I met 25-year-old singer, songwriter and producer, Tems (born Temilade Openiyi) at a bar (which was closed during the day) in the urban side of Lagos on a sunny afternoon, she’s quick to caution me: “Before we continue, this is how I speak. I’ve tried to sound excited but my voice is one tone, but it doesn’t mean I’m upset or down." Just like her music, you can tell Tems is very outspoken and deliberate about her emotions, and how they make whoever she’s in tune with feel.
Coming from the Nigerian music industry that’s had just a handful of women rise to the top, her breakout 2018 single “Mr Rebel'' was a breath of fresh air. Her powerful voice was the first thing to catch my attention, the vocal effort she put into hitting difficult notes was an antithesis to the fast paced afropop sound that women superstars like Yemi Alade, Teni, and Niniola were releasing.
In “Mr Rebel,” Tems oscillates between yearning for a significant person and resolving that she needs herself more than anyone else. Swiftly going from “Fall in my arms, Mr Rebel. Come in my heart, Mr Rebel,” to “I’m the vibe, I’m the leading vibe,” it is indicative of an inner tussle to settle on a firm stance. Songs like this typically don’t break into the mainstream, but Tems’ self-produced track was enough to win the Nigerian audience.
Since that burst onto the scene, she’s released two more singles with “Looku Looku” and “Try Me.” That rise has earned Tems her own legion of fans, who now call themselves the Rebel Gang. What sets the singer apart from her peers is her ability to approach music with a freedom to express and experiment. Each song is different from the next, reinventing her sound with every release. She’s creating unique melodies that tie together a mix of genres and influences. This keeps her borderless and ever-changing. Now everything’s coming full circle, with millions of views and streams, a Headies nomination, and a growing fanbase eager for more music.
While we sat down at the closed bar away from her manager and personal assistant, Tems spoke plainly about growing up, the moment she decided to take music as a serious career, and her sudden success in the Nigerian music scene.
Tell us about the beginning, how you grew up?
I was born in Nigeria. My dad is British so we moved to England after I was born for three years. My parents got divorced when I was about five.
And how did that affect you growing up?
I don’t know, it was cool I guess. By the time I was conscious, I already got used to being with my mum. I have a brother, we were both raised by my mum. We lived in Ilupeju when we first moved back, then to Lekki Phase 1, then Ajah. I liked to play as a kid, but I was really quiet. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school so I used to go to the music room. I’ve always been into music since I saw Beyoncé on TV when I was seven watching Pepsi Countdown.
I’ve always loved music and I tried to sing but I thought my voice was too heavy for a girl. I thought I sounded like a man so I used to sing with my falsetto and then I met my music teacher who helped train my voice and encouraged me to keep going.
My mum wasn’t a player of music, she didn’t listen to music apart from Christian music. Then I grew older and started getting CDs for my Walkman. I had Destiny’s Child, Lil Wayne — he’s like my idol — and Aaliyah. The first song I learned how to properly sing is Alicia Keys, “If I ain’t Got You,” at 12. When I had more options of music I started listening to Burna Boy, Asa, Lauryn Hill, Adele — I didn’t even know she was white until she blew up. I could relate to her voice a lot, she had a song called “Hometown Glory.” It's one of my favorites.
When did you start taking the idea of being an artist more serious?
I always wanted to be an artist when I started training, working with my music teacher. I also joined the choir when I was 17. All that was in secret; my mum was the only person that knew. My brother plays the guitar and we used to have mini-concerts in his room. He liked rock type songs — Coldplay, Paramore— but it was great ‘cause it made me learn how to form songs to anything. He’d play and I’d just freestyle.
What’s your earliest memory of writing a song?
When I was six, my mum used to have a poem book. I guess I wouldn’t say I wrote it but I saw a phrase from the book and I formed a song and that was the chorus to it.
Did you know how you wanted your music to sound like early on?
No. I think when I knew I wanted to do music I had a couple of things I knew I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be fake, I didn’t want to sound like someone else. Why would you want to copy someone else when you could be original? It doesn’t make sense. You can never do your best by copying someone else, that means your second hand. To find my sound, I stopped listening to everybody when I was around 15 apart from the songs I made with my brother. I wanted to learn how to attack a song from what I was feeling, not what Beyoncé would do or anyone else.
When did you record your first song?
When I was in the choir I met someone who invited me to his studio. It was my first time going to a studio. We had a song which I can’t quite remember the name right now.
What happened next?
I tried to not go to school so I could pursue my career. That didn’t bang. But I did everything I could. When my mum applied to different universities and they would email me, I wouldn’t tell her till the deadline passes and I’ll be like, "Oh well the deadline passed, I might as well just stay home.” I tried that but she didn’t accept. She applied to a school in South Africa which had already started the session that year, but they allowed me to enroll. So I went like a week later.
How was music for you during that time?
I mean, it was hard. I studied economics, and it needs your focus. I personally I’m a 0 or 100 person — it’s either I’m all in here or I’m not at all. So I was making music on my own but not to release or perform ‘cause I didn’t have time and most of my attention was on school. I met a producer who I was working with and we did my only show in SA. I opened for Cassper Nyovest. I performed a song called “Highlights.” I was going by my government name then. I kept on training my voice. I had a guitar at the time. I used to write stuff in my spare time. Then at this point I started learning how to produce.
What made you decide to learn that?
One holiday I came back and I wanted to work with a producer and all the producers I tried to talk to had a lot of conditions. It’s either you have to give something, and I didn’t have money, and anything else is disgusting to me. I was just like Na wa, would I be struggling because I want to make one beat. Since I knew what I was looking for, I decided to learn how to myself. I started watching videos on YouTube, and got onto it pretty quickly. I’m still not like the best but I know what I want and I know the vibe, I know the secret formula to myself which other people don’t know. I’ve heard beats made by other producers but I always need it to have a Tems factor in it, which I can’t explain but it’s a thing — this feeling I get when I’m creating a song that I have to get.
What happened after school?
After school, I got back to Nigeria and got a job because the struggle is real. I thought, Let me get a job, then I’ll save and start my music because life was hard and I was living by myself, taking care of myself, bills. Family kept asking what I was doing with my life, not knowing how serious the music was to me, so I got a job to be responsible. And then 2018, I was turning 23 and I thought about being in an office for the next few years, and wondering why I trained hard in music if I was going to be in an office and that’s not even what I’m good at. At the time I was doing digital marketing for a company. I kept asking myself why I was there struggling, so I quit my job.
It was hard, starting from nothing. All my bills, I struggled a lot to pay them. Then I decided to put up a video on Instagram. A couple of people reached out to me and I met Audio — they’re two people, really cool guys I vibe with and they allowed me use their studio. I was still trying to perfect my craft, and after a few weeks I decided to release a song and the song was “Mr. Rebel.” I was trying to release the simplest song that's also like the worst song on my laptop that I could release comfortably and know that it wouldn’t be like so big cause it’s not that great. But it can be an introduction. Then it started picking up and people started hitting me up.
How did you feel when the song started blowing up?
I was grateful, I was excited. I’ve listened to “Mr Rebel” like 10,000 times and I’m not exaggerating. I’m a perfectionist, so I end up re-listening till I feel it's good. By the time it was released I was relieved because it took like a month to get the mix right. It caught on, and I got a lot of messages. I was like, Is this the same song? Like, I had to go back and listen to it to know what was happening and I think it’s because I’m really critical of everything I do. Even when I released it I didn’t think it was the best song but it was good enough as a start.
How did you feel when you got the Headies for Best Vocal Performance (FEMALE) & Best ‘Alternative’ Song ?
I think I was at a Jameson show, then my friend just messaged me, “Have you seen the Headies thing?” I didn’t know there was a whole thing happening online. I was elated, I didn’t have any expectations for that either. I already had my plans and I was happy about being recognized.
Do you have a next single in mind?
I do. The thing is when I’m releasing something it’s the same feeling every time. It’s not like my previous singles and what comes after won’t be like that. I’m excited about it because I’m opening myself up, I have a relationship with my fans, and you know when you’re new in a relationship you have to get comfy, so I’m trying to get comfortable with Rebel Gang.
How does it feel being part of the new generation of music artists coming out currently, being part of the select few of women right now?
I know there’s a reason why I have gone through everything I’ve gone through to make the kind of music that I make and reach the people that I'm reaching. I think everyone that I know is focusing on their individuality and being real, I think as a collective we’re definitely changing the way people see things. I feel good about it. I know God has good plans, I know it’ll be great. I know he’s opening doors, whether we know it or not. Right now, I don’t think it’s just ‘cause of the women, it’s a Nigerian thing. There’s a lot of focus on Nigeria right now, and the women are being highlighted which is very important because it’s opening doors and minds to women.
Visual production by Melanin Unscripted