At the start of the new year, I had the chance to sit with business lawyer, singer, poet and spoken word artist, Oyindamola Johnson for a chat about the art of Ms Eva Johnson and ends with a few tips for other lawyers wondering how to balance art as a passion with law as a profession.
Please give us a brief summary of your experience as a lawyer since joining the legal profession.
My experience as a lawyer has had its peaks and troughs. I have learned a lot about discipline, attention to detail, people-relations, emotional intelligence and of course technical legal skills. I am grateful to have met so many amazing people at all cadres in legal practice who have been pivotal to shaping to be the best lawyer I can be. I have also had the good fortune of working in a law firm that allows me to conduct legal practice without having to give up expressing my artistic/creative side. Now studying at Cambridge, I am engaging a distinguished caliber of intellectuals from all over the world and making connections with inspiring people. So generally, I consider myself blessed and my journey, though still in its early days, has been good.
How did you discover your interest in spoken word, poetry and music, and in addition, what fuels your passion for art?
My interest in art generally – spoken word, poetry, music, rap and dance (I used to dance a lot when I was younger) – was discovered probably in the womb. My mum used to be an actress, my dad sings and my brothers play instruments. We are a very musical family and we always created art on the fly. It is something I have always done. I used to act in stage plays at the MUSON Centre when I was younger but I did not do any of all that for a year while I was at the Nigerian Law School because I just could not do combine it all since I was a Group Leader and took on so many responsibilities. However, I found out in that year that I was very unfulfilled because I was not doing any art. I just felt that something was missing so when I started working as a lawyer, I decided that I was going to explore my art a little bit. With some encouragement from a few friends, I started doing a few shows here and there and eventually worked up the courage to write new pieces. I had always written anyway but I started to properly write new pieces and infuse music into them and perform and eventually produced an album.
Regarding what fuels my passion for art, I think that that at its core, art is a very powerful tool in and of itself. Music and words are powerful, they outlive the creator as a person and outlive the time they are created in. There are a lot of songs and poems that were relevant in 1960 and are still very relevant today. The fact that I have the gift and opportunity to use this powerful tool, I feel the need to use it in the best possible way. I particularly believe in the education of the common mind and that is not about literacy but about opening up people’s mind, allowing them to see possibilities and introducing them to different perspectives or points of view. For me, the fact that I can do that with art is what fuels my passion to do it because why not, right? A lot of people have the gift of art and perhaps waste it creating things that may not be relevant after three months. So, I am more concerned about impacting people’s lives and opening up their minds with my art.
Also, It is fun!
Listening to your album, ‘From a Different Cloth’, it would appear there is a fusion of poetry with rap, spoken word and singing. In ‘The Ink’, you mention that you do not stress about what you are called but I wonder if you have a word that describes this unique expression of your art.
I do not have a specific word for it but if I had to label it, I would probably simply call it the spectrum of art. I am a conservative creative,that is how I like to describe myself. I create art, perhaps fusing various forms of art, but that is it.
What is the inspiration behind the title of your album, ‘From a Different Cloth’?
The title took me a very long time to come up with. I must have gone through like 100 titles but everything just did not seem quite right. Some were too playful, some were too serious and some were quite descriptive of one form of art or another. I settled with ‘From a Different Cloth’ because I think it describes me and I think it describes the fact that the body of work contains different types of art and I also explore different types of music as well. So, I feel like we have this mosaic of ‘different cloths’, if you like, different types of forms of art and they have come together to create one piece, one body of work. I also think it describes me because I consider myself very different and gladly so. I do not ever want to fit in. So, when I happened on a title that describes me and the body of work, I decided this had to do. I think ‘From a Different Cloth’ is a good title. I am happy I picked that title.
What was the creative process behind the album like and how did you manage to combine the amount of effort I imagine must have been put into delivering this masterpiece with the demands of your job as a lawyer in a busy commercial law firm?
Honestly, I believe God helped me a lot. I believe God gave me the gift and when He places a desire in your heart, He equips you. It was a lot of stress and I was sleep deprived a lot but I think it was worth it. As you said, I was working at a busy commercial law firm and would wake up early in the morning to join the Lagos commute and a lot of times, I would record my pieces on my phone on my way to work and come back to them. I would practice my pieces in the car because usually, I would have a show after work sometimes. I would get to work 8:30am and while my official closing time was 6pm, I hardly got out until 8pm and sometimes I would have a show after work and be at the show till 10pm or perhaps later than that. I would return home and sometimes still write and then go to bed around 1am or 2am, sometimes 4am then sleep for a couple of hours and head out to work again. On weekends, I would go to the studio but recording at the studio did not really take long because I did not have much time and because I had gotten used to performing my pieces, instead of doing several takes at the studio, I was able to record just once. Most of the pieces in the album were recorded at just one take – my producers were always (pleasantly) surprised.
You made reference to the Afrobeats legend, Fela, in the track ‘Infamous Lady’, referring to yourself as the “infamous lady Fela spoke about” so how much of an influence does Fela have on your art?
Directly, not a lot. I definitely respect Fela’s art; I respect the boldness of it, his ability to do a 20-minute song and does not care, he just keeps going- the activism he represents and the resistance that he represents. However, I do not agree with some of his thinking and I think we romanticize Fela a lot. I do not know if that is a generational thing or if it was done before our generation as well but I do not believe in romanticizing people because human beings are fallible, we all are. I listen to a lot of jazz and sometimes, I listen to Fela as well. When I listened to his song, Lady, I picked up some things I really disagreed with so I decided to write some kind of response to it. Of course, he is not able to give a reply to my response and that is neither here nor there. It would perhaps have been fun to hear his reaction to my song because I would like to hear what he has to say. I used the Afrobeat genre to show that I do respect that form of art when it is done right, I just disagree with some of the message. In terms of his direct influence on my art though, I do not think he is such a big influence.
In ‘Average Girl’, you talk about sexual abuse, child molestation, violence against women and suppression of the voices of women, so what are your thoughts on creating a safer word for the girl child?
It is simple. When people ask, ‘are you a feminist?’ I feel that question is a bit redundant because what it means to be a feminist is to believe that men are women should be given equal chances. To me, it is intuitive and that is the only way to be. Even if you consider yourself a misogynist and you say you do not care about women, I am sure that perspective will change very much if your mother, daughter or sister gets discriminated against, raped or abused in some way. That shows you that intuitively, you recognize that women and even boys should be safe. Something that we do quite a bit in Nigeria is to focus on the victim rather than the aggressor whereas the constant factor you have in every domestic abuse case is that you have an abuser or a rapist where it is a rape case. So, I like the fact that there are new movements that are coming up to give a voice to women and everyone who is oppressed because I am anti-oppression. For me, it is intuitive that everyone should be given an equal playing field and then we can see who is able to rise and grow, show themselves and work to establish themselves. The time is coming, and very fast too, that the aggressors will be thrown out of the window and I cannot wait.
Child molestation is disgusting and ‘Average Girl’ is the oldest piece in the album. I wrote it when I was 18 based on something I discovered when I was about 12 or 13 while I was in boarding school. I was in a room of fifteen girls and we were all within the age ranges of 11-14 and of the fifteen girls, about ten had been abused by some person that was supposed to be trusted. As you might know, most abuse happens from people who are supposed to be family or trusted. That is about 66.6% of the girls in that small room and that created a deep annoyance in my heart on issues of rape and abuse. To me, it is intuitive, whether it is female genital mutilation, verbal abuse, emotional abuse or physical abuse. I believe such behaviour should be outlawed and I will do whatever is in my power to do to foster a safer space for people and especially women as they are mostly on the receiving end, even though I note that boys are also abused by some women/men – and this is equally unacceptable.
Was the piece ‘Whole’ biographical?
There are parts of the work that are biographical but for me, I feel that truths are parallel. So, if something is true, and I am particular about art that is true, inevitably it will connect with people because our human experiences are not that different from each other. We are in different fields, work at different occupations and live in different countries but essentially it is about struggling, overcoming and succeeding. It may seem somewhat simplistic but in my view, that is the sum of the human experience. Parts of the song are biographical but not the whole thing (no pun intended). Some of it reflect me, some of it reflect other people, some of it reflect my friends and some of it reflect other people I have seen but because it is all true, it could also be me, it could be you and may not be me now but could be me in another couple of years. One thing I have learnt is to never say never because sometimes you think “this will never be me”, then you find yourself in that position. Parts of me, parts of it are other people and parts of it are what I imagine other people are experiencing.
How therapeutic is poetry for you?
Poetry is very therapeutic for me. When I say “I flow into my poetry, words truly for my diary“, that is true. I do not like talking about myself but I find I can do a little bit of it when I write poetry. It is not always about my emotions but it helps me to make sense of other things I see around me and helps me to document my experiences and the experiences around me that I find interesting. There is still a lot that I have not put out for the world to see and I carry a book around to note the things I observe or that occur to me. I find it easier using poetry to document rather than using a journal – we can call it ‘ink therapy’.
A number of the tracks in the album appear to examine moral issues and hint at alternative steps just as a portion of the ‘Whole’ track seems preachy. In that sense, will you say your art entails promoting certain moral standards?
I do not like to impose my views on people. I believe everyone is entitled to their views and I do not pretend to know all things but I tell my truth. As a Christian, telling my truth sometimes entails me talking about my experience with God which is very real for me and is not about going to church or religion. Sometimes, what has been true for me may include things that have a moral hint, may be Christian or a generally moral perspective. I only put it in if it seems to me to be true. I am not always actively looking to infuse morals into my work but I definitely have some morals that I hold to be true and I say those things as I find them to be true. I do believe that one should have a message and whatever my message is, I share.
Is art a long-term project for you?
Yes. Like I said previously, I have been doing art since I was in the womb and I am not going to stop until I die, end to end, that is the plan. I do art in different forms and at different times. I hardly sang at all while I was much younger because I was never too confident of my singing abilities but I danced a lot before university and was president of the dance society at the university. I have not done that much dancing since graduating from the university it requires being in a group but I still love to dance. If you had told me at the time I was dancing and participating in competitions that I would be doing poetry fully today, I would have told you I did not see it happening. So, I know my art takes different forms and I am very fluid as I go through life and I am very open to it as well so I am bringing my best to it and being real about it at every stage.
Do you see yourself practising as a lawyer and performing as an artist in the long-term?
Yes. I get the question a lot and my response is and has always been that when the time comes, I will know. When I get to that bridge, I will cross it. I do not think any of those things, whilst they are demanding, have matured enough to the stage where one is critically affecting the other that I need to give up one for the other. I definitely intend to be in a space where I can do both comfortably for quite a long time. In four years, I should be doing both legal practice and art but you can never say never.
What is your advice to lawyers who have a thing for artistic expressions but often lament about not having time?
Time is an issue but it is literally the only thing we all have in equal measure. If you have to give up sleep to create art, you probably should. There are things you are passionate about that are not supposed to be career paths or necessarily meant to be taken up as a full art form but I would say explore it. I think you can find time by for instance sitting at home to practice your art instead of going to a wedding to sit for two hours, waiting for small chops. In the alternative, you can go to the places where those things are done and be in that space – this is something I like to do. You will much sooner find me in a theatre than at a wedding. I find that being saturated with any kind of art form you want to do helps your mind to be creative. You can also create time. I write in traffic; we all face traffic, so what do you do with those two or three hours? You can turn off the radio and do some art work. Time will never be enough but we find time for whatever we consider a priority. You have to be deliberate about it. One thing that also helps me is to have an accountability partner from among my friends who write and create time to write for fifteen or thirty minutes- and we keep each other in check. Be deliberate about doing the art. Really, what good is it if you have skills or talents that are just latent and you are not serving yourself or serving other people or feeling fulfilled? Sometimes, it is a good way to escape from legal practice. I would say – just go for it. Seek help, try to be accountable to your friends, family or whoever cares about you and put yourself in the kind of space where those forms of art are being expressed. Find time!
MORE ABOUT MS EVA JOHNSON:
Ms Eva Johnson is an actress, dancer and amongst other things, a captivating spoken word poet. She sees arts as a spectrum and has often been defined as a singer and rapper because those art forms often feature in her poetry. This spectrum is adeptly curated in her Afrobeats x Spoken Word single ‘Infamous Lady’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvEzdR5MoqQ ) & debut album ‘From A Different Cloth’ ( https://song.link/fromadifferentclothmsevajohnson ). Her relationship with the arts is renewed every day and you never know what genre or style to expect. Many have described her as refreshing but she simply describes herself as THE INK and THE VOICE.
Professionally trained as a lawyer, she has a first class degree from the University of Liverpool and is undertaking her third law degree at the University of Cambridge. She is passionate about social reform, human rights, education, music, technology and performing arts. She believes strongly in the education of the common man/mind and strives to propagate this in her art.
You can explore the unique style of Ms Eva Johnson by listening to her album or catch her many sides at www.msevajohnson.com or @msevajohnson on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook).
I dream of a Nigeria where everyone knows what they need to know about the law.