Seeing her with Rihanna, one could mistake Tems for a young millionaire. Last month, the pop star welcomed the 26-year-old Nigerian singer-songwriter with a big hug at the New York debut of her latest fashion show Savage X Fenty. “Just do the humble one,” Rihanna told her while Body by Megan Thee Stallion was going full blast. “You would do well to admit it.”
Rihanna isn’t the only pop star cheering for Tems. Earlier in the year, her deep voice led to success Essence, from Wizkid’s album Made in Lagos. Justin Bieber went crazy for the song and spent his time appearing in the remix, projecting it to the top of the singles charts and contributing to his 80 and pass million plays on Spotify. A few weeks later, millions of fans heard Tems duet with Drake in Fountains, one of the strongest pieces of Certified Lover Boy. Right after the release of his excellent EP If Orange Was a Place, the singer announced that she has signed a deal with two Sony labels, RCA and Since ’93.
Tems is a magnet for beautiful things like these, perhaps because he calls them. A few weeks before Rihanna’s hug, he predicted the meeting in a radio interview. “When I say something has to happen, then it happens,” he said.
When I meet her in a Brooklyn hotel the afternoon before the Savage show, she has the same mystical air. “God has given me a purpose and it is coming true,” he says. “I didn’t choose to have this voice. I didn’t choose to love music. Every time I listen to music, whatever it is, thousands of melodies pop into my head. I just pick one. But I didn’t choose to be like that ».
Last year she also had a bad moment: she went to jail in Uganda for two days, in December, for not respecting the prevention protocols from Covid during a sold out show (she later said she broke the rules without realizing it. ). He stayed in a cell with 50 other women, some with children, often arbitrarily arrested after domestic disputes. “No human being should be in those conditions.”
In prison, Tems developed a deep awareness of her presence, something she defines as “the lenses of love.” “It’s like putting on glasses that make you fall in love with everything you see,” she explains happily. “I didn’t speak the same language as many of them, yet I could understand them.” Now he lives everything with a sense of gratitude. To explain herself, she raises a small Coach bag, which she begins to caress with her fresh French manicure nails. «I look at everything with the eyes of love. Here, you see that it is beautiful ».
When we meet Tems has been in town for about a week and was preparing for his first solo tour. The audience of the Sob, a Manhattan club where she performed (the concert was sold out), knew the lyrics of the songs by heart. On stage it is on fire. Today, however, she wears blue and black, with a Yankees cap covering the cascade of red braids.
He says when he sang the acoustic version of the 2018 single at the concert Mr Rebel she was so excited that she risked crying. “I wrote it at home, I didn’t have a studio, but a laptop and a pair of headphones.”
Mr Rebel is a ballad about pain and conquests. When Tems came up with the phrase “I’m the leading vibe” she searched the Internet to make sure it wasn’t already being used by anyone. In the world of kids ruled by “vibes”, declaring such a thing sounds like a gamble. «I wrote it doing freestyle, it was a spiritual experience. That sentence is an emanation of my spirit that has become a reality. “
Mr Rebel it’s also a nice example of its DIY approach. She produced it herself by learning on YouTube, because she thought she couldn’t find the right producers to refine the sound, or at least couldn’t find cheap enough ones. A friend with a studio allowed her to record there, while the artwork is the result of a coordinated work between a photographer cousin and another graphic designer friend. She figured out for herself how to upload it to streaming platforms, again with the help of a friend who can make payments in US dollars for distribution. “Before Mr Rebel I didn’t know anything about distribution or Apple Music, ”he says. “I didn’t know how a song got there, I thought it appeared spontaneously.”
After further research, she discovered services like DistroKid and Ditto, then went to Twitter to find out what users were thinking. After choosing one and announcing the single on social media, his music started rolling. “I got messages from a radio station, that piece helped me find the first manager. And all thanks to word of mouth ».
Before becoming one of the new stars of global R&B, Tems was just Temilade Openiyi, an introverted girl daughter of a single mother from Lagos in love with Lil Wayne’s songs. It was a music teacher at school who brought his singing talent into focus. At home she sang and tried to write, helped by her brother the guitarist. At the behest of his mother, he listlessly studied economics in South Africa. She returned to Lagos to work in digital marketing, but she quit three years ago to devote herself to music.
“If you grow up in a place like Lagos you can never relax,” he says. “You’re always in survival mode. If everyone tries to survive no one has time to love, they all tell you the same thing ». He looks like a rogue: “I’d like to help you, but I’m hungry, so I’ll hurt you.”
Tems knows exactly what suffering is. Even in dance songs like The Key And Vibe Out speaks of darkness and salvation. “I want to improve the lives of others, in my own way,” he says.
This mission – not just to write music that is good for people, but songs that can create tangible change in the lives of Africans – has become more urgent after days spent in prison in Uganda. And yet she hesitates when I ask her what the next step will be. “Honestly, there isn’t one specific thing I want to do, there are so many,” he says. “I don’t want to put limits on god. I just want to do everything I can. ‘
This article was translated by Rolling Stone US.