Nigeria’s Benin City, originally known as Edo, was the capital of a powerful pre-colonial African empire. A 1974 edition of the Guinness Book of Records describes the now-perished ancient walls of the town as the world’s largest earthworks constructed prior to the mechanical era. “It’s a legendary city,” says Rema, the rule-breaking 19-year-old Afropop star who is fast becoming one of its most famous sons. “You can feel the history in the arts, even some of our arts in the UK and US have come all the way from Benin City”. To be from this place, with its majestic history, and accomplish all that he has so far, is a feat so special it feels like a prophecy. He is, according to his manager, “the chosen one”.
It’s a brisk, unusually clear morning in London when the chosen one walks into a busy drawing room in Soho. Rema is tall and sharply dressed, almost godly, in all white. He sports Champion sneakers, angular, rimless Ray-Ban spectacles and silver cross pendant earrings – a subtle nod to his faith. His manager – who is, coincidentally, called Rima – is already seated, and they exchange a few words on calories and whether or not dates are too sugary, before Rema orders a green avocado smoothie.
In just under a year, Rema’s genremashing take on west Africa’s popular dance music has landed him a US tour, a headline slot at the Boiler Room festival in London, Nigeria’s 2019 Headie award for ‘Next Rated Superstar’, and a place on Barack Obama’s best songs of 2019 list. On “Dumebi”, from last year’s debut EP Rema, he broke wide across the diaspora with a blazing Afrobeats hit that has brought him virality on an epic scale, and into fresh conversations about the future of pop. And with the follow-ups, the four-track releases Freestyle EP and Bad Commando, he was confirmed as one of Nigeria’s most vital new stars.
“For you to think of so many cultures from just one song, it means that my music is multi-dimensional, it’s multi-territorial” – Rema
Right now, Rema is just two days into what is only his second stay in London. The musician has just returned from Miami, where he shot a music video for his latest single, “Beamer (Bad Boys)”, and Chicago, where he performed at an NBA All-Star Weekend event with American rapper 2 Chainz. “I did take some pictures with (2 Chainz), but I don’t want to post them online,” he asserts, suggesting that the opulence which comes with his newfound fame might sit uncomfortably with some fans. “I post what the people need to see, not what they want to see… people need to see more of what made them follow me in the first place.” Rema’s fresh take on Afropop is the driver of his influence and, for now, he’d like it to stay that way. A recent Instagram post exemplifies his content strategy: captioned “Music for my generation”, a reposted fan video finds Rema vigorously performing Freestyle EP’s mumble rap-esque “American Love” on top of a classroom table, where an audience of teens mosh to his set like churchgoers catching the holy ghost.
Rema credits his parents for introducing him to music, especially Fela Kuti and 2Face. Born Divine Ikubor in Benin City, he began writing raps and performing covers of songs at school at the age of seven. By ten, he had created his own flow – the foundation to the punctuated rhymes and unconventional melodies he’s built a fanbase around today. As a young teen, Rema decided to knock at the door of what he suspected was a recording studio, after hearing music blasting from inside on his way to school. When a man opened the door, Rema asked how much money he would need for a studio session.
“I didn’t have that amount of money, so I was about to leave and he was like, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to record?’” Rema recalls. He had no backing track to record to, but the man obliged anyway, made him a beat, and allowed him to record for free. To this day, Rema is still searching for the man who took a chance on him. “I’ve been hitting people up in my city and telling them to help me look for this person who made a big impact on my life. That gave me some hope. Like, if grace can pave this way for me so early, I think I should just move on with it.”
Rema’s faith is at the core of his creative practice and always has been – the ‘grace’ he frequently speaks of in interviews and on social media signals a belief in a higher power, pulling strings in his favour along the way. The luminary grew up going to church, where he began to build his musical repertoire. Particularly popular in the children’s church, Rema brought what he’d learned in studio sessions and from secular influences like Kanye West, Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa to what he calls the “rap mission” – a teen gospel collective he led and wrote songs for. “The pastor noticed I was a cool kid because I dressed a certain way,” Rema says, confessing to wearing his older brother’s chains and clothes. “The clothes were bigger… I was looking really different in the era of skinny jeans. I looked like 2Pac!”
“We hardly ever recorded the songs; we performed everything live because we wanted to keep that authenticity for the masses,” he explains, noting that, by the time the group’s alchemy of musical influences and performance elements coalesced, they had won an audience upwards of 7,000. As Rema’s involvement with the rap mission grew, his goal was to recruit more young people into the church and finesse a performance strong enough to impress the adult congregations. Borrowing from hip hop and rap to take gospel to new levels, he switched up the sound to appeal to an older audience, experimenting with flow, costume, energy and beats, audition after audition.
Rema’s songs feel both distantly familiar and far-reaching, as if beamed in from another world entirely. “(My sound is) hard to explain,” he says. “It’s simply freedom, and just enjoying what I’m doing in the studio.” This musical fine-tuning, a unique blending of cultural touchpoints and spiritual expression, is what makes it so compelling to audiences thousands of miles away from west Africa. “I believe my music is evergreen because there is nowhere else you (can) go around the world and find this type of sound.”
“Rema’s intergalactic sound is a once-in-a-generation fusion of Afrobeats and trap that has never been seen before” – D’Prince
Rema’s manager is convinced that the Ozedikus-produced “Iron Man”, a Rema EP cut whose raga-like melodies fans and critics have suggested draws from north Indian classical music, will soundtrack a Bollywood film one day. “Why”, with its intricate, hi-hat-heavy beat, snappy raps and melancholic, pained vocals is reminiscent of the American emo trap galvanising fanbases around the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Post Malone, and the late Juice WRLD. But Rema’s particular brand of genrelessness is less intentional than it is miraculous. “I’m glad that people tend to put multiple cultures (upon) my music,” says the musician, admitting that he’s never even seen a Bollywood movie before. “I let them do the maths so that when they’re like, ‘This sounds Latin,’ or, ‘Oh wow, it sounds like this,’ it’s actually a good thing. I feel good because for you to think of so many cultures from just one song, it means that my music is multi-dimensional, it’s multi-territorial.” The power of genre-blending and culture-melding hit home with Rema when Luis Fonsi’s Spanish language smash “Despacito” took over the Nigerian airwaves in 2017. “These guys made a song that makes Africans dance, and we didn’t even understand a single word. I had to note it to myself, and I see myself doing the same thing right now.”
In fact, Rema is quite literally doing the same thing. A close listen to the lyrics of “Dumebi” reveals a subtle weaving in and out of speech and hum and gibberish – a detail that’s easy to miss, especially for those unfamiliar with Edo or Yoruba languages. “I lay down the melodies first, then I write down the words,” Rema explains, touching on his process in the studio. “But sometimes I drop words when I’m vibing, no written lyrics.” When he played what he thought was an unfinished track for his mentor and label head D’Prince, Rema was encouraged to leave “Dumebi” as it was, gibberish and all. “He liked the way I took it so easy, the flow, the freedom I used in the melodies. He was like, ‘Don’t (change) that, trust me, because it will take away from the song.’”
Life hasn’t always been free-flowing for Rema. At the age of eight, he lost his father and when he was 15 years old, his older brother. Underneath the charisma, charm and talent Rema showcased on church stages and in school was a young man fighting to stay spiritually intact. His family struggled financially, and Benin City was a tough place to build a career for the young artist. “There was a lot of hustle and a lot of struggle, (but) at some point in my life, I got a call to leave my city,” the musician explains. “I was working, but I was working too hard and not too smart.” Rema left home at 17 for Ghana, where he worked strenuous jobs and attempted to make ends meet while providing security for his mother and sisters. When the singer returned home after a year, stability and a reconnection with his family inspired him to take another chance on music. In early 2018, Rema uploaded a video to the internet that would catch the eye of Nigerian star D’Prince. The roughly minute-long clip, a freestyle to D’Prince’s “Gucci Gang”, made waves across the country and prompted D’Prince to reach out to Rema, whom he invited to Lagos to meet with him and his brother, Don Jazzy, the head of Mavin Records.
The trip to Lagos, with its prosperous creative industry, proved fruitful for the musician. “Rema’s intergalactic sound is a once-in-a-generation fusion of Afrobeats and trap that has never been seen before,” says D’Prince, who heads up Jonzing World, the Mavin Records imprint that signed Rema as their first artist after its parent company part - nered with Kupanda Holdings and became what D’Prince says is now the biggest label in Africa – one which focuses on those artists who are breaking out of Afrobeats convention and expanding its horizons. In fact, the booming music industry is one reason D’Prince thinks the world is finally catching up and tuning its ears to Afrobeats. The west African alté (alternative) movement, a creator community which includes the likes of American label LVRN’s Santi, Ghanaian singer Amaarae and a growing class of young talents finding success on a global scale, prove his point – as do major investments such as Universal’s launch of a Nigerian music division in 2018.
But as much as Rema and his music promise an exciting future, the heat around him has presented new challenges. “I never saw myself performing in those big stadiums,” he says. “It’s happening so fast, and people are trying to comprehend.” It’s not the only time in our conversation he acknowledges an air of suspicion around his rapid success, mostly evidenced online. “I see people trying to contemplate my moves so literally, but it just comes down to one simple word: grace.” Rema admits he hasn’t seen his mother and sisters since leaving for Lagos two years ago, and he still doesn’t know when he’ll be able to go back to Benin City. “I don’t know what home is like any more; I don’t know what the energy is like. I don’t know if my city feels abandoned by me going outside into the world and accomplishing so many things.” The potential for returning home to people looking for things to gain from him is a fear that’s begun to creep in. Modern pop stars, coming up in a time when social influence and the commodification of identity are shifting violently, need to tread carefully.
When he was in high school, Rema drew comic books and sold them to classmates to make money. Now, the covers for his three EPs offer a peek into a vivid creative interior, one he has cultivated through struggle. “If I wanted to eat during the week in school, I made sure during the weekend I came up with a good comic book,” he says. Illustrated like scenes from a graphic novel, his cover art depicts colourful dystopian settings, featuring UFOs and figures falling from the sky – alien symbols he says he is using to transmit a futurist narrative. “Right now I’m trying UFOs to (communicate) a better understanding of another dimension,” he says frankly, rooting his work in a conviction that he is for – or is it from? – the future. “As time goes by, the revolution will unfold. Whatever songs I’m recording (now), I’m recording for 2021, 2022 and … ”
Hair Virginie Moreira at Saint Luke, make-up Anne Sophie Costa at Streeters using Shiseido Synchro Skin, set design Tony Hornecker at D+V, photography assistant Harry Mitchell, styling assistants Archie Grant, Guy Miller, hair assistant Nat Bury, make-up assistant Lydia Ward-Smith, set design assistants Georgie Bee, Zoe Argiros