun is still a worship leader if by that we mean something similar to her self-description on her TikTok page, a “singer of sad bops with silver linings.”
In a recent cover story for The Nashvillian, Joy Oladokun elaborated on the genesis of Proof of Life as a concept album. It emerged simply from a moment of awareness, an observational attentiveness to a moment that leads to broader connections. Looking at the arrangement of tchotchkes on her desk in her studio prompted a philosophical question, “What would happen to all of this stuff if I died?” What do the things, experiences, and relationships we accumulate in our lives say about us? What proof of our lives do we leave behind, intentionally or unintentionally? Oladokun went to work on an intentional statement offering evidence of her life around two questions: “What did Joy care about?” and “What did Joy believe in?”
“We’re All Gonna Die” might be one of the most forthright distillations of Joy’s approach to the full embrace of things that permeates this album. Co-written and performed with Noah Kahan, the song embraces uncertainty as a key to living rather than a paralyzing force. The song begins with the echoing strands of a chamber string orchestra as if Oladokun is playing a 78 for us on an antique Victrola. The song then launches into what Marissa Moss calls an emo-folk anthem that builds from simple acoustic arrangements with Andrew Bird-like whistling accompaniment into the type of encompassing, symphonic indie-rock sing-a-longs that form temporary communities at music festivals or, we might say, non-denominational worship gatherings. The difference with a distinction here is that Oladokun sits with the uncertainty and absurdity of our lives without trying to erase it with shallow platitudes and assurances that remove us from the reality of our “one wild and precious life“.
Proof of Life underscores Oladokun’s well-deserved status as an adept songwriter tracing life’s mix of trauma, jubilation, anxiety, hope, and light and dark seasons with an irrepressible determination. She also emerges here as a talented producer in the studio, navigating musical styles and influences with bold creativity. Take “Taking Things For Granted,” for instance. It’s a song generated from a painful childhood memory, her eighth birthday party when none of her invited schoolmates showed up to help her celebrate. In a live YouTube chat for the premiere of the song’s video performance, Oladokun spoke about how she wanted to write about “the way that event (in one’s life) that haunts you” blossoms into a narrative about life and relationships.
Her narrative skills shine in the deft turns from an isolated childhood story to a universal connection. When she sings about swimming alone on her eighth birthday, the listener is moved by the poignancy of the memory. But, when the chorus declares that “sometimes I feel like I never got out of the water/never got out of the water/even though I did,” our attention is arrested. We know that feeling of being submerged in isolation and how it still grabs us even when we are removed from its murky waters and stand in the presence of others. Community formed by shared isolation. That’s the power of music.
Oladokun admitted that the song’s structure was influenced by writing after taking mushrooms combined with an attempt to answer the question, “What if the Beach Boys and Radiohead met and made music?” Channeling Brian Wilson’s studio experimentation and his ability to mine childhood innocence for melancholic connections, the song uses muffled bass and kick drums with studio effects that give a sense of being underwater. It’s the immersive, exotic soundscape one finds by plugging in the headphones and submitting to Pet Sounds or Ok Computer to plumb the depths of our shared isolation.
The album’s expansiveness is enacted both lyrically and sonically. It’s a potpourri collection of fragrant offerings providing something for everyone without feeling thrown together. There are Seventies-era singer/songwriter offerings, acoustic-driven pieces with subtle horns, and snare percussion generating feelings of forward movement (“Changes”, “Friends” with Mt. Joy). Oladokun’s distinctive, affecting voice blends beautifully with Chris Stapleton‘s whiskey-tinged rasp on “Sweet Symphony”, a love song inspired by the relationship between her parents. “Trying” opens with minimalist electric guitar chords reminiscent of Julien Baker‘s early work before developing into an inspirational ode to resilience. And, of course, the power of gospel choruses meets trippy indie folk in “Somebody Like Me”, a prayer from Oladokun into the ether echoed by the McCrary Sisters. It’s one of several affecting songs on the album where she stands firmly in her social location as a way to build bridges by acknowledging differences rather than submerging them.
Oladokun knows the power of embracing her whole self in her music and expresses them in these songs to make connections across the human experience. In the New York Times feature, she alludes to her identity as a Black queer woman in her 30s and the importance of embodying to others a message not easily accessible to her as a child, that there is a place for “Somebody Like Me” in this world.
This is proclaimed most effectively near the album’s close in back-to-back blows. The gentle, acoustic piano ballad “Pride” encourages whole-heartedly embracing oneself while holding on to empathy in an often cruel world. “Those who try to cut you down are scared of their own truth / It’s easy to forget that there are people just like you.” This gentle reminder is bookended with the Afrobeat anthem, “Revolution“. This collaboration with Nigerian-American rapper Maxo Kream nods to her inspirational influence, Tracy Chapman’s breakout hi,t while locating the revolution here in Joy Oladokun’s very embodiment.
The lessons Joy Oladokun learned in her early stint as a non-denominational worship pastor while wrestling with the power of music to give voice to authenticity, vulnerability, and connection are coming to full flowering in her most recent work. Suggesting her work might be described as worship music certainly doesn’t mean that she’s proselytizing or offering up saccharine platitudes or preaching irrefutable certainties. But, if worship music speaks to the potency of music to give voice to our most profound hopes and frame our pain while leading us into broader and deeper forms of human connection, then Joy Oladokun’s Proof of Life might just be the hymnbook of greater authenticity and connection in these fractured times.