The Composer: Ahamefule J. Oluo

Age 30 
Neighborhood Columbia City 
Hometown Seattle 
Favorite movie Taxi Driver 
Favorite restaurant Café Selam 
Go-to karaoke song “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” by David Bowie 
Personal heroes Charles Mingus, Woody Allen, Stewart Lee and Radiohead

By the final movement of Now I’m Fine, Ahamefule J. Oluo’s music-and-monologue performance at Town Hall last month, the audience was on its feet, weeping and cheering and singing along while Oluo conducted a 14-piece jazz band and blasted golden, triumphant notes on trumpet. It was the cathartic climax of an autobiographical work charged with humor and pathos, the result of Oluo’s three-month stint as Town Hall’s first-ever artist in residence.

“At a certain level, art is emotional manipulation,” Oluo says a few days after the recital. “It’s finding a way to connect to people, and one way you can connect to people is by making them feel as much as possible like you feel. Part of doing that is sometimes artistically abusing them.”

If Now I’m Fine is abuse, then the elated audience was a bunch of masochists. The piece struck a deep chord by plumbing the depths of Oluo’s difficult beginnings, adding moving music and vocals, and arriving at a hard-won affirmation. Life, it suggested, is struggle. And success comes where you make it.

“Like a lot of people, I had a really shitty childhood,” he says. “I had a poverty-stricken single parent moving around constantly, sometimes having no place to move to, sometimes not having electricity. Now I’m at a point where I really like my life. Which is just shocking to me.”

When he was seven, Oluo’s mom bought him a trumpet from a junkie going door-to-door at the South Seattle apartment complex where they lived. That horn, combined with the scant recordings of short-lived trumpet player Booker Little, put him on a musical path that soon intersected with stand-up comics like Mitch Hedberg and Todd Barry and, when it first aired in 1995, This American Life. (“I’ve listened to every episode of that show that’s ever happened,” he says. “Multiple times.”)

From very early on, music and comedy were central in his life. “They were complete necessities, to my core, to get through it,” he says.

Years later, the combination jazz and comedic storytelling led to the unique format of Now I’m Fine. Oluo hopes to re-stage the production at a Seattle theatre in late 2013 and then move on to another major project.

Also on the calendar this year is a three-month national tour with orchestral pop band Hey Marseilles, with whom Oluo plays several instruments. As trumpet player, he’ll also tour with his band, jazz quartet Industrial Revelation, after its new album is released this summer.

“I’m specifically focusing on things that would’ve helped me as a kid, that would’ve made my life more bearable,” he says. “That’s my only real concern.” 

Photo by Dylan Priest. Return to the complete Future List.