Few artist development stories in the past few years have been as impressive as that of Tems, the Nigerian singer-songwriter whose arresting voice and infectious melodies have wormed their way into the mainstream in her steady, insistent way. Since self-releasing her debut EP, For Broken Ears, in October 2020, Tems has become an in-demand voice for some of music biggest hitmakers, a status that accelerated after her feature on Wizkid’s “Essence,” the song that broke through and established Afrobeats as a genre to be reckoned with on the American charts last summer.
Since then, she’s collaborated with the likes of Drake, Beyoncé and Future, signed to RCA for the release of her second EP, If Orange Was a Place, last September, covered Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” for the Wakanda Forever soundtrack and landed Grammy nominations in back to back years, one for best global recording for “Essence” in 2022; two more for best melodic rap performance and best rap song at the upcoming 2023 Grammys for her feature on Future’s “Wait For U” and another for her guest spot on Beyoncé’s Renaissance. (And, if not for an inexplicable Grammy rule that meant she was ineligible for best new artist due to the “Essence” nomination, even though she was just a featured artist, she would almost certainly be up for that top four honor this year. But we digress.)
This week, Tems’ still-nascent career notched another milestone, as she became the the No. 1 artist on Billboard’s first-ever year-end U.S. Afrobeats Songs Artists ranking, landing four songs in the top 10 of the year-end chart, led by “Essence” but also including her song “Found” feat. Brent Faiyaz and two songs from her debut EP, “Higher” and “Free Mind,” impressive for a two-year-old project in an era when music moves so fast. And that steady ascent to stardom has earned her manager, Muyiwa Awoniyi, the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
Here, Awoniyi breaks down how he’s helped guide Tems to impressive heights, and the strategies that have gotten them to this point. “I have always felt that if you focus on what is important, what feels urgent will take care of itself,” he says. “In this case, focusing on the actual music and her brand appeal, instead of the charts, allowed us to tell an authentic story that people could relate to.”
This week, Tems landed four songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s first-ever year-end Afrobeats chart, the most of any artist, including the No. 1 song, her feature on Wizkid’s “Essence,” which gave her the No. 1 spot on the year-end US Afrobeats Songs Artists ranking. What key decisions did you make to help make this happen?
I have always felt that if you focus on what is important, what feels urgent will take care of itself. In this case, focusing on the actual music and her brand appeal, instead of the charts, allowed us to tell an authentic story that people could relate to. Handling those things properly allowed us to attract people instead of chasing them and as a result, we built organic bonds with so many people as a team. Proper product placement, which in music means the right ears hearing the music, was a very key focus as we moved forward. It was important to utilize our network optimally and align with those that saw our vision — God has been extremely kind on that front. I have met some amazing people who have played parts in making sure Tems’ music gets heard, and the by-product of that has led to so many of her songs achieving great things such as charting on the U.S. Afrobeats Billboard chart and the Billboard Hot 100 as well. All that being said, though, I do my best and leave the rest to the Almighty.
Two of her songs in the top 10, “Higher” and “Free Mind,” are from her 2020 EP For Broken Ears. How have you kept the momentum from that project going over the past few years, particularly in an era when music moves so fast?
The first time I heard “Free Mind,” I actually wept. I knew that song was special and I feel everyone that has heard it probably feels the same way. The nature of the song preserved itself while we, as a team, focused on marketing the record and the EP as a whole. As a manager, being aware of your talent’s unique selling point is very essential and when we finished For Broken Ears we knew we had something special. It was music for those who want to feel. Which is why records like “Higher” got sampled by ATL Jacob for the “Wait for U” track with Drake and Future. I still feel some records will catch on, “Ice T” especially. As for music moving fast? There is a difference between McDonalds and soul food.
The other two songs in the top 10, “Essence” and “Found” feat. Brent Faiyaz, are collaborations. She’s also had some high-profile collaborations with Drake, Future and Beyoncé. How have strategic collaborations helped boost Tems’ career and find new fans?
Collaborations have been very important. I actually feel if artists removed their limiters, some of the most innovative sounds can come from collaborations. Regarding Tems, I wouldn’t say these were “strategic.” Yes we are aware of the exposure collaborating with such huge superstars would bring, but it has to be organic. It has to feel good. It has to feel right. That’s the only way you get records that transcend borders. If not, you just have another song. We have been approached by basically the whole music industry but the collaborations we took, and have taken on, felt right. Expect more.
Tems’ rise has coincided with a growing global appreciation of African music and African artists. How have you guys been able to capitalize on that, and what has that meant for the opportunities you’ve gotten?
When you manage one of the leading artists from our region, you tend to see it all. So capitalizing for us has always been based on where we were, where we are, and where we are trying to go. This is why we started off by not signing a record deal immediately. You cannot fully capitalize if you do not own and owning For Broken Ears has been such a huge blessing. God is good.
Tems has also been nominated at the Grammys for the second year in a row. What does that mean for you guys, and how can you use that to further Tems’ career?
It’s a blessing. It makes us know that we are on the right track. We try not to make accolades define us in any capacity but the feeling of gratitude is always prominent. In terms of furthering her career, this is another page of her story, so we have to be aware to enjoy the moment, but not dwell on it. There are more pages in the book of Tems and we have to keep moving forward ’til the book ends. It’s really just staying focused and putting the work in while keeping God first in all things.
What have you learned about management during your career?
I’ll summarize it with this sentence: I have learned how important it is to gain equity within the hearts of human beings. One must master the art of selflessness. It takes you further than your ego ever would.
Where do you go from here to continue building Tems’ career further?
At the moment? Album mode. We have been working on this for quite a while. It’s her first baby and we all know how important it is for her. So all focus goes into that and then we allow God to take care of the rest. Definitely expect more from us at [my company] The Leading Vibe. We are always working.