By day, Obehi Ibhanesebhor, 24, is a bespectacled engineer in a lab coat with her hair pulled back and minimal makeup. By night—vavoom!—the diva comes out. Big hair, flashy makeup, dress slit up to there—and sparkles.
"You gotta have sparkles!" she exclaims with a laugh.
As if Obehi—she goes by her first name as a performer—didn't stand out simply for apparently being Scotland's sole Nigerian-born R&B singer, she's also a working electrical engineer. Specifically, she troubleshoots audio microchips for Wolfson Microelectronics, a design company in Edinburgh. "When they fail, it's my job to find out why—like "CSI" for chips," she says.
So do the two careers conflict? "It's a different frame of mind," she says. "Engineering is very black and white—either something works or it doesn't. Music allows me to get out of that box. I have the technical brain, but I have the creative thing in me, too. At work, I'm rocking the nerdy chic. When I'm onstage, that's me where I should be. It's a weird double life."
During her off hours, Obehi studies voice, cranks out songs on her laptop and keyboard, rehearses, records, and plays gigs as far away as London, a 5-hour train ride south. She records musical ideas throughout the day on her phone and MP3 player, fleshes them out in rough demos on her laptop and keyboards (using Samplitude Music Studio 15 software), then books a producer and studio time for a more polished product, which she distributes on her own record label, GNI Records. She has several songs on iTunes and debuted a new single and her first video in July. She takes no vacations and pours all of her savings—some £4000 (US $6600) last year alone—into her singing. "I look at it as an investment rather than a hobby," she says. "But sometimes I don't think I sleep."
Obehi moved with her parents and five sisters to Glasgow at age 8. She returned to Nigeria with her mother at 12, when her parents divorced, but she came back to Scotland in 2004 to study electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 2008.
Obehi comes by her science honestly: Dad is a neonatal physician and Mom is a geologist. As a child, Obehi spent a lot of time taking apart appliances and trying to put them back together—but mainly breaking them. "It was pointless for my parents to hide the screwdrivers—I'd just use a bread knife," she says.
The music comes from her mother. From her, Obehi learned piano and began writing songs at 12. "But my parents weren't up for the singing as a career," she says. "So I made a pact. I should study science as a backup, but as soon as I graduated, I could do what I wanted."
Obehi was a nervous wreck the first time she performed. "I stood there clutching the mic and shaking in my boots. I couldn't wait for it to be over!" she says, laughing. "Now I'm like, 'We're done already?' "
Her challenges these days have more to do with navigating the music business, whether it's promoting an R&B sound in a region rife with guys with guitars or avoiding the sharks who come at her with dodgy promises of fame and fortune. "I'm now looking for a full-time publicist and manager," she says. "I'm a member of the musician's union, which offers free legal advice. They've saved me numerous times from signing very bad contracts."
As for engineering, she says, "Now my mom is my biggest cheerleader. I'm glad she made me have this pact. Going to university and having this double life has taught me discipline. Nothing worth having is easy."
This article originally appeared in print as "Digital Diva".