Tolü Makay: My experience at boarding school in Ireland ‘created a whole identity crisis’

The singer spoke to Róisín Ingle at Saturday’s Irish Times Big Night In online event

Tolü Makay Tolü Makay: At boarding school she was  called ‘by my middle name, Elizabeth, instead of my first name. It taught me that I didn’t have a voice’

Tolü Makay Tolü Makay: At boarding school she was called ‘by my middle name, Elizabeth, instead of my first name. It taught me that I didn’t have a voice’

 

In 2019, Tolü Makay was flying high in a career in tech when she realise that she wanted to move into music full-time.

“It gave me a nice apartment, and it made me sit in a new bracket of class,” the singer told Róisín Ingle at the Irish Times Women’s Podcast Big Night In, an online event, on Saturday night.

“And I kid you not, I was I was dumbfounded when I was like, ‘I am not happy’. Everything felt repetitive, and it got to the point where I felt like I’m going against who I am. In myself, I was already saying I don’t want to keep working in a corporate space, but I was too fearful to say that it was music that I wanted to do full time.

“I thought, realistically, I can do a solid year of music on my own because that’s the timeframe that I gave myself,” Makay added. “But guess what? That year was 2020, when everything, everything, decided to not work.”

Nevertheless, Makay kicked off her music career amid the pandemic and soon found herself going viral with a version of The Saw Doctors’ N17.

“I remember meeting these three kids in Tullamore, and they were, like, ‘Oh, you’re the one that sings on Facebook’,” Makay said.

Makay’s family moved from Nigeria to Ireland when the singer was five. After living in Waterford and Wexford, they eventually moved to Tullamore, Co Offaly.

“It’s where I did my primary and some secondary school, and where I had my mates and found stuff like the GAA and the Tullamore Harriers,” Makay explained.

Later, she attended a boarding school elsewhere in Ireland. “It taught me lessons about myself and about how I didn’t have a voice,” Makay recalled. “[They] were calling me by my middle name, Elizabeth, instead of my first name. So that created a whole identity crisis. But there are so many lessons and so many things that I took out from it. It really pushed me to make sure that I found what my voice is.”

A philosophy and psychology graduate, Makay has recently become an advocate for mental health, creating a panel discussion during the Choice Music Awards for artists.

“I’m not an ‘artivist’ – I’m not someone that acts as an activist with my art with what I put out,” Makay explained.

As an artist of colour, Makay is often asked for her views on racism in Ireland.

“Talking about race is quite difficult for me because it is a trauma,” she said. “We’re all living in the same ecosystem. And for us to have a conversation, it has to be both ways. I was actually talking to a friend about it, because so many of us that are artists that are black, we’re always put in this position of, like, always having to answer about racism, and it puts us in a type of spot. I was, like, ‘Do white artists get asked about racism?’”

The Women’s Podcast Big Night In, featuring Róisín Ingle in conversation with a number of influential women in front of a live audience, takes place online every fortnight until May 15th. A €50 ticket (€25 for Irish Times digital subscribers) gives access to all six events. Details and tickets here