Nigerian Pop Super Star Tems
Nigerian Pop Super Star Tems: At the start of 2018, a message from her daily devotional drove Tems to quit her day job as a digital marketer to pursue a career in music full-time. Two years later, Tems has unlocked society’s cage and set herself on fire to light the way for a new vanguard – she’s ready to ascend to her destined position as the leader of the rebel gang.
This is how a young girl went from singing in her classroom, to II
This decisive, unrelenting attitude is characteristic of the Tems we know and love today. Unphased by her surroundings, and totally committed to reaching her goals, regardless of the obstacles. But before she became the leader of her Rebel Gang – the name given to her loyal fanbase – the woman we know today as Tems was just Temilade Openiyi, a withdrawn young girl, struggling to find her voice. Like most Nigerian women, she was forced at a young age to hammer down any part of herself that didn’t fit the status quo, lock it in a cage deep within, and leave it there until she forgets who she really is. Today, she’s crafting her own flame, and she’s been fanning and nurturing it since the playground at The Rock Montessori where she never felt welcome, all the way to the music room in Dowen College where she learned to express her emotions through song and accept herself for who she is. She hasn’t always been ready, and to form her flame, she had to get to know herself.
Born in England, and raised there for her first few years, at four years old, Temilade moved back to Lagos with her mother and brother following her parents’ divorce. Accosted with this familial uprooting at such a young age, left her archives of fond childhood memories bare, and forced Tems to grow up much quicker than many of her peers did. Home didn’t feel like home, thanks to her “horrible” stepdad, and school wasn’t any better. “I wasn’t a cool kid, I wasn’t popular – at least not for good things,” she remembers. “I used to cry a lot, and people used to call me names. I didn’t have friends so I spent a lot of time in the music room to practice singing. I didn’t like using my real voice, so I would sing really softly. I thought my real voice was ugly and it was too loud. I wanted to sound like other girls whose voices were really soft and flowery.” But amidst the unrelenting bullying from her peers and teachers alike, Tems found an unlikely mentor who would offer her a place of refuge.
It’s very rare to find a young Nigerian who grew up in the noughties to speak fondly about a teacher from school, let alone one who pushed them to hone in on a creative talent, which is typically seen as a distraction from “real school”. However in Mr. Sosan, Tems’ music teacher in secondary school, she found someone who truly believed in her for who she was deep within. “I’ve never seen someone so talented at such a young age,” he tells me over the phone. “She sings from the heart, and her voice is special. When I see her now on TV or hear her on the radio, I’m so proud of her, but I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. 120%, I knew she was destined for great things.” Tems recalls her time with Mr. Sosan with great fondness, admitting that things got much better for her while she spent her time in the music room. During breaks and after school, she would sing songs with Sosan playing the piano. After he left the school, Tems had gained enough confidence in her to make four friends in senior school. However, things went awry again after a tragic and very public depressive episode played out in front of her peers.
Music is one of the most effective tools to pull you out of a funk when the black dog comes around, and without her bout of depression as a teenager, Tems’ purpose wouldn’t be what it is today. In 2011, her mum had just got married to her stepdad; she tried to run away from home and ended up in some “crazy situations”, so she looked to translate all her emotional turmoil into physical pain. “I just looked at my life, and I felt worthless so I was like I want to end it. I was lost in my emotions. I was like ‘why am I even here? If I’m here to suffer then just kill me because how much more of this can I take?’ I didn’t actually want to die; I just wanted it to end.”
Between pauses and side glances at her manager who was sitting adjacent to her, she seemed nervous and triggered recounting a story that clearly impacted her greatly. Nearly a decade later, the thoughts and feelings of that particular day probably feel like a lifetime ago, but she manages to convey her exact emotions so vividly, a skill she showcases regularly in her music, which is what makes it so unique and relatable. Afropop is laden with happy-go-lucky, dance-driven songs, and it takes a critical listening ear to hear any pain when it’s present. Harrysong’s inescapable 2015 hit, “Reggae Blues” comes to mind, where he repeatedly sings “after the Reggae, play the Blues” on the catchy hook. This line is probably dismissed as a mindless bit of wordplay, however, you could also interpret that he’s saying it’s best to dance and be jolly when “the blues” show up. With Tems’ music, our proximity to her true and authentic feelings reminds us that it’s okay to embrace ours, and this is what sets her apart by so much at such an early stage in her career. She’s felt rock bottom, made it back and turned it to art.
Although she struggled to come into her own early on, it wasn’t all bad for her growing up. She fondly reminisces about writing and making music as a child with her older brother, who she hasn’t seen in three years since she moved back to Lagos full time after University in Johannesburg. When they were younger, he was gifted an elaborate guitar by their father, and they would spend a lot of time making up songs and hosting concerts to a pretend audience in their room. Now, it no pretends game for Tems. Starting the decade with feelings of doubt and depression, she ended it barely being able to walk around her own estate without being recognized and sharing stages with global superstars like Wizkid and Megan Thee Stallion.
To get the music right, Temilade had to get right with herself. The late ‘90s and early 2000s gave birth to a new generation of young Africans. Thanks to the rapid technological developments during our formative years, we grew up with more access to information than our parents did, becoming more malleable with our choices as a result. Where older generations find it harder to break free from what’s considered the norm, we tend to create new norms in order to remain true to ourselves. In order to stay true to herself, Tems quit her job as a digital marketer at a firm in Lekki, after she got a message from a daily devotional which told her to use her gifts to serve others. “I knew that after university I wanted to focus on my music but there was a lot of family pressure to get a job so I just said I would and save up for the music. I didn’t end up saving because I had bills to pay, and after a while, it got to a point where it was either/or for me, so I quit.”
This snap decision is what birthed “Mr. Rebel”, the song that introduced many listeners to everything we have come to love about Tems today. Her voices – the inescapable focal points of her music – are distinct, rich and nothing like you’ve ever heard before; her delivery is clear and audible with inflections that let you know she’s Nigerian if the unique sound made you doubt it. While you’re bobbing your head to the brooding production, the calm disposition with which she declares that she’s “the leading vibe” steals your attention immediately. This is a sentiment shared by her manager, Wale ‘Tec’ Davies, who, immediately as he heard the track, requested an introduction to her by a mutual friend.
“Mr Rebel” took off purely off the back of Tems’ talent, and the reception to it gave her more faith in her ability. The confidence she gained in herself after molting off the uncomfortable skin she wore during her depressed days began to pay dividends, and she was finally ready. She maintains that there was no spectacular reason for dropping the song, she just felt ready.
“Within the week that I put it out, I met Tec from SDC at a studio with Spax, Poe, Funbi, and Tomi, and we’ve all remained friends since then”.
In 2018, the youth-led underground scene, popularly known as the Alté movement was picking up steam, and there was a crop of artists who were gaining a cult fan base off of the back of them staying true to themselves and making different music to what was popular on the airwaves at the time. Artists like Lady Donli, Santi, and Odunsi were at a tipping point, and there was no better time to come onto the music scene with your own unique edge. Tems’ superpower was her voice – the same voice she didn’t find until she was three years old, the same voice she tried to quieten to sound more like other girls in her school year. And whilst it was “Mr. Rebel” that got her into the building, her triumphant follow-up “Try Me”, demanded a seat at the table.
Tems is intentional about filling her songs with expressions of her own reality, and she’s intently focused on target audiences who have experienced pain as she has. In 2016 while she was studying Economics at Monash University College in Johannesburg, Tems made “Try Me”. At this point in her life, she had overcome her anxieties and was confident and comfortable enough with whom she was. With nearly 12 million plays across various streaming platforms, “Try Me” shot the girl who was afraid of using her real voice right into the mainstream, and gained the attention of the entire nation. The song we know and love today is a product of her experimenting many years ago, trying to figure out if she was even good enough to pursue music as a full-time career.
Although Tems finds herself in a better position than she was in 2011 and even in 2019 when she dropped “Try Me”, those feelings are still very real to her. “I sit down sometimes and think about all the shit I’ve gone through and it’s just too much.” She says in between sips of her tea, seemingly replaying events in her head. “I shouldn’t be alive. For me to now still be here, making something of myself, it’s insane. When I quit my job, I was expecting to be begging in the streets. Not in a million years did I expect all of this in only ONE year.”
Young artists all over the world are earning their stripes very quickly, and are doing so purely based on their talent and the audience’s reception of them. Five years ago, Megan Thee Stallion was working as a waitress, and a mere two years ago, Roddy Ricch was sitting in county jail, praying to make it out and never return. Now, their songs are topping charts, and are two of the most recognizable voices not only in hip-hop but also in mainstream music in general. In a world where the younger crop of talent are representing their peers on a global stage and ensuring that our true and authentic voices are being heard – through a pure representation of their state of mind in song –Tems is holding it down for us in these parts.
The music world moves very fast today, and all over the globe from the Yaahjects to Benin City, the quiet time before the rush of fame for a new musician is becoming a lot shorter these days. One can credit her voice and emotive subject matter for the rapid growth she’s seen in the past two years since she dropped “Mr Rebel”, however, the most important ingredient to her cocktail of success is her work ethic. She tells me that she has to remain “as pure-minded as I usually am when I’m making songs. I have to be so real with myself and say things that people are scared to say.” Her decisive, self-assured nature also comes into play: Tems is so sure of what she wants, it’s near impossible for her to delegate or relinquish power, so she ends up doing a lot of things by herself.
“It’s a lot of work and I just have to remind myself why I’m doing it and it will always work out as long as I’m not doing it for the wrong reasons”. An easy example of her unshakeable DIY work ethic is her journey to becoming a producer. When Tems moved back to Nigeria after university, she would spend her days looking for producers to sell her beats, but all she met were people who were trying to get her to hop on the next big hit when all she wanted was someone to create the sound she had in her mind. Frustrated by not finding a beat she connected to, Tems took to YouTube tutorials to learn how to make her own beats by herself. “I wasn’t hearing anything that was me in all those beats so I just decided to learn how to produce my music by myself.”
Tems represent a new dawn. She is deliberate with everything she does. It means growing pains, but she’s ready to take it all on and wouldn’t have it any other way.
In 2018, a staggering report by The Recording Academy revealed that women make up only 21.7% of the music industries – 2.1% of them are music producers, and another 3% mix and master music. This percentage is definitely much smaller in Nigeria, and Tems’ painstaking attention to detail has brought her into this league of women. In a male-dominated space, it takes a lot of gall as a woman to disrupt the status quo, especially for the reasons she decided to pick up this skill. Tems refused to be fed what she was given because she has a clear plan that she simply won’t compromise. She’s been through too much already to not execute exactly how she envisions. Speaking to Remy Baggins, the co-producer of “Try Me”, he remembers fondly: “Tems brought the stems of the original beat she made to the studio for me to touch up; she said she was going for a newer, energetic rock-trap sound on the record. I took out her drums and programmed new ones, then added 808s. All the organs, pads, and synths were made by her; I just mixed them and made them sit well. Her voice is too special. At a point, she took over the recording session, because I was so stunned. She’s a perfectionist; she hears things in her voice no one else hears.”