Jacob Kehinde Olupona was born in 1951 in Nigeria. After graduating from the University of Nigeria with a bachelor's degree, he earned a master's degree and a Ph.D. at Boston University. Olupona then held various positions in Nigeria (Obafemi Awolowo University) and the United States (University of California, Davis). Since 2006 he has been teaching at the Department for African and African American Studies and Harvard Divinity School, both at Harvard University. His research focuses on West African religions in Nigeria and the Nigerian Diaspora in North America with particular focus on the rituals and festivities of the Yoruba religion as well as aspects of religious pluralism and the role of religious forces in civil society processes.
Olupona is the recipient of numerous awards including grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1997), the American Philosophical Society (1995), and the Ford Foundation (2000). He received honorary doctorates in divinity from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the University of Abuja in Nigeria. In 2007 Olupona received the Nigerian National Order of Merit, that country's prestigious award given each year for intellectual accomplishment in the four areas of science, medicine, engineering/technology, and humanities.