As a teenage loner in Lagos, Temilade Openiyi immersed herself in Kate Bush, Green Day and poetry. She’s now one of Nigeria’s few female music producers and a globally famous vocalist
Essence, a melancholy yet feelgood anthem released last October by Wizkid, has belatedly emerged as one of the songs of 2021, gradually dominating global streaming charts – further aided by Justin Bieber’s patronage on a remix. But the track’s success is owed to a less familiar voice: the disarmingly immersive, coursing melodies of the chorus vocalist, the Nigerian singer, songwriter and producer Tems, AKA 26-year-old Temilade Openiyi.
Since 2018, local hits Mr Rebel, Try Me and the striking EP For Broken Ears have earned her prominence from within her country’s “alté” scene, an alternative music and fashion subculture that has both chafed against and flirted with the mainstream. Now, the stunning reach of Essence has been transformative. “I’m living in surprise – I just wake up and get surprised every day,” she says in a characteristically mellow voice on a video call from Lagos. The fandom of stars including Alicia Keys and Chris Brown on social media was topped only by bumping into Adele in LA. “She was singing Try Me and saying she’s heard me from Mr Rebel and I was like: what?”