Her voice has constantly been blaring out of car sound systems for nearly two years straight with not one, but two summer anthems now under her belt (just try to escape her ubiquitous chorus for Drake’s “Wait For U”/her live performance of 2020 solo single “Higher”). But despite multiple Grammy nominations, historic high-ranking Billboard placements, and slots on every major concert festival of 2022, for the most part, Tems remains an enigma.
The Nigerian songbird, whose soothing deep-register vocals have earned her both Soul Train Music honors and a BET award, has remained largely private and away from blog fodder – a rarity for other 27-year-olds in the industry. In our social-media-heavy age, few artists are so omnipresent yet still such a mystery to fans and admirers. Yet, Tems has managed to remain somewhat of an enigma, while still baring the most intimate parts of her soul and sharing deeply personal lived experiences.
“All my music, actually it’s not something that I ‘try’ to do,” Tems told ESSENCE exclusively. “Music is my therapy. It was my first way of expressing myself.”
The songstress says that as a child, she had trouble expressing herself verbally – at least in ways that would resonate with others. But through song, she was able to easily navigate her emotions and work through issues.
“When I was much younger, if someone tells me off [for instance], I mostly wouldn’t be able to say anything because I wouldn’t be able to articulate how I feel. So instead, I would go and make a song about it. And that was my only way to express how I felt about that certain situation.”
“It’s [just] now that I’m getting used to articulating my words in a way that other people can understand.”
Understanding is an understatement. Millions have become enamored not only with her hypnotic vocals, but her expressive tone and pensive lyrics. Tems admits that she was initially a bit taken aback by the manner in which her songs resonate with fans. Accustomed to singing to and for herself for many years, her innermost thoughts and feelings bringing catharsis to the masses is a welcomed surprise.
“Before, I used to think I was alone. I think the more people connect to it, the more it makes me feel like I’m not as alone as I thought I was. I’m not as weird as I initially thought, and there are people that can feel me on this level because they feel something similar to that as well.”
Tems’ subdued demeanor belies the fast-paced life she’s been living for the last 18 months. Since her single with Wizkid, “Essence,” placed her name and unique voice on the map, she’s been doing near-constant shows across the globe, press, and appearances, with a steadily rising profile and increased recognition. It’s a heavy rotation that could overwhelm even the most outgoing individual. But with all the madness swirling around her and pulling her in multiple directions, Tems somehow remains a still calm eye in the storm.
“I think I’ve found my feet, and I’m comfortable in myself,” she says of the rapid change in her life. “And, I think that’s what matters because I feel like every new challenge, every new thing that happens just gives me an opportunity to strengthen myself and go dive even deeper into who I am.”
“I feel like once you know who you are and your foundation is strong, you are pretty much unshakeable. So, just creating that environment of peace and positivity is really how I move through everything.”
But she acknowledges that that confidence in her purpose and surefootedness in who she is did not come naturally. Like anything else she has tackled – singing, production, performance, all of her creative endeavors – her positive calm self-assuredness has taken diligent work.
“Life and work, anything that you really want to do in life, I feel like requires work; self-work, self-development. And it just depends on how bad you want it. I really love music, and I’m able to get over my fears, and my doubts, insecurities because I see the bigger picture.”
“I feel like that’s what’s important – just getting over a lot of things that society may have told you, just for the fact that most of it is illusionary. It’s illusions and imagination because you are who you want to be, to be honest. You are who you think you are.”
Her latest endeavor, a partnership with Coca-Cola to help launch their global digital music initiative, Coke Studio, is one of several ways in which Tems is spreading that very message. Most recently, she appeared in The Conductor, a short film featuring Tems alongside artists from all over the globe – Ari Lennox, Griff, Tesher, Mariah Angeliq, TRI.BE and Ekin Beril – singing their own unique cultural interpretations of “A Kind of Magic” by Queen. She also created exclusive content for the Coke Studio platform.
“I feel like it’s sending a strong message when you bring artists from all over the world, this unity, and this amazing magical campaign,” she said of the Coke Studio partnership. “To be a part of that is really great because it’s more evident that things are happening.” Take a look at The Conductor below:
Coca-Cola will also play an active role across the North American music landscape this summer, sponsoring top music festivals like ESSENCE Festival of Culture and delivering 100 days of prizing.
Tems says she loved having the opportunity to learn more about Queen, Freddie Mercury, and the spirit of the music that unified millions in their day, which she hopes can have the same effect now.
“I hope I did it justice and the spirit is alive,” she said. “And that’s what I think is important, maintaining that spirit.”