Nigerian artist Timaya sits in a yellow background with a black fur coat.
Photo: Badman Tej

Interview: Timaya Is Full of 'Gratitude'

Timaya talks to us about evolving from 2006'sTrue Story to his latest album, Gratitude, while making his mark as one of the first mainstream Nigerian artists to have begun the afro-fusion wave.

On a December afternoon in the Lekki suburbs of Lagos, I can hear "Dem Mama," the hit track from Timaya's debut album True Story, being played in a store not far from the Airbnb I am staying in. It's a few hours before I have to interview the Nigerian star but as I listen to the song, I am fascinated not just by how relevant it still is but also by how much it still remains a bop through and through.

A few months before this, I last heard "Dem Mama" during the October 2020 #EndSARS protests in Port Harcourt, where Nigeria youths marched through the city protesting against police brutality singing Timaya's words. Back when it was released, True Story, the album which includes "Dem Mama," was an instant hit. The very distinct and very 2006 album cover was everywhere, the songs were played in the clubs, at home, in the cars and Timaya was on everyone's lips. The album was somehow filled with club bangers, protest anthems, and perfect singalongs. A testimony to Timaya's artistry.

Born in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, Timaya, whose full name is Inetimi Alfred Odon, briefly studied Banking and Finance before dropping out to move to Lagos where he worked with Eedris Abdulkareem as a backup singer for three years before leaving to work on his solo music. In 2005, Timaya released "Dem Mama," a song that bravely took on the 1999 destruction of Odi, a town in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, and went on to release the True Story album. The rest as they often say is history.

Timaya's most distinct ability is his storytelling. The artist focuses on telling stories rather than just sounds and genres and is ever willing to discard the rigid definitions of genres when telling a story. He's as likely to sing highlife as he is to sing dancehall and even more likely to fuse two or more genres so long as they allow him to effortlessly weave the story he wants to tell. It should be noted that, as afro-fusion is gaining significant traction today, Timaya occupies a unique position as one of the first mainstream Nigerian artists to have begun the wave.

Photo: Badman Tej

In Gratitude, Timaya's latest album, Timaya puts on his storyteller hat once again. The record has no features or artist collaborations but instead has Timaya singing on all 15 songs on the album, telling his story in his own words much like he did in True Story, but with newfound clarity.

Here we caught up with the singer to talk about his influences, growing up, and working on Gratitude.

Can you tell me what growing up was like for you?

Growing up was interesting, I was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Rivers, the Southern part of Nigeria. I was the last child in a very big family. It was fun, on some days tiring, because I was running errands for everyone. I have good memories from my childhood, and experiences that have shaped me up into the man I am today.

What musicians actively influenced you while growing up and now?

Actively influenced me? I listened to anything I heard. I was influenced by so much music, both local and foreign, all I wanted to do was make better music than what I heard. I was always singing in the bathroom growing up, my mum would come to chase me out because I wasted so much time in there. I am more influenced by my experiences to be honest, I am always compelled to write and sing about something I have been through, or someone I have loved.

How would you define your genre?

I have never done well with labels, the closest genre that I believe fits my music would be afro-fusion, which I believe is fusing African music with foreign music genres. I have made dancehall riddims that are huge in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America, I have made highlife songs that are huge in Africa. I make feel good, honest, and relatable music

Photo: Badman Tej

Tell me about your latest album, what influenced you?

I started recording Gratitude about two years before it was released. I didn't want to rush it because I wanted an album that was similar but stronger than my first album, True Story, so I took my time in creating it. I worked with many producers, searching for the right connection, the right music. I dropped the Chulo Vibes EP in early 2019, some more singles, all the while still recording music for the album. I wanted to share my experiences since True Story, I wanted to create music that people could connect to.

Gratitude has zero features, is this deliberate?

Yes, it was very deliberate. Like I said, I wanted to share my life's experiences through the album, take my fans through my journey and I didn't feel features would help paint the picture I wanted. I actually had a few features, but it just didn't fit into what I had in mind for the album

Why did you choose 'Gratitude' as the title of the album?

Gratitude is my constant state of mind, even before I started recording, I'd say to my manager, the next album is titled Gratitude.

Timaya - Don Dada (Lyrics Visualizer)

What was the recording process for Gratitude like?

It was very uplifting, I discovered and rediscovered parts of myself. I worked with some incredible producers, made music the way I wanted, and wrote the music from my heart.

When you dropped True Story in 2006, did you think it would be as big as it was?

I honestly didn't think it would be so big. It was such a blessing how that album made it out there so big. People would tell me, and I would be like really? Then the shows started coming, I'd get on stage and the crowd would sing my songs word for word.

You've evolved over the years, but what has remained consistent even as you evolved?

"Originality over best" is my motto. Best is what is reigning, which is popular now, but originality lasts forever. I thrive to be the best version of myself always, reinventing over time, but still being me.