OMI fires up the pop rally
As a kid growing up in the bustling parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, Omar Samual Pasley was obsessed with the rhythmic flows of poetry and hip-hop. At school, he and his friends would take turns freestyling in the halls or performing on top of their desks in class. “The whole aspect of lyrical composition fascinated me,” says the 28-year-old singer, who records as OMI (pronounced OH-mee), a nickname given to him by his dad. Sure, dancehall and reggae may be the country’s most beloved genres, but Pasley says he was always looking outside the country’s borders for inspiration.
“I want to be known for doing world music,” he says. “I want to connect with people!” He’s achieved that goal—perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. If you’ve been anywhere near a radio the past few months, not to mention at any wedding with a DJ and a dance floor, chances are you’ve heard OMI’s inescapable song “Cheerleader.” The three-minute electro-ska ditty is shaping up to be the defining one of summer 2015. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 in July and has been No. 1 on iTunes in more than 50 countries.
“To say that I didn’t expect all this would mean that I didn’t believe in my talent, and that’s not the case,” the singer says quietly while on a break from a marathon tour of New York City, which included performances on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “I know it seems like my battery is on low, but I promise, I’m doing cartwheels in my mind!”
Although “Cheerleader” is burning up the airwaves now, it has actually been kicking around since 2012, when revered Jamaican producer Clifton “Specialist” Dillon released it locally. It gained new heat thanks to a remix by German producer Felix Jaehn, who added tropical-house beats and sped-up vocals after he was commissioned by OMI’s label, Ultra. “The positive vibes weren’t highlighted in the original production,” Jaehn says. “I wanted to take the vocal, which I liked, and convert it into a danceable, feel good song.” Pasley admits he was floored by the new version: “He kept true to the song’s essence. It wasn’t one of those crazy remixes that highlight the DJ and not the artist.”
Pasley says it’s more than just the track’s bright groove that’s caught on—the G-rated lyrics, about a man’s love for the girl who’s “always in my corner,” also appeal to a mainstream audience (to say nothing of the Kidz Bop set). The story is so simple with its level of innocence,” Pasley says. “It’s a conversation: ‘Look, this is how I see you, and I appreciate this about you.'”
The history of pop music is rife with one-hit wonders, from the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” to Los del Rio’s “Macarena.” But Pasley, who says he’s releasing a follow-up single “soon” and an album in the fall, has bigger ambitions: “We all know the greats like Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Bob Marley. If you have a good sound, then it withstands time.”
This article originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly print issue #1374.