“Temilade, what did you add in your stew?” There’s a common theme to the online mystique surrounding Tems, the 27-year-old artist who has spent the last few years collecting industry accolades, big-hitter features and international fandoms like infinity stones. “I need Tems’ prayer,” is another popular online response when the latest news from the Lagos, Nigeria native spreads across Diasporic Twitter. And having been tapped for collaborations by a who’s-who of the world’s biggest artists – Beyoncé, Drake, Future, Wizkid, Justin Bieber, Khalid and most recently Rihanna – it’s no wonder that the masses are in awe of one of our generation’s fastest-rising stars.
Sitting across from me in a private lounge at 180 Strand, Tems tends to agree that her path has been peppered with a certain divine providence, smiling as she testifies, “God is in charge of my life, he’s my A&R.” But having transformed opportunity into record-breaking firsts for an African artist – both in the US Billboard charts and in overall global streaming numbers – Tems is spinning her own strand of auditory gold in the current rush for the cultural zeitgeist of the continent.
Today, however, cloaked in a dark, metallic fit, Tems’ vibe is more reminiscent of onyx or something intergalactic, plucked from the future-pop ether. At first, she’s warm but watchful, wrapping her hands in her long mesh sleeves as she talks in soft, short ellipses, but the magnetism she commands across the table with her searingly direct stare and knee-high platform boots suggest her initial quiet is one of intense inner calm, not shyness.
The first time Tems and I spoke was over Zoom almost two years ago, in the autumn of 2020 for her first artist biography interview. At the time, most of us around the world had been restricted to our homes for over 10 months with the pandemic. The UK was inching back towards yet another lockdown, and the entire music industry was still confined to the virtual world. But despite all that, attention around Tems had been surging internationally in the wake of her quaking single “Try Me”. On the song, her rich velvety vocals formed an incendiary call-to-arms as she declared, “If I was the ganja, you bring the lighter / roll me in Rizla, and set me on fire.” It was an exhilaratingly heart-wrenching introduction to an original new voice.
As I pull up some of her quotes from our first encounter, we play a game of ‘Still True or Now False?’ Back then, she described her music genre as “spiritual”, a notion she hums in quiet agreement with now – it’s a label more concerned with how her music feels than how it’s categorised. I relate another story she told me, about music flowing so freely from her that she once freestyled to the beat of a dripping tap at a friend’s house. (“It’s just natural, like it’s coming from my soul.”) At this memory she smiles, and hands me her new iPhone, where she’s already racked up over 2,800 voice memos capturing the melodies of that same spiritual outpour: “If I don’t voice it, it disappears,” she tells me in her low alto lilt. Scrolling through them now, they’re strangely hypnotising snapshots of her trademark soundscapes in embryonic form: scatting wordlessly in high-pitch to a funk-infused instrumental; the beginnings of a verse over Afrobeat-esque production; ad-libbing a mournful melody directly over Lil Wayne’s “Comfortable”, vocals and all, just because the inspiration took her in the moment. At first a little hesitant, she’s now as entertained by them as I am, smiling as she says, “once I close my mouth after I freestyle, I can’t remember what I’ve just done, so these all sound new to me”.
“There cannot be any competition because I’m just being 100% myself. If you want something else, you can go somewhere else. It’s not by force” – Tems
Tems hoards these audio snippets for safekeeping, in the unlikely event that her creative well dries up for even a second – though she says proudly that day is yet to come, asserting with casual assurance, “It can never happen.” While so much of Tems’ world has expanded and intensified over the last two years, in many ways she remains the same. Even in 2020, there was something remarkably unflinching in Tems’ self-belief. If anything, the 2022 version of herself feels closer to being the proven product of her drive and belief. That clarity of purpose she had so early on in her journey presents itself now with a lack of concern with the rivalries and comparisons that inevitably come your way when you’re part of a crop of emerging names. At the time, she put it simply: “There cannot be any competition because I’m just being 100% myself. If you want something else, you can go somewhere else. It’s not by force.”
Even then, Tems was conscious of the power of her own authenticity as perhaps the only standard that can never steer you wrong. To achieve that, however, Tems had to figure out exactly who she was. The first step on that path was something of a musical detox. For a while, she stopped listening to all music to avoid it bleeding into her own creative process. “I already had music that I liked and I didn’t know I was looking for a sound. But I just thought, before all these songs were made, there was somebody who made this song, started this trend or started singing like this first. And then other people followed them. I don’t want to be somebody that follows; I don’t want to be the ‘after’ person,” she explains, sounding mildly horrified. “I want to be the first. So if I’m going to be the first person, what I bring, there can be nothing like it.” Starting with one note on a keyboard, then two, before graduating to chords and eventually experimenting with producing her own beats and freestyling, her debut tracks were born from asking the simple question, “What would Temi do?” It’s the same desire to do what comes naturally that she sees in Rihanna, with whom she recently worked on “Lift Me Up”, a track for the new Black Panther movie. “She’s just being unapologetically herself, her best self,” says Tems. “That’s exactly what I love about her, so maybe that energy or vibe is reminiscent of that.”
Lyrically, her debut EP For Broken Ears is weaved with vulnerability and spiritual searching for that true self, a collection of meditations on making iced tea with the lemons life hands you, healing yourself and seeking liberation of the mind. Her second, If Orange Was a Place, feels like a deliverance from some of those pursuits, as she revels blissfully in falsetto on standout track “Found”, featuring Brent Faiyaz: “I’ve found myself, found myself, found.” On “Replay”, she bids “goodbye to a boring life”. The music she’s working on today is hard for her to describe, but she’s happy to confirm that “my mind is freed… ish.” Ultimately, her sound defies direct comparison and categorisation in exactly the way she intended, a refreshing conundrum in the world of algorithms. “One thing I know for sure is I’m the first of my kind, whatever my kind is,” she says, and her organic blend of folk, jazz, Afrobeats, R&B, pop and soul is testament to that.
Despite her determination to go it alone, Tems gives flowers to her peers and predecessors, taking to Twitter this summer to shower praise on a host of west African women in music who inspire her. She shouted out veterans such as Asa, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade and Niniola, as well as the new gen of Amaarae, Ayra Starr and Teni the Entertainer and many others by name. Thanking them for existing and inspiring others, she went on to say, “When I see any one of you gracing a stage, I feel like that’s me. We’re all winning and we’re about to move in like a tsunami… know that love lives on this side. As we show the world how it’s done.” In this new age of African music propelling the global culture forward, with more women at the helm than ever before, community is crucial. “If I win an award or I’m doing great things for years, and not once do I mention anyone else, [things will] just remain the same,” says Tems. “Just acknowledging them for the fact that they exist, that they’re putting themselves out there, that there’s another great woman like me, another mad artist like me, is the only way we’re going to make a difference. It won’t happen unless someone with a platform brings it there.”
“The more power the people have, the greater we become as a whole” – Tems
Though she’s yet to release her debut album, it’s clear from her passion that Tems is aware of her unique position to bridge that gap. Honouring the soft Lagosian expression in her wordplay, empowered and effortless in her sexuality and style, and with a sonic profile that looks back to her roots and into the future at once, she’s a uniquely modern symbol of African womanhood. The impact and newness of that kind of representation, on this kind of scale, is not lost on her. For the most part, Tems’ answers to my questions feel intentionally fluid – a balance of manifestation, spirituality and natural instinct, a resistance to overthinking or seeming too strategic. But on this topic she’s very pragmatic, like it’s something she’s been thinking about for a while now. “What I’m trying to do,” she explains, “or what I hope that God does through me, is for the image of the African woman to be [changed] to something luxurious, or desired, or sought after. For the demand of the African woman to go up… Let us not be chasing foreign things, let us be something to be chased.” In other words, yesterday’s price is not today’s price. “Exactly. And that can’t just happen with me; it’s a together thing. It has to happen with a whole industry of women already doing real and amazing things. That’s the future.” Tems aside, that future might include the likes of Uncle Waffles, Amaarae, Ayra Starr, Kamo Mphela, Moonchild Sanelly or even actors like Thuso Mbedu – artists who redefine and reclaim what it means to be a young African woman in 2022. And they’re doing so on a global stage, live and direct from the continent. “The more power the people have, the greater we become as a whole,” Tems reasons.
Though she’s a self-professed introvert – “it’s not something I can reverse,” she confirms, as if she might have tried – at the core of Tems is a white-hot passion and a resolve for greatness, something she accredits to her hometown. “I think the perfectionism is definitely a Nigerian thing. For me, it’s definitely Lagos. Because if you check around the world, Nigerians are always the best at whatever they’re doing, whether that’s braids, hair, make-up, doctors… They’ll give you food and it’ll be over good, so that when you’re paying them, you know why.” She has just returned from her first trip home to Lagos since February, and starts to gush about all the favourites she’s missed, from pounded yam to Indomie and plantain: “I know I can get plantain here, but it’s just not the same. The plantain in Nigeria just has some edge.”
As she reels off the virtues of her motherland, I’m struck by the difference between the Tems who entered the room at the start of our chat and the Tems ignited in this moment. Those hands that had once fidgeted absent-mindedly have now emerged to reveal inches-long blood-red nails that punctuate every other sentence with a dynamic click or clap. Her colloquialisms bookend her stories, and her voice and pace are ramped up too. “I’m either 0 or 100,” she explains. “I’m like… [insert blank stare] or I’m crazy.” As a child, however, she spent a lot more time on the zero end of the spectrum, not really speaking until she was three years old. Music, ironically, was an excuse to retreat even further into herself to begin with, as the young artist immersed herself in burned CDs of Celine Dion on her way to and from school. “It used to be my secret; if anything, it made me more secluded. Because I wasn’t trying to share it with anybody. I’d be like, ‘I don’t need friends, I have music!’” she says, laughing. “Technically, my career has taken me out of my comfort zone and made me into a more outgoing person. But I wasn’t thinking about how to be better in the limelight, I was just thinking of how to be a better person in general, the best possible version of myself. And I think once you start being visible, a lot of these things that you didn’t know existed start coming to light, you start knowing yourself more too.”
Tems found that side just in time, it would seem. She relates the story of a moment her newfound visibility hit home, in the bathroom of a club during Paris Fashion Week. “I thought it would just be London and Nigeria,” she says. But taking pictures with 10 girls – all white, all French – in the toilets proved her wrong, and being chased to her car coming out of a show the following day drove it home once more. “I came outside, and next thing I know, everybody’s phones were up and they were shouting my name. We were trying to get to the car, so I was running. Bruh, they ran after me!” She’s as baffled as she is tickled by the memory. It’s a sweet full-circle detail given that, the last time we spoke, Tems told me France was one of the first places she wanted to visit once lockdown restrictions were lifted. When I remind her, she just says a quiet “that’s crazy” to herself.
Back here in central London, within mere seconds of us stepping outside, a young man clocks her instantly and approaches coyly to tell her that he loves her music without drawing too much attention. It’s a quick, quiet exchange that she receives with a sweet thank you, but as he disappears, she is reminded to return the sunglasses that have been sitting on top of her head back to her face with a knowing dimpled smile, well aware that it’s grey out. Despite her magnetism and all the swirling hype around her, Tems remains insistent on keeping the very same philosophy that’s carried her this far, a search for originality in a world that seeks to liken and compare. If there’s one thing she wished more people knew it’s “that I don’t want the same things most artists want, my goal is different.” Different how? “It’s not necessarily people, it’s really just a system. But once you’re an artist you’re not really an artist, you’re an entertainer – your life is entertainment for people. It’s a system of distraction.
And that’s fine. I think that’s just what people expect of me, to fuel that, to kind of chase their attention.” It reminds me of the fandom campaigns that demand artists keep feeding the beast a steady stream of releases at all times, or the online discourse that pits artists’ careers against each other. There can be this expectation that, once the world’s spotlight considers you worthy, you’d better give the people precisely what they want to keep it there. Whether that’s providing your personal life on a platter, conforming to trends or just “doing the most” to keep hold of their attention, especially as a young woman in music. But Tems shrugs as we wrap up, nonchalant as ever, “I don’t need to scrape my teeth on the floor to prove that I’m the greatest,” she says. “I’m not saying that I’m the greatest ever but I know I’m the greatest Tems… And if there’s another thing I know for sure, it’s that I’m not going anywhere.”
Hair YANN TURCHI at BRYANT ARTISTS using VIRTUE, make-up MATA MARIELLE at CLM using DR BARBARA STURM, nails SIMONE CUMMINGS at CLM using BIOCULTURE, set design SAMUEL OVERS at NEW SCHOOL, photographic assistants DAN DOUGLASS, SEAN MORROW, CALLUM HANSEN, LUKE REGAN, styling assistants FELIX PARADZA, MARK MUTYAMBIZI, ANDRA-AMELIA BUHAI, MARINA DE MAGALHAES, KATIE GROVE, JENSON KAY-POLLEY, EMILY GLEESON, ANNIE SEVERS, SAM THAPA, hair assistants MILLS MOUCHOPEDA, set design assistants FELIX VILLIERS, digital operator SAM HEARN, production assistant TILLY JOHNSTONE, post-production HELEN RETOUCH