“People need to know that it’s possible to focus, do your thing, and it will work out,” says the Nigerian global superstar. “And when you’re just developing yourself, when you’re doing it for the love that you have for whatever it is you’re doing, it will pay off. And, sooner or later, your people will come to you.”
When the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever trailer dropped last week, reactions were highly emotional. Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda communicating her loss is a large part of the reason for that. But so is Nigerian artist Tems’ stirring rendition of Bob Marley’s classic “No Woman, No Cry.” It’s just the latest hit for the rising star whose EPs include For Broken Ears and If Orange Was A Place since “Essence,” her game-changing collaboration with superstar Wizkid, took her music global. Since then, she’s also scored hits with Drake for “Fountains” and Future’s “Wait For U,” also featuring Champagne Papi. At the start of the summer, she was among a handful of artists selected for the global launch of Coke Studio and it’s “Real Magic” campaign in the U.S. and Canada. Already this year, she’s won two BET Awards, two NAACP Image Awards, and currently she’s nominated for four Headies (the respected Afrobeats music awards show out of Nigeria being held in the US for the first time in September).
As an African female music artist in this industry, Tems also stands out as a writer and producer. But this success isn’t anything she envisioned or even planned. “Music is not something anybody around me was doing apart from my brother. My brother and I kind of discovered music at the same time,” she says. “Music was just something I recognized as a thing that made me feel better and so I was drawn to it. I love to listen to music. I love to sing. I love to make music. I found a way to make songs on the piano. I didn't know what I was doing. I just started playing the piano and I wrote several songs on the piano and the guitar. Moving forward in my life, music just became my therapy. It became something that helped me cope with my life.”
Growing up she listened to a wide range of artists. “The very first songs I heard were from Celine Dion. She was really big in Nigeria. And that's, I think, when I started loving music. Then I figured out there's other types of music.” So she also listened to Americans Lil Wayne, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child as well as fellow Nigerians Burna Boy and Sound Sultan and British singer Kate Nash and the band Coldplay.
Loving music and feeling she could make it as an artist were two different lanes. Not being surrounded by a music community kept her from sharing her gift. “There was no need for me to tell anyone,” she insists. Attending university in South Africa changed everything.
“Me being independent or me discovering myself, some type of answers started,” she says. “I was making songs before, but I didn’t start to develop myself [as an artist] until university. South Africa is where I fell in love with house music.”
That love for South African house music opened her up creatively. “I loved it so much that I wanted to make it and so I started looking into production,” she shares. “I first thought that people could help me produce and I was looking for so many producers on campus and in Nigeria. And it was in my dorm room that I started learning to produce myself in 2016.”
What she loved about South African house music was the “feeling that it gives you,” she shares. “There’s an energy that comes with the song. It’s bumping and it moves, but, also, it's deep; you can feel it in your chest.”
Trying to capture that led to her becoming the artist she is today. “I couldn't find anyone that gave me the feeling I had,” she explains. “All the music that was out was great and it was moving, and it made you jump, but I needed to express the deepest parts of my heart. Playing on the piano, writing music on the piano, a lot of the songs I made on the piano were deeply felt. I could start crying just by freestyling on the piano,” she says. “I just realized that nothing I was listening to, at the time at least, gave me that feeling. And so, I was like ‘how do I translate this music I’m making on the piano into digital form?’”
Driven by this obsession, Tems, who studied economics in college, soon quit her good job. But she didn’t immediately make the leap to becoming an artist. Instead, it took prodding from her cousin, coincidentally also her next-door neighbor, for her to post her music on Instagram because Tems’ attitude was “nobody wants to hear me sing. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just doing this ‘cause this is the only thing I have.”
Thanks to her cousin, one day, Tems posted her song “Mr. Rebel,” and everything started to change. Local music producers reached out to her, and she ended up properly recording the song. Her career began to kick into overdrive.
“I had a song called “Try Me” that was just taking off in Nigeria and in Africa, certain parts of the world. That song was the first time I had a video, so it was the first time that I was seen,” she recalls. “It was being played at the clubs in Nigeria. You're hearing it on the radio. This is all God.”
Wizkid, who, along with Davido and others, catapulted Nigerian music, particularly Afrobeats and AfroPop, to a global audience, not only heard it, but reached out to her managers to link with her. He then invited her to perform during his Starboy Fest set in Lagos in 2019. “Soon after that we recorded “Essence,” recalls Tems.
Released in October 2020 on Wizkid’s Made in Lagos album, the infectious single captured attention from Lagos to to Los Angeles and beyond, even prompting Justin Bieber to jump on a remix, breaking Tems globally. “It’s different from anything that was out there at the time,” Tems says of the song’s instant popularity. “I feel like it's not typical Afrobeats, but it's also not R&B or soul,” she continues. “It's such a different thing that it is like, ‘what is this? What is this thing?’ And I think that's what caught people's attention.”
Tems, who will perform at Toronto’s Manifesto in August and Atlanta’s ONE Musicfest in October, wants her career to inspire others, especially in Nigeria. “My story is not something that happens from Nigeria,” she explains. “If you’ve been to Lagos, it’s such a different reality. Nobody thinks that you can just come out and just be you and people would still acknowledge that or people would still appreciate you. There are too many people who are losing hope daily.”
"People need to know that it's possible to focus, do your thing, and it will work out," she continues. "And when you’re just developing yourself, when you're doing it for the love that you have for whatever it is you're doing, it will pay off. And, sooner or later, your people will come to you.”