Cellist Bobby Washington on lyricism and his soul ensemble OLAM

How the self-taught musician uses music to break stereotypes and bring people together

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe
Cellist and front man of alternative soul ensemble OLAM, Bobby Washington’s relationship with lyrical music began during his conservative upbringing in Atlanta, Georgia. ‘I was never allowed to listen to rap or hip hop,’ he tells us. Instead, he turned to soul, jazz, gospel, rock and country (his favourite). As the son of a pastor and as a gay black man growing up in the Deep South of the United States, these vocal narratives proved medicinal.

A self-taught musician, he began playing the cello at 11 years old, quickly migrating to piano, symphonies, orchestras and alternative rock bands. Moving here after university in 2008, Washington has lived all over the country, ending up in Shanghai after craving a larger, more diverse music scene. Once here, he embarked on a QQ search for band mates. One by one, he found them and in 2017, formed the band OLAM. ‘[Our name] has more than one meaning. [In Hebrew] it can mean world, but can also mean universe. When combined with certain prepositions, the meaning changes to signify renewal or eternity.’

While here, Washington’s music has taken on new meaning and has led to some surprising revelations. ‘When most people find out I’m a musician, they usually ask me to freestyle. They think Black music is confined to rap, jazz and hip hop. One person was so amazed I didn’t know where Tupac was from,’ he laughs. But to Washington’s surprise, his brand of heartfelt lyricism continues to galvanise his audience: ‘They like to read my lyrics and approach me after shows to tell me how a song helped them through something. I translate my songs into Chinese and sometimes [fans] make fun of my translations but the message still comes across.’ Washington hopes to use his music to connect people through universal narratives, ones that leave room for musicians to break stereotypes. ‘Any song can sound amazing with the right beat, but for me, it’s the lyrics that give a song substance.’

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