We collect mementos as reminders of where we’ve been and what we’ve done. We scrapbook our journeys in photo albums on dusty shelves or in the infinite cloud camera rolls on our phones. Joy Oladokun documents her life in songs. For as much as she examines her place in the world as the first-generation daughter of Nigerian immigrants and a proud queer Black person, she also celebrates the little details and the simple pleasures of being alive. Of course, the narrator’s humble demeanor belies the gravity of her extraordinary accomplishments thus far—from captivating audiences on sold out tours and late-night television to finding herself with a guitar in hand on the White House lawn in celebration of equality. Now, she takes stock of the trip so far on her highly anticipated forthcoming full-length album, Proof of Life [Amigo Records/Verve Forecast/Republic Records].
“One day, I was looking around my house,” she recalls. “I have all of these little tchotchkes—like figurines and a stuffed Big Bird on my speaker. I was morbidly thinking, ‘What happens to those things after I die?’ What are the emotions and ideas that are important and true to me? What will I leave behind? Being a queer Black person growing up in Arizona is unique to my story. I was always the person at the party who wants to commiserate over how weird or good things can be. This album is evidence of how I live. It tries to capture the human experience.”
Capturing the human experience has become Joy’s forte. After grinding it out for years, she reached critical mass with her 2021 major label debut, in defense of my own happiness. It graced countless year-end lists and led Vanity Fair to declare, “Her name is both prescient and redundant. She oozes energy that shifts a room’s center of gravity and makes you happy for it. It is charisma and she has it in spades. It’s the way she approaches her craft too.” Along the way, she’s delivered unforgettable performances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, PBS’s Austin City Limits and NPR Music’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert and more, and captivated festivalgoers at Bonnaroo, Hangout, Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Festival and Ohana Festival. Not to mention, she’s also appeared on HULU’s Your Attention Please: The Concert and landed prominent syncs on CSI: Vegas, This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, And Just Like That and Station 19, to name a few. Plus, she has joined forces with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Lucie Silvas, Noah Kahan and Jason Isbell for collaborations. Most recently, she played “Sunday” and “Jordan” at the Respect for Marriage Act signing ceremony in front of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the South Lawn of the White House.
Throughout 2022, she wrote and recorded what would become Proof of Life with producers Mike Elizondo, Ian Fitchuk, and Dan Wilson with Joy co-producing.
“My lyricism is very open, and I’m able to dip my toes into genres and styles I’ve always loved,” she goes on. “There’s a full spectrum of vulnerability. Not only am I telling you about my fears, feelings, and triumphs, but I’m also showing you sonic elements and sounds I’m inspired by.”
She initially paved the way for the album with “Purple Haze” and “Keeping The Light On” before sharing standout “Sweet Symphony” with Chris Stapleton. The latter connected with audiences and tastemakers, inciting the immediate applause of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and more.
The single “Changes” evokes sensitivity in the cracks between a marching band-style drum roll, gently plucked acoustic guitar, soulful horns, and slide guitar. Pondering the world around her, she confesses, “I don’t want to stay the same, so I’m trying to keep up with the changes.”
“I was thinking of this moment,” she notes. “My career has taken off in a way I always hoped it would, and there’s nowhere to go but up. I also want to have relationships and make a change in my community. I love to pick up a guitar, have a conversation, and strum. ‘Changes’ is about keeping up with the way people change and the way I change in addition to acknowledging how the past affects and informs those changes.”
Elsewhere, her voice echoes through strains of sparse piano on “You At The Table” [feat. Manchester Orchestra]. The momentum ramps up with a glitchy drum beat as Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull responds with a pensive vocal.
“I wrote the song from a place of knowing what it’s like to miss somebody,” Joy goes on. “Relationships aren’t easy. When you’re insecure, scared, and frustrated, you do unstable things—like sleep in front of the door in the hallway to know when your partner is leaving. It’s about the tension of nothing being perfect in any relationship. ‘You At The Table’ is about finding and fighting for the healthy space to be the best version of yourself for the people you love.”
Elsewhere, “Revolution” [feat. Maxo Kream] nods to the eighties Afropop movement with a bright rhythm and neon keys as Joy laments, “I was born too late to really make a difference.” Meanwhile, Houston spitter Maxo Kream pulls up with a punchy, yet poignant rhyme.
“As a black queer human in my thirties, I’m an anomaly,” she observes. “I have an opportunity to make a model for a life I didn’t imagine was possible when I was a kid, so a future generation can say, ‘There’s a place for me in this world’. It’s a privilege to be a rarity in this world. To me, Maxo is ‘Biggie from Texas’. He has this desire to give his family the best he can without violence, which is relatable to a lot of marginalized groups. ‘Revolution’ is about being part of a group on the outskirts, yet rising to the occasion to inspire hope in yourself and others like you.”
Following their collaboration on the fan favorite “Someone Like You,” Joy reteams with Noah Kahan on the apocalyptically catchy “We’re All Gonna Die.” Backed by distorted guitar, off-kilter strings, and a hummable fret-burning solo, the hook swoons, “We’re all gonna die trying to figure it out. We’re all getting high anyway we know how.”
“It shows the edge in our personalities, which I’ve recognized through our friendship,” she smiles. “It comes through in the music. Even though we’re both known for a lot of folk renditions, this is loud and a lot of fun.”
The album concludes with “Somehow.” Piano glimmers as she reminds herself “of the places where I’ve found peace, solace, and resilience in the ability to sit in the uncertainty of things not being okay.”
“The song saved me, so I could make the rest of the record,” she admits.
Proof Of Life might just shine some light in your life when you need it.
“I hope these are helpful anthems,” she leaves off. “I started making music because I wasn’t hearing from the ‘everyday human being’ on the radio. I hope this resonates with anybody who feels normal and needs a little musical boost to get through the day. I’m average. I do this job because I love what I do. I put so much care, craft, and intention into it. I’m making music to live to.”
My name is Jensen McRae. I’m 25, I’m a Virgo, I cried so hard during ‘Into The Spider-Verse’ that I think I went temporarily blind, and I don’t think I’ve ever said no to dessert. I write songs about mental illness, being brown, fearing adulthood, and falling in love with every boy who’s ever been nice to me. I am probably writing about you in my journal.