Tems on Her Debut Album, ’Born in the Wild,’ Home in Nigeria, & Finding Her Voice


“Nobody can understand the food,” the Nigerian songbird Tems tells me, beaming. “Plantain and eggs, this bean stew called ewa riro, and this really soft, dense bread called agege. It’s to die for!” As one of the most streamed African female artists in the world, and one of the leaders of a new wave of African pop that has swept the globe, Tems no longer gets to spend much time eating her favorite dishes in her hometown of Lagos. “Home is where the heart is, and my heart is within me,” she replies coolly when I ask if life on the road is difficult. “I am home now—wherever I am is home.”

At the time of our Zoom call, Tems is in Los Angeles, preparing for her upcoming Coachella performance. The week after we speak, it makes numerous headlines. With voluminous, billowing hair and a formfitting black sequined gown, Tems channeled both Diana Ross and Cher during her show at the festival’s Mojave Tent. When it came time to sing her breakout hit, “Essence,” she delivered not one but two surprises: Her first collaborator, Wizkid, appeared onstage, followed minutes later by the lately rarely seen Justin Bieber, who was featured on the track’s remix. The crowd erupted when Bieber serenaded his verse to Tems, as she danced in the brightly colored fog with an amused and satisfied smile before singing back to him her unforgettable lyric: “You don’t need no other body.”

Tems wears a Khaite jacket and earrings.

Most Americans have likely heard Tems on the radio, if not thanks to the aforementioned summer anthem, then on Drake’s “Fountains” or Future’s “Wait for U,” for which she won a Grammy for Best Melodic Rap Performance. But a 13-second window during the outro of her track “Free Mind”—which broke the record for the longest-running No. 1 song by a female artist on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart—might be the best example of her talent. Exactly three minutes and 23 seconds into the song, Tems sings, “I might be falling deep” four times. With each repetition, she slightly alters the melody, cadence, and intensity of her delivery and, in doing so, conveys what feels like the full spectrum of human emotion: self-doubt, loss, agony, triumph, gratitude, and euphoria. With the same effortlessness, her sound traverses soul, jazz, pop, dancehall, R&B, hip-hop, and Afrobeats.

Tems is a self-professed introvert, but she has found a way to calm her pre-festival nerves. “I don’t have time to overthink anymore. The solution to overthinking is to get busy, and these days I work until I am physically falling asleep,” she tells me. In conversation, Tems carries herself with a level of self-assurance that feels almost regal. She is on the cusp of another major career moment: releasing her first full-length album, Born in the Wild. While she has remained tight-lipped about the details—the track list, guest features, and so on—the few songs she did share are airy, elevated earworms destined to appear on “Summer 2024” playlists around the world. There’s a breeziness to this new era of Tems that feels ideal for cinematic sunsets and road trips down coastlines.

Burberry dress; Marli New York earrings and bracelets.

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Tems, 29, was born in Lagos to a British-Nigerian father and a Nigerian mother, who named her Temilade—which means “the crown is mine” in Yoruba. After a few years in the U.K., her parents separated, and Tems moved back to Lagos with her mother. She has described herself as a quiet child, and music soon became a passion and source of solace. Although her mother played Christian music at home, Tems eventually got her hands on a Destiny’s Child CD, which she studied as if it were the Rosetta stone. Last year, she opened up about the challenges she faced as a woman with a lower-register voice, which she and her bullies believed to be manly and unbecoming. Despite spending most of her teenage years attempting to sing in falsetto, eventually, at the urging of a cherished music teacher, she embraced her authentic tone. “I started to want that deepness. I wanted to lean into my weirdness,” she has said. Now the velvety, androgynous quality of her voice is one of the things that makes her so immediately recognizable and so impossible to impersonate.

When she was a college student, Tems reached out to many Nigerian producers, but they were not interested in helping to engineer the hybrid sound she was chasing: something more introspective, melancholic, and complex than the joyful and jubilant sounds of Afrobeats, which dominate Nigerian charts. Using Internet tutorials and Logic software, Tems learned how to record and produce in her dorm room, and in 2018 she shared her track “Mr Rebel” with the world. The release attracted a loyal following and interest from radio DJs, and resulted in her first management contract.

Diesel top, skirt, and scarf; Cartier earrings and ring.

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Not long after came “Know Your Worth,” a collaboration with Khalid, Disclosure, and Davido. Before she knew it, “Essence” ended up on Barack Obama’s 2020 annual playlist. Then Beyoncé’s team was knocking on her door, asking for a collaboration on Renaissance (Tems is featured, along with Grace Jones, on “Move”). She quickly established herself as one of the most distinctive forces in global pop. “What I’m trying to do,” she said in 2022, “or what I hope that god does through me, is change the image of the African woman to be something luxurious, or desired, or sought after. For the demand of the African woman to go up.… Let us not be chasing foreign things; let us be something to be chased.”

With the advent of TikTok and Reels, the music industry has been irrevocably altered by the attention economy. Artists are told by managers and major labels that their primary task is to capture people’s focus in the shortest amount of time possible, and to hold it for as long as they can. The rise of Gen Z has also seen the triumph of the relatable superstar: figures who are flawed, unfiltered, candid, and easy to identify with, for people still figuring out who they are. But one of the most interesting things about Tems is that there is almost nothing easily relatable about her. Her songwriting is mature, literary, and spiritual, and her cathartic melodies—many of which are freestyled—seem to pour out of her innermost psyche. Her music and visuals are an ode to everything that Internet culture seems to be eradicating: nuance, patience, depth, and an ability to see beyond the self.

Tems wears a Khaite jacket and earrings.

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For Born in the Wild, Tems wrote and produced many of the tracks herself. “It’s definitely more expansive,” she said of the record. “You know that Lion King song?” she asked rhetorically, before singing the lyric: “I just can’t wait to be free!” She claimed it’s been stuck in her head for the past six months. “That’s what I’m most looking forward to right now: sharing this story and being free.”

Hair by Nikki Nelms for KISS Haircare at the Only Agency; makeup by Marcelo Gutierrez for MAC Cosmetics at Bryant Artists; manicure by Honey for UN/DN LAQR at Exposure NY. Set design by Jenny Correa at Walter Schupfer Management.

Photo Assistants: Jimmy Kim, Margaret Fitzgerald; Digital Technician: Jordan Zuppa; Fashion Assistants: Amir La Sure, Ashley Lambert; Hair Assistants: Ikeyia Powell, India Williams; Makeup Assistant: Aya Iwakami; Tailor: Lindsay Wright.



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