Monthly Archives: May 2019

Story Untold: “Everybody’s Fighting a Hard Battle”

Story Untold with TOBi.

TOBi’s debut release, STILL, is out now. Photo credit: Nilly.

TOBi is having his moment. In the last four months alone, the Nigerian-Canadian singer-songwriter has been name-checked by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jamie Foxx, and invited to Los Angeles to work on music with The Game. (“My fans are now your fans,” the Los Angeles-raised emcee posted on Instagram.) Add to that the release of STILL earlier this month — his debut full-length project under Same Plate Entertainment/Sony Music — and 2019 has shaped up to be quite the year.

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“I’m where I’ve wanted to be for so long,” says the 25-year-old artist, born Oluwatobi Feyisara Ajibolade. “The last four months has been a period of exponential growth.”

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria before he moved to Canada at the age of nine, TOBi’s earliest works found a home in a notepad his mother gifted him.

“I used to write everything. I’d write stories, fictional tales, songs, poems,” he says. “My mom gave [it to me] before I left Nigeria. So I had that with me. And I would just write everything in there.”

Early on, his musical influences ranged from DMX to Lil Romeo. His older cousin introduced him to the former’s music; he played the latter in a school production at the age of six or seven.

“My mom gave me a notepad before I left Nigeria. So I had that with me. And I would just write everything in there.” – TOBi

“I had the whole attire down and everything,” says TOBi. “The durag and the oversize t-shirts.”

At nine, he left Nigeria with his father — arriving in Canada before the rest of his family could join them. He was chosen to go first, he figures, because he was the “low-maintenance” one of his siblings. At first, they stayed in Ottawa, then moved to Toronto and eventually Brampton. All the while, TOBi waited for the rest of his family to arrive.

“[My Dad] was working so much. He had like two jobs, so I rarely saw him for that first year,” says TOBi. “I didn’t want to be here, so I spent a lot of time with myself writing.”

There were the early struggles. Body language, and unfamiliar expressions, and the isolation that comes with being separated from home.

“The little social nuances, I didn’t understand any of that,” he says. “I would argue until this day, I still grapple with certain things.”

In high school, TOBi wrestled with anxiety and what he describes as “different mental health issues.”

The first year and a bit was very difficult. I didn’t want to be here, so I spent a lot of time with myself writing. At the time I didn’t know, but it was me coping, self-soothing.” – TOBi

“I couldn’t even contextualize it, because I didn’t know the language,” he says. “Part of that was going through counselling, therapy, getting some work and understanding what was going on. And a lot of that was self-directed until I found somebody who was able to guide me through it.”

His first time performing music, it was in front of his tenth-grade classmates. For a civics project — the Youth Philanthropy Initiative — he had to profile a non-profit organization.

“I did one for Victim Services of Peel. But my presentation was a song,” he says. “And that was the first time I ever performed music for a group of people. And I won the whole [contest]. It was lit.”

After high school, TOBi studied biology and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. For his family — as is the case with many first-generation Canadians — post-secondary education was expected.

“It’s been instilled in me since I was a fetus,” he says.

He completed his degree, but struggled with doubt throughout his time at Laurier.

“I just kept picturing myself as an older version of me,” says TOBi, of his studies. “Like, am I going to enjoy what I’m doing?”

“I just kept picturing myself as an older version of me. Like, am I going to enjoy what I’m doing? That picture wouldn’t leave my head. And that happened the whole undergrad. Literally the whole undergrad. It was cemented in my mind.” – TOBi

His first big musical break came in 2017. A song he wrote as a demo — one he wasn’t sure if he would even release — landed on HBO’s Insecure. In the meantime, TOBi worked in mental health, both as a youth engagement coordinator and on a crisis line for those in distress.

“Man, the crisis line changed my life,” he says. “I learned that everybody has their own worlds and paths that they need to traverse.”

It was also 2017 when TOBi started crafting STILL. Over the next two years, the project would grow into thirteen songs, with production from the likes of !llmind (Kanye West, J. Cole, Ariana Grande) and Arthur McArthur (Drake, Rick Ross, Big Sean).

“It almost felt like I had all these stories and ideas in my head that I had no choice but to get out,” he says.

Now that the album is out, complete with a billboard at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square, TOBi can enjoy the fruits of his labour — including the shout-outs from Foxx and Snoop.

“All those mixtapes that I was doing, all those writings, all those songs that I made for 20 people to hear,” he says, “it wasn’t in vain. It was a set-up for bigger and better things.”

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Travel Bites

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I chipped my tooth on a soft shell taco in Mexico.

It was my eleventh night of tacos in two weeks, and my second helping of tacos that night—something of a celebration after the Raptors had won Game 7 and Kawhi had won Toronto’s heart and the ball had bounced around on the rim for at least ten seconds after the buzzer went, or so it seemed as I watched on a corner TV in a restaurant near the Caribbean coast.

It was the fourth restaurant my friend and I had pleaded with to show the game that evening, perhaps because in my attempt at Spanish I had dumbly asked if they could please put on the basketball juice instead of the basketball game. (Such errors are, mercifully, overlooked by kind waiters.) The beer was good, which is to say it was cold and cheap, and the first round of tacos proved excellent. We ate Baja fish and shrimp tacos garnished with cabbage slaw and tartar sauce, a wedge of lime on each plate. It was wonderful. Divine, even.

Baja tacos

Baja tacos in Tulum, Mexico. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

The second round of tacos is where I ran into trouble.

We went to a street vendor on Tulum’s Calle Osiris Sur, down the block from Parque Dos Aguas where a late-night game of basketball unfolded in the late spring heat, and I imagined myself stepping on the court and hitting my own version of The Bounce, the ball suspended in air like a city’s collective hopes and dreams, imaginary clock hitting zero as the ball left my fingertips and went skyward.

I had a good buzz going from the first two beers, but mostly from the endless replay in my mind of a shot I’d spent twenty years of Toronto sports fandom learning to expect would never fall. Which is, of course, why I went for the second round of tacos in the first place.

We’d been to the same street vendor the night before.

It was the most popular one among the dozen-odd food stands that lined the street and served tacos for less than a buck apiece—or 10 pesos, if we’re getting specific. The prices weren’t always easy to pin down. The night before, I’d bought six tacos for 80 pesos while my friend paid 40 for four of the same. Such is the deal one strikes, I suppose, for tacos bought on a street corner where the meals are served on plates wrapped in clear plastic bags. Better not to question such things.

I went for another order of six tacos this time. Partly because of the whole Kawhi afterglow, and partly because of the way the pork sizzled in front of an open flame, and partly to see whether the price would change from the night before. (It was 60 pesos this time.) That, and I derived no small pleasure from ordering more food than the rest of my friends, if for no other reason than to prove that I could eat it all.

They were served al pastor, a style developed in Central Mexico and influenced by the Lebanese immigrants who came in the 19th and 20th centuries. The pork was spiced with chilies and sliced thin, topped with pineapple and cilantro and chopped onions. It was heavenly. The best tacos I’d ever had, when I’d eaten them the first time around. Nothing that ought to chip a tooth.

Who chips a tooth on a taco?

Pastor tacos

The delicious culprits. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

I’d been on a mission to find the best tacos since arriving in Mexico two weeks prior.

It started in Isla Mujeres, then spread to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, where each night—and sometimes each morning and afternoon, depending how the mood struck—I’d track down another spot that seemed promising. The rule, as always, was to go where the locals ate, no matter if it was a noisy restaurant or a vendor selling food out of a plastic bin. Often the plastic bin tacos tasted better than the restaurant ones, anyway. At the very least, they were cheaper.

I made it through the first five tacos no problem, and even through most of the sixth, before it happened. I felt it instantly. Like something had wedged itself in between my front bottom teeth. A bit of pork, perhaps. I poked and prodded with my tongue until something came loose. And then I really noticed it. A gap. An absence. A chunk missing from the back of one of my teeth.

Maybe the front, too?

Shit. I couldn’t tell. It was dark; I needed a mirror.

I ran my tongue over it again and again, fretting over the possibility that my dating prospects had further dwindled. It wasn’t the tooth that bothered me as much as what it implied: if a soft shell taco could chip my tooth, how soft did that make me?

Burrito soft?

Baby formula soft?

What did it say about me that a flour tortilla could claim checkmate over the hardest part of my body?

Barbacoa tacos

Late-night Barbacoa tacos. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

I’d been questioning my travel-hardiness from the start of the trip—wondering whether I still had it in me after thirty-some countries.

Perhaps I’d burnt out. Used up all the magic. Perhaps it dwindled the last time I ran out of toilet paper in a bus station bathroom, or slept in a room with seven strangers who either snored or shagged loud enough to keep the rest of the room awake until dawn. Maybe I’d become more of the “rented car and Airbnb” type, to be replaced one day by the “hotel with a Jacuzzi” type, and later the “cruise ship with bingo and line-dancing” type. The whole progression-of-life kind of thing.

My one friend—one who would gladly sleep in a room with seven strangers, and probably seventeen, if it meant a cheap enough bed for the night—teased me about this when I tried to book a room for our first night together in Mexico. It was a week before we were to arrive in Playa del Carmen, and the reservation was just for a night.

Too soon, was the message I got.

Real travel meant showing up in a place without a reservation. It meant finding a hostel by asking the locals. It meant giving up your pillow. I thought of my last trip to Ecuador and Peru—one I’d booked over a month in advance—and felt a flush of embarrassment.

This couldn’t stand, of course.

What had happened to the guy who spent three months cycling across a country? Who braved murderous lapwings and never found an airport terminal he couldn’t sleep in?

I needed to make a change. Prove to myself that I still had it. That I wasn’t afraid.

I went back to that same taco strip the next night. Steely-eyed. Determined.

I found the first stand selling tacos.

And this time… I ordered four.


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