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In the midst of his high energy Best New Bands set, local musician Obi Original asked for a time check. “Just keep going!” an audience member shouted, a wide grin on their face. Obi laughed. “Thank you, my brother. I’ll go until they throw us off the stage.”
Obi’s subsequent performance similarly took this all-or-nothing approach—sweat-drenched, rife with guest performers, and unfailingly danceable, he left not a second to waste.
A dynamic presence on and off stage, Obiora Obikwelu, otherwise known as Obi Original, wears quite a few hats. Having previously primarily worked as a producer, Obikwelu’s debut single “Tsunami” in 2019, followed by EPs Waves (2021) and Melindigo (2022), showcase an artist dedicated to bringing African highlife not only to Minneapolis, but the mainstream as well.
When asked, Obikwelu dubs his musical stylings “straight fusion,” i.e. “having African music be the nucleus and building something that is bigger and newer with it.” An equally buoyant presence over the phone, Obikwelu’s passion is evident: “[I want to] stay true to African music and rhythms… but also try fusing different genres. Like adding in the fast hi-hats of drill music, the distortion from Motley Crue, the blues guitar of BB King.”
With an early childhood marked with moves between the States and his native Nigeria, one constant was music.
“I grew up with a lot of classic Nigerian records playing in the house… plus Congolese soukous music,” Obikwelu noted. “As I got older, I eventually got a laptop for school and downloaded FL Studio on it, and started playing around with [those influences]. I’ve been playing around ever since.”
“[In the studio], Obi is just zoned in,” friend and musician Sumer remarked. “I have a song called ‘Ready or Not,’ and it’s like this 60s funky music, right? I went to Obi and was like, I want it to sound like Chaka Khan, James Brown. He needs one example, and he has it down. He’s going to sprint. He plays all the instruments. You cannot get him out his zone.”
On top of his solo work, Obikwelu also serves as co-founder and creative director at artist collective Ozone Creations. The group’s most recent album, Coup D’etat (2021) celebrates what the group terms a “plethora of Blackness,” i.e. a fusion of Black genres from across the world. This very spirit of Afrocentrism informs the group itself, with members’ roots in Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, France, the United States, and Egypt.
“We’ve had great artists come out [of the Twin Cities], like Allan Kingdom, Bobby Raps. I just wish people realized what’s going on in Minneapolis is just like what was happening in New York in the early ‘80s,” Obikwelu said. “It made me realize, okay, I have to prioritize collaborative work with people around me knowing that it’s just a matter of time. And this group is trying to unite the diaspora… provide a blueprint for the city.”
Ozone’s current lineup is comprised of artists Breezy2Fresh, Sumer, Ch!nwe, Mack OC, Bakarii, and Obikwelu himself, with plans to grow.
“We’re gearing up for a sort of crescendo,” Ozone member Bakarii said. “We’re working on playing good, intentional shows… We’re planning on dropping a collective album sometime soon. Getting Ozone a new headquarters is also a big goal for us. We’re searching for funding opportunities so we can really get Ozone a place to provide for the community and ourselves.”
Though Obikwelu grew up performing at Igbo Fest, his first big gig came about with rapper Jidenna’s 2019 Minneapolis show. Friend and fellow Ozone member Bakarii pulled Obikwelu onstage, and a steady flow of gigs cropped up soon after—Stints at Red Sea and the Caboose followed suit as Obikwelu launched into his solo career.
Obikwelu’s latest work, Melindigo, is an exercise in furthering our ideas of what Afropop, and particularly Afro-fusion, can look like. Created in collaboration with fellow Nigerian-American artist and close friend Kion Rose, the two aimed to fuse Nigerian Igbo rhythms with jazz, R&B, and neo-soul.
Rose, who originally started out in hip-hop, felt this project was a welcome departure from his comfort zone: “Obi’s been trying to get me on Afrobeats full-time for years. We started out with ‘The Wilderness’ and just went from there… I just did whatever the beat told me to do. After this project it feels like I can do anything.”
“[With Melindigo] I wanted to have five different tracks celebrating Black love,” Obikwelu said. “It really came together with Kion Rose and myself just being in the studio relaxing, chilling, me making beats. I really appreciate [Rose] because he let me executive produce this project, much like Quincy Jones produces. We wanted to create scenes, soundtracks.”
Jones, just one of Obikwelu’s inspirations, particularly emulates Obikwelu’s ideal career trajectory, coming from a formal jazz background to bend genre and produce for the likes of Michael Jackson and Public Enemy.
After whipping out an electric guitar at Best New Bands, Obikwelu made a point to shout out another icon: “The spirit of Fela is back in town! Minneapolis, if you didn’t know, now you know.” Fela Kuti, Osadebe, and Prince Nico—Obikwelu is unafraid to draw from the Nigerian greats.
At a Black Motivated Women event, a student group at the University of Minneosta, Obikwelu experienced his first taste of fame: “I knew I had something when everybody in the student union was singing along to my song. ‘Tsunami’ had just come out, and they knew it! I’d never experienced something like that before.”
From then on, Obikwelu’s scope has grown only exponentially, with State Fair performances, an opening gig for rapper Genesis Owusu, and a headlining show at 7th St Entry.
“He’s undoubtedly one of the best performers we have in the city,” Rose noted over a phone call. “Even if you don’t like Afrobeats, it’s very hard not to engage with his performances because he’s always going to engage with you.”
So what’s next? Besides upcoming shows with Fanaka Nation and Enzy Rose, plus a solo gig at Hook & Ladder, Obikwelu plans to expand into yet another unexplored genre: big band. Billed under the name The Black Atlantics (inspired by Obikwelu’s senior thesis on Paul Gilroy’s pioneering work), Obi is particularly excited for Minneapolis to see a different side of his artistry, i.e. his classical training.
As Best New Bands wrapped up and Obikwelu pulled collaborator Rose onstage for a rendition of fan favorite track “Fanta,” Rose took to the mic to proclaim, “Y’all are gonna remember his name. Obi is gonna go places.”