When soul singer Tolü Makay covered the Saw Doctors’ emigration anthem N17 with the RTE Concert Orchestra as part of the broadcaster’s New Year’s Eve schedule, she was overcome with emotion. N17 was a lament for boggy, soggy Ireland from the perspective of an emigrant in America. But for Nigerian-born, Tullamore-raised Makay, the undertow of yearning had a powerful contemporary edge.
“I really miss home and the people that make me feel at home. And I miss not being able to see them. That was the feeling I put into it.”
Some elements of RTÉ’s New Year Eve broadcast have proved controversial (the broadcaster has apologised for an clumsyskit). But Makay’s performance has been universally praised. She didn’t just bring a youthful perspective to the Saw Doctors’ 1991 hit. She actually made it sadder and wiser – turning the rather chirpy tune into a lament about being far from the ones we love as we negotiate the first (hopefully last) Covid Christmas.
The public response has been rapturous. The clip was watched over 600,000 times within the first 24 hours of transmission. The Saw Doctors approved, tweeting “Thanks for bringing it to a whole new audience who might have heard it before but never listened as they did last night. Beautiful version.”
So did Graham Norton. The Cork chat show host confessed on social media that Makay’s performance had reduced him to a “sobbing mess”.
“It’s been crazy,” says Makay, speaking from Clare where she is on a songwriting retreat with producer Enda Gallery, aka Delush. “It’s something you don’t expect. The fact that it’s still going on – it’s weird. More and more people are reading about it and then listening.”
Makay’s performance brimmed with self-belief. And in person she is chatty and clearly knows her mind. So it’s surprising to discover that she has experienced self-doubt and anxiety through a lifetime in music that began with her singing at Pentecostal Church in the Midlands.
Makay is set to have a busy 2021. Still in her early twenties, she has drawn widespread acclaim for her November 2020 EP, Being, which was preceded by aperformance with Irish Women in Harmony. Assuming gigs are even going ahead, she will play a sold-out performance at Dublin’s Grand Social in May. A debut album is pencilled in for later in the year, released on Berlin label Welcome to the New World.
“It’s been a long crazy ride,” she says. “Music has always been in my life. It was always a connection to feeling grounded. To feel something more than myself. And when I sang, it helped other people feel what I was feeling.”
Makay moved to Ireland from Nigeria at age five. Her mother had arrived ahead of the family and was initially in Direct Provision. They lived first in Wexford, then Waterford before finally settling in Tullamore.
The local Pentecostal Church offered a sense of community. But at school she was the only black kid (until her younger brother followed her).
“It wasn’t a huge big deal really,” she says. “But when I go to Dublin or I have a church gig and there’s loads of other black kids, I always feel slightly different. The way they interact, they’re very familiar with themselves. And I just didn’t have that. It was difficult, navigating where I fit into all of that.”
Ireland has always liked to believe it was immune to the racism so deeply embedded in other Western nations. However, the summer’s Black Lives Matter marches gave the African community here an opportunity to provide their perspective. And their message is that the situation isn’t as rosy as many like to think. A debate about race and privilege in Ireland is, says Makay, “totally overdue”.
“The conversation needs to keep going. And it needs to be asked more diligently and more honestly,” she says. “And we need to have the right people talk about things that had gone on in the early 2000s. Our parents, who came into the country before we, the kids, assimilated – they’re the ones that need to be given a voice, to talk about what happened with their lives. Because [they] came in with Direct Provision and all that.”
Since she was a child, Makay was told she had a wonderful voice. She never quite believed it and did not think a career in music was something to which she could aspire. The first inkling she had that she might be gifted was when a voice coach visited the school when Makay was 10 and was stunned by her singing.
However, her enthusiasm for performance faded during two years at boarding school. It was only when she went to Tullamore College that she felt she had grown into her voice. At 15, she was made assistant to the head choir mistress. She discovered the joy of standing in front of an audience and filling the room with emotion.
“People would say you ‘oh yeah…you can sing’. But until you believe it yourself, people can tell you anything. I always think there’s something to improve.”
After school she studied psychology and philosophy at NUIG. This was followed by Trinity in Dublin, where she undertook a masters in psychology. She was also starting to immerse herself in the Dublin music scene, going to gigs, making connections, meeting other writers and producers. And then she got a high powered job with Google at Grand Canal Dock.
The competing demands of her professional life and of her artistic ambitions became overwhelming. The stress took a toll. “I never really thought of music as a career. My feeling was that it’s something I do for the church and the community I’m in. And it makes me feel good. It took a while for me to like my voice and be confident enough to sing in front of people. And it was only when I left Uni…only then was it like, ‘what do I actually want to do?”
She didn’t hate her job at Google. Still, she knew something had to give eventually. “I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to work in a really awesome company that people want to work in. When I got to that position it made me realise that wasn’t what I wanted.
“It wasn’t bringing me joy. So after a few episodes of just shutting down and being really weighed down and not having enough time to sleep and not having a social life, I thought – ‘I’m going to quit my job and do music’. It was scary. Once I quit it was so freeing. I felt at peace with my decision. The joy that came with quitting was amazing. The pressure – it was just gone.”
Makay went on to tour with Dublin artist Soulé, playing at the Body and Soul and Longitude festivals, and to perform at songwriting showcases such as the Ruby Sessions. By 2020 it looked like things were about to fall into place for her. Everyone knows what happened next. “No one predicted a fricking pandemic,” she says. “It was my first year entering music full-time.”
Did she feel cheated? “You can’t know what you don’t know. It was a year of amazing things happening. Could it have been better? I don’t know.”
She has pushed, though, and released some dazzling music. One highlight is her track Wild Thang, which celebrates learning to love yourself and taking control of your destiny.
“Most of the time I am singing to myself,” she says. “Trying to encourage myself – to lift myself, to keep going. I think learning to love yourself is part of the journey. A lot of people have to go through that to become their best selves. That’s why it resonates with a lot of people.”