TEMS: THE JOURNEY SEEKING HER HUMANITY
I first heard of the unique voice of Nigerian-born singer Tems after listening to her feature on WizKid’s 2020 album, Made in Lagos. In the song Essence, Tems is the first lyric of English we hear, a deep and hearty voice entering the song with force and intention. After hearing the song several times and quite easily dominating as my favorite song on the album, I decided to research more about this up-and-coming artist. According to her biography, Tems (full name is Temilade Openiyi) grew up in a family that prioritized education, with that taking precedent as the only route for true upward mobility. After making efforts to purposely miss enrollment and deadlines, her mother forced her to attend university in South Africa. It was then at school that she was inspired to write the 2016 song Try Me, a song of pain, sorrow, and determination involving a “destructive love”. Through further research, I was led to her latest EP released in 2020 entitled For Broken Ears. This analysis will further look into the background of such a symbolic EP and how it pertains to better understand the identities and signifiers within the African Diaspora.
In an interview with Atwood Magazine, Tems says she commemorates her EP for those who have “hard hearts that are about to turn into stone; people that forget they’re human.” With her voice and her stylistic features, she pieces the EP to guide healing and support for her listeners. This method of healing for those not being seen or understood or visible is one of the first key themes that allow individuals, typically about communities of color, to see themselves.
We can argue that during her painful time at university, she was placed in her own Panopticon, a space of surveillance through the lens of a disciplinarian power (that is furthermore surveilled by her mother and others to be the best student) and disciplined enough to reach her greatest potential. Through navigating school, she was able to be released from her hypervisibility to allow the future listeners of her music to truly be seen and visible as well. In other words, when she was freely able to focus on her music, she was also able to challenge how her identity is viewed through the lens of white supremacy. Perhaps she felt as if she was not a human being forced to attend school, and cultivated a piece for those experiencing similar forms of hypervisibility. Although her entire EP touches on this concept, we can see it vividly through Free Mind on the EP:
And behind my mind, it runs
All these thoughts have troubled me
Fighting to give up my pain
Fighting to be on my lane
My mind running to the other side
When it's time to live my life
Then it tries to take me out
Tell you what I need right here
Here we can see how she is pleading to be released from her hypervisibility, to be her person in her own lane. She follows this pattern of recounting her pains and hurt to help others, and inevitably, seek new healing for herself. She further confirms this claim by admitting that this EP has discovered what she has been through and a newfound perspective within her life.
In regards to the more internal logistics of her EP, Tems serves as the lead producer and songwriter. According to interviews, self-producing further allowed her to express herself deeper, and personally connect to her songs and their meanings. Other producers mentioned in her EP include Omeiza, Oddio, and Spax. Through deeper research, all producers have symbolic names and meanings tied to the Nigerian Diaspora.
Spax is a household name in Nigeria. Omeiza is also derived from an African origin, meaning “someone that gives freely.” This UK Afrobeat music producer was likely the mastermind behind much of Tems’ unique sounds on the EP. I argue that through his contributions, he too allowed for listeners to be free through his namesake of giving freely. Finally, Oddio is a duo production team composed of Tejiri Akpoghene and David Owolabi. All producers mentioned have some sort of personal connection to the Nigerian influence and perhaps, can further contend to the feelings that Tems carefully place throughout her EP.
Needless to say, Tems has a voice like none other. She is not a Nigerian utilizing Afrobeats, but a charismatic and unapologetic soul geared to help and heal other souls that share similar experiences. While some songs on the EP have music videos, the EP is descriptive enough in its words and flow. And although this granted her a perspective on her life, it also released a gateway for Black listeners like myself and served as a method to seek my own humanity.