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No One Sounds Like Tems

The Nigerian singer-songwriter mesmerized music’s biggest names with a handful of songs. That was just the beginning.

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It’s just after 2 p.m. in Ladbroke Grove, a pastel neighborhood in West London still holding to its fading memory as England’s Haight-Ashbury. Tems is reclining in a chair she’s been sitting in for the better part of two days ahead of the holidays, fiddling on Ableton with a languorous track called “Not an Angel” that she thinks she’s finally, after several months, figured out. She’s in the last stages of completing her debut album and has been intermittently napping here, in her studio, instead of sleeping in her own perfectly good bed, returning home only to take showers, drink some celery juice, and change her clothes. “I would say that I definitely deal with symptoms of perfectionism,” she says, grinning. She likes to work alone, in near silence, and seems sensitive to the slightest emotional tremors. Any reaction, she says, whether it’s quiet disappointment or rapturous excitement, can threaten the “purity” she’s aiming for. Her songs begin as freestyles that creep up and force her into airplane bathrooms or closet spaces or outside studios at other people’s sessions, so she can record whatever pours out of her before she loses it forever. It’s a dreamlike state she can access best when she’s in private, and often, scatting half-formed words into the mic of her iPhone, she ends up exhuming her buried emotions into voice memos. “I have no clue what’s going to come out,” she says, “and I find myself saying weird things. Hurt feelings come out a lot. And when I play it back, it’s like, Oh, so this is how you feel.

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At 28, Tems has become one of the top streamed female artists in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s hard to talk about the New Wave of Afropop artists without making note of her and the already visible influence of her genre-blending sound. She’s at home next to budding peers like Tyla and Ayra Starr and stands apart for the soul-stirring emotionality of her songwriting, the woolliness of her alto croon, and her insistence on producing many of her own tracks. Her discography is slimmer than PinkPantheress’s, but she already has a Grammy, a Golden Globe nomination, and a Billboard record for the earworm “Free Mind,” which spent 17 weeks at No. 1 on the “R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay” chart. Near-universal acclaim, collaborations with the biggest names in music (Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna), and co-signs from the likes of SZA, Adele, and Snoop Dogg all materialized before she’d released so much as a proper full-length project.

Tems bristles when her phone rings, examining it as if it were an alien life-form. “It’s always on ‘Do Not Disturb,’” she complains when she hangs up. “I don’t know how people still get through.” In the dimly lit studio, she is dressed the way she feels most like herself: drowning in a giant red hoodie, a pair of dark oversize jeans, and worn-in gray slippers. “This is my normal swag,” she says, flashing a gap-toothed smile. Her catlike eyes peer out from beneath heavy, defined lids that have routinely earned her accusations of drowsiness, or boredom, or perma-fried-ness (suspicious university professors always asked whether she was smoking joints before class). She’s on her third or fourth cup of chamomile tea for the day, which is surprising, given she keeps the room temperature cranked so alarmingly high, and she is briefly embarrassed when I have to shed my sweater. “I’m so sorry — I can turn it down,” she says. “Honestly, I just like it hot. How it is back home.”

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Temiìlade Openiyi was born in the summer of 1995 in Lagos, Nigeria, amid the syncopated rhythms of the bustling city: the fretful cries of car horns, the constant thrum of power generators, the boom of early-morning preachers and soliciting bus conductors. Her father is British, and the family moved to London when she was still an infant. They returned to Lagos four years later when her parents separated; her father stayed behind. Tems and her older brother, Tunji, moved into their mother’s home in Ilupeju, and it was in his upstairs bedroom that they played fake concerts for a roaring but imaginary audience, him jamming on the guitar that was a gift from their father, her freestyling lyrics from whatever she felt in the moment. “I remember my first song was something like, ‘I was walking one Sunday morning, just to realize …’” Her mother only ever listened to Christian music in their insular little home world, so it was through Tunji’s social network that she inherited the Lil Wayne downloads and pirated R&B CDs that formed her musical influences: compilations from Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah that she would “study” to the point of memorization, then improvise her own melodies over.

In many ways, music was how she came to participate in the world, the only way she felt she could communicate at all. As a child, she preferred her own company. She didn’t speak until she was 3 years old, but singing came more naturally, as though the music somehow preceded her. “I was always in my own little world,” she says. “I wasn’t very social.” Other kids bullied her to the point of tears. “When I did make friends, I would try to make them sing my songs,” she says. In primary school, she was the songwriter in her group and “forced” her friends to do talent shows with her. In her mid-teens, she briefly abstained from listening to other people’s music as a monkish way to preserve her own inchoate sound. By high school, the cruelty of children matured with renewed malignancy. She still didn’t speak much, didn’t have much of a social circle, and her status as an outcast made her a target of ridicule. Sometimes she would cover her head with a blazer, and she kept mostly to herself, passing the time singing alone in the music room. Today, music critics love the richness of her velvet tone, how it skims a mossy contralto in its thickest, deepest grooves, but for a bashful teenage girl, possessing an androgynous voice was less a virtue of singularity than something to fuss over. “All the other girls had these sweet, high voices,” she says. “And my voice had bass.

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All her life, bewildered strangers in grocery stores and family members alike would make unsolicited observations about her pitch, leading her to believe she sounded like a boy, or a frog, or that her voice was otherwise ugly. Her uncle claimed he’d be sure of her talent if the church choir accepted it, but once she was admitted at 17 for a rendition of “Oh Happy Day,” he seemed to think it had been out of pity. She resolved to sing only in a feathery, artificial falsetto, to the dismay of her high-school music teacher, Mr. Sosan. “He would be like, ‘What are you doing? Sing with your real voice,’” she says. “And I’d say, ‘I don’t know what my real voice is.’” She’d assumed it was too heavy to use; girls are supposed to be pretty and sound delicate. It was under Mr. Sosan’s tutelage that she developed the faith to sound like herself. “I thought, If you think I sound like a man, I think that’s pretty cool—I’m gonna sound more like a man,” she said. “I started to want that deepness. I wanted to lean into my weirdness.” Even her speaking voice morphed and dropped to a lower register.

Tems began to seriously work on music in the mid-2010s while studying economics at Monash South Africa in Johannesburg. She had not wanted to go, but her efforts to evade enrollment deadlines were ultimately unsuccessful. Her mother was adamant that she get a proper education. Every day after class, she would spend hours in her dorm room teaching herself music-software production on YouTube, chopping up songs on Logic. Producers she sought advice from told her that Nigerians would only embrace her if she conformed to a sound they already knew. But she was dissatisfied with the standard, happy-go-lucky Afrobeats they kept sending her. She didn’t want to be limited to making jubilant dance music. She wanted to make songs you could cry to, songs that were weighted with a search for emotional clarity and peace of mind, and songs about the annihilating force of love that all the tortured R&B singers she grew up with wrote about.

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After college, she took a digital marketing job in an office, which she quit in 2018, when she was 23, to pursue music full time. Later that year, she self-released a song called “Mr Rebel” that quickly earned her a cult following from fans who began calling themselves “Rebel Gang.” Wale Davies, who forms one-half of the Nigerian rap duo Show Dem Camp, sent her a DM on Instagram and soon became her manager. Radio DJs started paying attention, and she landed a few collaborations with artists including Davido, Khalid, and Disclosure. Beyoncé’s team reached out about a song with Grace Jones that would end up on Renaissance. (“I still don’t know how she found me,” says Tems.)

Then, in 2020, she had her first breakout hit, appearing on Wizkid’s “Essence.” It was an instant, sweltering sensation well before Justin Bieber joined the remix. It felt almost unfair that it was released in the middle of quarantine, when people couldn’t enjoy it in the salty, slippery heat of the club or stretching out in the sun at outdoor picnics. Barack Obama selected it for his annual playlist of favorite songs. Nicki Minaj opined that it should have snagged a Grammy. “Essence” signified a major commercial crossover for Afrobeats into Canada and the U.S.; it also led to the vague, insufficient classification of Tems as an “Afrobeats artist.” “I think it’s just because I’m from Nigeria — it’s not necessarily about the genre of my music,” says Tems. “Even if you’re doing R&B, even if you’re doing opera music and you’re from Nigeria, or Ghana, or South Africa, most likely they’re going to classify it as Afrobeats.”

Her sound isn’t so straightforward. Tems flits casually among alternative R&B, neo-soul, hip-hop, dancehall, and Afrobeats without ever showing too much fidelity to one particular genre. She’s more at home in West Africa’s alté scene — a small group of young, rebellious musicians, which includes Amaarae, Odunsi (the Engine), Santi, and Lady Donli, united more by an artistic sensibility of left-field experimentation than by any organizing musical principle. Her songs can feel jazzy and minimal, or groovy and soulful, and sometimes her cadence feels like she’s almost rapping, a vestige of her childhood love of Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, and Drake. She credits Frank Ocean’s lush, surreal storytelling as some of the most important scholarship in her musical education and says anyone who listens to him can hear his DNA in her music. She speaks reverentially of Céline Dion’s jump-off-a-cliff-type ballads, the high drama of how her songs make you want to unzip your skin and bear your soul.

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The same year “Essence” dropped, Tems was selected for YouTube’s Foundry Class, a global artist-development program whose alumni include Gunna, Rosalia, Rema, and Dua Lipa; she also released her debut EP, For Broken Ears, serving as its only songwriter and lead producer. Things proceeded quickly from there. She signed to RCA. Drake’s team called. Future’s team called. She co-wrote “Lift Me Up,” Rihanna’s comeback single, for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — a stripped, balladic tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman that snagged her an Oscar nomination.

Suddenly, Tems was everywhere, ambient and inescapable as the weather.

Camera operators for awards shows like to stir shit up. It’s a prime occasion for dabbling in gonzo filmmaking: All smiles dissolve into grimaces if you linger long enough. Scanning the changing faces in the room, they’ll zero in on sight gags that netizens can later use to describe oddly specific situations, inevitably christening them “#moods,” or “Renaissance paintings.” Consider, for example, a sleepy, or pained, or possibly constipated Martin Scorsese bearing witness to Eminem’s performance of “Lose Yourself,” inexplicably occurring in 2020. Or Tems sporting an extravagant couture gown at last year’s Oscars, head cradled by a cumulus cloud of white tulle, seemingly unbothered by how it totally eclipses the view of those behind her or how her seat neighbor is craning his neck to avoid being brushed in the face by the fabric.

Her response on Twitter was characteristically chill: “Oops,” she typed out coolly, appending four blushing emoji to the pointed non-apology. “It’s not like I did it on purpose,” she tells me, her tone halfway between sheepish and amused. “But the only thing I could do in that situation was pay attention and clap.” She could not have predicted that her stylist would forget the dress she was planning to change into that evening; that she would be bound to her chair for several hours by the ceremony’s arcane filming rules; that she would leave her phone at home and be blissfully divorced from the firestorm brewing online. Bemused, people shared screenshots of the woman behind her struggling to glimpse the stage or dramatized the moment on TikTok. “You know how rude you gotta be to roll up in the Oscars and sit down with that dress?” Stephen A. Smith said on his podcast, echoing the common sentiment in the sneering tabloids.

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In the short time it’s taken for Tems to shift from relative obscurity to global fame, she’s learned how easy it is for her to become a headline, how quickly you can lose control over who is narrating your story. When she teased the self-directed music video for her single “Me & U” at the end of September, it was with an image of her clad in a gauzy white dress, standing in a sparkling stretch of seawater in Malta. People were quick to draw parallels with Oshun and Yemoja, two venerated water orishas recognized as goddesses in the Yoruban religion, and seemed to feel slighted when Tems, who is devoutly Christian, swiftly shut down the comparisons. “Actually,” she tweeted, “it’s about Jesus Christ teaching me how to walk on water, to trust Him and not in human understanding.” She was promptly accused by strangers of cultural dissociation and rejecting her Indigenous culture in favor of one imposed by colonialism; the visuals do, intentionally or not, bear a strong resemblance to illustrations of the orishas. But it appears that Tems’s frustration was more about feeling misunderstood. “The reason I made it clear what I believe in is because I felt like, when you get to a certain point of popularity, to a certain level of fame, people like to project onto you and create things based on imagination,” she says. “Like, just a week before, I was apparently pregnant by a man that I’ve never spoken to or heard his voice directly. I’ve never spoken to Future. Not even on the phone. I’ve never met him. But, suddenly, I’m pregnant?”

The pregnancy rumor was started because of a video circulating online in which her stomach didn’t look washboard flat — probably, she says, because she’d just eaten. Her inbox started filling up with threatening messages. (Future has what you could call a Reputation, particularly for the toxic character he portrays in his raps who would choose to lean over a lover; in real life, he is scorned for having a number of children with several different women.) Her mother and cousins were ringing down her phone to ask if it was true and to express their hopes that it was not. “That’s what social media does,” she laments. “It makes illusions feel real. It makes your imagination feel real. If you take those people too seriously, you will be compromised mentally. I just thought, This is zombie behavior.”

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Tems yawns and drains her cup of tea. The sun is beginning to set outside, and her body is waking up to the fact that she hasn’t slept much since she performed at a music festival in Texas earlier that week. She came to the studio not long after landing at the airport. “It’s not that I’m slaving away, though,” she says. “This is my safe place. Music is like my husband or my wife: I don’t know which — it doesn’t have a gender.” She tries to sneak in the odd day off where she’s not thinking or listening to music at all, which she’ll typically spend go-karting, or visiting markets around London (Camden is her favorite), or playing games at the arcade with her friends.

The only information she dispenses about the new music is vague and fractal: The project does not yet have an official name or release date, but it’s “basically done”; she wrote 100 percent of the songs and produced many of them herself. She plays me one song off the album in our final ten minutes together. It’s an airy, lilting Afropop-R&B ballad with hard-hitting, programmed drums and warm, soulful guitar licks and sees Tems leaving behind a lover who doesn’t recognize her worth. “Right now we’re not going nowhere, other than the graveyard, baby,” she sings sweetly. I’m curious whether making music feels different to her from when she first started. Everyone has an opinion now. All her heroes are paying attention. She pauses before launching into an extended metaphor.

Before she was famous, she says, she felt like she was in the wild, building a bamboo house that could withstand the rain. “And I designed it in a way that I really liked,” she explains. “I went to get some paint, and I started painting it because it gave me joy.” Then it was as if one day, somebody stumbled upon it, called a friend, and told them to come and look at what she was building. They liked it and then more and more people came. Some said they’d seen better houses. Others complained that it didn’t even have a roof. All the while, she continued building something that gave her joy. “Now,” she continues, “imagine if I turned around from building the house, if I went to the people and said, ‘What do you want me to build, if this isn’t enough for you?’” If she did that, she says, the house would no longer bring her joy because it would no longer belong to her. She would no longer be making something in her own image. She would start feeling like a slave. She would forget what she even wanted in the first place. “I didn’t have an end goal like, ‘I want world domination in the end,’” she says, shifting back to reality. “I was just like, I’m going to make the best possible music I can make, because it makes me feel. It’s not even about you. I’m sharing this because it gives me joy. And I can’t keep it all to myself.”

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No One Sounds Like Tems