Afro-Fusion artist, Tomi Agape, discusses what it’s really like to be a woman in the UK Afrobeat scene, the importance of mental health and finding her signature style.
During March, also known by those in the UK as Women’s History Month, the focus inevitably shifts to representation, diversity and inclusively. In an instant, people become hyper-aware of the issues that, for women who often find themselves working in male-dominated spaces, remain niggling thoughts at the back of their minds. Being able to discuss this at length so freely with Afro-Fusion artist Tomi Agape spurred on the hope that change was coming, something as reassuring as it was cathartic.
Born in North West London, the singer’s sound is a direct reflection of all the cultural elements of her upbringing combing the dynamic UK edge, inspiration from formidable R&B/Soul greats such as Jill Scott and Beyonce and the percussion rich melodies of her Nigerian heritage. Championed as one of the most prominent women within Nigeria’s Alte movement Tomi is perhaps most recognised for her feature on “Rapid Fire”, a track that is currently sitting at over 10 million streams.
Making the tough decision to prioritise health and well-being over her career, Tomi took some time away from music for a moment of growth and reflection before releasing her 8-track project ‘Never Gunna Be The Same’ into the world in 2020. Hosting features from Amaarae, 5ffye and BOJ, it is an eclectic mix of influences from across the diaspora and a true embodiment of who Tomi is as an artist.
After what has been an unprecedented time in all of our lives, ‘Never Gunna Be The Same’ offers a place of sanctuary, providing space for the singer to share her most sincere thoughts with friends and fans alike, a key subject matter in our eye-opening conversation.
I feel like the Afrobeats genre is one of those things that everyone is aware of because it’s so popular, but no one actually knows what the scene is like. So what’s it like being a woman in such a male-dominated space?
It can be frustrating. You can use it to your advantage but there are also disadvantages. I feel like, as a woman, you just have to work a lot harder to prove yourself and prove your worth. That’s probably the same with other industries as well. Not even just the music industry, I feel like that’s across the board. Definitely a lot more male-dominated studios – even when I meet new producers, just everything, it’s a lot more men. You just have to work hard so they know you’re business and it’s not playtime. You have to prove that you need to be respected just as much as the next guy.
And do you feel like the scene supports you in the same way that it would a man in the space?
I feel like the scene definitely supports men a bit more. In a scene full of artists, the ratio from men to women that are at the top is always so much more [for men]. It’s such a big margin, and it makes you think, why is that? Because it’s not that there aren’t females who are just as talented. So, I do believe that, yeah, there’s still a bit of a gap that I don’t understand yet, to be honest.
What are some of the main barriers that women face?
Do you know what, I really still don’t know what it is? Like, if I’m being honest with you, I still don’t really 100% understand it. A lot of the time, it feels like a man has to co-sign a female artist for them to really blow. That feels like that’s something that happens. In the history of females that have blown – a lot of the time it is men that kind of co-signed them. It’s not always the case, of course, but that is a big part of it.
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So, with that being said, do you think there are enough opportunities for growth and progression for women, specifically within the UK Afrobeats scene?
There are opportunities, [but] I don’t know if there are enough. I think it’s just a mindset. It’s honestly a mindset. I just feel like women get overlooked in this industry a lot faster than guys do for some reason. I mean, it’s not like, a woe-is-me thing. I’m not like, ‘Oh my God this is so unfair’.
I mean, but it’s real. You’ve gotta speak on it.
Yeah, it is real!
And I guess something else that contributes to that, from my perspective, is the fact that you don’t really make the typical sounding UK Afrobeats or Afroswing type music. Your sound is a lot more Afro-Fusion and R&B influenced. So, what’s it like for you making that sort of music being based in London, which is very much Afroswing and Drill and Rap-centred currently?
I understand that there are certain types of music that will probably do really well if I was to now jump on that type of sound. I do feel like my music tastes and the type of music I make is quite eclectic, so I’m not opposed to making other types of music. I’ll do whatever feels right when I’m in the future, depending on what beats I get sent or what music I create with a producer from scratch. But I do feel like there’s a niche for my sound, and the people who get it, just get it. I feel like it’s progressive as well, there are lots of other artists that are similar, who do similar sorts of music to me. The niche is widening. When you just stay authentic and true to your sound, and you cater to your market and your audience, the growth is a lot more natural and a lot more long-lasting. So yeah, I know, there’s a difference in the type of music I make compared to what the UK as a whole is known for right now, but I love the type of music I do.
Do you ever feel like there’s a bit of a disconnect because your sound doesn’t fit into the traditional Afroswing type vibe?
I do feel like sometimes, maybe people don’t know where to place me. It’s like, I’m from London. I’m a British girl born here and everything. But obviously, a lot of my sound is from all over. I’m very connected to the Nigerian scene. It’s also not really Afrobeats. It’s like, our own little thing that we do. But at the same time, because my music is a mix, when it’s time, it will stretch if it needs to. I do see my other colleagues that have their own niche. I see how it’s like spreading to other places that they probably wouldn’t even have expected it to. There’s nothing to say that just because I’m from London, I need to only connect with Brits.
Being someone who has collaborated with quite a few international artists, what have you noticed are some of the biggest differences between the music scenes out in places like Nigeria and here in the UK?
I honestly feel like for the Nigerians I’ve worked with, the music taste is just so vast. The stuff that the producers I work with from Nigeria, the beats they send me and stuff, it’s just crazy. It’s so different from the stuff I get from producers from here. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just different. The Nigerians I’ve worked with from Nigeria have been a lot more experimental with the sound – which is fun because it allows me to experiment as well.
Is there anything else you’ve recorded that we’re yet to hear?
Yeah, there are. I’m always recording. There are definitely things I have in the archives. I’m even hoping to drop some more stuff soon. And there are a couple of features that I want to get. I don’t like the case features. I kind of like things to happen organically. If they happen, they happen. Chasing features is not as authentic as just seeing what happens. So, we’ll see. But there’s definitely music coming.
What do you look for when you collaborate with people?
If I think that the energy is going to be good on the song. Like, are people going to hear the song and feel connected to it? Are they going to feel that was random or this wasn’t necessary? I don’t think you should just drop features if it’s not necessary. I feel like it needs to improve the song, or you should have written the song together. So that’s what I look for.
And is that something that you know straight away or do you have to gauge the vibe?
Sometimes you will record a song and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I know this person would sound great on it’. Sometimes you just know. And then sometimes, you send things over and just see what they want to do on it. And sometimes you do a feature and it just doesn’t work and that’s fine. Maybe you guys need to go back and work on a couple of things together and see how it goes from there. Sometimes you just test it out and see.
Speaking of testing things out things, something else we have to talk about is your rapping, will we ever get this on a project, or at the very least a song?
[Laughs] You know what… I do believe I’m going to put out an actual song not just an Instagram video.
We’re holding you to this now.
I like the pressure because honestly, I’ve always enjoyed rapping since I was young but because it has always been singing first, I just pushed it to the back. But recently I’ve just been like, I need to get this out. So I put out those two freestyles just to test the waters and people seem to really like it. It’s like a whole other part of me unlocked when I rap. So, I will be bringing that probably this year.
You said that it was always singing first, is that something that people advised you to do? Or is that just what you’ve personally preferred?
No, I mean, I was singing before I was rapping. One of my biggest influences is Lil Kim. I think fashion-wise she’s an icon. There’s gonna be a lot of other rappers who are amazing, and I love female rappers as a whole, but I just feel like she started something. She was an icon and she’s been a big inspiration of mine. As an artist, for me, it’s not just about my music. It’s about everything. That’s what people kind of lock into with artists, especially nowadays. I want to be a fashion icon. I want to be a music icon. I want to do modelling. I want to act. I want to do everything. And I feel like she’s somebody that really did that. She was just a look every time I saw her. When I started looking into Lil Kim more and more, I started rapping but it was always singing first. I started singing in church then I started writing. I used to play the keys a little bit and I still kind of do. It started with singing and just spread.
Okay, so you mentioned that you want to be a fashion icon. How would you say that you found your signature look?
The word I use to describe my look is Fuego because I just feel like even something as simple tracksuit just down to Sainsbury’s or something, I’m going to just put it on in a way where it looks fire regardless. You don’t have to be, dressed up in heels and stuff or whatever, to look good. I feel like you can look good in whatever you’re wearing. it’s just about your confidence carrying it. It’s about, you know how you put it together. I like to feel comfortable in what I’m wearing, but also make it look good. And I do think that my style is constantly evolving. It’s very temperamental. I can wake up today feeling like leather leather leather, which it has been for a while. Or decide today I feel like bright colours. I have some style icons that I do enjoy looking at.
I like looking at Solange. I love Rihanna; Tracee Ellis Ross and Lil Kim, especially the stuff she used to wear back in the day, like the red fur coat. It’s very in-your-face. I just mix everything together and just go with it.
I love that! Obviously, we’re here to talk about your music and your project ‘Never Gunna Be The Same’ recently came out. Let’s start with its title. What was the inspiration behind it?
I wrote a lot of the songs during the pandemic. First of all, life as we know it is never really going to be the same. The way the world has turned, none of us ever thought that we would be here. That’s number one. And number two, this is the first project I’ve ever put together. So no matter what, I’m never going to be the same after this. Just because of everything I’ve put into it. Perspectives changing…yeah, I just felt like it made a lot of sense.
There’s a track called “London” that everyone is talking about, which to me is kind of a tribute to your life growing up in the city. How do you think growing up in London shaped you both as a person but also as an artist?
I am just a girl from London. I am a Londoner in the truest form, in terms of just being a mover and a shaker. I feel like Londoners are just always on the go or trying to get stuff done. Experiences in school people I’ve met, people I’ve loved, happy times, tough times, I feel like it all came together to make me who I am today. It’s a gloomy, rainy city, but I do love my city.
Prior to putting out the project, you took a whole year out. What led you to make that decision?
I don’t even think it was a conscious decision. I just wasn’t in the best mental state. I feel like it’s important to look after yourself. There was definitely a time when I was in a fairly dark space where I was just not the happiest that could have been. Even making music wasn’t making me feel the same way it did before. I didn’t even really feel myself. I think I did one thing during the break – one song that came out anyway. I just needed that time to just get my mind right. I feel like if you’re not okay, you’re not going to make the best you can make anyway. It didn’t feel genuine coming out and dropping music that I hadn’t put everything into.
What would you say that period of time taught you about yourself?
I think it taught me that I need to look after myself more in terms of not allowing so much access to me and allowing so much information into my head. Knowing who I am sticking to that. Because sometimes in this industry, it’s easy to let the opinions of every single person get to you and it leaves you a little bit confused. If you know exactly what you want, at the end of the day, you won’t really allow everything to get to you. Also just working on my craft more. I feel like it gave me a lot of time to just write a lot without the pressures of needing to drop a song in the next week or in a month’s time. No deadlines, just allowing myself to really create in my own time.
Do you think social media makes it more difficult in terms of people having access to you? It feels like you have to put so much of yourself out there in order to connect with your audience.
Yeah, I do. I think that social media is the biggest blessing and the biggest curse at the same time. I will say that because I do love social media. And it’s nice to be able to have quick access to people and also for your supporters and your fans to have access to you, so I do love it. I also feel like you have to take it in doses and not allow yourself to be so consumed with social media that it brings you to a bad space.
Finally, what can we expect from you in 2021 and beyond?
More music, more visuals, more content.