Nigeria’s Tems takes home a Grammy, on her own terms

By Dami Ajayi

Posted on Tuesday, 7 February 2023 15:03
Tems performs onstage during Powerhouse NYC on October 29, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for iHeartRadio/AFP (Photo by Roy Rochlin / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Nigerian singer and songwriter Tems clinched her first Grammy Award at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony held at the Arena in Los Angeles last weekend. It was in the Best Melodic Rap Performance category for ‘Wait for U’, a song by Future featuring her and Canadian rapper Drake.

The three-times-certified platinum record, which debuted at number one on US Billboard Hot 100, samples ‘Higher’ from her EP For Broken Ears. Consequently, she has received the Grammys, America’s most prestigious award for music, for her featured vocals and composition.

Not a stranger to international accolades, Tems has received two NAACP Image Awards, two BET Awards and two Soul Train Music Awards in her short but astonishingly eventful musical career.

She recently earned nominations for Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for her co-writing credits on Rihanna’s ‘Lift Me Up’. If she clinches either of these awards, she will be the first Nigerian woman to be so decorated.

First grammy

Her first Grammy nomination was for her dazzling vocal performance on Wizkid’s sleeper-hit single ‘Essence’ in the newly debuted Best Global Music Performance category. Although ‘Essence’ lost that award to Pakistani Arooj Aftab, it remains one of the biggest Afrobeats songs globally and unarguably Tems’ foot in the door to the international musicscape.

When 27-year-old Lagos-born Temilade Openiyi quit her day job in full pursuit of her musical career in 2018, she probably did not anticipate this meteoric rise. She taught herself music production by watching YouTube videos, produced her first single ‘Mr Rebel’ in the same year and has summarily not looked back.

With two well-received EPs — For Broken Ears (2020) and If Orange Was a Place (2021) — in relatively scanty discography, her trajectory has been a brisk ascent to stardom with ceiling-shattering accomplishments and a nod to the maxim, less is more. For an artist who has courted the laidback ethos of the alternative music scene, the road less travelled, in the male-dominated testosterone-driven Afrobeats industry, Tems is the unlikely chanteuse to have blown into the stratosphere.

Hard work + talent

Her accomplishment is a chain reaction of hard work, igniting talent and a smidgen of luck, but it has also not been without its low moments. In December 2020, Tems, alongside fellow Nigerian musician Omah Lay, were arrested for contravening Covid-19 protocols while performing at an unauthorised concert in Kampala, Uganda. They were both arraigned before the court and remanded in police custody for about two days before diplomatic interventions repatriated them back home. Last weekend, Tems wore a gorgeous white cut-out dress at the Roc Nation Pre-Grammys brunch in LA, hobnobbing with the power couple Jay-Z and Beyonce.

Writer and music critic, Saratu Abiola, is ecstatic about Tems’ accomplishments. She tells The Africa Report: “This award is amazing for a few reasons, such as the fact that she’s released only two EPs, is [a] relatively new artist still, and doesn’t even have a full-length album yet; but for me, what’s really remarkable about Tems’ win is that she did it by being herself.

She did not come out making music for the clubs, or even courting major mainstream collaborations. She was very much part of the alternative crowd before Wizkid brought her on for a collaboration on ‘Essence’. After putting her indelible stamp on that hit, her story has been one of taking the current when it serves. You can see someone who knows a good opportunity and always seems to rise to the occasion. I can’t wait to see what she does from here.”

…the naysayers

Expectedly there are naysayers on social media. To them, Tems’ accomplishments seem blown out of proportion. Several tweets have debunked the claim that Tems is the “first Nigerian female musician” to clinch a Grammy award. Some have argued that Nigerian-born British singer and lead singer of her eponymous band, Sade, who received the Best New Artist award in 1986, holds the coveted first place. Others have submitted that Yemi Alade featured on Angelique Kidjo’s Grammy-winning album Mother Nature, earned a “Grammys Award by association” last year.

Regardless of the polarising responses to awards, especially among fans invested in petty rivalry and mischief, Tems’ Grammy win last weekend is a spell of good things to come for female musicians in the Nigerian music scene. Since the 60s, often dubbed the Golden Era of music in West Africa, women have been underserved, undermined and underrepresented in the creative space, particularly in show business.

Thankfully, Tems’ swift rise is neither an isolated event nor a flash in the pan. She leads a cohort of new women singers, including Ayra Starr, Amaarae, Fave, and Guchi, poised for the global stage and smashing the status quo on their terms.

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