At first glance, when you see her in her element – surrounded by positive energy and kindhearted interaction, Temmie Ovwasa comes off all sweetness and no bite.
She is sweetness, but she is also a middle-finger in your face, hold no prisoners kind of person who embodies extremes of both opposites so well. Her debut album, E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me, released on 29, November 2020 reflects this character trait exquisitely.
The twelve-track album managed a seamless transition from rage to heart wringing romantic longing, to a sultry raw passion that could give the average Nigerian parent instant stroke. All of these she managed to render in belting vocals, husky whispering that tickles the senses, and delightfully grating baritones that command your ears.
In every track there is a trick of command she seems to have a hang of. She executes each one so well that if you stumble upon the 4th track, titled Osunwemimo, you will be forgiven if you assume she only sings in silky vocals and dripping passion.
She will jar you back to the reality of her versatility and her unapologetic non-conformist personality with any of either the album’s intro, Iyalaya – where she sings “I don’t kiss ass but I fuck it though, fuck your morals I just learn the rules just to break them all” in a crisp unwavering voice that conveys rage with an undertone of playfulness, or the 7th track, I Don’t Give A Fuck About You, where she sang about meddlers who think they can tell her what to do and she replies unequivocally over and over, “NO.”
A fan review on Twitter reads in part,
“Temmie Ovwasa’s album theme: Fuck shame!
I mean, what do you expect when the album is named E Be Like Say Them Swear For Me.”
It is a fitting description of one of the many things the album is to different people, including Temmie herself.
“I put all of me into this,” she said sitting on her hotel bed visibly exhausted, dressed in a black sleeveless dress, her arm tattoos looking almost like the sleeve her dress is missing. She had agreed to grant me an interview after a successful hour-long performance that almost brought the house down.
She is right. She is in every song, and not just because it is her voice singing it. It is her emotions, her personhood which she holds close to her heart but will share with others on her own terms.
You are pulled into her struggles trying to put in the work while dealing with a depression that makes it near impossible to function, fighting naysayers who told her she will fail just like the rebels before her, and her moments of sheer joy brought on by a love that transcends the mundane nature of life.
And of course, there shines through a fierce hard won pride in who she is – a woman who is comfortable in her skin.
A rebel with a cause
In Ayefe, Temmie sings, “I hated love songs for a very long time. They reminded me of everything I never had. Then I met you and I realised, love doesn’t have to hurt.”
It is a story as old as humankind, yet hearing her sing it feels like a rebirth. Like a meteorite piercing earth’s stratosphere to be reborn into a ball of fire. The love she sings of is as old as time too, but repressed for many hurt-filled generations, it is reborn in pride for those of us who are alive and for posterity.
“This is the first gay album in Nigeria,” she said and laughed.
A thing takes form once you name it. The album is a wholesome body of work, filled with 12 uniquely beautiful songs, and in a perfect world, it will just be a music album. But that is impossible in Nigeria, because Nigeria as a country is not perfect, even to begin with. And as a country for LGBTQ+ people, it is downright hellish.
But again, there is a power in owning yourself that will hug and lift you above the vile even if it doesn’t fully protect you.
Temmie left her record label of 5 years – YBNL, some two months ago and not for the reason many speculated. She had been outed around the same time by gossip blogs; Instablog9ja and Linda Ikeji. It is only natural then for many to assume that is why she left the label.
“My departure had nothing to do with that. It was purely business,” she said as she stubbed another cigarette, “I came to Lagos from Ilorin, a teenager with huge dreams. I was ready to become the biggest female act in the history of the country. And years later I will watch as one artist after another gets signed and their music pushed by the label. It was like my music is for me to record and listen to by myself.”
Her feminist politics is not news to anyone who has followed her career to date.
She is after all “Miss “I don’t fuck with the patriarchy,” as she sang in Never Gon Blow, echoing what everyone around her said about all the reasons they think she will not turn out a huge success in the long run.
“Tone it down Temmie,” “Smile more Temmie,” “Why are you so angry,” – she has heard it all and more. It is something almost every woman has heard.
“In the years my music wasn’t released, many male artists have had their music released. It is like as a woman you have to work twice as hard to attain the kind of recognition men get by default.”
Countless Nigerian female artists have said the same thing at one point or another in their careers.
Omawumi had said when asked ‘What does it mean to be a woman in the music industry?’ in an interview with Pulse, “It means for one to be resilient and to work twice as hard. It also means making an additional effort to stand out.”
Men can be twice as tall with mediocre vocals and a bloated ego, women have to work twice as hard just to be seen. And Temmie is fighting this with gun blazing rage and sheer will. For her, the fight against the patriarchy is personal, as it should be for every self-aware woman and minority group.
Action speaks loudest
E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me is self-produced, which is a very tasking thing to do, but it has its merits. It gives the artist the freedom to approach their work as they deem fit. And Temmie didn’t take this freedom for granted. She leaked the album a day to its official release date. And that is the least disruptive thing about the entire project.
The singer puts her money where her mouth is when it comes to her grouse on the way female artists are made to dance through hoops for a crumb of success.
For her album listening party, Temmie Ovwasa performed with an all-female band that brought the roof down with a spectacular performance to match Femi Kuti’s band. At a point, her guitarist held a solo riff so beautiful and for so long it could have passed as a performance all by itself.
“It is 2020, that one woman at the table BS doesn’t work for me,” she said later on, “it is like the tokenism in Hollywood where you have one black character in a pool of whiteness.”
It isn’t just the exacting talent displayed by pianist, guitarist, drummer and backing singer, even though that alone is a thing of marvel. It is that Temmie didn’t break a sweat in finding an all-female band to perform with.
Time and again, Nigerian women have affirmed and reaffirmed that it is not the paucity of talent or the will to labour over their passions that stunt the emergence of more successful women, be it in Engineering or the performing arts, it is the deeply rooted misogyny that has permeated every sector of the Nigerian society.
She has had her own share of misogyny when she was still with her former record label. “I have a very good relationship with Olamide and everyone else, but there is this one man who is very misogynistic and homophobic,” she said and looked into the camera, “you know yourself.”
He had called her into his office, and speaking in Yoruba said, “When we were young, we did not ask for consent. We ‘just do’.” ‘Just do’ is a Nigerian euphemism for ‘fuck.’
The teenager that came from Ilorin to Lagos is in there somewhere, and healing, protected by 24-year-old Temmie, like a hardened shell around an egg’s delicate interior.
“I’m in the process of healing. And whether I get to heal or not before I die, I promise to fuck shit up while I’m still here!” she said, her smile a promise that dares you to make the mistake of thinking it won’t be kept.
The album, E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me, which is out on all streaming platforms is bound to be a talisman for misfits, oddballs, and rejects of Nigeria’s broken society. Above all, it will hopefully heal some, enough to gather together their broken dreams and face life head-on with dignity.