Finding One’s Frequency: Tonye Ikoli Speaks About ‘Sing it to the Heights’ Win

tonye ilkoni

For as long as he can remember, Tonye Ikoli, MCAS ’20, has been a singer. Originally hailing from Nigeria, the psychology major developed his interest in and talent for music from an early age. Ikoli considers singing to be a transformative experience, one that gives him the profound joy of allowing the music to affect both him and his audience.

“I feel like I’m in my own world when I sing,” he said. “I like being able to control the way it sounds, and make others feel the emotions I want with the tones and riffs I sing.”

Ikoli did just that at the 13th annual Sing It to the Heights competition that was hosted at Robsham Theater earlier this month. The event showcased the talents of 10 singers as they clashed for the coveted title. But while the competition was fierce, Ikoli came out on top with his rendition of Nathan Sykes’ song “Famous.”

Sing it to the Heights offers singers the unique opportunity to establish their talents in an individual context on campus, which is especially important for a freshman winner like Ikoli. BC students may not find a linear path to showcase themselves as individual artists within a sea of a cappella and choral groups. Ikoli defied that struggle and secured his presence as an artistic force on campus early in his BC career, continuing the freshman victory streak of past winners Will Supple, MCAS ’19, and Wynnm Murphy, MCAS ’18, of 2016 and 2015, respectively.

In middle school, Ikoli competed in a few talent shows, which fostered his love of performative events. Ikoli joined an a cappella group in high school, and had such a positive experience that he knew it was something he wanted to continue when he arrived at BC. After considering a couple different a cappella groups, Ikoli joined the BC Acoustics this past fall, which has allowed him to carve out his place on campus. Since then, he has found some of his closest friends in the group and has built a fulfilling social network.

Ikoli heard about Sing it to the Heights through his connection to the campus music world.

Ikoli heard numerous opinions that the competition was a popularity contest and that the upperclassmen would steal the show, and became concerned that the competition wouldn’t be a rewarding endeavor. In the end, his friends in Acoustics urged him to try out, and Ikoli overcame his mixed perceptions about the competition and decided to go for it.

While many artists fret over artistic choices at length, “Famous” seemed to be a natural choice for Ikoli.

“I had been singing it a lot … it was stuck in my head,” he said. “I felt like I had to get it out there.”

Through the interplay of Sykes’ soaring vocals and the song’s wistful lyrics about striving to move on from the past, Ikoli believes the song develops an abundance of emotion. The lyrics examine a breakup with a past love, and ponder whether the singer’s fame would be enough to make them see his worth. But the song notes the superficiality of fame and diamonds, and suggests that the real value of love stems not from chasing glittering emptiness, but from a more soulful connection. Ikoli took these lyrics and expanded their meaning to a full and compelling interpretation.

“The song suggests that an ex can hold you back, and the lyrics deal with a lot of the emotions and personal growth that can come from moving on from that,” Ikoli said. “Feelings of overcoming something bad and looking back on that from a place of success can be really powerful.”

Ikoli explained that he takes his musical inspiration from the world around him, but has taken a special interest in the music of other artists. One of his biggest influences is British singer-songwriter Sam Smith, whose vulnerable vocals and precise falsetto tones have touched the hearts of fans everywhere.

“I love the way he can control his voice,” Ikoli said.

About his artistic approach, Ikoli further attends to the unique qualities of each song. In his performances, Ikoli hones the emotion that arises organically from the song—the concept of imposing a feeling or theme onto a song seemed counterproductive to him.

“I tend to pick songs that I can see myself singing. I’ll try it out, and if I feel like my voice matches the quality of the song, then I’ll continue with it. If it doesn’t feel right, then I’ll move on to something else.”

Ikoli stressed that precision in creating emotionally nuanced vocals is one of features he most admires in other artists, and strives for himself. Ikoli explores the genre of R&B and soul music for his pursuits, which are often known for their impassioned and well-appreciated embellishments. Not one to pigeonhole himself, Ikoli also noted the influence of musicians such as Drake, who tends to blend rap and melodies into unconventional songs. Ikoli’s musically diverse background and inspiration enhances the scope of emotion and musical style that he can draw from in order to develop multi-dimensional performances.

On the night of the competition, Ikoli was fairly unfazed by the atmosphere of a performance venue. Some performers wrestle with stage fright, while others resort to visualizing the audience in their underwear in an attempt to distract themselves from their nerves. While the efficacy of that tactic remains dubious in the minds of many, it seems Ikoli doesn’t fit seamlessly into either of those categories. Ikoli aims to take their presence with a grain of salt instead of becoming intimidated or distracted by them. He used to get moderately nervous before going onstage, but luckily that tendency has subsided as he’s grown as a performer and musician.

“I see the audience, but to me they look like a still picture,” he said. “I definitely listen for their reactions and bring them into the song, but I don’t pay attention to what they’re doing specifically.”

In addition to maintaining awareness of the audience, the artist must overcome the internal feat of staying in the moment and keeping command of their own performance. For many artists, performing onstage can elicit a number of thoughts and reactions as they present the fruits of their efforts to an audience. While Ikoli develops composed and soulful performances, at times some aspects of his stage presence seem to be involuntary. Ikoli explained that for some curious reason, a different part of his body starts to shake when he goes onstage. Even so, Ikoli maintains that the best course of action is to zone out of anything outside the music.

“I tend to focus on the lyrics and attend to how everything sounds as I sing it,” he said. “But sometimes I just want to tell my leg to stop vibrating like that.”

The amount of thought and emotion Ikoli brings to his art manifested itself in his competitive performance, and the compelling impact of that helped Ikoli win over the audience at Sing it to the Heights. At the conclusion of the competition, Ikoli graciously received the win. Though the victory wasn’t the be-all-end-all form of validation or measure of success for his music, he took the win with humility and gratitude.

“It was nice to know that I won the competition even as a freshman,” he said. “I felt like I won it for them.”

Ikoli is dedicated to building on the momentum garnered through his win, and continues to refine his musical talents through regular rehearsals and experimentation with different vocal techniques. Often, Ikoli sets aside time in his busy schedule to visit the practice rooms on campus and try out various riffs or vocal styles. The steady pursuit of vocal excellence remains a priority and source of joy for Ikoli, and strengthens his artistic presence within the Acoustics and the greater music community.

Ikoli expects that singing and the Acoustics will remain an integral part of his life on campus throughout the rest of his time at BC. And while he hasn’t planned out the entirety of his life at this point, his musical inclinations and his means of expressing them will remain important to him as time goes on.

“Singing will always be a part of my life,” he said. Undoubtedly, Ikoli has carried the joy of singing with him from Nigeria to the U.S., and a love that crosses an ocean is sure to last for years to come.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor