The English legal system lost a major talent when Ola Onabule decided that he’d rather be a musician than a barrister. Fans of elegant, jazz-inflected soul singing should rejoice in his career choice, however; the U.K.–born, Nigerian–raised Onabule may well be the best vocalist you’ve never heard.
On the line from the London studio where he’s cutting demos for a forthcoming CD, he explains the circumstances behind his revelation. “It was a few months before my final exams,” he recalls. “I could see the future laid out ahead, and I knew that if I didn’t put a stop to the whole madness, that was going to be it. Once I’d signed on the dotted line—you know, to being a lawyer—there was a whole future mapped out there. There were firms that belonged to members of the family.”¦So I just realized that it was now or never.”
Traces of his legal training remain: although many of his songs concern that age-old soul staple, love, Onabule often concerns himself with the unspoken contracts lovers make.
“I suppose I do,” he says. “I tend to shy away from ”˜I love you/You love me’ love songs, and go for the ”˜Do we really have to drag this out into the open tonight? I don’t want to have to deal with it, but if I have to I’m ready to go there, and these are the points that I’ve got in mind, and I’ll delineate them,’ and all that. It’s like he-said-she-said, and ”˜Who gets to keep the Bon Jovi CDs?’ ”
He’s laughing, but that Onabule is a serious thinker is obvious from the title track of his most recent CD, The Devoured Man. “It’s about the misfortune Africa has suffered in the leadership department,” he explains. “The allegorical figure at the centre of the song is fighting temptation—fighting the temptation of being in the position to embezzle or to be corrupt in some way. I was reflecting on the death of an African gentleman in a situation specific to the southern coast of Nigeria—where my origins are—who tried desperately to change the thinking of the oil companies and tried to get them to be less exploitative and more community-based, and failed, and lost his life in the process.”
Onabule reveals that the track was inspired by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the author and environmental activist executed by Nigeria’s military government in 1995. The singer may have left his law studies behind, but it’s clear that his commitment to justice remains strong.
Ola Onabule plays Performance Works on Friday (July 3).