Redefining Authenticity & Music Genres; Oritsé Williams 

We sit down with former JLS founding member Oritsé Williams to learn more about his solo musical journey and to talk about what it means to be truly authentic when pursuing one’s art. Having been a child of multiple cultural influences, growing up in the UK, Africa and the Caribbean – Oritsé’s new sound is nuanced and operates in a lane of its own. 

Afro-Island music combines elements of stripped-down beats in an Afro-Caribbean sonic space; think tropical house with poetic-leaning lyricism. Oritsé’s musical development process is the result of letting creativity flow as opposed to building off a set idea or specific expectation. This is the exact process from which his new single Language emerged. 

Oritsé is involved in a variety of mental health awareness and community projects. Having watched his mother endure Multiple Sclerosis, he has worked on many projects centering the lives of young carers – shining a light onto the specific, difficult experience this can entail. There are many stories of success despite hardship, to be told and he did this with his BBC world documentary Kids Who Care, which received a viewership of over 95 million worldwide. Oritsé has become a leading voice as an MS Trust and Commonwealth Ambassador, spreading positivity, inspiration and awareness all the same. 

I’ve had the privilege of listening to your new track, Language. Can you tell me more about the inspiration for this song?

Yeah. It essentially focuses on the notion of love language and what love languages are. [This came about as a result of] a conversation that I had with my queen around that time, we were talking about the intricacies of love, what love means and how love is communicated. 

Love is a language in itself. It can be communicated in many ways and sometimes doesn’t even require words. How it’s given and received, it makes us fall deeper in love with the person. 

I didn’t go into the studio intentionally wanting to write about it because when it comes to the studio, my process is to allow myself to be creatively free. 

I heard this quote from Pharrell Williams, “don’t get in the way of the music”. Allowing yourself to be completely inspired in the moment is so special because you don’t know what will come to you at that particular time.

We had started early – maybe 10 o’clock in the morning, and it was around 7pm at night. Nothing, nothing was connecting. I’m somebody who, I just, I don’t give up. So I started freestyling.

I just followed the rhythm of the beat. I naturally had this kind of surge, I call it lightning bolts of inspiration. I was like “no pressure but your letters spell out desire”. I was just having a conversation on the song. Everyone got excited in the studio, they were like Oritsé, “yeah we’re onto something now”.

I immediately noticed how colorful the Language music video is, primarily the pops of red and blue. I wanted to ask you more about the vision here and how it relates back to the track’s meaning?

I found myself in a space where I had parted ways with people that I was working with for a number of years. I hadn’t had any direct communication because my job was to stay in the studio and write songs. 

There [were] still a lot of things to get ready for the video and I looked at the time and I was like, “oh my goodness there’s a week to the video, not everything is in place”. I’m here by myself with no team, just me on my own – you can imagine the pressure. I said, I’ve got to be courageous here. I’ve got to believe in myself somehow. You know, my family, my friends, they really came around me and they said, Ortisé, you can do this. 

I sat down. I called the video director, Ron Ngesi, who’s an incredible, incredible talent. He said, “Bro, don’t worry. Don’t worry. You and I, we’re going to see this all the way through”. I told him I wanted the video to feel universal, global and relatable. Classy, but I also wanted it to feel intimate at the same time. 

None of it was choreographed. It was all like, ok, cool. “Let’s do this now, Ortisé, just vibe”. I don’t even know if it’s looking good or not, I’m just feeling the music. I had this string vest, from Daily Paper, which was really dope because it just reminded me of growing up in the Caribbean, but also going to Notting Hill Carnival. 

The people that were there with me were like, “Considering everything you had gone through, the video is now nearly a million views, [which is] unbelievable [for] something that was chaos in the beginning. It’s really turned into a victory”. 

I’m aware that you spent your childhood growing up between the UK, the Caribbean and Africa, how has this impacted your musical direction?

I mean it’s what my music is, who I am. It’s who I always have been and who I always will be. 

I grew up in an African Caribbean household but in the UK in West London there’s a huge African Caribbean community. My parents taught me and my siblings about our West Indian roots, our African background and heritage.

All of my siblings have African tribal first names. So when someone from an African background hears my name, Oritsé – they immediately say “wow your parents really went deep with that”. They pick[ed] that name out of one of the tribes, the Itsekiri tribe in West Africa. 

When I had moved to Africa as a teenager, it just opened me up to a whole new spectrum of music and what was possible. In Africa, literally everybody was talented. Everybody could play an instrument, sing. They might have two strings on a guitar and they’ll make it sound like some incredible masterpiece. When I’d go to school, the kids would drum on the school desk or on the dining table and then you’d hear this symphony of percussive sound. 

As a kid that’s come from the UK, I never experienced anything like that before. So my eyes were open and I was just taken in by all this inspiration. It was absolutely unbelievable. It’s funny because in Africa and the Carribean, music is a language.

Africa was the first time I ever recorded my first song. 

I wanted to ask you about this redefinition of authenticity. Focusing on this new genre called Afro-Island, can you give me more insight about this genre and its origins in your creative process? 

So whilst I was in the studio, I found myself. If I was going to be completely authentically myself, I’m going to lean on my experiences.

You have a lot of artists that are very much Afrobeat, Dancehall. They’re Pop, R&B, they’re Soul artists. As I was creating, I was like, I don’t really know an artist that’s doing what I’m doing, the way that I’m doing it. I tried really hard. I kept asking people around me, who’s doing what I’m doing?

My experiences make me unique, but what do I self-identify as musically? Well, I’m not an Afrobeat artist. I’m not an R&B artist. I’m not a Dancehall artist, right? I’m kind of bits of it all. I think the one thing that I lean into creatively is my imagination. So I allow my imagination and who I am to just completely come out without trying to shackle anything. I don’t try to carve a lane, I just express. 

I thought the best way to describe it is Afro-Island because that is the fusion and blend of my music. That’s what it feels like, that’s what it sounds like. I might lean towards more of the African energy sometimes, I might lean towards the Caribbean energy, sometimes it might be an equal blend of both – and you’re always going to get that West London British swagger.

Tell me about this long-standing friendship with Davido. I was told you went to school together in Nigeria and reconnected in London when he was performing so what was this like? 

I’ve known Davido since he was 10 years old. I got expelled from my school in the UK [and] I decided to go to Africa. I felt like there was nothing left for me in the UK. I went to the British International School, Lagos on Victoria Island, and very quickly the students seemed to really kind of catch a vibe with me, which was unbelievable. 

Davido was this very small boy. In Nigeria, they have what you call school fathers, school mothers, school sons and school daughters. Essentially you are a mentor to your younger. Davido was constantly on my case, “Ortisé please be my school father”. 

I used to give him a little noogie on his head, and say to him I wouldn’t be able to do that. [I’d go] “David you’re too much of a naughty boy, man, like come on you’re gonna give me a hard time”, [but] he just wouldn’t give up. 

I decided that I was going to mentor David. I was going to take care of him. He was a little rascal but so full of life and really wanted to be inspired. Always asking me questions about Caribbean culture and the UK, telling me about artists that he loved. 

Davido reached out to me after I got back to the UK and said “I’m starting music, you know any help support [you can give], I would love it”. I messaged him back and said “Yo D, anything you need just let me know, I’m there for you”. 

Next thing I know I’m on holiday, flick [on the TV] and see David turn up. I said “oh my gosh that’s my school son”. When you’ve got that kind of younger brother, bigger brother relationship, you know, you want your big brother to be proud of you, and I’m proud of him

I pulled up to his show, said “I see you coming to London, doing the O2. I’m gonna pull up and show you some love and support. I mean give you a wicked cuddle”.

I said to him, can you imagine – both of us have done the O2 arena, being from the same school, big brother and little brother? 

Your humanitarian work and mental health is really important to you, specifically young carers and people with Multiple Sclerosis. What’s been a few driving projects in light of these causes, and what are the positive outcomes you’ve witnessed?

I was invited to the biggest young carers conference of the year in collaboration with [the] Manchester United Foundation. They asked me to recite a piece of spoken word poetry that I had written about my experience as a young carer [and] finding out that my mother had MS. 

I became a young carer at the age of 12 years old. Growing within ethnic minority backgrounds, there’s a natural expectation that you just look after your elders. You look after your loved ones – It’s just what you do. 

As I got bigger, people started to learn about my life story. I started talking about it a bit because people would ask me questions and some people thought it could be good to share my story more widely, to help other kids that are experiencing similar [situations]”. I found I didn’t want  to talk about it at first because I just wanted everything to be about my talent and music. I didn’t want to feel like a sob story because I didn’t feel like there was anything to feel sorry for.

The letters I received from fans would be so emotionally provocative and heart-wrenching that it became very clear to me that actually, me talking about this can only help. I decided to dive deeper into supporting organizations associated with young carers and Multiple Sclerosis.

I’m very proud that last year I was asked to be the Multiple Sclerosis Trust ambassador. I was also asked by the Commonwealth Foundation to perform at St. James Palace in front of Royal Family members and Commonwealth ministers from around the world, where they announce[d] me as the official Commonwealth ambassador for young carers, a huge honour. 

Earlier last year, I did a BBC World documentary called Kids Who Care.I interviewed young carers from all over the world and I went to see certain young carers and their families and [to] have discussions with them. 

People go through their life, they have their own experiences where they go through mental health suffering. I think it’s important to talk about. There is stigma within African Caribbean communi[ties] where people don’t, especially men, talk about their feelings.

Being strong is being vulnerable. I want to continue to raise the voices of young carers and those who go unheard and also continue to support people that are suffering with mental health and help them find ways to be able to express themselves.

What piece of advice do you have for musicians and singers trying to make it in the industry who may feel that the odds are against them?

For me, it’s about community and unity. We’ve seen the drill artists, the rap artists, the MCs, how they’ve been able to break open doors and, you know, find themselves being at the top of the charts, now some of the most popular music in the world. That’s because in my mind they came together. 

You know, when one artist is having a release, you see all of them posting about it. If Dave is going to drop – Stormzy, Central Cee, Gets, Giggs, Chipmunk, Skepta, they’re all going to post about it. Do you know what I mean? They post about each other. They have this sense of community and unity together.

I feel [with] singers, there is without a doubt, a separation.  Everyone is kind of fighting for a spot that they feel there can only be one, when the truth is there’s space for everybody. I actively reach out to singers, whether they’re super popping or on the way up and I say look, let’s collaborate.

If we can all go into this journey together it will be a lot more harmonious for us all. I don’t feel [that] singers, especially from ethnic minority backgrounds, [are] getting any love in the way that we should be getting love, it’s always been a struggle. It doesn’t make sense, it’s unfair, it’s sad. I know there’s certain singers right now that are telling me, Oritsé, “I’m giving up”. I’m like, well, I’m not going to give up because somebody’s got to continue to try and open them doors and lead the way. Somebody’s got to try and do it. 

It feels to me and many people around me that this narrative constantly being perpetuated in the media is that as young black men, unless you’re G’d up, unless you’ve got affiliation with this kind of gangster mentality and style, like, then you ain’t cool. So if you’re a singer, you’re soft. That’s what they’re saying, but hold on a second. If we’re going to be truly representative, there’s nothing to take away, but let’s tell all the stories.

I don’t have the support of the big corporate structures but I’m gonna do my very best to do what I can, so that young black boy that’s looking on his TV can turn around and go, actually there’s something about that guy that I see myself in. 

Lastly, what are you hoping your listeners get out of these tracks ahead of the upcoming EP? And are there any other teasers you can offer readers about what to expect? 

I hope that when people listen to my music, if they’re having a bad day, it suddenly turns into a good day. There’s always going to be this, it’s deep, like there’s depth to it, but there’s also an energy to it that is uplifting for the spirit. 

You look at someone like Bob Marley, you know, he could say the most poetic, really kind of politically prolific things. The energy of the music still made you feel good. I really want to have my music feel like that. I think for the press launch, what people are really going to get is they’re going to get a flavour for who Oritsé Williams is as a solo artist in his own right. 

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Words: Lauren Bulla