With his darkly sparkling vocals, evocative storytelling, and contagious rhythms, Omah Lay is quickly becoming one of Nigeria’s most talked-about musical innovators. The 23-year-old singer and producer’s brand of Afro-fusion effortlessly pulls from his deep personal history with West Africa’s percussion-heavy highlife genre, as well as his enthusiasm for the popular sounds of his generation—from classic rap to the Afrobeats empire flourishing in his home base of Lagos. Omah Lay’s rise has been fast: He emerged into that scene with the moody breakout “Bad Influence” and on Valentine’s Day 2020 with the tender earworm “You,.” In May dropped his inventive Get Layd EP. Throughout, his lithe voice unravels tales that range from introspective to romantic to gratifyingly explicit, expertly laid over lush and soulful instrumentals. Layered with vivid scenarios and heartfelt confessions, Omah Lay’s rich music not only depicts a young man daring to reveal his grittiest vices and innermost feelings, but also doubles as a fascinating window into Afro-fusion’s bright and expansive future.
“I feel like music is so big,” says Omah Lay. “So much can be done with it. I like to touch hip-hop, I like to touch reggae, I like to touch soul music. I just do everything that I can get my hands on. At the end of the day, I’m exporting Afro music, but I don’t want to be boxed in.”
That’s been a theme of Omah Lay’s life thus far—having a meaningful foundation, but always growing beyond his particular confines. Born Stanley Omah Didia, he grew up in the Marine Base neighborhood of industrial Port Harcourt (also the hometown of Afro-fusion star Burna Boy). Situated within the Niger Delta, the city is infamous for oil-driven political conflict and violence, but the buzzing highlife scene offered his family some relief amidst struggle. Music almost literally runs in Omah Lay’s DNA. His grandfather was a percussionist who played with Celestine Ukwu’s legendary highlife band, and his father picked up the drum, too. “That really shaped my sound,” says Omah Lay. As did discovering hip-hop ranging from 2Pac to Drake. “The day I heard ‘That’s That’ by Snoop Dogg is the day I decided to make music,” he says.
When he was 12 years old, Omah Lay lost his father. He describes spending most of his time with his mother as well as his cousins, who he eventually started a local rap group with using the moniker Lil King. “It was actually difficult to make music,” he says, given the challenges of Port Harcourt life, but his obvious talent pulled him onward. “At some point, my cousin thought it was a good decision for him to step back [from being an artist] and help me go further.” With the support of his old crew, he learned to produce, becoming the neighborhood go-to guy for beats. After seeing his music help others gain success, he dusted off his mic, discovered the power of his singing voice, and officially became “Omah Lay.” The handle is a combination of his middle name and a form of speech. “It’s an expression where I’m from,” he explains. “If you want to call out to someone who is far away, you add ‘Lay’ at the end of their name.”
Today, Omah Lay is far away from home as his music travels farther still. He moved to Lagos last year so he could grow his career, and got more than he’d bargained for. “It’s the most fun city in the whole of Africa,” he says, nodding to some of the late-night stories woven into Get Layd and the bubbly energy of his videos. The clip for “Lo Lo,” for instance, follows him to the hair salon and onto city streets where elegantly accessorized women in colorful garb grace his presence. And then there’s fan favorite “Bad Influence,” which Omah Lay first released as a one-minute freebie and later finished due to popular demand. The lyrics were inspired by the lifestyle he found himself suddenly thrust into: “'Cos the doctor said I burnt my liver, I’ve been drinking, smoking cigars / Used to sing and play my guitar, now I’m lost in the Sambisa.”
While it’s easy to assume a song like that is a celebration of excess—of getting drunk in the club and breaking hearts—there’s ambiguity there as Omah Lay curses whatever forces led him into such temptation. Elsewhere on the EP, “Ye Ye Ye” finds him embracing unabashed hedonism over sultry industrial loops, while “Damn” seems to be about the beauty of real ride-or-die love. Omah Lay leans into those shifting perspectives. “Sometimes I want to leave it to the audience to decide what they want to take from my music,” he says, adding one vital caveat. “I always speak from the things that are happening either within or around me.”
With everything heating up for Omah Lay, he’ll have plenty to speak on in the very near future, which means both more lyrical insight into the artist himself and more opportunities to be captivated by his ground-beaking, genre-agnostic compositions. Oh, and Omah Lay—who only five years ago was a teen with a nearly impossible dream—now has a five-year plan: “I’m coming for the Grammys,” he says with a smile. With his roots dug in firmly beneath him and a global audience currently tuned into Lagos’ thriving Afropop scene, Omah Lay is once again poised to transcend his surroundings, while also offering musical uplift to those listening in.