“If you know who you are, you get a better perspective of who is around you, who should be around you, of what the world really is, who people really are. And no matter what anybody says, men cannot do anything to you, at the end of the day. Fear is very imaginary, it is really in the mind.”
REPRINT: THE ULTIMATE REBEL. WHY THE NIGERIAN RISING STAR TEMS IS TOUCHING SOULS
The conversation between Sina Braetz and TEMS was first published in the current print issue exploring the discourse around ‚I,‘ which can be found in stores and ONLINE
The world is finally looking at Africa and it is about time. We are seeing it spark with creativity, especially, but not only, in Nigeria. It is not only refreshing, but it challenges us to see, feel and think differently. If you are open to it, it can offer pure healing and old wisdom. This is what I received from the EP “Broken Ears” that the Nigerian artist Tems released last year. And I couldn’t tell if it was her voice, her lyrics or her way of mixing beats that got me most.
When I meet her in Los Angeles, I’m distracted by her Tupac T-Shirt for a second before I see her radiant eyes and warm smile. Tems speaks softly and slowly; her level of reflection shows in the answers she gives. It is her first time in the City of Angels. Her observer mood makes me even more curious to find out more about her. A conversation about how imprisonment can be an amazing experience. Why being present is the key to a higher self. And why love is such a difficult thing.
Sina Braetz: How do you feel being one of the very few emerging female artists coming from Nigeria right now?
Tems: It feels amazing. I feel blessed and really grateful. I never imagined anything like this. And I’m just happy for Nigerian artists as a whole. I think it is really amazing that Nigerian music or African music is taking it to another level.
What would you say makes Nigerian art or music so special and different from other art?
I think it is not just Nigeria, but probably more West Africa. It is the spirituality of the music, it makes you feel and tap into places that a lot of music doesn’t. It goes deep or goes deeper. And even if the words are not deep, the music itself goes deep. You can feel the beat. It makes you want to move.
On your EP you talk about how your mother received this message when she was pregnant with you to name you Temilade, which means “mine is the crown.” Do you feel a higher artistic calling in your life?
Well, I do feel like I’m called to make music, make some impact and help in any way I can. Music is my medium to help. It’s not necessarily going to be the only or final thing. I feel everything I’m doing now is just based on where my spirit has led me and I’m just going with it.
Was there a key moment for your decision to become an artist and leave behind other people’s expectations?
So, I have a devotion: I used to read every day. At that time, I was thinking about my life a lot. I came to the point that I believed I have a gift for a reason because it is so easy and organic for me to make songs. I can literally do it in my sleep. So why am I trying to please people that aren’t going to be here in the next 60 years? At the end of the day, it is my life and when I die, I don’t want to regret doing anything at all. The only time is now; I don’t have any other time.
And so I thought: I’m going to use my gifts for something so my life is not going to be wasted because somebody thought that I should do something based on nothing, based on their own insecurities and their own problems, which is none of my business. What qualifications do you have to guide me on life? You are a human being like me, and you came here like me. You also have insecurities like me and you don’t know what you are doing either. Like me. So, why should you decide what my life turns out to be? I just decided I’m going to do something that really makes a difference for people like me that have gone through things and need healing, need help in any kind of way. It doesn’t even have to be music, [it could be] just being there for people.
“Broken Ears” for sure did that to me, it was pure healing, it is such a wonderful gift you gave to this world.
Oh, thank you so much. That makes me feel really good to know that.
Your fan base refers to itself as rebels. How much of a rebel are you?
Oh, I think I’m definitely the ultimate rebel. I was on the path of going to school, getting a job, getting married, having children, dying, you know? But I’ve been loving and writing songs since I can remember. Why am I doing something that doesn’t make me happy, does not bring any source of fulfillment or does not allow me to make any impact? If I’m just coming into this world and die like I never existed, what’s the point of my existence if I’m not doing something that makes a difference? I broke out of what people thought, distanced myself from people’s opinions. I mean, my family members were like, Why do you do it? It’s really just deciding that you don’t care about what people say, do or think. That’s their business and you should do your thing regardless. And, you know, I’ve been through a lot, I have even been to prison… [laughs]
That was crazy. They put you in prison for violating COVID-19 guidelines after your performance in Uganda. How did you experience that?
It was cool. I mean, I love having new experiences and I met so many amazing women when I was in there. And that was the most important thing: I was able to make some kind of impact while I was in there. That is all that matters to me. The fact that I know what’s going on behind the scenes makes a huge difference, because now I can actually do something about it based on my knowledge. So, it was a very, very eye-opening experience, for sure.
Did you have any idols when growing up? Someone you felt influenced by a lot?
I love Lauryn Hill and I love Aaliyah. Also: Adele and Amy Winehouse.
So, mostly female artists?
No, I listen to a lot of rap, actually. Like Tupac, J. Cole. I’d really love to collaborate with J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar. Drake, maybe.
What is it that you like most about them? What makes a good artist in your opinion?
Someone that has the same process as me, someone that does freedom of expression through music, which is what I feel Lauryn Hill has done with all of her songs I listened to. It was just her vibing and her expressing. And that is kind of what I do as well. I just want to vibe and express purely, it is not preplanned, you just go in. So [true artists, for me, are] people that are real, people that really touch the soul.
What has been your biggest lesson learned so far on your way to becoming an artist?
Always stay true to who you are.
So essential, but not easy. How do you stay true to yourself?
By knowing who I am. If you know who you are, you get a better perspective of who is around you, who should be around you, of what the world really is, who people really are. And no matter what anybody says, men cannot do anything to you, at the end of the day. Fear is very imaginary, it is really in the mind. So once you know who you are, you’re able to remove that fear of opinions or of what other people say, think or do. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. As long as you’re being true to yourself and you’re going by your spirit. I think that there is no other thing better than to live a life of truth.
You put this very beautifully. On the one hand, it is about turning to ourselves again and listening to our inner voice and intuition. On the other hand, there is this idea of going back to communities to find new strength and solutions to problems. What are your thoughts about the latter?
I think if there’s any sign of community, it is more because of a realization that we are actually all in this world as equals together. Anything can happen to anybody. And at the end of the day, if you’re not leading with love, then what are you really doing? What are you living for? So, the idea of communities is good when we realize that we’ve been acting like we’re alone, when we’re really not. I think more can be done when people go into communities. While I believe art is a very personal thing, we as artists all go through most of the same things. When we interact with each other, when we interact with the world, we have this sense of understanding of each other. And we can move in love rather than in fear of what other people think or what they look like.
Do you think we as a society, but also as individuals, have unlearned how to love?
I don’t think we have ever learned how to love to begin with. I don’t think people know or understand what real love is. I believe people think they love, but really they are doing what they think love is. So what they manifest is an idea, not the actual thing. During this special time now, I think some people may have come to understand what love really is and how it looks like. And that is because we have to be present now. We have to face ourselves and see the world. We have to stop whatever we used to do and actually face the world and ourselves.
How would you personally describe love?
Love, to me, is being present, in everything, because that is the only way you can see what people want and need. The thing is, nobody is present. I feel everybody is thinking about what they feel, how they see things, what they want and what is going on in their own mind. But what is really happening is a different story. If you were present, you would see things from a point of true love. The willingness to be and to stay present is what I believe love is. If your parents love you or if you feel like they do – because people say that’s the purest form of love – why is that? It is really because they were present and attentive to your needs, they put you first, before themselves. That is what love is, for me.
A very powerful explanation. What goes hand in hand with love is freedom. What does true freedom mean to you as an individual and also as artist?
I think freedom is being free of insecurities and free of fear and illusions. I believe anything that does not give you joy, anything that makes you feel in negative way, anything that makes you feel worries, doubt, fear, jealousy, sadness, is a pain that you’ve put on yourself. Most of these things shouldn’t exist and they don’t unless you make them. At the end of the day, we really don’t have any control over anything that is going on. So what is not real somehow affects us in different ways and that is just because we are human beings. But there is a more beautiful life when you remove all the negative thoughts you feel on a daily basis to see what is actually going on. To me, that is real freedom. It is seeing past your fears, doubts and insecurities.
How do you see past your fears? How do you remove your negative thoughts?
By being present. When I’m present, anything that I was afraid of is not real, because most times we are afraid of what is going to happen in the future. But, the thing is, nobody actually knows what is going to happen in the future. So, basically, what is happening is that we are afraid of something that we thought of in our minds, which isn’t actually happening in real life. That fear is not real. So what is the point of being afraid? It is our own minds tormenting us. And that is a chain you need to break out of.
Right, it’s a complete waste of energy to live a life of fear.
Exactly. It’s a waste of your imagination – you’re just thinking of things that are not happening in your present moment or you’re thinking about something that already happened and you regret it though it’s already gone. Every day is a new day. You have to treat life as it comes moment by moment, hour for hour, live in that moment. I’m not saying don’t make any plans, but don’t try to predict, because the truth is you can’t – nobody can control it.
In your songs, you talk a lot about your personal experiences and emotions. Is music your therapy, a way to process your emotions?
Absolutely, my music is my therapy. I’ve loved singing, I’ve loved music since I was a child, like at five. I started writing when I was about eleven. And the reason why I made songs was because it was a way for me to express how I was really feeling; I didn’t really know how to talk about it. So, music has always been my therapy, it is basically undiluted thoughts in my mind. I just felt somebody else somewhere might be going through the same thing. Instead of keeping all these songs to myself, why don’t I share them with people that they may feel like they’re not alone? People that may get some kind of healing, hope or courage from this.
What is for you the most healing song of all time?
I really love Peace of Mind by Lauryn Hill.
Such a good one. You are a very spiritual person. Are you religious as well?
I’m not necessarily religious, because that has turned into something else and I don’t know much about different religions. But I do know my relationship with God and I do know my personal experience with him. That, however, didn’t happen in church – it happened in real life. There was no pastor, no pope or any kind of religious person that changed me or did something to me. It was really all about my experiences and just from everything that I faced, I can tell that everything is spiritual, you know? And I think most people do feel things on a spiritual level, but they don’t know what it is when they feel it, they are not aware of it. And so they just think, oh, wow, this is deep. But what are you actually feeling when you have this feeling, this God feeling that you should do something? What is that? When you start to feel present, you see the details and you start to feel things more in depth. And you can tell when something is happening or when something is just weird.
Do you think we can train spiritual knowledge?
I think you can find out more about yourself and on that journey of finding out who you really are, you won’t proceed without you going to God or going to where you came from. You need to find out why you’re here. Then, you start to see things differently. Your perspective will completely change. The only reason why I’m like this is because of the experiences I’ve had in my life. I mean, I’ve literally almost died twice. The way my life moves is just so fast. I could be sitting here and someone can barge in this room and carry me out or take me somewhere and kidnap me, my life is that crazy. It’s like a movie. [laughs]
I’ve seen so many things, so my experiences are the best guide. I try to share it as much as I can, but I think when you start looking for it, it will find you. When you start looking for God, you will find him if you pay attention. If people just paid a bit more attention to their feelings, to their thoughts! I think people just accept their thoughts as what they are, they don’t dive deeper. But, the question is: Where did that thought come from? All is connected. You’ll never find that out if you just accept thoughts based on your feeling. I believe finding out more starts with reading the truth, reading the word or reading things, reading anything.
You said that you almost died twice. What happened?
That was a long time ago, but it was nothing crazy. I basically had near-death accidents twice. The crazy thing is that your life happens very fast. So living in the moment helps to slow things down and makes you appreciate things.
You often describe yourself as very perfectionistic. How helpful and how exhausting and dangerous can that character trait be for an artist?
I’m learning to not be as perfectionistic as I used to be, just because I’ve kind of let go of control a bit. Being a perfectionist is good, but I think that there definitely needs to be a place where you stop. I would stay on a song until I know that it is perfect. When I do freestyle, if you’d play a beat for 24 hours, I’ll create vibes for it until I run out of breath, just because I believe that on one beat, there are so many possibilities that can happen and I always love to explore those possibilities. So, if nobody stops me or if I don’t stop myself, I’m just going to continue until I cannot physically continue anymore. And even when I can’t continue, I’m still hearing the music in my head. You definitely have to find a balance and know where and when to stop or when it’s enough. And, usually, it’s more than enough.
Where do your freestyle sessions happen?
Right now I have a home set-up. I do freestyles there, but I also go to different studios. Anywhere I can create is really where all these things happen. I could even be on the road and someone plays a song that gets me a spark. Then I immediately have to express that idea.
How was collaborating with Wizkid?
It was really good. Wizkid is an awesome person. He’s very cool, very supportive, and that’s what I’ve always respected him for. He’s just so open.
What are your expectations and hopes for this and the next year?
I’m always working on new music, so putting out more is one of my goals. Otherwise, I just want to help more, not only through my music, but I want to actually help women and help people in Nigeria, in Africa. I want to make much more of an impact, but that is not something you would hear about, it is just something I would do.
I wish you only the best for this and everything else. Thank you so much for taking your time. It was so lovely to speak to you.
Thank you so much for having me.
Photographs: Kenneth Cappello
Styling: Dunsin Wright
Hair: Jstay Ready
Makeup: Adam Burrell
Photography Assistant: Tucker Leary