When Rihanna met Tems, you would have thought that Tems was the newly minted billionaire. The Bajan mogul brought the 26-year-old Nigerian singer-songwriter into a firm embrace at the New York premiere of her latest Savage X Fenty fashion show in September: “Enough of that humble shit,” Rihanna was heard telling Tems as Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body” blasted in the background. “You better own that.”
Rihanna isn’t the only one cheering Tems on. Earlier this year, Tems’ distinct, bassy vocals helped make “Essence” the breakout hit from Wizkid’s 2020 LP, Made in Lagos; the song so enamored Justin Bieber that he successfully campaigned to appear on its remix, propelling it to the Top 20 of Rolling Stone’s singles chart and garnering more than 80 million Spotify streams between the two versions. Weeks later, millions heard Tems dueting with Drake on “Fountains,” a dreamy highlight of his Certified Lover Boy. And with the release of her excellent EP If Orange Was a Place shortly after that, she announced a major-label deal with Sony’s RCA and Since ‘93 divisions.
Good things have a way of gravitating to Tems — perhaps, in part, because she claims them for herself. Weeks before she was wrapped in Rihanna’s arms, she coolly predicted the meeting in an interview with Lagos’s The Beat 99.9 FM. “Once I say something is happening, it just happens,” Tems explained on the radio. She is just as mystic when we sit down at a hotel in Brooklyn on the afternoon before the Savage premiere. “God has given me this purpose, and it’s just happening,” she tells me. “I didn’t choose my voice. I didn’t choose to love music. Every time I hear any type of music, I hear melodies in my head in thousands, and I’m just picking one. I didn’t make myself this way.”
The past year has had setbacks, too — notably, a two-day stint in a Ugandan prison last December for violating Covid protocols while playing a sold-out show (she’s since said she was unaware the proper precautions hadn’t been taken). Tems says she was imprisoned with roughly 50 women, some with their children, many detained arbitrarily as a result of domestic disputes. “No human being should be in that condition,” she says.
While incarcerated, Tems developed a deeper sense of presence — something she calls “a love lens.” “It’s like putting on glasses that make you love every single thing you see,” she brightly explains. “I couldn’t speak the same language with a lot of [the women], but I could understand them, to an extent.” She now moves with more profound gratitude. She picks up her small Coach handbag as an example, caressing it with long, French-manicured nails: “I’m just looking at everything with love, like, ‘Wow, this is beautiful.’”
When we meet, Tems has been in town for about a week, getting ready for her first-ever solo tour. The sold-out crowd at SOB’s, in downtown Manhattan, belts her lyrics back to her at the first stop. Onstage, she’s fiery. At our interview, she’s shrouded in blacks and blues, with a fitted Yankees cap over a cascade of ginger braids.
She describes her acoustic performance of her 2018 single “Mr Rebel” as the most meaningful of the night, nearly bringing the singer — often still and stoic in conversation — to tears. “When I wrote this song, I was at home,” she says. “I didn’t have a studio. I just had a laptop and earphones.” “Mr Rebel” is a stylish ballad of pain and conquering: “I’m the leading vibe,” she insists. Tems says she was so surprised when the line came out of her that she later searched the phrase just to be sure it didn’t already exist. In the world of the young, distinctly governed by vibes, it was daring for Tems to declare herself the leading one so early. “It was a freestyle, and it was such a spiritual experience for me,” she says. “It’s come out of my spirit and it has become reality.”
“Mr Rebel” is a testament to her DIY roots. Tems produced the track herself after picking up the skill via YouTube; she felt that she couldn’t find producers who would help her hone her unique sound, or ones she could afford to work with at all. An acquaintance with a studio allowed her to record the song there, and she coordinated the single’s artwork with a photographer cousin and graphic designer friend. She figured out how to upload it to streaming services, which required another acquaintance with access to digital American dollars to pay for distribution.
“Before ‘Mr. Rebel,’ I didn’t know anything about distribution or Apple Music,” she says. “I didn’t know how songs got on there. I just thought they somehow appeared there.” With another search, she discovered services like DistroKid and Ditto, and scanned Twitter for opinions on the options. Once she picked one and announced her single on social media, it spread. “I got messages from a radio station. I met my first manager from that song,” says Tems. “It really was by word-of-mouth.”
Before Tems was one of global R&B’s fastest-rising stars, she was Temilade Openiyi, an introverted child of a single mother in Lagos who loved songs by Lil Wayne. In secondary school, a music teacher helped unleash her voice. At home, she’d practice singing and songwriting, her brother on the guitar. At her mother’s behest, she became a reluctant college student, studying economics in South Africa. She went on to a job as a digital marketer back in Lagos before quitting three years ago to focus on music.
“When you grow up in Lagos . . . you can’t really chill,” says Tems. “Everybody’s in survival mode. . . .If everybody is trying to survive then nobody has love, because they’re like” — she mimics a matter-of-fact miscreant — “‘Well, I want to help you, but I am hungry. So I do have to mess you up.’” Tems remains acutely aware of suffering; even her most danceable songs, like “The Key” and “Vibe Out,” tussle with darkness and salvation. “I want to, in my own way, give a better life,” she adds.
This call to service — not just to make music that heals, but to create tangible changes in the lives of Africans — grew stronger after her incarceration in Uganda. Asked what path she wants to take as a humanitarian, though, she resists. “Honestly, I can’t say that I have a specific thing that I want to do, because it’s just so many,” Tems says. “I don’t want to limit God. I just want to do as much as possible.”