“When I’m gone and my life is done
And I’ve spent my love and sung my last song
I wanna be eulogied like…
‘She was sweet and she was strong
And she never marched to anybody else’s drum’”

– Joy Ike, “Happy”

I first heard Joy Ike in May of 2018 when her Tiny Desk Contest entry was featured as a stand-out. I wasted no time contacting her agent to set up a show, because what I heard just from that first four minutes was an approach to songwriting and performing that I’d never come across before. There was no clear definition of the style of music she created, and that’s usually my favorite kind. (As a current-events junkie and English major, I also noticed that she had Just Mercy, I Am Malala, and Sing, Unburied, Sing stacked up next to her piano, and that told me everything I needed to know.)

It took nearly a year for us to coordinate Joy’s first real stop in Memphis, but the visit was well worth the wait. She came through during that brief shimmering season between the monsoons of Memphis springtime and the full merciless summer, and just like that fleeting time, her performance was a deeper pleasure for its rare, ephemeral nature.

Joy has a sister named Peace, so that gives you a little insight into the perspective she was raised with. Although she’d also happily share that “singer-songwriter” wasn’t on the list of approved professions among the Nigerian immigrant community in which she was raised. The combination of her optimistic outlook and slightly rebellious streak informs the refreshing tone of her work.

I’d primarily seen video of Joy performing with a full band, or at minimum, her sister on percussion, so it was mesmerizing to see how she could fill the spaces of an ensemble with her own energy and ad libs. She plays in every sense of the word — her whole being is engaged and responsive, sometimes even seeming like she surprises herself with the way a phrase may go.

Joy uses the term “pop” among her descriptors, and I think that’s at least partially because the folk genre sometimes forgets to make room for little-j joy. Her set brought us from uptempo anthems to somber reflections on struggle and loss, but always maintained a perspective that made room for redemption and growth. As a person, I’m sure Joy has her gloomy, sit-in-a-dark-room days, but as a songwriter, she always builds in a skylight.

I felt a connection with Joy as soon as I found out she was from Pittsburgh, but it didn’t take that geographic tie for the rest of the audience to get on the same wavelength. She writes and plays with an open heart, and in a world (even a musical world) where we are more likely to close up than reach out, her message isn’t just welcome — it’s vital.

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