When sweet-voiced singer Teni the Entertainer imagines the perfect place, it looks a lot like a Disney theme park. There’d be water slides, family, friends, and lots of food, she says. The fare offered would be that of her native Nigeria. “Jollof rice, pounded yam, egusi, àmàlà, and gbegiri!” the 28-year-old singer dreams aloud over Zoom. She’s on our call from a car in the bustling city of Lagos, heading home after a day of meetings and a rehearsal for a virtual performance. She’s three days away from dropping her debut album, Wondaland.
Teni set out to capture Disney World’s euphoria on Wondaland (out now), an airy collection of inspired Afropop that swirls and uplifts. Amid electronic production by Afrobeats wizards like Ozedikus (Rema’s “Dumebi”) and P. Priime (Olamide’s “Infinity”) are live talking drums, guitar, bass, and horns. On the single, “For You,” keys twinkle over steady percussion as Teni coos (and Nigerian pop star Davido yelps) about affection. The song is mostly performed in pidgin, an English-based creole spoken across Nigeria and West Africa. On the album, Teni also sings in Yoruba and its Ondo dialect, both Nigerian ethnic tongues. English is used sparsely, and she’s not worried about that hindering any Western crossover. “Good music will always speak for itself, wherever it’s played,” she says.
Though Teni — born Teniola Apata — was raised in Lagos, she moved to the U.S. for college. After seven years of distracted undergraduate studies, she earned a degree in Business Administration from American Intercontinental University in Atlanta in 2018. As a student, she’d often take trips to New York City to make music with her preferred collaborators. Disney World — a day’s road trip from campus or a quick flight away — may have been another distraction. “I always go,” she says of the theme park. “Last year was my first year missing [it]. In 2019, I took a friend and a producer to Orlando and we recorded great music.”
Since breaking out in 2017 with her single “Fargin,” Teni has become a musical darling, not only in Africa, where she’s earned several regional awards but across the diaspora. There’s a clip of Teni commanding a sea of onlookers at the inaugural Afro Nation festival in Portimao, Portugal with her 2018 hit “Case”. She only had to offer a few sparse words of the song a cappella before the massive audience took off with the rest. In the song, she vows to slap police and punch judges if it’ll prove her romantic devotion. Her music is not all love songs, though. “Fargin,” born from a viral freestyle over a highlife classic, tackles rape culture and sexual predation.
Teni has spoken curtly about gender inequity in Nigeria before, so I ask her if there are particular challenges she faced as a woman in the music industry. “I won’t call them challenges,” she says, relentlessly positive, “I’ll just call them learning curves.” She goes on. “People body-shaming me — telling me I’m fat and things like that. Or as a woman, I should show some skin and, and I should, you know, dress a certain way.” She pauses. “I don’t think music has anything to do [with that].” She looks to a range of women across Afropop, hip-hop, and R&B that exude strength and ability; Angélique Kidjo, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Chika, and Kehlani. She’s also inspired by her sister, Niniola, a Nigerian Afro-house singer whose career began to take off while Teni was in college. “I’ve learned hard work from her as well,” says Teni.
Wondaland’s first track, “Maja” — a song about living in her power — closes with Teni’s auntie speaking in Yoruba, saying praises over Teni’s name. She lauds Teni’s strength and leadership. Teni says her family constantly assured her of her greatness, building her up to believe there is nothing she could not do or be. It’s no wonder that Teni moves through the world creating joy and opportunity for herself, transforming her surroundings into the happiest place on Earth.