Photo by Melani B
Oulala, It's Mannywellz: The Nigerian-Born Artist Talks New Music, Jesus And DACA
Peace, hope and love. That might sound a bit cliché these days, but there’s arguably nothing more we all need these days than just that. And that’s what DMV-based artist/producer/musician Mannywellz (née Emmanuel Ajomale) brings to the creative table with his blend of R&B, hip-hop and West African influences — it’s music from the soul, as he calls it.
Born in Nigeria, Mannywellz came to the United States with his mom and siblings in 2003 at only nine years old. Several years later, in 2012 something happened that changed the course of his life and his rising music career — he became a recipient of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects people brought to the U.S. as children but currently hold an unlawful presence, and allows them to legally work. In September 2017, the current administration tried to put an end to DACA and called on Congress to come up with another solution by March 5, 2018. On that day, thousands of Dreamers from across the country took over Capitol Hill to protest and lobby members of Congress to pass legislation that would protect them, and Mannywellz joined in, performing his song "American Dream" to kick off the march. That same year, a compilation album that Mannywellz was a part of with other DACA artists — American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom — was released and won a GRAMMY Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.
While the future for many DACA recipients is still uncertain, being that we're in an election year, Mannywellz hopes to see change, like a path to citizenship and a plan that "keeps us safe and makes us feel welcome in this country," he says. Although being a DACA recipient has played a huge role in Mannywellz's career and life, it's not the only thing that defines him.
"Being a DACA recipient is a part of my story," he says. "But at the same time, I'm not just a DACA recipient. I'm Black. I'm human. I love Jesus. I love people. So I always try to create a balance where people can just hear me for who I am through my art."
Before his new single "Floating" drops on July 31, Mannywellz took part in an interview with GRAMMY.com to discuss his forthcoming new music, collaborating with fellow Nigerian artists like Wale and VanJess, the meaning behind "Oulala," and how he's holding up during the pandemic.
So, things are a bit different for artists right now—actually, for everyone. How are you hanging in there with everything going on?
I'm doing well for the most part. I think the last month was the hardest month in this quarantine just being home all the time and everything that's going on in the media and what happened with George Floyd. So I actually didn’t create the whole of last month. I came out for the protests, and I’m just researching and trying to learn, and I guess yeah I couldn’t create, to be honest. But, this month has been good and the months before June were pretty good as well. Mentally, spiritually, physically, all that stuff. I feel good.
Do you feel like everything that's happening currently is spurring some new ideas in terms of music?
Musically, yes and no. I haven't really recorded anything, but I was just kind of like jotting down a few things and my thoughts and things like that. It motivated me, and made me realize that I have a bigger purpose.
I'd love to start by turning the clock back a bit and just asking how you got into music? What inspired you to start making music?
Everyone in my family pretty much does music. My dad's also a musician so I grew up watching him perform and then eventually performing with him at different events here and there. And I have a cousin in Nigeria who raps. My siblings are great vocalists. They don't necessarily want to pursue a music career, but we’re all musically inclined. Music is something that I grew up with. I was pretty much born into it.
Do you have any favorite artists?
My favorite artist is Asa. I believe she's based in France, but I don’t remember what year. I was a little younger and I heard just one song and I just teared up. And at that point I realized that music was so powerful. If a song or a melody can move you to tears, there has to be some kind of power behind it.
For sure, sometimes it's the lyrics or sometimes it's just their voice that moves you to tears. What would you say it is about Asa that drew you in?
It was a little bit of everything. Her voice, her tone, her words, her word choice, her lyrics, they're just very potent. A lot of her songs were pretty much similar to what I do — they speak on everything, how she’s feeling. From love to social injustice to, you know, relationships with parents or relationships with God and things like that. I think I was just really able to connect with her point of view because I feel like I have a similar point of view.
Speaking of your point of view, one song I’d love to touch on is "American Dream." One line that stuck out to me is: "If it’s my own way, I'll tell her no way." How did you feel when your mom told you you're moving to the United States?
So, we were trying to come to the States for a while before that. My dad was here, so we tried and got denied. So, after a while I really just got tired of trying, and I didn’t even care much because I was young and I just wanted to play. So, when she told me, deep down I was like, "Oh, cool, I don’t really care. I don’t even care to go anymore." So, that’s why I chose those words, if it was my own way, if I was given a choice, I probably would have just stayed. But I’m grateful for my journey in life.
From your perspective, how would you describe the American Dream before you got here, and what it means to you now?
Before I got here, we were being told that America was kind of perfect. A land full of milk and honey, which it kind of is, but unfortunately everyone isn't given the same opportunities based on your class and based on your race. I guess we face those things everywhere in the world, but that wasn’t in the package that was being sold to foreigners outside the United States.
Several years later, in 2003, you find out you were accepted as a DACA recipient. How has that changed your life?
Being accepted as a DACA recipient was great. It created a lot of opportunities for me, career-wise. It's created a lot of opportunities for other individuals who are working to get an education, to feel a little safer. But, on the flip side, there’s no path to citizenship. I feel like we're being bought out because each year, to renew your DACA status, the prices keep going up, and I also just heard that they reduced the renewal time to 12 months. Which is crazy, so every year you have to pay $600-plus to just stay in the country, which is unfair. Even though the Supreme Court ruled against Trump's plans, I heard the DHS is still declining new DACA applicants, which is just really crazy. I’m grateful for being a DACA recipient, but it’s a struggle within itself because we’re trying to get people that are DACA recipients situated, while trying to create a path to citizenship.
We're in an election year. What changes would you hope to see for immigrants, specifically for immigrant children?
A path to citizenship. A plan that includes undocumented immigrants, a plan that keeps us safe and makes us feel welcome in this country because, for a lot of us, this place is home. I came here when I was 9, and I'm 26 now, and I haven’t been back to Nigeria — though I am connected to my culture and I’m really proud to be Nigerian — I live here and this is where I've been for the last 17 to 18 years. I just pray that the next administration includes us in their plans.
You touched on being in touch with your Nigerian roots, and I hear that a lot in your music. You go from R&B to hip-hop and there’s West African influences, too. Is that intentional or does it happen naturally?
I want to say it’s both — sometimes it just happens naturally. Naturally, my tone and my vocals, I guess they sound African or Nigerian when I sing, and even sometimes when I speak my accent comes out. At first it was really intentional because I wanted to create a sound that was inclusive of both worlds, being that I am exposed to Afro music, or Nigerian-Afro music. But I’m also exposed to hip-hop, from Jay-Z to the big dogs like Beyoncé and 50 Cent. I always wondered what it would be like to create a sound that blends different genres, so a lot of genre-blending. Right now, we’re really big on the R&B, soul Afro combo, but as time goes I want to expand it to like possibly some funk or maybe some rock, some country and other things.
Your music also just feels really good.
Yeah, that’s very intentional. I’m also naturally just a feel-good, optimistic, sometimes silly person. So, I always want to make sure that the listeners get that vibe. When I’m sad, I also want them to grasp that feeling. However I’m feeling at that moment, I want them to feel it.
The 2018 EP you came out with, SoulFro, what’s the meaning behind the name of the EP?
SoulFro, so, "from the soul." That kind of like just flows through other genres — R&B, soul, hip-hop, a little bit of jazz in there, a little bit of rock and trap hip-hop. Just like music from the soul, with Afro elements that touches any genre.
You’ve got an upcoming album, Mirage. When does that come out and will we hear the same influences?
That comes out in September, but I think this project is more so just focused on the R&B, soul sound with Afro elements.
And you just filmed a music video for the single, "Floating."
Yeah, so we plan on rolling that out in the next two weeks. The single drops on Friday, [July] 31st. And then two weeks later we should be coming out with the music video for it.
What can we expect to hear on "Floating"?
Oh man, I think you should expect something groovy and something vibey, soulful, something that just moves you and makes you do like a little two-step. You don't have to do too much dancing, you don’t have to know how to dance to move to this song. It features VanJess — a Nigerian-born, American-based duo. They’re also just like the homies and they’re amazing.
You've also collaborated on the song "Love and Loyalty" with Wale. How do these collaborations come about?
So, Wale hit me on Instagram and said he was a fan of my stuff and wanted to work, so we just started texting. Sending ideas back and forth and I was like, "Yo, I’m coming out to L.A. next week," and we linked up in the studio and just made a bunch of songs after that. We’d come back to the DMV and link up. So whenever we’re in the same city we try and link up.
How involved were you with creating "Love and Loyalty"?
The producer’s name was Sango, so I didn’t produce this song. But outside of that I was involved in top to bottom from writing the hook and laying it down and doing my part, and just collaborating with Wale on how to make sure the hook really stands out. So, we came up with like one or two ideas and went back and forth and edited it. It was a really collaborative effort, and the beat was just really dope so we didn’t even touch or edit much with the beat.
Before COVID, you went on tour throughout the U.S. with Jidenna. Was that your first experience on a U.S. tour?
Yeah, for sure. Prior to that I did a really small college tour, but it wasn’t anything crazy. But that was my first, official tour. Earlier this year, before COVID, we did my own headline tour, which was also dope.
How do you like performing live? Your shows sound so energetic and like you've got a great connection with the audience. Did that come naturally?
I want to say it came naturally because I just grew up watching my dad and studying the greats perform. I wasn’t this good like five years ago, but with time I just got more comfortable with being onstage and I really enjoy it now.
I’ve heard that at your live shows, you sometimes have the crowd say "Oulala"? And you also have a clothing brand called Oulala. What’s the meaning behind that phrase?
Oulala is "happy to be alive" — that’s the meaning we gave it. And that just came about, I think this was pre-tour, when I started recording SoulFro in 2016. I was just talking to my younger brothers and I was like, "I think we need a tag," and we came up with Oulala. But I didn’t understand how big and how important Oulala would be to me, and what I see it being to people. It just kind of grew to where some people might not even remember my name but they’re like, "Yeah, Oulala!" I’ll take that any day, because at the end of the day, what I do is bigger than Mannywellz. It’s to contribute something to this world.
You've said that your mission in life is bigger than music, but music is the starting point. What is your mission in life?
Part of my mission, or my purpose, is to really do God’s work. To spread hope and have people know about Jesus. In whatever way that I can, directly or indirectly — creatively through music, through fashion, whatever it is that I want to step into. And just do my everyday life. That’s why I say it’s bigger than me, because whenever I’m not singing, I’m still a servant of the most high. I have to live my life according to what He has planned for me, what He wants me to do.
What does your family think of your chosen career in music?
They love it. I think now they're appreciative, and I think me making that decision is also inspiring to them. Because ever since I was young, whenever I wanted to do something I would just find a way to do it, or get it done. I’m an inquisitive person. I like to ask questions. Even if I know something, I just want to be sure of it. So, they’re really supportive. They buy merch, they buy tickets to a show, they don’t ask for free handouts because they want to see this get to another level, so I’m just really appreciative. Whenever I have new music they’re the first to hear it and critique it.
You've also talked about challenging cultural norms through music. Can you talk about that?
This is a big topic, but I think toxic masculinity is really interesting to me. Men don't cry, men don't wear pink, men don’t do this, men don’t do that. Women don’t do this, women don’t do that, and it’s like, why? And I understand there are certain things that God just created that men or women are able to do more than the other, but there’s certain things that we both can do. Like the WNBA should not be getting paid less. They pretty much don’t even get paid. Things like that. I just always wonder why that exists. And I always want to break that, especially even being a Nigerian man. How to treat a woman, and how to respect your wife. I really want to follow what the Bible says because Jesus really broke all cultural norms, and all social constructs. If you really look into His life, that’s what he came to do. Whatever Jesus did is what I want to do.
I also want to touch on the album you were on, American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom. What was it like finding out it was nominated for and won a GRAMMY?
That was amazing. I really did not expect anything from that project. Steven Weber reached out, told me who he was and what he was doing and they were working on a project that was going to be collaborative with DACA recipients, and I was automatically sold. So I presented it to my team and we got right to work laying down some vocals and some instrumentation. A year later, I hear that it’s about to be nominated and then I got to L.A. right around the GRAMMYs and I heard that it won, so I really didn’t expect anything out of it. That’s the beauty of life sometimes. We chase certain things, which is good, but there’s certain things that just happen when we’re doing the right thing. The right thing to me at that time was to just do the work and be obedient.
Lastly, I know you participated in the DACA march in 2018. How will activism continue to play a role in your music and your life in general?
I think it’s going to continue to play a big role because I don’t know how to shut up when things don’t look right. And I think that’s a good problem to have, so I think it’s always going to be a part of who I am, in the music space and outside of the creative world. If something’s wrong, I want to know why it’s wrong or why it’s happening. If I’m able to help fix it, I’m down for the cause. And if I’m not, I’m pretty sure I might know somebody that’s able to do something about it.