“I Was Prepared to Die”: Tems and Kendrick Lamar on Inspiration and Obsession
Tems has it: effortless confidence and flow, style in abundance. Temilade Openiyi grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, as an introvert, but since finding her voice as Tems, she’s taken her singular blend of R&B and Afrobeats and made them global. Two EPs into her career, Tems has collaborated with the likes of Drake, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, but somehow remains remarkably unphased, as if success was never in doubt. Ahead of her debut album, Tems connected with Kendrick Lamar to discuss staying true to yourself, even when it feels impossible.
WEDNESDAY 8:30 PM JUNE 21, 2023 LONDON
TEMS: How you doing?
KENDRICK LAMAR: I’m good. How you been?
TEMS: I’ve been cool.
LAMAR: You been working?
TEMS: Mm-hmm. I’m in London, locked in every single day.
LAMAR: You driving yourself crazy?
TEMS: I am, but I have people that are holding me back from turning into a mental patient.
LAMAR: I know that feeling, trying to weed out all your thoughts and what you like and don’t like, what you keep thinking about over and over again.
TEMS: Yeah, I’m the kind of person that if you leave me in the studio by myself for like two days, I turn into one of those mad scientists in a cartoon.
LAMAR: I’m the same way. I call it the Pinky and the Brain syndrome. You need at least one or two people that you really trust to be like, “You know what? You’re going crazy.”
LAMAR: Who is that for you?
TEMS: One of my managers, he’s the only person I let in the room apart from my producer. Both of them are with me often, but not always. I record myself mostly, but sometimes after doing, like, 800 takes, I call and I’m like, “Yo, I’m going crazy. I need help.”
LAMAR: I can relate to that, because my boy, Dave [Free]—my partner, actually—he started as one of my managers, but he was a creative also. Along with my producer Sounwave, I kind of lean on him to know if I’m going the right way. How long y’all knew each other?
TEMS: It’s going to be five years.
LAMAR: That’s dope. Just me being a fan, I want to know off top how you got into music. Were you influenced by your friends? Was it something that you did on the side?
TEMS: I was an extreme introvert when I was younger. I didn’t really talk much. My mom’s friends would be like, “Yo, Temi, come take a picture,” and I’d just turn around. I’m not sure when the first time I heard music was, but I found myself loving the radio, and I used to hear Celine Dion. Nigerians love Celine Dion. Her songs are very emotional, jump-off-a-cliff type songs. They entered my soul. I think that’s where my love for music started.
LAMAR: That’s fire.
TEMS: And then, when I was nine or ten, I started writing songs, but it wasn’t songs with choruses, it was just verses of things I was feeling. Then I fell into this deep hole of music obsession, and it was the only thing that made me feel alive. I can’t describe the feeling when I first got my first CD. It was a Destiny’s Child CD that was fake, it had 30 songs, and I learned them all.
LAMAR: What moved you more, lyrics or the music and chord progression?
TEMS: The melodies. Lyrics also moved me, but there were some I couldn’t relate to. There were rap songs I was listening to that were about a man impregnating you. I didn’t understand that, so I didn’t feel it in my spirit. But I started hearing melodies of my own that weren’t in the song. Even now when I hear music, it’s a frequency I experience. That’s how I started freestyling, because I started singing over the songs that I was listening to with my own melodies that I was hearing in my head.
LAMAR: That makes sense, because I seen this clip of you singing one of my favorite [Lil] Wayne songs, I think it was “Hustler Musik,” and you put your own spin on it. It was a crazy flip.
TEMS: Thank you.
LAMAR: How did you get to producing and arranging your own music? Was that being curious in the studio and saying, “I want to know how this works?” Or did you just have a natural ear for it?
TEMS: When I was in uni I only had songs on the piano and the guitar, I never entered the studio. We didn’t really have access to things like that back home, and I wanted something more. Like, “How do I go to the next level of musicality?” I asked a friend, and they were like, “You need a beat, I’ll get you this producer.” Lots of producers I met back then, it was just Afrobeats, the main genre of Nigeria. Afrobeats is very good, but there’s a frequency I was trying to access that I wasn’t getting from them. The long and short is that I felt like I had to do it myself. Part of it also was, when you struggle to find people that believe in you, you go extra hard.
LAMAR: I agree with that 100 percent. Are you one of those artists that’s a creature of habit—you like to work with who you like to work with? I’ve been with the same crew of guys since my debut.
TEMS: Oh, wow.
LAMAR: It’s a significant vibe that we have. We feed off each other.
TEMS: When I met my current manager, we did have a group where we used to be in the studio all the time, all of us rappers and singers, and we would freestyle. We had a producer who played beats, and whoever was really killing it would go on there and we would feed off each other. I love being around artists. There’s something about the energy when there’s a bunch of people creating that is contagious.
LAMAR: Yeah, everyone speaks the same language.
LAMAR: The best music is created without judgment. When I say nonjudgmental, I mean everybody in the room has childlike minds—curious about melodies, curious about lyrics—and are unapologetic about it.
TEMS: And there’s no worry. You’re not thinking about whether it’s a hit or not. That usually turns out to be the best music ever.
LAMAR: Speaking of the success that you had, do you feel any pressure to conform to what people may expect from you? Or do you still have that intuition to say, “I’m going to do what I feel regardless of how it pans out?”
TEMS: Yeah, you have to remember how you felt when you started as an artist, to understand the reason you’re doing what you’re doing. Yes, it’s to be seen, or to make a name for yourself, but beyond that, why are you doing it? Most of the time it’s because you have a story to share, a message to give. When you become more known or seen, it’s very easy to get caught up in, “What do people expect of me now?” But for me, it’s like, “What do I expect of myself now?” Because you’re the one that has to live with yourself, the one that has to sleep with the decisions that you make. Trusting yourself is so key, and I’m not going to stop trusting my guts just because people can see me now. It’s like being in a zoo. The animals don’t change their behavior just because you’re looking at them. They’re always going to be who they are. So why should I change?
LAMAR: And people can feel it, too. They know when something is authentic and when it’s not. With how you’re thinking you’ll be just fine. It’s tough for a lot of artists, man, to have that mindset, because there are so many pressures out here with all the politics and standards that we think we have to live up to, but to have the instincts that you have, that’s truly inspiring.
TEMS: What I’m concerned about is not being able to tap into that place anymore just because I betrayed myself, and that’s why I have to stick with my gut. Because how do you go back after betraying your trust?
LAMAR: Exactly. Do you feel you’ve made any mistakes or had any regrets along the journey within these last five years?
TEMS: So many things.
LAMAR: Do you try to throw it away and not put too much energy towards it? Or do you use it as fuel in order to make the next decision for yourself?
TEMS: I use it as fuel. Every time I feel like I shouldn’t have done something, I’ve noticed that things always sort themselves out. The thing about making mistakes is there’s grace. We’re all going to make mistakes, but what happens when you do?
LAMAR: That’s so true. I want to know, how do you distinguish between Tems the artist versus Tems the person in your daily life? Is it something new you’re still trying to figure out, or something you got a grasp on?
TEMS: When I started being a professional artist, I made an agreement with myself that I’m also Tems. Tems is Temilade. I’m both of them. There isn’t a distinction for me. I know to the outside world, it must be like, “There’s Tems the artist, and Temilade must be a dumbed-down version.” But I’m Tems all the time, and I’m Temilade all the time, because I’m not just one thing. I don’t distinguish them because that creates a cognitive dissonance.
LAMAR: That sounds like the Gemini talking right there. Loud and clear.
TEMS: Was it your birthday recently?
LAMAR: Yeah, June 17th. When was yours? Early June, right?
TEMS: June 11th.
LAMAR: That’s right. Happy belated.
TEMS: Same to you, man.
LAMAR: Now, I’ve always studied 50 Cent’s music and watched his interviews, and someone asked if he was a conscious artist. He said, “Yeah, I’m a conscious artist because I have a conscience.” That shit blew me away. It gave me a different perspective—50 drops a lot of jewels that give me perspective, but that one right there gave me a sense of, okay, a lot of artists live and know how to project duality. That’s the true gift, because that’s what life is about in its wholeness. When I seen that I said, “I can relate to that,” and what you’re saying is confirmation that that’s still alive. It’s really dope to hear another artist say it. Lets us know we not crazy.
TEMS: Nah, we’re not. That’s why I’m always learning, because I want to know how to simplify things to the point where I have peace of mind. Your mind is the first place that you have to overcome.
LAMAR: That’s right. Do you ever find it hard to hold back personal stories, without putting it in your music?
TEMS: Yeah. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about anything, and then I enter a session or there’s a beat playing, and I start going deep and don’t know why or how it comes out.
LAMAR: I get it. That’s the magic in music, because you never know where it comes from. You can go in thinking you’re going to have a whole type of vibe in a session, and you hear one chord or one melody, and it’ll switch your whole thing up. Whatever concept you thought you had in your head, that shit is out the window.
TEMS: Yeah, sometimes it freaks me out. Sometimes I freestyle to a point where I can’t feel my feet. I’ve entered somewhere and I don’t even know where I am anymore. I’m just pouring out my gut and then when I’m done, I don’t remember what I just did. If you didn’t record it, it’s almost as if I blacked out.
LAMAR: That’s the worst thing to happen, if that record button ain’t on.
TEMS: Yo, oh my goodness, that has happened to me. After that I don’t want to do anything. I have to mourn what just happened.
LAMAR: I totally understand. Before I even got into “lyricists,” I was deep into songwriting. I always loved the structure of songs—bridges and choruses, melodies. I was exercising that skill way before I even got into writing rhymes super heavy. I just loved R&B oldies, stuff like that. So I know exactly what you mean. I’m getting the melody and I’m feeling it and the spirit is in me and if that shit ain’t recorded, it ain’t no way of getting that back.
LAMAR: You got to find the next one. It’s real tough.
TEMS: It’s like tuning a radio and you find a channel, but the thing is, once you lose that channel, you can’t find it again. You can find another channel, another freestyle, another thing, but not that. Unless you’re really, really tapped in.
LAMAR: For sure. How did you go about positioning yourself as an R&B artist versus someone who could have been put in a box and just focused on where you from? How did you shape that for yourself?
TEMS: Yo, no one has ever asked me that.
LAMAR: I’m really curious.
TEMS: Wow. No, this is good. This is really good. I was prepared to die. I believed in myself so much that I didn’t really care if I never became anything or anyone. I just wanted to get a message out. I wanted to get my frequency out. And I was like, “Even if ten people hear this, it’s fine.” But also along the way, I used to listen to a lot of Nigerian music and I wasn’t getting a lot of spiritual—I love Celine Dion, so, I love that intense feeling of, I’m about to jump off a cliff. That’s how I want my music to feel all the time, and Afrobeats wasn’t necessarily giving me that type of stimulation. Everyone I asked for advice was like, “The only way you can do this is Afrobeats. It’s not that your music is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t fit in Nigeria. Nigerians don’t like this.” And that’s not a lie, and it’s not a bad thing. But I felt in my heart that that’s okay. I’m okay with no one liking it, I just want to make this music. I want to make music that makes me pull my heart out, and if I can’t do that, I don’t want anything. I would rather do that and be broke than compromise. I didn’t really care about the money. It’s not that money is bad. Money is very good. But for me, even right now, I’m chasing a frequency. There’s artists I’ve loved all my life, that when they reach a certain stage, the music loses that frequency, it loses that touch they had. And I always wondered why. Why do I have to lose that touch? I don’t actually care where I end up. If I’m under a bridge and I have a way to make music, I’m going to be good. That’s what led me to meet the people that connected to that music. There was no indication that I would’ve ended up here. Nobody could have told me I would be sitting here in London speaking to you, Kendrick Lamar.
LAMAR: I hear a lot of passion to the point I want to hear the album now.
TEMS: Music is the only thing that brings this out of me. It’s like my blood boils. It’s itching to just pour.
LAMAR: I know exactly what you feel. It’s an indescribable feeling.
TEMS: Yeah, man. And I just wanted to say to you, I mean, I can’t imagine how many people must have told you how many lives you’ve impacted, but I watched a video today from a Nigerian Afrobeat artist, and it’s almost an exact copy of one of your videos. He saw your video and was inspired.
LAMAR: That’s fire.
TEMS: That’s how far your reach goes. The only way that that could happen was that you were passionate about something. I just want to say that I seriously appreciate you and respect you as an artist. You are sick and it’s an honor to be speaking with you.
LAMAR: I appreciate that. We’re here to inspire each other. When you’re telling me the story about a kid in Nigeria, it makes me think about the people that gave me the guts to try to put something that’s just as creative out. So, to hear it come back full circle with people that I meet around the world, it gives me inspiration. And just hearing you speak inspires me to continue to do what I do.
TEMS: One hundred percent, man.
LAMAR: That’s all my questions. I got a full download. Everything I wanted to ask when we met at the show.
TEMS: Oh, yeah.
TEMS: That show was crazy, by the way. If we’re ever in the same city again, I’d definitely love to link up and vibe.
LAMAR: Yeah, most definitely.
Hair: Louis Souvestre using Organigrow and Oribe.
Makeup: Esther Edeme.
Nails: Angel My Linh using Mylee at The Only Agency.
Set Design: Lydia Chan at New School Represents.
Movement Direction: Yagamoto at New School Represents.
Digital Technician: Kerimcan Goren.
Photography Assistants: Lucas Bullens and Keerthana Kunnath.
Fashion Assistant: Julia Veitch.
Set Assistant: Sophie-Mai Wiggins.
Photography Production: Takiyah Blaize.
Retouching: The Hand of God.
Location: South 65 Studio.