NATIVE Exclusive: “Together Is Our Win”, Tems Talks About Widening The Circle

The Grammy-winning star talks about her achievements, relationship with Jameson and more

There is a fascinating connection between the worlds of music and spirits, and in our millennial lifetimes, this connection has grown from the subject of bars in a Rap song to whole communities being built, the expansion of business empires and much more. One example we have in Nigeria, is Jameson Irish Whiskey, who have maintained a direct relationship with the creative industry, giving specific attention to burgeoning music communities. 

In pre-covid Lagos, it would be no far cry to be at an event with guests punctuated by the signature  Jameson green cup in hand. It was at one of such events in 2017 that Tems debuted an unreleased melody, “Try Me” to an intimate group in a bid to test out what the reception will be. Unbeknownst to her – or any of the lucky listeners that evening – two years later, “Try Me” would spur on a relationship with the brand, which today has grown into a partnership with the most recent collaboration seeing Tems and her team introducing Jameson Black Barrel to this market. 

In a recent interview with NATIVE, the now Grammy-winning singer tells us about the brand:

I love the authentic feel, they are honest and that is all the things I stand for…clearly there is some type of understanding of life we both have. This is just the beginning.” 

Tems for Jameson Black Barrell
Tems for Jameson Black Barrel

In 2019 when she released “Try Me”, it immediately established her as the next big thing without her even trying or particularly wanting to. Tems’ music has always been coloured with triumphant tales about overcoming a difficult situation with each song presenting a different shade of how she found the strength to carry on. For the Grammy-winning artist, music is a release – a way for her to express her emotions, and to give wanting ears the space to do the same. Tems views her music as a means to connect to people, especially those who are downtrodden and need healing energy.

While music is the way we all saw and heard this mission, Tems tells us that her goal is more than the music. “it’s more of what can I do in this world that can really change people’s lives, and that’s beyond music.” Not long after this conversation, Tems was putting her words into action with the wardrobe sale she recently hosted in the heart of Lagos, where she invited friends and fans to shop from her collection of clothes, shoes, sunglasses and more. All proceeds from this wardrobe sale will be donated to two charitable causes dear to Tems’ heart: WARIF Nigeria; a non-profit created in response to the high incidence of sexual assault occurring against young girls and women in Nigeria, and the Margaret Ohiani orphanage. In a full circle moment, as I perused the items on display at this wardrobe sale, I spotted the red jumpsuit Tems styled herself in for The NATIVE Issue 4 cover, an embodiment of Tems’ growth from Nigeria’s fiery new upstart to the global sensation she is today.

First Chapter – Try Me 

Right from her 2018 debut single, “Mr Rebel”, Tems established who she is today. The confidence with which she declares that she’s “the leading vibe’ on the song, though audacious from a new artist, sets the tone for everything we are seeing unfold in her career. There aren’t that many people from any corner of the world who are able to boast of the things Tems can, especially not only four years into their career. During that time, she has collaborated with some of the world’s most legendary superstars such as Beyoncé, Wizkid, Future, Grace Jones, Drake, Rihanna, and more. Her music and songs she has written or featured on have been nominated for and won some of the world’s most coveted awards; Grammy, Golden Globe, not to mention “Lift Me Up” being nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars. While “Mr Rebel” introduced Tems to the scene, it was “Try Me” that really stamped her arrival, embodying all the things we know and love about Tems today. Back in 2019, when the airwaves were dominated by Zanku-ready songs, Tems caught the attention of the whole country with her big, bold voice accompanied by triumphant, resonant lyrics. The track was in good company, alongside Burna Boy’s “Anybody”, Naira Marley’s “Soapy.” Though sonically different, a common thread between hits of this period was the victorious confidence they gave whoever was listening to feel good after a period of struggle. 

While the song already captured the attention of the country, the accompanying video, supported by Jameson, illustrated the subject matter even further, thereby making it resonate with even more people. With the funding and support to create the self-written video, Tems “wanted to show how I was feeling when I wrote that song. Feeling like you’re trapped and then you’re finally free.” “Try Me” represented the same thing for everyone who connected with the lyrics, more than being a fresh new sound that evoked an involuntary head bop, the lyrics, her flow and cadence gripped you, as the raw emotion in the song became more prevalent as it progressed. The song starts off with Tems singing about her woes against a thumping bass, before she slinks into a confident chant about her rebirth after the attempted destruction. The accompanying video did exactly as Tems promised, presenting a group of people society would label as misfits being transported in chains, before Tems leads her pack to freedom at the end of the video with flaming torches in hand, ready to face whatever comes next.  When I spoke to Tems in early 2020 for the cover story of The NATIVE’s Print Issue 4, she definitively said to me, “I can never make another song like ‘Try Me’ again”. As aforementioned, in her breakout year, Tems’ sound was very different to the popular music in mainstream Nigeria, which made many express their doubts about the longevity of her career. While this chatter persisted, Tems was sharpening her pencil and preparing to write the next chapter of her book: Her debut EP, ‘For Broken Ears.’ 

Next Chapter – “Free Mind” 

2020 was the year our screens kept us connected to each other and the rest of the world. I remember watching the live listening session of Tems’ aptly titled EP, ‘For Broken Ears,’ where she – Jameson green cup in hand – walked viewers through each song. The EP was released in the year of upheaval, where the pandemic turned the world as we know it upside down, followed by a global social reckoning where people all over the world fought against police brutality (which Tems herself experienced first-hand in Uganda), gender-based violence, exploitation of natural resources and many more societal ills. Although she was adamant that she can never make a song like “Try Me” again, without trying to, she did with “Free Mind” and gained the attention of absolutely everybody.  According to the woman herself,  ‘For Broken Ears’, was “for anyone looking for an alternative to the darkness. Those who need a break from the toxicity they consume and supply on a daily basis.” Tems’ deeply personal lens on navigating the world when you can feel its weight on your shoulders was the kind of music 2020 and 2021 needed, while we all attempted to put the pieces of the broken world around us together. While all of these achievements come with inevitable fame and success, for Tems, knowing that people connect to not just my music but just to me as a person” is good enough for her. 

Tems for Jameson Black Barrell
Tems for Jameson Black Barrel

Much like on “Try Me”, “Free Mind” opens with soft piano keys, contrasting a thumping bass to introduce the song’s catchy, self-produced beat. Vocally, Tems switches from a calm and collected delivery in her verses to a stronger, higher pitch in the hook and pre-chorus, almost symbolising the motion of her feelings through her melodies. It’s hard to deny the idea that “Try Me” and “Free Mind” are two sides of the same coin, where one details the pain and the other presents the freedom of the other side. In a NATIVE original series, Bruk It Down (where Tems took us through how she made “Ice T”, another self-produced song from the EP) Tems says about her songwriting process “vocalising and songwriting those parts are very easy I usually just freestyle, most of my songs come from a freestyle that’s how I get the emotions pure, it’s like 100% raw”. This is an ethos she shares with many of the world’s best songwriters from Jay-Z to Jhene Aiko, who, like Tems, speak from the heart with the aim to help and improve the mindset of those who are listening. 

Anyone who can write, produce and perform their own music will always be at a significant advantage. Tems boasts of this advantage in the recent wow moment when she co-wrote “Lift Me Up”, the lead single off Black Panther’s official soundtrack, ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Music From And Inspired By.’ On the song, we can hear Rihanna singing, but Tems’ influence is clear – whether it’s with the line “drowning in an endless sea”, the kind of hyperbole we’re accustomed to hearing in Tems’ songs, or how the song ends with Rihanna singing a  heartfelt chant as Tems did on “Try Me”, “Free Mind” and most of the songs in her discography. This confirms that Tems’ secret sauce is herself, her life and her voice, which she’s able to weave together into relatable tales that the world now sings along to. She’s unshakeably aware of this, saying that her choice to remain pure and “really focus more on who I am internally and who I want to become, because that’s what‘s important.”, for Tems, “that focus on self is what makes a person.”

Tems for Jameson Black Barrell
Tems for Jameson Black Barrel

Here we are at a full circle moment, where Tems and her team have introduced Jameson Black Barrel to this market, signifying the growth both artist and brand have experienced together. Speaking about this latest collaboration in a long line of many, Tems says confidently “Clearly there’s a connection there and there’s some type of understanding of life that we both have and I’m very excited for this.” In the first Jameson Black Barrel advertisement, Tems is featured alongside her team Wale Davies; Muyiwa Awoniyi; Dunsin Wright and Deeds. She performs to a large crowd of people – Black Jameson cups in hand – who are vibing to her hit song, “Damages”. This ad shows that Tems has intentionally surrounded herself with solid and trusted individuals, which allows her to focus on her number one priority – using her voice. Her impressive trajectory in such a short period speaks to her being part of a well-oiled machine, which consists of a small, yet effective team who are just as dedicated to her success and passing on her message as she is. She tells me that between them, there’s an inner compass that guides each of them to achieve their goals, both within and outside of her career. She states that “None of us are the same, everybody is growing in their own way and achieving so much and that’s not even associated with me. And that’s something I’m very happy and grateful for.” The closing line of the ad, where a waiter delivers a bill “for Tems”, she responds, “you know that’s all of us right”, pointing to her squad as they sit triumphantly among each other pouring up a glass of Black Barrel. 

The past four years have been proof, through her music and pretty much everything, of Tems’ Midas touch, which with the right support has led her each step closer to her steady, yet “life-changing” incline. 2022 for her saw her on tour around the UK & America, attending exclusive Hollywood parties and award shows, snagging up deal after deal and generally living her best life whilst delivering some of the most impressive musical feats of her career as all aforementioned. What’s next, for Tems? No one knows, but it’s being written and we will see and hear it when she’s ready.