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balance Singer Tolu Makay says she struggled with identity when family moved to Ireland

'I'm so proud of the woman I am now. I had to really work on my confidence'


Tolu is an ambassador for Darkness Into Light

Tolu is an ambassador for Darkness Into Light

Tolu is an ambassador for Darkness Into Light

DARKNESS Into Light ambassador Tolu Makay reveals how she struggled to find her place in the world after a chaotic childhood.

The singing star, who was born in Nigeria, came to Ireland at the age of five and lived in Wexford and Waterford before her family finally settled in Tullamore, Co Offaly.

Tolu's mother and younger sister moved to Ireland first and lived in Direct Provision for a few years. Then she followed with her dad and younger brother.


Tolu says she wasn't always confident

Tolu says she wasn't always confident

Tolu says she wasn't always confident

This would lead to Tolu struggling with her identity in later years.

"Identity was a huge thing for me," Tolu tells The Sunday World.

"Growing up and moving so much, being black, being Irish, being Nigerian… there's so many different aspects of who I am, and not having people that look like me or being able to resonate with other people, or cultural aspects; it's hard."

Tolu became an overnight star in Ireland after performing her version of The Sawdoctors classic song, N17, with the RTE Concert Orchestra on the station's New Year's Eve show in 2020.

It got a million views and an incredible response. Graham Norton summed up the reaction of many when he tweeted 'this has reduced me to a sobbing mess. Huge congratulations to everyone involved in putting it together!' There were reactions from Chris O'Dowd and Dara Ó Briain, embassies and cultural organisations worldwide.


Graham Norton loved Tolu's version

Graham Norton loved Tolu's version

Graham Norton loved Tolu's version

However, Tolu says today: "I'm still trying to figure out my place in life, which is what I do with songs I write. I find that I'm constantly trying to find a balance or a place that I can call home. But one thing I do appreciate about my parents and how they raised me is that they always made sure that no matter where I go I know where I'm from.

"That's about the cultural aspect of being Nigerian, but also being integrated into the community because I'm also Irish, I also belong here, this is also home. It's still hard sometimes. I struggle to identify how to belong in certain spaces.

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"It's about creating your own space. I think that's what it's about at the end of the day. And if I can do that I know there will be more people that are coming after me that will have the space to feel comfortable in."

Tolu says she was always aware of being 'different' growing up as a child in Ireland and was also insecure about her appearance. "When you're growing up kids can be quite mean," she says.

"I had braces on my teeth and looked like (movie character) Nanny McPhee growing up. When I was speaking I'd always have my hand over my mouth. I would never smile, so even that's an odd thing for a child to be doing.

"Then moving around and never really settling in a school for a long time also didn't make it easy to have friends. And then cultural differences and people trying to understand where you're from, they have stereotypes of where you live 'you live in huts, you grew up with zebras?'… all these silly things misconceptions. It was challenging.

"Back then I was an introvert, I was shy. I had to build up my confidence and that's why I say I'm so proud of the woman I am now. It's because I had to really work on my confidence.

"I think having a mother that I have, who is quite supportive in making sure that I expressed myself, or was really encouraging about my music, kind of helped me break out of my shell a little bit more."

Tolu says she constantly checks on her own mental health today. "Mental health isn't just something that, 'oh, there's something wrong with me!' It's a form of health, like physical health," she explains. "It's something you should be checking on daily. Nothing has to go wrong before you do check on your health and I think that's a misconception that a lot of people have.

"We all know people who have been affected by suicide and I had people close to me who were going through suicidal thoughts and didn't know where to go to for help.

"With my education and doing psychology I found that there was a cultural gap among my own people not understanding that there are people who can help you and find support for you. It's why I got involved with Pieta."

Darkness Into Light will take place as the sun rises on Saturday, May 7 to raise funds for Pieta's life-saving services for those in suicidal distress and bereavement through suicide.

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