Nigerian artist Tems wins her first Grammy and highlights our continued blind spots when it comes to the Diaspora and identity.
Let me begin with a few disclaimers; I am not a music expert. I love music and have an uncanny knack for remembering the most random music trivia (Black music especially). I have been a fan of Tems since I heard her voice featured on Show Dem Camp’s “Tales by Moonlight” from their 2019 Palm wine Express album. If you haven’t heard it, watch her NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.
I woke up to the amazing news that Tems had won a Grammy for Best Melodic Rap Performance with Future and Drake. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, kept seeing posts stating that Tems, was the first female Nigerian artist to win a Grammy over and over. But that’s not correct, is it?
I’m old enough to remember at least one other Nigerian woman who won a Grammy in the 90s, Sade Adu. Turns out her first Grammy win was in 1986. Broadway and movie star Cynthia Erivo won the Best Musical Theatre Album Grammy for The Color Purple in 2017. Then there’s Jenn Nkiru, who won her Grammy Award for Best Music Video for BROWN SKIN GIRL IN 2021. What do these women have in common? They are all Nigerian women by birth or heritage.
I was confused that many popular Black culture IG pages and entertainment journalists and even Nigerian newspapers kept repeating the incorrect statement that Tems is the first Nigerian female artist to win a Grammy. It is not factual, and it diminishes the legacy of the first Nigerian woman to win, Sade Adu. A simple Google search would show these people are wrong. I have no clue where it originated however, I wonder if it is sheer lazy reporting, a generational gap of knowledge, or something else? Browsing the comment sections, I sensed something rearing its head that just did not feel right.
“Sade Adu doesn’t claim Nigeria, so we don’t claim her” or variations of this comment can be found under many of these posts when anyone corrects the proclamation that Tems is not the first. In our bid to celebrate great news, a global win for Naija, and Tems’ hard work, it should not come at the cost of erasure.
Could the age-old tension of who is considered [Insert your choice of African country] versus members of her Diaspora with hyphenated ethnicity be at play? The topic of identity by birth or by heritage runs deep in many communities of color. In some regions, the policing of who is considered black enough is similar to what I sense for many is unconsciously playing out.
Sade Adu was born in Nigeria but left at the age of four and grew up in the UK. Cynthia Erivo and Jenn Nkiru were both bornin the UK to Nigerian parents. Tems was born in Nigeria, left with her parents for the UK, and returned to Nigeria at the age of five, where she’s grown up. Tems’ father is also a British-Nigerian. This distinction is very important to acknowledge. It sets the parameters to determine if you are Nigerian enough. Born, raised, and lived outside the country sets you as ‘not fully one of us’, the other.
Whenever Nigeria makes a positive appearance on a global stage, it is the most beautiful display of patriotism you’ll ever witness. Be it our appearance at the African Cup of Nations, Olympics, or World Cup, we are one and our Naija No Dey Carry Last superpower is activated. The Nigerian versus Diaspora divide disappears which is why it is head-scratching that people question or diminish the identity of the other Nigerian women who have won before Tems.
We recognize, heck, celebrate the heritage of male actors and athletes of Nigerian descent like Damson Idris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Boyega, Jidenna, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and others who were born and/or raised outside the country. Why are the rules different for them? Is it because they are men? Jenn Nkiru earned a Grammy for directing Beyonce’s Brown Skin Girl video however, besides Kemi Adetiba, the most sought-after music video directors in Nigeria are men and a few of them do not live in the country. The unconscious bias toward those with the hyphenated identity exists between Nigeria and her Diaspora and we should name it when it is present. This is still a tightrope we must walk.
I suspect many see Tems’ Grammy win as having more claim to the Nigerian identity because she lives there. Unlike the others, she has lived through the struggles of Nigeria’s weight, and she has earned her battle scars. They have seen her steady grind in a heavily male-dominated music market to becoming one of the most recognized voices in Nigeria’s alté and R&B scene, and now, a Grammy winner and maybe, an Oscar winner. Tems represents a hope many struggle to see. The hope is that despite the ongoing petrol scarcity, people being unable to access their money at banks, power outages, an almost twenty percent inflation rate, and a contentious election season, good still exists for Nigerians in Nigeria to celebrate.
Written by TANTV Contributor:
Omolola “Lola” Adele-Oso is the founder and chief executive of LOS Lifestyle Co., a travel and culture concierge celebrating the stories of Africa by increasing visibility and access to her history, culture, and exploration. Lola was the Executive Director and Co-Founder ofAct4Accountability, a DC based African diaspora nonprofit committed to building a culture of accountability among Africans & the diaspora through civic engagement. She is an architect, serial Africanpreneur, speaker, change catalyst, and philanthropist.