COVER

Tems'

Power Comes From Looking Inward

By Gabby Sgherri

T

Tems logs onto our Zoom meeting from the UK and in her distinct Nigerian accent says “that journey of self-discovery is something that people really don’t want to address.” Born Témìládè Openiyi, she grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and would often write poems as a child. This later turned into songwriting as she pursued her passion for music on the side while attending University in South Africa. After school, she released her very first song (which she also produced) “Mr Rebel” in 2018 and quit her full-time job as a digital marketer in Nigeria to focus on music—it paid off. 

Tems spent 2021 performing at different festivals—Afropunk, Lost In Riddim—along with her first solo tour, she had a feature on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album, a run-in with a fan named Rihanna, and a 2022 Grammy nomination for her feature on Wizkid’s “Essence.” But in a digital age where everyone wants to be seen (choose your fighter: TikTok or Instagram) Tems is unwaveringly focused on herself, not the external world, and the self-discovery she’s referring to began long before she had name recognition.

“I just realized all these sounds [and trends] that come out, they didn’t just come out of air somebody started that and what other people did instead of [finding] their own sound they jumped on it because it’s easier to copy something that exists than to create something of your own.” This realization is what prompted Tems to remove all external influences and not think about what ‘so-and-so’ would do on a song but look inward to find her individual sound. Acknowledging that similarities in music are inevitable she says “there are only seven keys on the piano, there’s going to be repetition of melodies anyway but the fact is how those melodies are used are always very unique when you know who you are.”

Any Tems fan will recognize her powerful singing voice. It’s melismatic and honeyed as she hits even the most difficult of notes. When speaking, her voice is quite calm and stays in one tone enunciating particular words—the speaking equivalent of bold—rather than changing her pitch to emphasize what she’s saying. The strength and calmness when she speaks make her words carry weight as she divulges personal truths outside of her lyrics. From her first EP For Broken Ears to her most recent EP If Orange Was A Place, no two songs sound the same. Her ability to experiment with melodies and genres—while being grounded in the knowledge of who she is—keeps her music dynamic and alluring for listeners. 

Tems logs onto our Zoom meeting from the UK and in her distinct Nigerian accent says “that journey of self-discovery is something that people really don’t want to address.” Born Témìládè Openiyi, she grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and would often write poems as a child. This later turned into songwriting as she pursued her passion for music on the side while attending University in South Africa. After school, she released her very first song (which she also produced) “Mr Rebel” in 2018 and quit her full-time job as a digital marketer in Nigeria to focus on music—it paid off. 

Tems spent 2021 performing at different festivals—Afropunk, Lost In Riddim—along with her first solo tour, she had a feature on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album, a run-in with a fan named Rihanna, and a 2022 Grammy nomination for her feature on Wizkid’s “Essence.” But in a digital age where everyone wants to be seen (choose your fighter: TikTok or Instagram) Tems is unwaveringly focused on herself, not the external world, and the self-discovery she’s referring to began long before she had name recognition.

“I just realized all these sounds [and trends] that come out, they didn’t just come out of air somebody started that and what other people did instead of [finding] their own sound they jumped on it because it’s easier to copy something that exists than to create something of your own.” This realization is what prompted Tems to remove all external influences and not think about what ‘so-and-so’ would do on a song but look inward to find her individual sound. Acknowledging that similarities in music are inevitable she says “there are only seven keys on the piano, there’s going to be repetition of melodies anyway but the fact is how those melodies are used are always very unique when you know who you are.”

Any Tems fan will recognize her powerful singing voice. It’s melismatic and honeyed as she hits even the most difficult of notes. When speaking, her voice is quite calm and stays in one tone enunciating particular words—the speaking equivalent of bold—rather than changing her pitch to emphasize what she’s saying. The strength and calmness when she speaks make her words carry weight as she divulges personal truths outside of her lyrics. From her first EP For Broken Ears to her most recent EP If Orange Was A Place, no two songs sound the same. Her ability to experiment with melodies and genres—while being grounded in the knowledge of who she is—keeps her music dynamic and alluring for listeners. 

There are only seven keys on the piano, there’s going to be repetition of melodies anyway but the fact is how those melodies are used are always very unique when you know who you are.”

There are only seven keys on the piano, there’s going to be repetition of melodies anyway but the fact is how those melodies are used are always very unique when you know who you are.”


Tems acknowledges her sound is always evolving and her explanation for it starts from—you guessed it—within. “I’m always learning, also because my music is based [on] my experiences in life. So what I was experiencing in “Try Me” I’m not experiencing anymore—I’m not angry, I’m not hurt—so all the pain that I was feeling in For Broken Ears I’m not feeling that exact pain anymore because my life is not the same,” says Tems enunciating the words, “not” and “exact”. The parallel between her evolution as a person and her sound further proves why self-discovery is important for individuality as an artist. Because at the end of the day, Tems is not the next Burna Boy or Yemi Alade, her music is reminiscent of…not one artist in particular. 

As Tems said, her first EP was about fighting her own battle—pain, hurt, struggle—and the catharsis of letting it all go and healing. Her follow-up EP is about what comes after healing—rest. Which would take place where? If Orange Was A Place. Both albums are an expression of a time in Tems’ life that has already come and gone but feel relevant to her listeners because they’re about the shared human experience which is timeless. Without touching on new music, Tems can speak on what comes after rest—action and freedom. “To be honest it’s a cycle. You rest, you go through a bunch of things, you feel new feelings that are very uncomfortable and you feel a new type of pain that you never knew you were capable of feeling, and then you have to find a way to heal from that.” As she’s speaking, her previous enunciation clicks for me “I’m not feeling that exact pain anymore,” life is a never-ending cycle of experiences that evoke emotion. The silver lining? It’s completely in your power to turn lemons into lemonade or in Tems’ words “there are new scars that you have to overcome, learn from and also gain joy from.”

While the world scrambles for mental health hacks during a seemingly endless pandemic, Tems seems to have it all figured out. She has three life hacks that keep her grounded and they don’t come from popular social media accounts. “I’m surrounded by people who are grounded first. Second, I always self analyze and [try] to learn,” Tems tells me before saying she doesn’t think too much on anything. As a self-proclaimed overthinker often riddled with anxiety the words “don’t think too much on anything” do not compute with my brain. “If something is making me think too much on it, I let it go because it’s no more authentic, it’s thought out based [on] a feeling that may not be real or valid,” says Tems bringing a sense of calm and clarity to our conversation as I realize extremities are the root of overthinking.

 

You can’t feel pressure if you’re present, you can only feel it if you’re imagining something that hasn’t actually happened or you’re imagining failure.”

For her third and final hack, “I always look at things through the lens of gratitude. It helps me to stay present and really appreciate moments.” It’s this lens that allows her to block out the external pressures of her career and keep her attention on the internal, “you can’t feel pressure if you’re present, you can only feel it if you’re imagining something that hasn’t actually happened or you’re imagining failure.”

Obvious moments of gratitude come to mind thinking of Tems’ last year. Among millions of her fans are Adele and Rihanna, two of the biggest artists in the world. A video surfaced in May 2021 of Adele singing “Try Me” to her and months later in September she met Rihanna at the Savage x Fenty Vol. 3 event. Also captured on video, Rihanna screams “oh my god” before excitedly conversing with Tems. Speaking on those encounters, Tems tells me they mean a lot because she grew up listening to both artists. “Nobody wakes up and thinks I’m going to meet Adele someday or I’m going to meet Rihanna and we’re going to talk. It really is so crazy and it’s such a blessing to meet the people that are inspiring and making a huge impact on the world.” 

The opportunity to connect face-to-face with fans is something Tems is always grateful for and it’s part of why she loves performing, “there’s something about the energy that is indescribable and I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” she says. It also evokes a sense of nostalgia, “I love performances because they take me back to the original feeling I had when I record the song, that moment in time when the song was created and my state of mind.” 

Based on our conversation, I know Tems’ evolution as an artist is intrinsically tied to her personal experiences, and performing brings back all those feels, but where does learning come in? Before releasing “Mr Rebel” she listened to it thousands of times because she wanted it to be perfect. Many releases later, she’s grappled with her inner perfectionist and now has a benchmark saying “what’s important is the message, is the vibe, and as long as the vibe is preserved it’s okay because there’s going to be more songs.” What she says next is not just a good quote but a widely applicable mantra for overcoming self-doubt and finding internal peace. “I have done my best mentally with this song, I accept the flaws, I choose to see the beauty in it and I choose to release it as it is,” says Tems on her mindset when releasing a song.

 

Full of wisdom, Tems’ next literary gift comes while we’re on the topic of manifestation. In a previous interview with Lagos’ The Beat 99.9 FM, she said “once I say something is happening, it just happens” prompting me to ask if speaking things into existence comes from a belief in manifestation or spirituality. Tems tells me the two go hand in hand “manifestation is a real thing but manifestation is spiritual, everything that occurs in the physical is as a result of the spiritual. Me saying something by faith is part of self-discovery, of knowing who you are and owning who you are including your flaws.” The topic of self-discovery creeps back in rightfully so, knowing yourself—not the idealized version of who you’d like to be—is a requirement to believing before seeing. Tems likens manifestation to an unknown gift being behind a door, you don’t know what the gift is but you believe it’s a gift that’s going to change your life, then you open the door and the gift is there. “It’s the knowing of what is behind the door which is always something good and that’s the truth, there is something good in every experience.”

We’ve spent most of our Zoom call discussing Tems’ past experiences but as someone who manifests the future, there has to be something she knows is behind an unopened door. “I will change the way people look at Africa. I will make an impact and help people really in need not just through my music but through the result of my music and my perseverance. I believe other people will rise up and inspire others and I believe that I’m part of this change.” A statement she says to me with faith and pure intention in her words, the knowledge of who she is, and the belief it has already happened. Manifestation along with Tems’ sound, melodies, and life hacks are all tied to her journey of self-discovery teaching me that the most important person to be seen by in life is ultimately yourself.



Photographer: Roderick Ejuetami & Bet Bettencourt


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