Black women have always stood at the center of all musical movements in this world. From as early as Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, to Betty Davis and Donna Summer, they’ve created and contributed to the direction of Rock, Soul, Disco, Hip-Hop and R&B even when their impact wasn’t acknowledged or respected.
The revival of Black music that’s coming from the United Kingdom and the continent of Africa with “Afrobeat” is a continuation of that culture, which began with Fela Kuti, but is now reaching its highest levels with artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, and now TEMS. Born Temilade Openiyi, the singer’s guest appearance on Wizkid’s song “Essence” in 2021 brought her international fame, and her guest appearances on Drake and now Future’s albums have led to her becoming the first Nigerian artist to have a song debut number one on the Billboard Top 100.
TEMS first came on my radar in 2020 during the pandemic. I heard her 2019 song, “Try Me” and was drawn in by the uniqueness of her tone and her look. Her features immediately reflected her African heritage and when I did more research, I found out she was a part of a wave of Nigerian artists making “alte” or alternative music for the next generation. As polished as she is, TEMS still operated in a field and in a country where male artists and in this case black male artists dominate the landscape. Tiwa Savage, the first African artist to win Best African Act at Europe’s Music Award was the biggest female African artist on the planet at one point, and despite it all, still found herself marginalized behind her male counterparts.
TEMS climb to the top resembles Tiwa’s in some ways. She too has to solidify her presence in an industry that capitalizes on women’s beauty while also trying to hypersexualize them. But then that’s what makes TEMS story so different. Despite how over-sexualized music is right now, TEMS’ music and her biggest singles play the middle, embracing her natural beauty while also centering the attention on her lyrics and vocal range. Songs like “Free Mind”, and “The Key” focus on the struggles of self-doubt and self-care while her 2020 and 2021 album covers centers the listener on the most important person which is her. Her career has shown how talent and authenticity steer listeners toward artists and drives the artists toward success.
Her appearance on Drake’s 2021, Certified Lover Boy, on “Fountains” carries on the tradition of The 6 God’s collabs with Afrobeats the way he did with Wizkid, but beyond that, it added to the fire she generated that year. All of her guest appearances along with her EP proved powerful, but in the end, she got her biggest success from a sample of one of her solo performances on Genius’s Open Mic segment. In roughly 30 seconds, TEMS used her voice to catapult listeners to a different place.
From there, Future, who recently dropped his 2022 album, I Never Liked You, opted to use the sample for his album, creating a song, “Wait For You” off of it and featuring Drake. Some will see the song’s success as further proof that talented women often have to partner with men to help elevate their brand, but it shows that TEMS’ voice and music have an international appeal that transcends genres. The last year of her musical career has seen nothing but highs, but in spite of all the attention she’s garnered, she hasn’t stretched towards her highest limits yet.
Today’s news of her vocal illness undoubtedly will cause many to worry, but we will wait for her, and hope for a speedy recovery. It’s a treat to see a woman rise to the top and rule two continents, to start.