“If nobody lived in the world, I would still be singing,” Tems tells Billboard, “because it’s something I need to heal.”
The quickly blossoming Nigerian artist and Since ’93/RCA signee is seated facing a mirror in the walk-in-closet-sized dressing room of the Manhattan venue Sounds of Brazil, surrounded only by a few members of her team. It’s her first headlining show in New York City, and despite the unavoidable fanfare and crowd of reporters eagerly waiting for their turn to speak with the up and coming star, she appears grounded. “When I express [myself] through songs, it gives me joy, it gives me peace,” continues Tems. “Even if it’s 10 people, that’s fine. Even if it’s five people, that’s okay. But [there’s] somebody that needs to hear it somewhere.”
Turns out, it’s a bit more than that: Tems’ soul-baring tracks, many of which she produced herself, are raking in 9.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify. On the charts, Tems is making her mark as well with multiple appearances and a handful of No. 1’s for her breakout feature on “Essence” alongside fellow Nigerian star, Wizkid and later addition Justin Bieber. Following the delayed success of “Essence,” a track that initially released in October 2020, the wins continued to roll in for the musical multi-hyphenate. A few weeks prior, a billboard popped up in Lagos, announcing Tems’s feature on Drake’s highly anticipated album, Certified Lover Boy. The track, titled “Fountains,” debuted at No. 26 on the Hot 100. Tems then released a remarkably curated EP If Orange Was A Place that features R&B crooner Brent Faiyaz on “Found,” which reached No. 17 on the Hot R&B Songs chart. More recently, the Apple Music Up Next artist made her TV debut, performing EP deep cut “Avoid Things” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
And while Tems’s commercial success is a direct reflection of her exploding global popularity, she was still somehow caught off guard by it all. “It’s almost unbelievable — but it’s real,” she says. “It’s actually real.”
Only a few years ago, Tems sat behind a desk working in marketing. The self-described loner spent her free time making music and practicing her self-taught production skills, but doubted the possibility of a life as a professional musician. “I even said, ‘Maybe I’m not meant to share this with the world,'” she recalls. “‘Maybe I’m meant to be writing songs in secret until the day I die.'”
During this time, Tems self-released “Mr. Rebel,” a track that became a catalyst for her border-transcending musical career. She says her intentions for releasing the unapologetically raw song were to simply share her music with others, rather than an effort to pursue a music career. “I’m not going to chase anything, everything will come to me,” she says with newfound confidence. “This is clearly where I’m meant to be. This is my path.”
The October R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month sat down with Billboard to discuss everything from why she doesn’t consider herself an afrobeats artist to the days she spent in a Ugandan prison following a performance to the direction she’s headed in as a burgeoning international star.
You worked a marketing job just a few years ago, how did you make that shift into making music full time?
I felt miserable. It was a sad life. There were times where I’d be like “What am I doing?” Just because nobody had done it before, nobody had seen it before, everyone was like “What else would you do?” I didn’t tell anybody about singing. I even said, “Maybe I’m not meant to share this with the world. Maybe I’m meant to be writing songs in secret until the day I die.” Then one day, I got a message that was really divine [from scripture]. It was about taking a leap and believing in the thing that you are most passionate about. Making music is the only thing I can wake up and do anywhere and anytime. I didn’t make myself this way. So when I got the message it was a sign to me that I need to believe in myself and that this is my crossroad. Either I stay in this job for the rest of my life, or I take a leap and have faith in God and decide that I believe in myself, I believe in what God has made me to be no matter what the end result is. No matter where I end up. Even if it’s dead or homeless or under the water, I’m gonna dive in, I’m just gonna do it.
How did you find your managers, Muyiwa Awoniyi and Wale Davies?
When I decided to release [“Mr. Rebel”], I didn’t know anything about the industry [or] anyone in the industry. I was just like, I’m not going to chase anything. Everything will come to me because I tried not to do music, and this is clearly where I’m meant to be. This is my path. I’m not going to try to look for someone to manage me. The person will come by themselves with true intentions, and they would want to manage me. I met Wale [Davies] first, he reached out to me on Instagram. We went to the studio [in Nigeria] and had my first feature that night. Then a year later I met [Muyiwa Awoniyi] at a camp with producers that came in from L.A. Obviously, everybody is trying to do afrobeats. But the beats they were playing were just not for me and I explained that. They weren’t too happy that I didn’t want to jump on [anything] and they said, “This is your last chance to work with us, either you use these beats or you don’t work with us at all.” And I was like yeah, bet. I’m out. Then everybody in the camp was hating and whispering. I didn’t have energy for that so I just went to the balcony and Muyiwa was [there] and we just spoke and connected. Both of them just aligned and wanted to manage me. It was very organic.
You often talk about God in relation to your journey as a singer. Where does your sense of faith come from?
It comes from my life. My whole life is literally a movie — a movie is such an understatement — just personally encountering things that are not normal. There’s no one day that something crazy doesn’t happen. It might sound crazy, [but] every single day something insane happens and it hasn’t stopped. It’s just that before it used to be bad things, the wrong things. I was breaking down all the time. Growing up, my mom was a single mom. She wasn’t around most of the time. So I had a lot of spare time to get involved in the wrong places. I was like, 10. I ended up growing up really fast. Now, things are still happening but I am more open and have a better understanding of who I am and what my life is meant to be.
In December 2020, you spent time in a Ugandan prison allegedly related to COVID restriction violations. What happened?
I went to [Uganda] for a show. And the morning after the show, I found myself in prison. They bursted into my hotel room and that same day I found myself in a [tiny] room full of at least 50 women and three children. No lights, no water, all on the floor, scratchy blankets, and I spent two days in prison. It’s not a long time, but it’s an African prison. Honestly I could have died. It was because I had a show and they targeted Nigerian artists. Because the people of that country weren’t happy that Nigerians were performing. Things that are equally as crazy as being in prison happen every day.
We’re increasingly headed towards a space of genre fluidity in music. What are your thoughts on genre categorizations?
To be honest, I didn’t know what genres were until I released a song and then people asked me what genre is this. Then I was like, “OK, so this is what people do. They have to categorize your song into something, to name it.” I just thought I was making music, I don’t work according to genres. I think back in the day, people were very intentional about the [music] that they were [making]. Now, anybody can make anything. It’s all music. I don’t know what genre I make. I just let people draw conclusions because I don’t actually care. They could literally say I’m an opera singer. As long as it’s music and it’s out there, I think that’s the most important thing.
I feel like people have an idea of me, but there’s going to be more confusion because I’m literally just starting. My first song was just three years ago, in 2018. There’s so much music, so much to know, so much to discover. The music that’s going to come out is going to be so different from what I have now. I’m on this exploration journey and I’m happy to share that with the world because it’s my actual life.
One genre people often place you in is afrobeats, what’s your response to that?
I’m not afrobeats. That’s the truth. I think the only reason why they call me afrobeats is because I’m from Africa. I can jump on an afrobeats song, but even “Essence” isn’t necessarily afrobeats. It’s [afrofusion], which is what a lot of stuff is. I’ve never been an afrobeats artist. Would you call “Mr. Rebel” afrobeats? Or “Try Me”? It’s really just because I worked with an afrobeats artist [and] because I come from Africa. There’s more than just afrobeats coming out of Africa.
You also produce some of your own music, how did you get into doing that?
I started producing in university. I’d just use any free time I had. I just went on YouTube. I didn’t know about loops at that point, I just made tunes from piano on Logic. I’ll get drum kits on Logic and loop some of them or find some of them and use them. But apart from that, I just make melodies from the piano or find random weird instruments to experiment with. I didn’t have a microphone, just my laptop. I used my phone to record my vocals [on Voice Notes]. I wasn’t trying to be a singer, music was a hobby. Music was the thing that made me happy. It was my form of expression. I wanted to know how to produce so that I could express [myself] better, so I could expand my desire to make music.
I’ve heard you also dabble in fashion design?
I do, mostly for myself, my body. I haven’t really gotten around to it because I’ve been [in the U.S.]. I’ve always loved designing stuff since I was a teenager, I’d just sketch things. I’m very into art in general, which is why it seems like I do a lot of things, but it’s really just the arts. I like drawing, I like painting, I like designing. It’s just creativity.
You’ve clearly had an insane 2021. What’s a moment that left you speechless?
Honestly, all the moments left me speechless, everything. Being able to provide for my loved ones, being able to become a better person, become someone that people can rely on. I think that’s what gives me joy. I want to just share my experiences, because I feel like I’m not the only person that goes through things in my mind. If I can overcome my struggles and my internal battles, so can everybody else. I really believe that I’m meant to connect with people.
A lot of times, aspiring artists are encouraged to create a “brand” and focus on making hits. What would you say to that?
I wouldn’t encourage anyone to think like that. I think what’s important when it comes to music is how much you love it and what you’re doing music for. That determines how far you go. I couldn’t give up on music. It was the only thing that made me feel sane in the midst of all the chaos and all the drama that one experiences. Music was actually my therapy, so if I didn’t do music for a month or two weeks, I started to feel weird. I’d start crying because I hadn’t [made] music. That’s how much it meant to me and still means to me. I wasn’t thinking of anything else. I just thought, “You know what? This is what God used to help me deal with life. I’ll continue working this [marketing] job and if I get stressed, I’ll just do music,” you know? So that I could release all the stress. I wasn’t thinking of music as my career. It wasn’t until after I started my job that I realized music is what I’ve actually been meant to do. You can put me in any situation; I could be dying, I could be sleeping. I could close my eyes and write a song in five seconds. It’s the only thing that I’m really passionate about. I may not be the best, but I can do it with my eyes closed.