The Essence of Tems

Despite not having an album out, Nigerian musician Tems is a global superstar who continues to rise "Higher."

The Essence of Tems
Chiamaka Muoneke
Chiamaka Muoneke
November 29, 20235 min read
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From a very young age, Nigerian artist Tems (born Temilade Openiyi) knew she had a connection with music, but she didn’t take steps toward building her outstanding music career until her early 20s. Her voice, which was formerly one of her biggest insecurities, is now the root of her success. GQ South Africa describes her voice as “deep,” “velvety,” and “androgynous,” while The FADER calls her “one of her country’s shining stars with a voice that’s hard to resist.”

The singer and songwriter was just another aspiring artist who shared snippets of her self-produced songs on Instagram, until she caught the attention of the public in 2019 when she released her first hit song, “Try Me,” which has since garnered over 21 million Spotify streams. The track featured a unique sound that successfully blended Nigerian R&B, Afropop, and Reggae, showing Tems’ versatility and ability to combine multiple genres into a single well-executed song. 

Global Recognition 

Her international breakthrough came when she was featured in Wizkid's — one of Africa’s biggest artists — hit song, “Essence.” The song became a new Tiktok trend, used in over 271k videos. Many feature a specific line sung by Tems where the lyrics are a bit unclear, with users creating deliberate mondegreens in creative and relatable posts. 

@garthchocolate FINALLY 😅 #fypシ #TalkCurlyToMe #SmartfoodClub #essence #wizkid #fy #lyrics ♬ Essence (feat. Tems) - Wizkid

Although originally released in October of 2020 (just a month after she dropped her first EP, For Broken Ears), “Essence” experienced a huge surge in popularity following the August 2021 release of the remix featuring Justin Beiber. It went from 34.2 million total streams to nearly twice that at 65.4 million streams in the three months after the remix was released. Her fan base was growing at a steady pace, and fans eagerly awaited her next moves.

The song was a global phenomenon, reaching No. 1 on the Apple Music charts in 11 countries. Wizkid and Tems also won numerous awards for the track, including the 2022 BET Award for Best Collaboration. This made Tems became the first and only Nigerian female artist to win a BET Award (she also won Best International Act that same night). It was such a big hit that it was listed as the best song of 2021 by Rolling Stone and was on former President Obama’s annual list of his favorite songs in 2020. In addition, “Essence” reached No. 64 on the US Billboard Hot 100, 195 on the Billboard Global 200, and No. 1 on the US Billboard Afrobeats Song chart. The global hit was also nominated at the 64th Grammy Awards for Best Global Music Performance

"Crazy Tings" Are Happening 

Growingly increasingly popular and in high demand by the day, Tems was tapped by Drake, who has two hit songs with Wizkid, to appear on “Fountains,” an Afrobeats-inspired track on his September 2021 studio album, Certified Lover Boy. The song, which would once again land Tems on the Billboard charts, has since received that garnered 137 million streams on Spotify. Later that month, it was announced that she signed to Radio Corporation of America (RCA) Records, a label that is home to famous artists such as Britney Spears, Doja Cat, and H.E.R. This was also the same day she released her second EP, If Orange Was A Place, which included the track “Crazy Tings,” the origin of the viral meme phrase, “Crazy tings are happening/‘appening.”

Along with Drake, she was also featured by Future on the melodic rap song, “WAIT FOR U,” which sampled Tems’ song “Higher” from her first EP. With over 658 million Spotify streams, and over 400k posts on TikTok, thanks to its virality in mid-2022, “WAIT FOR U” sold over 500k units, becoming the fastest collaboration of 2022 to achieve that feat. Its TikTok virality is attributed to the sentimental lyrics that resonated with people in love, such as Tems’, “If the world was ending, would you cry or would you try to get me?” Additionally, following the song’s April 2022 release, streams for “Higher” grew rapidly as listeners wanted to hear the original track sampled by Future. “WAIT FOR U” won multiple awards, and allowed Tems to break records by being the first African female artist to reach No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart

Tems would go on to cover Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” for the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack. Her soulful rendition of the 1974 reggae classic reached 17.3 million streams on Spotify and brought many fans to tears when used in the movie’s teaser honoring the late Chadwick Boseman. She also won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding International Song for her cover. She and Rihanna co-wrote the first track of the album, “Lift Me Up,” and was described by composer/producer Ludwig Göransson as one of his first choices for artists to contribute to the soundtrack.  

With only a handful of tracks released and no album out, Tems has achieved extraordinary success. Currently ranked as the 552nd top artist in the world by Chartmetric score, which is an aggregate of various measures of success, her global audience is huge and continues to grow: she has 1.32 million followers and 14.72 million monthly listeners on Spotify, 5.21 million Instagram followers, 740k YouTube subscribers, and 591.3k TikTok followers. A huge part of her international breakthrough can be attributed to her collaborations with famous artists. For example, she was also featured on Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning album RENAISSANCE on the track “MOVE,” alongside the legendary Grace Jones. 

The First of Her Kind

Afrobeats as a genre is still under-recognized on a global level — only recently was it added as a category at the VMAs — and, worst still, African female artists do not receive equal representation locally. In the recently concluded Headies Award, one of the biggest music awards in Nigeria, the Best Female Artist category was presented backstage as opposed to being announced on stage like the other categories, which already had an alarming ratio between male and female artists’ nominations. Women in this space have had to work harder to achieve the same recognition as their male counterparts, and it is the work of pioneers like Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade that has paved the way for newer artists like Tems. This has enabled her to achieve a superstar level of career success within only five years of her budding career and without a single album out. 

Another female artist whose rise to fame can be closely compared to that of Tems is Ayarr Starr who is on track to release her sophomore album. Perhaps, both artists' quick and steady rise to fame can be attributed to the popularity of social media and streaming platforms that give new artists a wider audience and bigger opportunities, but Tems still stands out from all her peers in the Nigerian music industry, the biggest music industry in Africa. She received the 2022 Future Awards Africa for her contribution to shaping the narrative of Africa’s progress, and the BMI Impact Award in London for “her groundbreaking artistry, creative vision and impact on the future of music.” With a total of 84 nominations, and 32 wins for various awards since 2019, with just two EPs and a handful of singles and features out, Tems has earned her title as one of Africa’s biggest music stars, and she is only going to rise higher from here. 

Data as of Nov. 29, 2023.