Tems: 'Prison was a once in a lifetime experience that I feel honoured to have had'

A sign of the Tems (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)
A sign of the Tems (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)

Tems is on the way home from the gym. It’s the only time we can fit in a phone call for her ES Magazine cover interview. In two days she will be flying to New York for her debut performance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show. Then it’s back to London where she is preparing to launch her debut album, Born in the Wild, which will be followed by a world tour starting with a headline show at the Eventim Apollo and spanning all the way from America to Australia.

‘Turn right here,’ she tells the cab driver, before apologising for interrupting our conversation. She pauses: ‘Wait, what was the question again?’

This is just what Tems’ life looks like these days. Go, go, go. It has been ever since our first conversation back in 2020. At the time she was being interviewed for an up-and-coming artist feature off the back of her debut EP, For Broken Ears. We spent the majority of our time talking about her being a self-professed introvert who secretly joined the choir while in school with the hopes of one day being a singer. Fast-forward four years and she has not just arrived — she’s at her peak.

“No real artist should be threatened by AI”


‘That time was crazy. There was so much stimulation, so many things happening all while I was still an independent artist,’ she says, adding that she had to find her own producers to work with, and unhappy with what she found, ended up having to teach herself to produce on YouTube. Now she has no problem sourcing collaborators. Beyoncé tapped her as one of her three featured artists on her smash hit 2022 Renaissance album. Future sampled her song ‘Higher’ on his Grammy award-winning song, ‘Wait for U’. Drake put up billboards of the star across Nigeria to promote that she was on his Certified Lover Boy album. She earned Golden Globe, Academy Award and Grammy nominations for co-writing Rihanna’s 2022 comeback single, ‘Lift Me Up’ from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack. ‘Every person I’ve said I wanted to work with, I have,’ she says, not quite in disbelief but in gratitude for it all actually happening.

Tems across the board (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)
Tems across the board (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)

Born Temilade Openiyi, she reluctantly studied economics at Monash University South Africa in Johannesburg before taking up a job in digital marketing back in Lagos, all the while remaining committed to her vision. In 2018, she quit her job and independently wrote, produced, recorded and released her debut single, ‘Mr Rebel’. Over time it became a sleeper hit, which caught the attention of Afrobeat pioneer WizKid. In awe of her unique, alté voice he invited her to feature on his song ‘Essence’, which soon turned her into a global sensation. At its peak the track reached No 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and even resulted in a Grammy nod for the then 25-year-old.But this year it’s all about her and her debut album. ‘It’s about the aftermath. It’s about how I feel now,’ she says. ‘All the experiences I’ve had now and just allowing myself to breathe and accept myself. Having fun and finding love, finding joy, finding peace. Having the audacity to take risks.’

Found love? I quickly interrupt, knowing that her love life has been a notorious line of questioning for the secretive star. ‘When I say love, I don’t necessarily mean romantic love. Like finding love for myself is an agreement that every day I accept myself no matter what happens,’ she clarifies.

Instead Tems reflects on one particular surreal experience that she considers the pivotal moment to her momentous success. At the beginning of December 2020 the star performed a concert in Uganda. Although Tems was under the impression that the Covid restrictions at the time had been lifted — and had even been given a permit — later that evening two plainclothes police officers arrived at her apartment to charge her for breaking lockdown protocol. Her manager offered to take her place but instead they arrested both of them. Hours later she was holed up in a tiny prison cell with several other women.‘I asked one of the girls there, “Do they beat people up here? Am I gonna be beat up?” And she was like, only if you misbehave.

The stately Tems (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)
The stately Tems (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)

I started crying and she said, “You can’t cry here.”’ Without a phone and any clarification on what exactly was going on, Tems had no choice but to surrender for those two nights she spent there. ‘This is a once in a lifetime experience that I actually feel honoured to have had because otherwise I would never have thought about these people, and to be in their presence was very humbling,’ she says. By talking to her fellow inmates she realised the corruptness of the system towards women, with some being there simply because their husband decided so.It was only months later that she was filming the music video for the life-changing ‘Essence’ track. Afterwards she went to the studio to process the whirlwind few months she’d had. It resulted in her debut single, ‘Me & U’, from her upcoming debut album. ‘That song is the beginning of my journey and me deciding, “Okay, it’s me and you on this journey. I’m gonna have faith. I’m gonna try to have faith as I’m starting this journey with you and this with God.”’ To Tems, her relationship with God has always been one of north stars, explaining that all her successes is a ‘testimony to his essence’.

“People can put you on a pedestal… but I am not your saviour”


Her most recent single, ‘Burning’, is ‘about learning to accept myself and walk in the path that has been laid out for me’. The lyrics begin, ‘It was all a dream, just the new girl on the scene. Got your cover magazine. How does it feel? It’s killing me,’ which she wrote as she was dealing with the influx of information and attention that came with her new star status.

It’s something that the star has been facing more and more as of late. Last year she snapped back on Twitter after trolls criticised her Dazed magazine cover shoot for being too sexy, saying that she had gone against her ‘spiritual, Christian image’ to fit into the industry norms. ‘I don’t know who needs to hear this but I am not your Christian saviour,’ Tems wrote. ‘I didn’t come here to uphold your beliefs about God. I will not fit into this box you try to put me in.

I won’t satisfy you in that area, please find the person that will. Or ask yourself why you care.’ She signed off on her rant with a screen grab from the scene in A Raisin in the Sun where Denzel Washington shuts the door in a man’s face. She captioned the image with: ‘I just a baby!! I’m gonna show off. You don’t like it? F*** you from the bottom of my heart [praying hands].’

‘People can put you on a pedestal. That was me trying to say I’m only human,’ she says of the Twitter exchange. These days though Tems no longer feels the need to be reactive. ‘I just kind of moved on from that so I don’t really give any energy at all. I don’t care any more. I’m just so happy and in a state of thankfulness. I don’t mind whatever people think. I’m okay with opinions,’ she says, referencing her earlier declaration of embracing unconditional self-love. It doesn’t mean people haven’t stopped having them. She received death threats for being allegedly pregnant with rapper Future’s baby (they’ve never even met). Then earlier this year a previous collaborator ALT Jacob went on a podcast and claimed that Tems didn’t originally want to clear the sample of her song ‘Higher’ for the now Grammy award-winning feature on ‘Wait For U’. Fans swarmed the comments to give their opinion on whether Tems was in the right or not (even though this was categorically untrue). It got so heated that Tems took to Twitter to debunk the rumours, even offering the producer $1 million (£785,000) to ‘stop telling lies’.‘Born in the Wild is how I feel the world is. I really feel like the world is a wilderness, like the world sometimes feels like a jungle where there’s lions and there’s sheep and there’s monkeys,’ she says. ‘It feels like a fight for survival and I just want to represent courage, bravery and authenticity. The world has completely changed in the past four years.’

Tems in the wild (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)
Tems in the wild (Tems by Amber Pinkerton and ES Magazine)

One of the scariest developments in these four years has been artificial intelligence, which has been overhauling entire industries — especially music. It is something that led more than 200 artists, including J Balvin, Billie Eilish, Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves, to sign an open letter organised by the non-profit Artist Rights Alliance, urging AI developers, technology companies, platforms and digital services to ‘cease the use of artificial intelligence to infringe upon and devalue the rights of human artists.’

Last month FKA Twigs went as far as attending a congressional hearing to call out the technology’s exploitative nature, demanding that without regulation, ‘careers and livelihoods are in jeopardy’ — noting how deep fakes, voice cloning and AI-generated music would play havoc in the industry.

While Tems acknowledges the need for regulation, she is not fearful of the oncoming AI revolution. ‘No real artist should be threatened by AI. Art cannot be disrupted,’ she says. ‘There’s no depth. There’s no person to connect with on the other side of an AI song or image. And that connection is irreplaceable.’

Tems knows about the importance of connection, with her fan base ‘The Rebel Gang’ constantly espousing how much her music has meant to them. The comments section under Tems’ music videos typically goes something like this: a former prison inmate thanking the Nigerian-born, London-based singer for getting them through their darkest hour. Someone declaring that their soul has been healed by her deep vibrato voice and spiritually crafted lyrics.

For Tems, this is what art is meant to do. ‘I went to a museum the other day and I was looking at a painting. It was depicting one of the world wars, and in my mind I was thinking, “I wonder what she was feeling when she drew this,”’ she says. ‘You have to think, the audience are creators, too, and they don’t want to create with synthetic emotions.’

‘Born in the Wild’ is out Friday 7 June. Tems performs at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo on 11 & 12 June (eventimapollo.com)Alaïa Latex corset dress £2,290; Latex coat, £12,020 (alaia.com). MEJURI Dome ring, £68; chunky medium hoops, £88 (mejuri.com)TOM FORD Lurex evening dress, £2,050 (tomford.com). MEJURI Dome cuff, £148; Dome ring, £68; Patra medium hoops, £98 (mejuri.com)ALAIA dress £4,900 (alaia.com). MEJURI Dome cuff (right), £118; micro-pavé diamond Rivière bracelet, from £1,500; Dome ring, £68; chunky medium hoops, £88 (mejuri.com)

Photographer: Amber Pinkerton

Stylist: Jessica Skeete-Cross

Set Designers: Haleimah Darwish

Hair Stylist: Remi Laide

Make-Up Artist: Kayla Perez using Charlotte Tilbury 

Photographer’s Assistants: Scott Gallagher and Alistair McVeigh

Digi Tech: Dave English

Stylist’s Assistant: Anastasie Tshichimbi

Tailor: Aylin

This shoot was supported by Mejuri