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On The Fringe: Efe Oraka Is The Magic

The R&B singer's poignant lyricism and mellifluous melodies are nothing short of otherworldly.

On the Fringe will attempt to tell stories of artistes who otherwise would not receive mainstream media’s attention. While some people may not be as keen on discovery as others, it is still essential to chronicle the rise of emerging talents that can create timeless records. Artistes covered in the series will be at differing stages in their journeys, but they will all be emerging acts somehow — either unto larger audiences or more niche ones.

Efe Oraka is many things: an exceptional alto singer, an incredible multi-instrumentalist and an all-round sweetheart. While these may be some of her more familiar qualities, her latest project, Magic, shows that she is so much more.

A 22-year-old musician/singer-songwriter who started making music professionally and recorded an album at age 12 but never put it out. “It’s not on any streaming sites; I made sure of that,” she laughs. Her profound love for music manifested through songwriting early on.

Most kids go through a phase where all their dreams are achievable and all their beliefs are tangible. Described here as her “dreamer phase”, Efe’s version of this period manifested early on – and was admittedly propelled by slight delusions of grandeur – has landed her right where she always saw herself. “You know how every kid has this strong confidence in anything they put their mind to, but a lot of the time, they hit adolescence and realize it’s not that simple? Gladly, I grew up in an environment that nurtured that,” she says. “I remember when I was seven, I walked up to my mum and said I wanted to be a rockstar, verbatim. That was the first time in my life that I deeped that I wanted this. I remember watching a lot of music videos with my big brother; he was an enthusiast. Every opportunity to explore my creative side was taken: talent shows, choirs, everything. When I was 11, I got a guitar and then I started writing songs properly, and then I found a guitar mentor and then I started recording my own songs.”

Efe realized things started to change for her music after her first body of work. Switching schools didn’t allow her to create as much music as she initially did, so her career did not take off the way she hoped it would. Forgiving herself for her youthful delusions, she accepted that every part of her being was intrinsically connected to creating music, and she began to focus more than she ever had.

From her secret debut – aptly titled The Beginning – to her actual debut project Magic, she developed her vocal technique for the studio. “Singing at eleven or twelve doesn’t quite show you what you can do; my voice and sound got fuller and rounder. My approach to music, philosophically and sonically, changed multiple times to the product people hear today,” she says.

“When I was in the [process] of creating Magic it took me a hot minute, mostly because I was working with other people and, for lack of a better word, there was a very idiosyncratic approach from other people regarding my work and it drained me a lot. I don’t think I should have been that drained creating that. I’ve seen people write and record albums in a week. I remember thinking to myself that I wouldn’t feel so helpless if I could punch the computer myself. Then I started to think about what I had going for me and what was standing in the way of me producing; I knew how to play multiple instruments while most of the producers I knew just sampled loops. I figured if I picked up the DAW, I would make straight bangers. My first few attempts ended up straight AfMag quality and I didn’t open Logic for months after. I had to learn how to use the interface actually to project my ideas to the software. I started to think maybe production-wise; I was just relegated to being an ‘AFMag level’ producer. I also had a thing where if something didn’t go the way I expected it to go, I would just check out. Down to even going out and interacting/ posting over social media. I believe I’m a lot better now, at production and not checking out,” Efe details.

Her creative process is led by her songwriting, usually propelled by an idea: “If I’m lucky, sometimes the universe gives me a full song at a go,” she explains. “It’s so insane to me when that happens; I usually record those ones on the nearest device first. Then I sit with it and meditate; then I find a producer to go ever the details I’d like to implement and from there, I try to figure out the possible perception. If I’m keeping it a buck, I’m creation over curation. I like to take my time. Also, depending on my energy levels, when I’m in the studio, I’ve been known to record spontaneously but most of the time, I like to pour it out of myself before I even come to the studio,” she continues. The same energy is what she uses to approach arguably her most developed muscle. “I don’t know if my songwriting is my most developed skill but it is definitely the one that stands out the most and I am most grateful for. Often, I write music and the emotions and concepts elude me when I’m writing. Luckily for me, I never have to think of the complexity while writing; I just take it in when I’m done. Singing is a special talent for me but it feels like my songwriting is really all-encompassing.”

Detailing some of her most validating moments is a breeze; there are multiple to pick from. “My most validating experience is every single time someone bares their soul to me about my music,” she says. “For someone like me who writes from different places at once, when someone gives me a comment about what I wrote and recorded and they say this helped me know what I was feeling at this point or this helped me get a handle on things at this level, even when people ask me to be part of intimate moments like a proposal, people have asked me to be part of moments that I would have never imagined. Someone asked me to write a song for her unborn child. I think just asking to be involved with a lot of personal moments goes a long way, and I hope I never get used to it.”

One of such moments that I expected to hear her detail was her birthday performance for the sitting Vice President. She did not broach the subject until I prodded, simply because she did not view it as that. “Getting a call saying ‘It’s my dad’s birthday and I’d like you to perform for him’ and then driving into Aso Villa the same day was a pretty surreal experience. There’s a prayer my mum always made growing up but to paraphrase, it’s essentially something about how your gift will get you in front of high-profile people. But really, it’s more important that my craft touched someone so profoundly that they asked me to be a part of their life,” she shares.

An avid performer – pre-pandemic of course – she has always had a fair number of bookings from her early years. Performing serially at the Tameri Festival, once at the Ovation Concert and as an opener for Wizkid’s Abuja concert and Show Dem Camp’s PalmWine Music festival in 2019 are some of the biggest stages she has shared so far.

Attempting to decipher a potential ceiling for Efe seems redundant, driven by the notion that stagnation in one aspect of one’s artistry provides an opportunity for growth in others. “Some people don’t like Beyoncé for whatever reason but we can all agree she is one hell of a performer, even if that isn’t what she was always best at. Taylor Swift might not be the best performer, but her songwriting is exceptional. Either of these people could become better at either aspect of their craft no matter how long they’ve spent being good at one. That’s what I hope for: the ability to always improve and push myself. That’s why I’m learning production.”

Her collaborators on Magic are some of Nigeria’s boundary-pushing vocalists and producers who mirror her soundscape to a tee. Tay, SirBastieen, Doz and Cheso are a few of those artistes. “Many producers have a certain style and art, in general. I was really having a hard time connecting with people who could agree with me and help develop my ideas. At the end of the day, all of the people who worked with me on the project have distinct qualities that can be heard throughout but it was important for me to hear myself. Meeting up with Tay was super easy as far as creating the actual music; he’d give me options, and we would flesh things out together; it was really good collaborative vibes. Same thing with SirBastien, every time I shared an idea he’d get back to me and say, ‘What’s the best way you think we can make this happen?’ He’s an incredible person to work with. Cheso too. I worked with him on the intro because I wanted it to feel very much like a soundtrack and cinematic music is like his forte.”

As a rookie with barely any music under her belt and no major label backing, getting a feature from a legacy rapper such as M.I. Abaga on her debut album is a feat in itself, revealing that it happened more or less organically. “With M.I. what had happened was I was following someone who worked with him closely and they had been following me back for a while and they started a thread about how M.I. always supports female artists and I tweeted back that if M.I. hasn’t put me on then, I don’t know about that. I had been reaching out to a few rappers for "Zion" but nothing concrete had happened. After the tweet, he followed me and we met that summer in Lagos and discussed doing the song. He asked me to break down exactly what I needed and explain the story of the song and he sent me back a voice note and the rest is history.”

With the pandemic defeating a lot of traditional rollout routes, certain artists decide against mid-lockdown releases for the sake of maximizing the social capital that comes with releasing art at specific peak periods. Initially slated for a 2018 release, many of the reasons behind Efe’s belated drop stemmed from personal and professional intricacies. “I would get calls from my producer in the middle of the night that so and so files are missing and we would need to record this and that again. The entire process was annoying and I wanted an April release, around my birthday,” she recalls. “I was still making plans and getting songs mixed, COVID was brewing but no one thought it’d be a full-blown pandemic. And then that happened. And I was depressed for a while. There’s something about creating something and not putting it out, though; it’s kind of like carrying a baby and then getting to the end and not delivering it. You kind of just have to.”

Deciding to remain independent until a great offer comes along is a decent trajectory for many modern-day artists and Efe is of a similar school of thought. “If a deal comes and it doesn’t feel like selling my soul, and I got paid a great advance, say 300 million dollars, and the opportunity to exit the deal, then yes, if not, I’m okay,” she states.

Looking to release new singles and a new EP later this year and free of management, there is no better time to tap into her sound.

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