Even Fame & Stardom Can’t Take Away Tems’ Peace of Mind

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Hearing Tems speak is as soothing as hearing her sing. 

During our 20-minute conversation, you realize how cerebral and calculated the Afrobeats singer is. She doesn’t rush to answer questions: She pauses and then gingerly paces her way through until she reaches the goal line. Even when she encounters a less-weighty topic, such as remixing a song of choice, she lingers — before cueing up a response that makes you want to join in on the action and jam alongside her down Oxford Street. 

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“I would choose Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’ or ‘No Woman Don’t Cry,’ because those are one of my favorites,” she says reassuringly. “I’m in London right now, so ‘Is This Love’ is the best song to listen to when walking down any street in London. You should try it whenever you’re here, just to try it. Listening to Bob Marley in London is the best thing you can do.” 

With the release of her first two EPs, 2020’s For Broken Ears and 2021’s If Orange Was a Place, Tems’ lovelorn ballads and reflective records have steadily brought fans together over the last two years. Despite a slow start, “Free Mind” gained steam stateside this year and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Afrobeats Songs Chart. Another fan-favorite, “Higher” — from the same 2020 set — fueled Future’s Hot 100 chart-topper “Wait For U” this spring, after the track’s producer ATL Jacob sampled the song. 

After a splashy 2021 campaign where Tems earned her first Hot 100 top 10 hit as a feature artist on Wizkid’s “Essence,” and later made a guest appearance on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy album, Coca-Cola enlisted the singer alongside six other breakthrough acts around the world, including R&B star Ari Lennox, for the release of “The Conductor.” Tems alongside Lennox, Griff, Tesher, Mariah Angeliq, TRI.BE and Ekin Beril helped launch Coke Studio by reimagining Queen’s 1986 single “A Kind of Magic.”

“It was really cool,” says Tems of the shoot. “I didn’t meet [Ari Lennox] during the Coke thing, but I met her during one of the shows I had when I went to DC. The whole thing was really, really good. It was new, and I learned a lot.”

Billboard chatted with Tems about dealing with stardom, maintaining her peace, taking risks on her debut album, and the pressure of living up to her name. 

You recently had a performance at the Somerset House, which you called “a transformative night.” After sitting out a few weeks with vocal issues, what made that night so special for you?

Well, I’ve never felt more connected with my fans like that before. It just felt like we were all in one room and it was a lot of people, but it felt like we might as well have been in a big ass living room, just vibing. I really felt like that experience [and] the presence was just incredibly intense. I haven’t let go so much as I did before that day in terms of performing. [I] was just being me and not thinking about things too much or thinking about anything too much. We were just really enjoying it and living in the moment. I think I was super present throughout the whole thing and everyone was present with me. I think that’s what really made it transformative — and I just stopped doubting in general. Whatever little doubts I had before that day is completely gone. It’s non-existent.

I read that your name in Yoruba means, “Mines is the crown.” How did you learn to settle in with the pressure of living up to your name and do you remember that crowning moment of in your career?

Not exactly. I just felt like I was born this way. I’m definitely settling more into just being known — but in terms of the meaning of my name and in terms of being a queen, being royalty, or my name being “The crown is mine,” I think that’s just always been in knowing [that]. It’s not something that I had to like [live up to] or settle into, it’s just something that I know, and it’s not even a thing of bragging or anything like that. Even if I don’t want to be that, it’s just a kind of thing where I found myself. I’m just me. I’m always going to be the best at what I do — at being me and doing the thing that I do. That’s it.

But I am settling into being known, and someone that has done something without knowing the full impact of what that is. I can’t go to the grocery store. I mean, I can, but I can’t just do that “trying to act like a normal person” [thing] anymore. I can’t just roll out of bed and say, “Oh yeah, I’m sure it’s going to be fine if I go to the mall and I just walk around. Nothing’s going to happen.” There’s always someone that recognizes me now, and that’s where I’m getting it. Apart from that, it’s always something I’ve known.

Isn’t online shopping great? You can just stay inside and order whatever you want.

I still can go out, I just go out with the knowledge of who I am. I’m not naïve, or I’m not like, “Oh, you know, I’m not sure.” I’m very aware, like, “OK.” Even if something happens or someone sees me… like the other day, I went out to hang out with my friend’s daughter. She’s a baby and we went to this ice cream place. While I was feeding her, someone came to get a picture and they literally waited for me to drop her. They didn’t leave. They were like, “Well, I know you’re having family time, but please, let’s get a picture?” I was like, “Um, I mean…” I basically had to drop her to take a picture. That’s just how it is. It’s all about being aware and being OK with it, which is fine. I think it’s to be expected, to be honest.

Though “Free Mind” came out in 2020, it resurfaced as a hit earlier this year — and the one line I continue to see on social media is “This is peace that you cannot buy.” How have you been able to maintain your peace as your star power continues to grow?

I think I try to keep the essence of who I am, and my whole journey started with a decision that I made based off [what] God was telling me. God is a very huge factor in my life. It’s really just the fact of my life, and when things change drastically, you can’t rely on who you were. You can’t just be like, “Oh, I’m fine.” You have to work on yourself as you see things changing, because there’s going to be things coming at you. There’s going to be people coming at you, and you become a target until you develop yourself.

That’s what I do. I’m always learning. I’m like, “Oh. What do I need to learn today? Why am I acting this way? It’s because of this.” If I’m not comfortable with something, I go into it. I don’t just brush it off. I’m like, “No. I need to find out exactly what this is.”

If there’s something that I see and can’t do… I hate knowing I can’t do something. I’m always like, “Nope. I have to find a way to do this thing that seems like I can’t do.” So I read a lot of books. I talk to a lot to the people around me. I work on my relationships. I work on my mental. Just being honest. You have to work on just being honest as a human being for you to be sane. You can’t inflate your ego. You can’t purposely do that. I mean, you can, but eventually, you’re going to crash.

So you have to continue maintaining an awareness of exactly who you are. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s just maintaining an awareness of, “OK. I am good at what I do. I am the best at what I do. I am also a human being, so I am prone to doing certain things. I didn’t magically transform into a God overnight, but I am going to be the best I can possibly be in this life. I’m not discrediting the fact that I’m still human and I still need to always work on myself and stay present.”

You’re also a risk-taker. What risks have you taken so far when putting together your debut album?

One risk that I’m definitely taking is being patient, and seeing things through. I know that won’t sound like a risk — but it is easier to rush into things, and it is much easier to just be like, “OK, I want to do this now,” and release everything. But I’m really taking my time, and I’m not thinking about what people would necessarily say. I’m not really thinking about the music, how I feel and how I see my world right now. I’m also just being more open in general to everything. I don’t really know about genres like that — I’m just making music.

Congrats on landing that Hot 100 No. 1 with Future’s “Wait For U.” The song samples your 2020 song “Higher” and I wonder, do you have a deeper appreciation for that song now after the success of “Wait For You”?

No. I’ve always appreciated “Higher” before people appreciated “Higher.” It’s a song that I wrote maybe four years ago. Every song that I ever released, I know the true value and meaning of that song to me — because these songs are very personal. I appreciate that more people are hearing it and are connected to it, but in terms of having a deeper sense of appreciation, I feel like for this song itself, it hasn’t changed. I think I’ve always I had a deep appreciation for that song.

“Free Mind,” “Higher” and even Wizkid’s “Essence” took a while to gain traction on a mainstream level, but once it did, you earned a lot of new fans. What are your thoughts on the people jumping on the Tems wave at this point in the game?

I think it’s great. It’s life. I think sometimes when you release something, you just get a few that catch on to it, and then it takes something else for somebody to be like, “Oh, what’s happening here?” It’s nothing that I can do really. I appreciate that more people are listening. I can only just continue releasing music and doing what I do best. I don’t really have any reservations. Like, why would I have any reservations to new people listening to music? [Should] I be like, “NO! My music is for the people that found me earlier only. Don’t listen to me.” [Laughs.] Why would I do that? I’m grateful the message is being spread in many ways. It’s amazing.

You’ve always had a DIY mentality since your first record, “Mr. Rebel,” where you made the track from scratch and produced it yourself. Do you still have that mentality in the studio, or have you loosened the reins and allowed people to help you out from a songwriting and production standpoint?

I mean, I’m not going to lie, it’s been so hard for me to let go. I still want to do everything myself — and I still try. So what I do now is, I do everything that I can possibly still do by myself. When it comes to production, I’m still producing. I’m still trying to learn how to become a better producer. I’m still wanting to record myself. I travel with a whole setup myself, because I like to do things myself. Now, I’m too used to [that process to] just be like, “Let me let everything go.”

I did try that, though. I did try letting everything go. I think I was very much looser with my last EP If Orange Was A Place. I didn’t produce any of the songs off there. I didn’t record myself. Like I said, I don’t like when it feels like something that I can’t do. I was like, “I need to dare myself to loosen up. I need to know that I can do it. I need to try at least. I need to at least see that I’m not so tight.” I tried it. And that’s why you try things, so you can see and compare like, “I tried this and I believe that I’m still the best person to do the things that I want.” Now, I’m still very much involved in everything.

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