Introspect is a fascinating concept. For some, the question posed begins an internal dialogue wherein the host is guided on a journey of safety by following the rigidity of rules. They are content. For others, it opens a conversation of possibility wherein the inhibitions of fear give way to exhibitions of faith. This week, I introduce a courageous young man not content with mere survival. This week, I introduce a courageous young man who wants to live!
For 24-year-old Tobi Sunmola, that purpose is music. Born in Nigeria (where he lived until moving to England at 16), his journey begun with childhood memories shared with his father, a retired soldier who served in his native Nigerian Army. “My dad used to play loads of hip-hop in the whip like Run DMC and all a dat stuff”, he proclaims animatedly. “I started taking it all in properly when I was like 11/12”. A mere spectator at this time, he cites Ja Rule, DMX, Jadakiss and Fat Joe as early influences. “There was a different level of gravy to them – a different level of sauce. I was attracted to the persona of the coolness – the easy word play. They were nice with it”. For all the “style” and “finesse” the aforementioned exuded, it was another legend that paved the way for him to compete. “I was listening to a lot of Kanye West at the time. I remember when he dropped ‘Jesus Walks’ – that changed everything for me. That made me feel like yooo, I wanna rap”.
By 13, he was actively “scribbling words” in a bid to prove he was ready. “I used to scribble my says/plays – time/lime” but his older cousin, Dimeji, who introduced him to the process that underlies the creation of music was not yet convinced. “Them times there I used to go to my cousin’s every holiday. He used to produce at home; He had fruity loops on his computer with one of those computer mics”, he recalls. “I used to watch music videos in the other room, then I watched him record over beats and thought, rah, is this how you make songs. I thought yo, that’s sick”! But alas, he was still benched as “he wouldn’t let me get on any of the songs”. Not one to be deterred, alongside several others, he formed the high-school group, (Dope Kommunity), which consisted solely of rappers. Going by Stripez, (in homage to his father’s military background), this is where he began testing his limits to see if he was match-fit. “We used to just freestyle”, he asserts. “I just wanted to be the best – be the cool in school (soundbite!) – I wanted people to say rahh that guy can rap! From there it progressed to ya know what, I wanna make muuusic”.
When you have greatness around you, you can’t help but be great yourself.
After spending 5 years perfecting his technique, he got his chance to prove he was ready to lace up. Though somewhat reserved initially, he got his chance to prove he was of premiere standard. In 2012, Adidas hosted ‘Take The Stage’, a competition that ran in conjunction with the London Olympics wherein winners were afforded the opportunity to collaborate with individuals successful in their chosen field. In Tobi’s case, the prize that was up for grabs: a tour with Wretch 32. “I seen the advert on tv. I called one of my boys like yo, there’s this ting on tv, do you think I should apply?”, he queried. His boy’s response: “Yo – you got nothin’ to lose man”. This realisation, coupled with the support he had back in Nigeria meant he garnered enough votes the judges chose a top 11. “There should have been a top 10 but they picked 11. It must have been God’s plan because I shouldn’t have been there”. A couple days after I got the call to say I won”. He had arrived.
“It felt incredible bro”, he relays. “the call woke me up – I remember running in my bro’s room shouting”. Though the tour didn’t transpire (due to insufficient promotion), he was invited down to London to spend the day at Metropolis Studios with Wretch, Vis, Twin B and Wizzy Wow, who produced the beat in which he versed. “I was so nervous. There were cameras everywhere. I had to step outside in the corridors by myself”, he admits. And that is perfectly understandable. Fulfilling his role of mentor, Wretch joined him in his solitude and shared some words of wisdom. “Don’t pay attention to the cameras. Ever. The cameras watch you. You don’t watch the cameras”. With renewed vigor, he stepped back inside and delivered verses to such a magnitude, Wretch himself felt obliged to partake. In a sombre moment of reflection, he tells me: “I felt like my verses could have been better so I didn’t release it”. True or false, only he can confirm or deny this critique. But, by displaying this level of self-awareness, he was becoming sentient.
Being from Openshaw (East Manchester), he wasn’t an integral part of South Manchester’s ‘youth-club’ era which not many can deny reigned supreme. “Them times there, the Gekos, the Slays, the Shiftys were poppin”. Again, not one to be deterred, he decided to get a first-hand look at the ‘south-side’s’ dominance. “I started going to the one’s in South to see what’s good – catch the vibes and take that back”. It wasn’t long until he met up with 24K, an incredible artist in his own right whom he continues to work with to this day. “He wanted to do a song with myself, Mennis, D’Lyfa Reilly and Sly. He saw the vision”. By now, he was making music.
I wanna set a legacy for my family.
Currently, he admits there is struggle between music and his personal life. “Right now, I’ll be honest, I’m outta balance. I mean that in a way where I don’t try to separate them because they’re the same ting right now”. And for aspiring artists, it’s easy for the balance to become skewed. But to understand the man, one must understand the journey.
In 2016, he returned to Manchester from the University of Bedfordshire (Luton Campus) with a First Class Degree in Computer Games Development. Soon after, he began working in Alderley Edge as a web developer, but something was missing. With the loss of his grandmother and a building sense of being unfulfilled, his internal dialogue became the conversation of possibility. “I started looking at myself thinking, I have one life, what am I trying to accomplish? Am I following the right path to get to my purpose, or am I getting side-tracked slash distracted”? After careful deliberation, he reached a decision. “I thought f*ck this – I got out of the job. I went into the office and spoke to the boss. They had high hopes for me. They saw the potential for promotion but they understood”. It was here, he took a leap of faith.
Referencing Steve Harvey, he explained the mind-set which guided him over the next two years. “He spoke about jumping off a cliff and having a parachute and not knowing if it’s gonna open. You can jump and your parachute will open straight away, or you can jump and it doesn’t open until you get closer to the ground. You will never know until you jump”. These are the actions of a man who wants to live. Not survive. When you are that convinced in your calling, it’s less leap of faith but more vault of conviction. The parachute will open. Though the feeling of leaving was “liberating”, the realities of life loomed.
Being the eldest of three, his responsibilities as a son, a brother, a role model and a provider were always present. But he never shied away. The decision to spend the last two years as a full time artist “was tough – very tough”. Where friends told him he was “on the right path – it takes a lot of courage to quit your job – just go for this – push yourself”, closer to home he received a more challenging response. “With 24K, I was going studio 4pm in the evening, getting home around 5/6am, sleeping till around 9/10am, mum’s wakin’ up at 8 thinkin’ rahh you still sleepin? – you could see the disappointment in her face – I don’t ever wanna see that face”. Hailing from an educated family with high expectations, one can appreciate the worried perspective a parent whose child has walked away from a steady income in pursuit of a dream. His parents were merely concerned.
Music is art; it’s an expression of feeling.
But Tobi was no fool. He took evasive action to ensure the short term pain would yield long term bliss. “I wasn’t chillin’ with people I used to chill with. I was cutting people off. Music became a part of me. It was me and 24K going through similar things – we found solace in each other – we were working and working in the studio – I forgot about the outside world”. The decision to be a full time artist meant he was unsure where he would be financially and mentally. But it did not matter. He had conviction. It was fly or fall. In that two year period he was “always going studio with that heavy burden” of his mum’s disappointment and the “need to look after the family”. The parachute had to open eventually. “I feel like I needed to go through that to get to this point. I feel like the music is in a better place – I’m still growing – I’m still evolving”. There was never a plan B.
Forward to today, he is in an amazing place mentally, spiritually and musically. “Right now, I’m just vybzin’ – I’m a happy man – I’m comfortable in my skin – I felt like I lost my confidence a bit – I’m gettin’ it back”. And this is visible. “Musically, I’m in a very good place but I know where I can be. I know the levels I can take it to”. His family are more understanding of the route he has taken to live rather than survive. As well as 24K with whom the relationship shared is referred to as “like Ryu n Ken – our styles complement each other”, Sleepz, Dre and HMD, are part of his close circle that form a coalition of purpose and ambition. They help to keep the balance. “We’re still growing” he insists, “we’re still building together”.
The creative process behind his music stems from “being more open”. Describing his style as “fearless”, he has “no rules”. Though perceived a ‘conscious rapper’ (“which I am”), he acknowledges that tends to bracket him and dissuade others from putting him on the bill for certain events. “There needs to be a sound of culture. There needs to be a sound of lyricism. Everything needs to be promoted on the same scale”. Being a staunch supporter of lyricism myself, I wholeheartedly agree. It’s the respect of being acknowledged, revered and heralded by your peers as a wordsmith. For a rapper hungry to prove he can fly, there’s no better accolade.
Speak your truth.
“As an artist, your job is to reflect the time you’re in”. Words by the late Nina Simone in which he solemnly lives by. “I’ve been influenced by my environment – the people around me – the stories I hear. I feel obliged to talk about that because that’s how I feel”. This yearning he shares with most rappers to “tell the world my story” can be traced back to pre-colonial African griots who were the storytellers and historians of their respected tribes. What he finds important is “understandin’ who you are and where you’re comin’ from. It’s about integrity”. Again, I agree. For one to know where they want to be, they must have a solid understanding of where they come from.
He believes his greatest asset for success lies in his humility. And it is a genuine one at that. “If you look at the people who have longevity, it’s based on their character – their persona – and who they are. I never wanna lose the humility in me”. Though he had amazing success in 2012, it’s his 2014 performance at Royal Albert Hall (to a crowd of 5000), that has been the pinnacle thus far. By constantly learning, being open to new information, and understanding there is a never a final thought (there’s always a step above), the career crafted thus far has had major peaks. But he is only beginning to hit his stride. His latest project, ‘Good Guys Don’t Survive’ (currently being mixed), is a representation of his individuality. “You’ve got to be yourself” he implores. “Paint your own pictures – paint what you see”.
From the boy that “just wanted respect” when he started rapping, to the adolescent unsure of his ability to fly, to a man on the cusp of brilliance, he is ready to soar. What’s his purpose:
“Greatness; That’s the only aim.”