Omah Lay (Photo credit: Travis Shinn)
MUSIC

Omah Lay: From ‘Boy Alone’ to Man in Demand

Omah Lay fully opens the door into his world with his debut studio album, Boy Alone, out Friday via SIRE/Warner Records.

A fan tackled Omah Lay onstage during his Boy Alone World Tour stop in Perth, Australia this April.

The shocking moment was emblematic of his fast-rising stardom. In fact, the 25-year-old Afrobeats artist has had to beef up his security since touring last fall just to accommodate how rapidly he’s outgrown more intimate venues.

He’s been instantly recognizable in his native Nigeria — and across Africa — at least since “Bad Influence” and his 2020 EP Get Layd started making waves. But the truest sign of Omah’s dwindling anonymity comes on an early June day in New York City, shortly after he arrived from Lagos, Nigeria, to promote his contagious, rhythmic debut studio album, Boy Alone, which released Friday via SIRE/Warner Records.

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The United States used to be the one place where Omah could come and ride a scooter around the streets without detection, but just this morning, he’s swarmed and asked to take pictures outside this Midtown Manhattan hotel. As dusk approaches, we’re sitting inside at The Stinger bar, and the hostess will approach Omah for a photo toward the end of our interview.

“I never thought I was gonna be famous,” Omah says. “Before I became famous, I really wanted to be like Drake, like Lil Wayne, you know? But then, I found a new self. I realized that that’s not me. I’m an Afrobeats artist, I’m from Nigeria, and that’s what I have to sell.”

Over the last two-plus years, Omah has become one of the music industry’s hottest new commodities. He has 4.8 million monthly Spotify listeners, plus 2.3 million Instagram followers, and over one million YouTube subscribers. His November 2020 EP What Have We Done housed megawatt hits “Damn (Remix)” featuring 6LACK and “Godly,” while last year’s “Understand” earned him a 2022 NAACP Award nomination. Soon enough, Justin Bieber was in his DMs.

“Attention,” Omah’s sultry, percussive Boy Alone single featuring Bieber, released in March. Since, it’s clocked 42 million Spotify streams, with 13.7 million YouTube views on the accompanying Colin Tilley-directed video.

“These days, I don’t wanna make music because I’m bigger than you or we’re bigger than each other,” he says. “After Justin did a record with me, I cut out all that [competitive] stuff. I’ve always made music because I want to make music, but after Justin made a record with me, I felt like there’s really nothing to it. There’s really nothing to this life if I could get a record with Justin Bieber — from nowhere. He just made it happen.”

Just after our interview wraps, Omah receives a message from Bieber asking if he’d perform “Attention” with him at Barclays Center on his Justice World Tour the following night. He’s caught the attention of Drake, who recently followed him on Instagram and regularly texts with him. Similarly to “Attention” — which soundtracked this Britney Spears Instagram post last month, by the way — Omah’s doting, titillating Boy Alone single “Woman” infiltrated the global and U.S. mainstream and took over TikTok. Not to mention, he’s the newest face of Sprite Africa.

So, all eyes (and ears) are on Omah. But behind it all— even the sunglasses and icy chains he’s wearing now — he’s just a young man trying to navigate stardom in real time. He isn’t anonymous anymore, but as Omah knows now, physically being alone and feeling lonely are two very different things.

***

Boy Alone is a diaristic telling singular to Omah’s pains and triumphs, but the 14-track album is also the culmination of a generational story.

Omah chose the title for his major-label debut because it was his father’s nickname growing up — earned because he never succumbed to peer pressure. Additionally, Boy Alone comes from Omah often feeling like a misfit in the pressure-cooker music industry that caters to extroverts.

“I’m the type of person that the normal things everybody thinks are easy, it’s not easy for me,” Omah says. “I got issues that I don’t have words to explain them, but I got issues. I’ve been writing my album forever. I’ve not been able to finish my album for almost two years. Boy Alone is the perfect title for the album. It really covers a whole lot of my life. From my dad to what I am, to what I have grown to be, to what I used to be. Everything around me and how I live my life.”

“Relating with people is so difficult for me,” he continues. “I try to push myself, but it doesn’t make sense to people when you tell them. Like, I could have a friend tomorrow and in less than a week, I’m not there anymore. I don’t know why, but that’s just what I am.”

Omah’s introverted disposition may be more suited to the low-key life his grandfather led as a career musician decades ago. His grandfather died before Omah was born, and he’s only ever seen one photo of him. His most tangible connection came from his father frequently playing famed Nigerian musician Celestine Ukwu around the house.

“I grew up caring about [Ukwu],” Omah says. “And then later, I got to realize that the person playing those drums in that music my dad was always playing was my granddad. Nobody knew his name. Nobody gives a s–t about the percussionist.”

“Sometimes, I sit back, and I’m like, yeah, 50 years ago, my granddad would probably be dreaming of what I’m doing right now,” he continues. “But it wasn’t even in his reality that he could be what I am today. He did it small time, and I’m doing it 10 times better. He’d probably be proud of me somewhere. It’s a blessing.”

It was written in the stars for Omah to carry forward his family’s legacy, but he never relied on fate. He wanted to be the author of his own success story.

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***

Omah’s cousin Richard first exposed him to hip-hop giants such as Drake, Wayne, and Nicki Minaj, and he began fantasizing about what could be. He describes his childhood neighborhood as “the slums,” though he doesn’t feel like he ever truly had a childhood.

“I never had time to hang out with friends and just play and be a teenager, you know?” Omah says. “I didn’t know what to do with my time, and I didn’t used to keep friends. As soon as I found music production, it felt like this is it for me. It was the only thing I could hold onto. It was the thing that could keep me busy from morning to night, and I’m still happy. That was my only escape at the time.”

In the chorus of the second track on Boy Alone, “i,” Omah confesses what was then his greatest fear: “I cannot be nobody for life.”

“That song is what I used to tell myself when I used to make beats for other artists, and the prices they put on my beats were really poor,” he says. “You know how it is for an up-and-coming producer. The music scene in Africa is some type of way. We didn’t have everything figured out the way things are moving smoothly now.

“I didn’t even have a studio of my own. I used to work in somebody’s studio, and I used to clean the studio.”

Despite the cards he’d been dealt, Omah kept betting on himself. He had started out as a dancer before trying to be a rapper. He quit, which led to beat-making and writing for other artists.

“And then, I realized that I had the voice to actually sing those songs the way I heard them in my head,” he says.

It didn’t take as long to convince others to believe in his voice.

“I was working at the radio as head of programs. Of course, artists would always send me records,” says Valentine “Valo” Ngaji, the CEO of KeyQaad who manages Omah alongside Marshall Onaemo. “It was a routine for me to scan through my emails every Tuesday and Thursday. On this particular day, one artist stood out. His name is Omah Lay. He sent me a song titled ‘Hello Brother.’ I had goosebumps 10 seconds into the record.”

Valo forwarded the email to Marshall, who called Valo and said he’d discovered another impressive self-released standalone single in “Do Not Disturb.” They reached out to Omah immediately.

“When I first heard Omah, it was apparent to me that he transcends any particular genre and has a universal appeal,” Rodie says. “His music makes you feel. He struck me as a Nigerian Drake.”

Preston rodie

“I knew he was gonna be a star when I finally met him,” Valo continues. “I booked a flight two days after our text exchange and flew down to Port Harcourt to meet him. Few minutes into our conversation, I knew that this guy knows his music and had a drive that was different from everyone I’d met. At that instant, I knew he was going to shine so bright.”

Omah’s burgeoning starpower beamed Stateside in 2020, when SIRE/Warner Records A&R Preston Rodie was struck by “Bad Influence” on Audiomack.

“When I first heard Omah, it was apparent to me that he transcends any particular genre and has a universal appeal,” Rodie says. “His music makes you feel. He struck me as a Nigerian Drake.”

Rodie’s initial hunch has been validated in spades. Omah went from cleaning someone else’s studio to cooking up “Attention” in an L.A. studio with acclaimed producer (and Bieber stalwart) Harv. Omah is at the forefront of the increasingly prevalent Afrobeats crossover into the mainstream. He embraces the responsibility because of how proud he is to be an African artist and how hard he’s worked to cultivate a global platform. Boy Alone brings it all full circle.

“No matter what I do, I don’t think I’ll ever abandon my roots,” Omah says. “That’s what I have. African music, African blood. Nigerian music. That’s what I was born with. No matter what I do, no matter how I dress, no matter what I start eating, that is always gonna be my roots.”

***

Three days before our meeting in New York City, Omah shaved off his hair. He could have simply been ready for a fresh look, but it feels metaphorical. It feels tantamount to Boy Alone allowing him to shed his past insecurities and make peace with his past demons.

Omah Lay by Bolaji Odukoya

Omah isn’t fully healed. Is anyone, ever? As he readies to host a private album listening event at Manhattan’s Invite Only Studios, where people are eagerly awaiting his presence, he’s in his head.

“I overthink everything,” he says. “I overthink down to what I’m wearing. Down to how that person is looking at me. Down to the comments in my comments section.”

But the difference between his tortured past and the present is that he understands the power in sharing his vulnerabilities. He doesn’t want to be alone.

“When people listen to Afrobeats, they just want to dance,” he says. “But there’s so much more to Afrobeats than just the dance. My lyrics are everything. When I make my music, it’s Afrobeats. I want people to dance. At the same time, I want people to understand the person. I don’t have the best words for this. But I really want people to feel the me that I am — that I can’t say just telling you right now. I know they can feel it if they listen to the music.”

He adds: “As a matter of fact, I feel like I went too far away, and I kind of disconnected from my fans a little. It’s part of the process for me. It’s not an excuse, but I’m just two years in. Every single day, I wake up, and I want to be a better person. The connection with my fans is really important to me.”

Omah’s favorite lyric from Boy Alone is on the intensely introspective, slow-burning “I’m a Mess:”“Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad,” he sings. “I don’t know what’s over me.”

Surrounded by his closest supporters at Invite Only, Omah couldn’t be happier. He raises his glass and jokes that everyone should take a shot for him. He personifies the “God is Real” tattoo on his neck. “I’ll see you guys next year, and the year after, and the other year after that,” he promises while introducing Boy Alone.

This fall, Omah will command much bigger rooms while touring North America for the second time. He’s no longer a lonely boy. He’s man on fire — in touch with his purpose, and on the cusp on becoming untouchable.

“Performing is the only time I feel like I don’t have no worries,” he says. “That’s the only time where I feel like God himself.”

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