Before long, Temilade Openiyi known professionally as Tems quickly made her way into the R&B scene. Until international recognition last February. A journey that began with the song Mr Rebel.
Last February, the young Nigerian singer Tems won a Grammy (the Oscars of music) for the ‘Best Melodic Rap Performance’ category, awarded to her for her participation in the song Wait For You by Future, a thirty-nine-year-old African-American rapper, among the most important of his generation. Tems is the first Nigerian to obtain the prestigious award, taking into account that the singer Sade Adu or simply Sade (four Grammys in her career), is Nigerian by birth but raised in England and of British nationality.
The Grammy is just the latest in a series of successes that Tems has collected in very few years. Born in 1995 in Lagos to a Nigerian mother and a British Nigerian father, Tems – born Temilade Openiyi – arrived in Great Britain with her parents shortly after her birth, and returned to Nigeria at the age of five, following their divorce. She grew up with her mother in Ilupeju, then Lekki and Ajah.
In her childhood her mother allowed her to listen only to Christian music. At school, a teacher, realizing her singing skills, encouraged her to learn to play the piano. As a teenager Tems began listening to R&B (which combines elements of rhythm and blues, hip hop, pop, soul and funk) and hip hop, but very early on she struggled to avoid imitating her favourite artists and sought her own identity; an introverted girl, she wrote songs and sang at home, sometimes with her brother who accompanied her on the guitar.
Obeying her mother, she half-heartedly studied economics in South Africa. She returned to Lagos and worked in digital marketing, but in 2017 she resigned to devote herself to music, starting from scratch.
In 2018 she wrote a song, Mr Rebel, and not being able to afford a good producer she followed the instructions found on YouTube on how to produce a song and did it herself and then recorded it in a friend’s studio. Another friend helped her work out how to get onto the platforms, and in July 2018 she released Mr Rebel just as a song, with no video. She then announced the single on social media. The rest came by itself: a radio station contacted her, and she immediately found the support of many fans who were struck by her deep voice, the sound and rhythm of the song, the non-trivial, evocative text and the particular taste shown by Tems.
There followed more hit songs and a slew of collaborations at the highest level: with the Nigerian star Wizkid; with a prominent rapper like the Canadian Drake; with Future, the Grammy-winning collaboration; with global superstar Beyoncé, as a guest (together with Grace Jones) on a song of the album Renaissance (i.e., the most important pop album of 2022); with another superstar, Rihanna, as co-writer of Lift Me Up, a song in tribute to the late actor Chadwick Boseman, included in the album/soundtrack Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In less than five years she became an international R&B star. Tems is in many ways an emblematic figure of a Nigerian music scene that has changed enormously from the past. The difference between the epic and romantic universe of Fela Kuti and the complex and abundantly materialistic, but also vital and passionate, Nigerian musical landscape of today lies in one more letter ‘s’.
The most internationally known style of Nigerian music is certainly Afrobeat, created more or less half a century ago by Fela Kuti and drummer Tony Allen. In the world today, there is an infinite number of groups that decline Afrobeat in their own way, which moreover in its homeland it is not extinct at all, and is carried forward for example by the sons of Fela but not only. But what matters today in Nigeria is above all Afrobeats: a term that does not indicate a precisely defined genre, but rather a large area of popular music from West Africa that has been influenced by hip hop and electronic dance music since the 1990s and by R&B. A phenomenon therefore not exclusively Nigerian, but in which Nigeria has a leading role. To avoid confusion with Afrobeat and its implications, there is no shortage of artists who are protagonists of Afrobeats but who prefer terms such as afro-pop or Afrofusion.
The new technologies diligently used by Tems for her debut are fundamental to the Afrobeats scene on several levels. The most sensational aspect is the relationship in Nigeria between music and online scams. The so-called ‘yahoo boys’, the boys who live off scams, are often the financiers of young people trying to emerge in the jungle of Afrobeats, and for years a quantity of passages accounts for the gigantic economic-social phenomenon of the ‘yahoo boys’.
Nigeria has several megastars, such as Burna Boy, Wizkid, and Davido, who also hold large concerts in European and overseas metropolises. But apart from the Nigerian and African and diaspora audiences in general, Nigerian artists in the Afrobeats field are attracting interest at an international level not from fans of ‘African music’, as in Fela Kuti’s time, but from listeners who follow tout court hip hop, R&B, dance electronics and the most up-to-date trends, regardless of the continents of origin. The case of Tems shows how African music has changed in recent decades to present itself on the global stage, and how African artists are increasingly entering mass consumption and increasingly integrated musical worlds. And in all this, Nigerian music is leading the way. (Photo: Zenith Bank Plc)