With thoughtful lyrics, arresting visuals and a rare vocal range, the Lagos artist and Wizkid collaborator is breaking new ground for Nigeria's underground
“I woke up in the night / broke out of my chains,” goes the second verse of “Try Me”, the anthem that launched Tems into the stratosphere in 2019. The song is a micro-manifesto for her sound, channelling the fire of Nigeria’s bubbling musical underground into an uncompromising message of freedom and fulfilment: “Now you wanna lock me away, I'm winning / You wanna add to my pain, I'm shining.”
With her reflective lyrics, arresting visuals and a rich, distinctive voice that’s drawn comparisons to Adele and Rihanna, Tems is one of the figureheads of Nigeria’s alté movement. Think of it as the gritty, muted riposte to the gloss and glam of Afrobeats, bringing the sultry atmospheres of neo-soul and alt-R&B to the easy swing of west African pop. “My writing, mood, lyrics and style are based on my internal environment and the state of my mind and spirit,” says the musician – real name Temilade Openiyi – over email, having taken a temporary vow of silence in order to rest her voice.
When the Lagos-born artist gave up a career in marketing to devote herself to music, she built her sound from the ground up, following production tutorials on YouTube and taking singing lessons to harness the power of her rich alto voice. “At the time I didn’t really have anyone to guide me or show me what to do with music,” she recalls. “The producers that I met didn’t really understand my sound or what I was looking for, so I decided to take control.”
“There are so many women that live such difficult lives in music. I’ll say to them, no matter what, never compromise who you are for an audience” – Tems
In 2018 she put out “Mr Rebel”, a stripped-back sleeper hit that won her an army of fans who’ve dubbed themselves the Rebel Gang. Writing that song “was one of the most spiritually freeing experiences I’ve had,” Tems says, both “a prophecy and a gift.” Her journey since then has been almost comically smooth, a wave of green lights taking her from DIY rookie to collaborating with Afrobeats royalty like Wizkid, who brought her in as the romantic foil for his breezy slow wine, “Essence”.
“To be honest, it’s by the grace of God that I haven’t made any personal effort to be heard,” she says of her rapid rise to fame. “The one thing I did experience in the beginning was people trying to change me because they didn’t understand me. And others trying to take advantage because they thought I was desperate.” Last year’s For Broken Ears proves the naysayers wrong six times over as she mines themes of courage and control, finding a spot where sensuality meets spirituality. “There are so many women that live such difficult lives in music,” she notes. “I’ll say to them, no matter what, never compromise who you are for an audience. Your people exist and they will find you. Trusting in God is key.”