Nigerian singer/songwriter Tems says that spending a brief time in a jail in Uganda helped her feel much freer as an artist. The 28-year-old Nigerian singer was interviewed on The Angie Martinez Show this week and talked about her experience being locked up in the African nation.
She says that she traveled to Uganda for a concert as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were being lifted worldwide. But when she got to the venue, things got “weird,” as she explained to Martinez. Though she was in compliance with lockdown regulations, it seemed as though someone was trying to eliminate the competition.
“There was this particular artist — I’m not sure what his role was, but he was basically threatening Nigerian artists like they shouldn’t come.” She said she and her manager were eating in their hotel room after the show when they were detained by police who weren’t even in uniform. “They just came and said we should follow them.”
The “Essence” singer, born Temilade Openiyi, ended up spending two days in jail in Uganda, where she saw women incarcerated on flimsy charges.
“I thought I wasn’t gonna come out,” she said. “I thought maybe I was seeing this for a reason. Maybe this is for me to help these people in this prison.”
She described the conditions as horrific. She said when she was given her uniform, it stunk and that she and other prisoners –some of whom were there with their children– slept on the floor. She was denied a call and was told that inmates weren’t allowed to address staff unless they were kneeling.
She says she adapted by remaining calm and winking at other prisoners so she wouldn’t be viewed as weak.
“I’d just sit down and blow them kisses,” Tems said. “I was like, ‘I can’t cry, I can’t cry.’”
Tems was freed after her manager’s father met with the Ugandan president to advocate for their release. Though she was not there long, the experience did release her from self-imposed restrictions on both her wardrobe and her spirit.
“This new swag of mine is after I did that because, before that, I was calm with my dressing,” she told Martinez. “After, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m gonna wear anything I want.’ It made me stop caring about so many things.”
Tems, whose two EPs For Broken Ears (2020) and If Orange Was a Place (2021) made her an international superstar, says that music was a calling not initially supported by her family.
“I would have died to make music for a living. Back home, music isn’t a profession that is respected…like no parent wants their child to do music,” she said. “It’s like go to school, be a doctor, be a lawyer. Be a profession that we recognize.”
She says she tried to comply. She went to school and got a job but said it just didn’t work out.
“I’m going to die in this job,” she said. “It’s going to kill me. So I should do what I should actually be dying for, which is music.”
Since the release of For Broken Ears in 2020, Tems has had a meteoric rise, culminating in a Grammy Award and an Oscar nomination for co-writing Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack. She won the Grammy earlier this year when her song “Higher” was sampled by Future on the song “Wait for You,” which also featured Drake.
Recently, Tems was the innocent subject of some controversy when she was seated next to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts at a Time100 event. The two shared some small talk, which led some to believe she was his girlfriend. (She is not. His girlfriend is his college sweetheart, Bryonna Burrows. The two keep their relationship private, but she was there when he signed his $225 million contract extension.)
Watch the full interview below, where she talks about writing for Rihanna, cooking for Drake, hoping for success and more:
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