Joy Oladokun’s soulful new album, Proof of Life, peels off the veneers of falsehoods with which we too often cover ourselves, afraid of the shadows that constantly haunt us and fearful that darkness will forever hide the light of joy in our souls and in our society. Her cinematic songwriting carries us on a tour of her own struggles, and she emerges with a defiant hopefulness that she embraces in the face of constant change, loneliness, and despair.
On the album’s opening track, “Keeping the Light On,” Oladokun proclaims that finding the light in the dark is hard but “we can’t, we won’t let go” of the quest to “keep keeping the light on.” Oladokun’s albums reveal that taking care of others is just the flip-side of taking care of oneself. On her third studio album, in defense of my own happiness, for example, songs like “Sunday” and “Look Up” meditate on finding the light within in order to help others find the light in themselves.
With gently soothing and sparse arrangements, in defense of my own happiness probes the undercurrents that flow beneath the troubled waters of systemic racism, homophobia, and religious and social hypocrisy. All of Oladokun’s songs are deeply personal, whether they reflect on her experience of growing up Black and queer in a small Arizona town or explore her inquisitiveness about the nature of her Christian upbringing.
The daughter of Nigerian immigrant parents, Joy Oladokun grew up in Casa Grande, Arizona, a small, mostly white, farming community, where she listened to country and folk music, as well as the hymns and gospel music in the nondenominational church she and her parents attended. When she was 10, she watched a video of Tracy Chapman, and she set out to learn to play the guitar. By the time she was 15, she was leading congregational worship in her parents’ church, though she later left the church because of its inability to provide an adequate spirituality for her.
Oladokun self-released her debut EP Cathedrals, which she followed with her debut studio album, Carry, in 2016. In 2020, Oladokun released in defense of my own happiness (the beginnings) and followed it up one year later with in defense of my own happiness. Proof of Life, released on April 28, 2023, is Oladokun’s fourth studio album, and while her songs continue to explore the boundaries between the personal and the political, Oladokun’s spacious sonic structures traverse the musical landscape from soul to gospel to pop to country to folk.
Proof of Life opens with “Keeping the Light On,” an upbeat pop groove propelled by bright synthesizers and rolling percussion. The song’s groove conveys the cautious optimism of the lyrics, revealing that music this warm and uplifting moves us toward the light within our darkest moments. The soulful “Changes” marches along to snare rolls and flows along the river of sounds laid down by tenor sax and gently lucked guitars, as the singer embraces the changes in her life: “I don’t want to stay the same, so I’m trying to keep up with the changes.”
In the eddying rhythms of “Taking Things for Granted,” Oladokun looks back on her childhood when she invited friends to her birthday party and no one came; despite that event happening long ago, her feelings of inadequacy and being taken for granted sometimes slowly creep back in on her every now and then. The soul anthem “Sweet Symphony,” which features Chris Stapleton, opens sparsely with Oladokun’s stirring, crystal clear vocals before soaring into the stratosphere as Oladokun and Stapleton play call and response.
“Hard Way” opens with an Indigo Girls-inflected guitar strum and vocal before blossoming into a country folk anthem about learning lessons about life and love. The song’s first words—“jesus raised me/good weed saved me”—reveal the two redemptive forces in Oladokun’s life; once again, she’s searching for the light that illuminates the darkness of daily life, and though she “learned the hard way,” now when she’s “in the dark” she knows “how to find the spark.”
The rollicking “We’re All Gonna Die,” featuring Noah Kahan, rolls along with carnivalesque “Yellow Submarine” roadhouse rhythm as Kahan and Oladokun sing, tongue-in-cheek: “we’re all gonna die trying to figure it out/we’re all getting high every way we know how/we’re over our heads so I’ll say it out loud/we’re all gonna die trying to figure it out.” The album closes with “Somehow,” a swirling chamber folk piece with cascading piano notes and shimmering strings. The eddying music provides the perfect setting for Oladokun’s meditative lyrics of certainty in the midst of doubt: “life can change with the weather/somehow things just get better.”
Proof of Life reveals that a reflective life is a life well lived and that various methods from therapy to getting high can be aids to reflection. Oladokun continues to grow as a songwriter, and Proof of Life showcases her lyrical inventiveness and musical creativity.
Proof of Life available HERE