Ojerime is starting this new decade determined to not let her past define her. The South London-born singer, who had been making waves in UK music before coming to a sudden halt after struggling with her mental health, is back with a new mixtape, B4 I Breakdown. The release sets out a new era for the artist, marked by a quiet determination to find success in an industry that has been relentlessly cruel to her and other black women.
It’s a busy evening in the Costa in Peckham, but Ojerime’s arrival brings a calming presence to the café. Her soft-spoken nature draws me in, and I suddenly become unaware of our surroundings and focus on every word she has to say.
Looking back at where it all started, she tells me, “I was singing as a kid all the time. But to me, music was such an inaccessible, unattainable thing to do. Especially when I was younger, you had to get your music on either TV or iTunes. Those were the only two places where music existed”. Nevertheless, everything changed at the age of 19, when Ojerime attended an open mic night in South London and felt empowered by all the musicians that had shared their talent. It was this experience that motivated her to start performing regularly.
“I’ve heard that you’re never the same after having a breakdown, and I’d say that’s very true to me”– Ojerime
Drawing on inspiration from 90s/00s R&B from the likes of Brandy, SWV and Keith Sweat, Ojerime went from uploading covers on YouTube to creating her own sound. “Eventually, I linked up with a producer from my area and we made my first tape. I didn’t know if my writing was good enough to put on a beat, I didn’t have those basic skills that some artists are blessed with,” she says. “So it took me a while. But by 2013/14, I thought, ‘ok. I’m going to take this seriously’”.
It is surprising that Ojerime does not see herself as “blessed” with an undeniable musical talent – her melodic voice is sweet like honey, creating a vintage sound I’d dub as “cosmic R&B”. It takes you on an ethereal journey through her innermost thoughts, with the end of each song feeling like a cathartic release. Building on classic R&B hooks, Ojerime’s layered music is unique from her contemporaries, underpinned by dulcet harmonies and intertwined with electronic beats, resulting in a forward-thinking catalogue that simultaneously pays homage to the R&B pioneers that paved the way.
‘Empty’, which dropped in January, was the artist’s first release from B4 I Breakdown, and the music video focuses on “keeping things light and airy to match the vocals.” The singer tells me that she’d never shot a video in the daytime before.
“It was about seeing me in different scenes, just contemplating life”. It’s a visual representation of how her light vocals are juxtaposed with the introspective genre that Ojerime describes as “dark, melancholic R&B”.
The track, she says, is “about just being drained in every aspect of life. I penned it literally days before I had my breakdown – it was a freestyle about everything I was feeling.” It’s also a track that’s allowed her to be experimental in her vocal delivery. “I’m really inspired by rap music nowadays, it’s really one of the purest and rawest art forms you could find,” she says smiling, feeling proud that I picked up on her hip-hop influences. These influences are revealed through Ojerime’s effortless switching between strung-out vocals and a fast delivery, which serve to mimic her stream of consciousness, leaving the listener to feel as if they are sitting within Ojerime’s subconscious.
“I want people to know I’ve been there with my emotions, and if you could take something from it, I’d really love that”– Ojerime
Ojerime loves the level of control that comes with being a DIY musician, yet she is honest about how this independence can have a toll on her mental wellbeing. “It’s nice to have the control, but at the same time, those things are what led to me getting ill and spiraling out of control. I was just being too hands on,” she quietly says, looking down and shaking her head. After a long pause, Ojerime takes a breath and proceeds to open up to me about the struggles she has gone through in the past couple of years which resulted in a mental breakdown, “2018 was a good year for me in music, but a bad year for me personally.” Despite finding success and recognition from her 2018 release 4U, Ojerime tells me that “there were a lot of things going on with me in my personal life that were just eating me up slowly. I had one big public breakdown in 2019, but I think it had been brewing since 2018.”
Unfortunately, she explains, she was unable to notice the warning signs, “I was just oblivious to it. I was working, working, working. Eventually it blew up in April 2019 and I had a public breakdown and it was all over Twitter and Instagram. I was just babbling on about conspiracy theories, thinking that people were out to get me. I was just seeing things in the darkest light.” She stops for a minute, tilts her head back, then continues, “I got sectioned days after it, and was sectioned for around two months. I’m only just recovering now, I’m only just starting to feel a little bit more like myself.”
B4 I Breakdown is a culmination of the multitude of emotions Ojerime has been experiencing since 2018, “I leaked the previews and concept idea of all these tracks when I had a breakdown onto my Instagram.” Recounting this causes Ojerime to speak in a flurry, “I was just so pissed off and broken at the time. I couldn’t get out my ideas because I didn’t have the money, the funds, the team. I felt like I had no one.” After getting discharged, Ojerime decided to release her tracks officially via a mixtape, “I titled the project B4 I Breakdown because these were the ideas I had before my breakdown. It’s also a play on words, you can read it in so many different ways”.
When listening to her story, I can see Ojerime struggling to grapple with the fact that this experience has permanently changed her: “I’m definitely a more tamed version of who I was before. I’ve heard that you’re never the same after having a breakdown, and I’d say that’s very true to me. I’ve learned a lot from it, I’ve grown a lot from it, but the charisma that I had before has kind of left me.” She takes a breath and whispers, “I’m just not the same person.” Her words are a testament to her tenacity and bravery.
“The industry suddenly went from discovering amazing talent on SoundCloud and everybody having an opportunity, to ‘sorry we’re just gonna focus on the light-skins and non-blacks who make your type of music’”– Ojerime
There is no doubt that being a black woman in the music industry is hard, and Ojerime – a dark-skinned black woman – is saddened by the fact that misogynoir and colourism still exist in the industry, despite how accessible it might initially seem. “The industry suddenly went from discovering amazing talent on SoundCloud and everybody having an opportunity, to ‘sorry we’re just gonna focus on the light-skins and non-blacks who make your type of music’. I really thought we were past it. The rise of social media gave me some hope, but we’ve come full circle, it’s just come back”. Her frustration comes to the forefront as she exclaims, “My breakdown just shows you how brutal the industry is. For years I’ve worked hard and, not to sound ungrateful, but I don’t feel like I’ve gotten the return I deserve in music.”
This discontent is shown in her track ‘Whiskey Demo’, where she repeats the line “Wait until I get my money right, I’ll be on the next flight”. According to the artist, ‘Whiskey Demo’ is about being fed up with all aspects of life: “Before recording, I took a shot of whiskey and it just brought all of my feelings to the surface. It just made me go out and say all the things I didn’t know I was feeling at the time. It’s about a failed relationship, being sick of the 9-5, being sick of grinding it out in music and getting no return, and being sick of this country as well.”
Not only does she exude creativity and excellence, but all of Ojerime’s music has an underlying message she’s trying to get across to her listeners. “I want people to know I’ve been there with my emotions, and if you could take something from it, I’d really love that,” she says, “It shows me that I’ve conveyed my message correctly in a good way. I want people to be more sympathetic towards mental health, and [understand] that it can happen to anyone, even an artist who appears to have it all together.”
B4 I Breakdown is out now. You can listen to the mixtape on your preferred streaming service.