I became a breadwinner of my family at 15 – Rema (Full Interview)
At Rema’s Lagos album listening party for Rave and Roses, you’ll be forgiven to think you were at a mid-sized, romantic-horror hybrid event in April. A gigantic inflated brown and black bear seats at the entrance, welcoming everyone with its symbolism and size. Teddy’s are great lovable huggy tuggies, right? Except Rema’s. The installation takes a morbid turn on closer inspection, with its eyes sealed shut with an ‘X.’ It’s dark. It’s lovely. It fills you with part-wonder, part-trepidation. To access the venue, you had to have a bat imprinted on the back of your palms to signify your belonging to this noir space. That same bat comes to life on the walls of the entrance at the Terra Kulture, where superfans and music industry professionals gather to hear his new album. A gleeful skater zooms past early guests, high on Gen Z recreational energy. Youtube reps smile and lead you into a photo session, and a drink is placed in your hands. Inside, two skeletons trap roses in their jaws, and Rema has a blood-stained shirt dripping under his jacket.
It’s all in keeping with how he’s strived to impose his creative will on the world. Since Divine Okubor broke through pop music’s consciousness in 2018, the 21-year-old Nigerian singer has kept his music and brand in flux, pursuing dynamism by introducing and flipping elements of his sound and visual identity. Rema is on a journey to self-actualization, a public travel through time and places, powered by his music and its impact on the world. Every year comes with a gradual unfurling of himself and his chaotic mind undergoing metamorphosis in front of the camera. He first showed up as a wide-eyed 18 year old 4 years ago, recording explainer promo videos on a set propped by bright boxes of Fruity Loops, Coco Pop, Cornflakes and milk. The aesthetic played support for a fresh fusion sound (which he christened Afrorave) and lyrics exploring love, lust and the entropy of our collective human condition. Gradually, we all followed him as the brightness of that teenage smile gave way to a sweet and successful darkness.
Rema never misses an opportunity to communicate his pain. Whether in intense bursts of eloquence on Twitter, or emotional references to his personal losses in his music, his hurt is real and documented. Today, personalized hidden messages are coded and obscured by repurposed mundane elements. Like a burning inverted church, a playground swing hanging by the clouds, an impaled bear, and a gravestone. Fans are always invited to solve some of these messages, and the bat image has grown from a brand infusion to his communal spirit animal. Each music release isn’t simply a record looking to run up the charts and improve streaming playlists. Yes, the increasing bottomline commercially validates these choices, but the records also tell some story, or welcomes everyone into his current mental space.
His latest project, Rave & Roses feels like a coming of age. A debut full-length release to soundtrack his transformation, Rema contorts himself and his abilities through 16 tracks. His ambitions have never been in question. “Yes, everybody has their own vision,” he tells me via a Zoom call from his holiday in Ghana. “I feel like everybody is too deep, abeg. Everybody is too serious. Coming from the mountain vibe, I had one revelation…bla bla bla…abeg! All I want to do is influence the sound. I’m going to put out a project that depicts my inner self. That depicts my level of creativity and how I see sound and how sound should be projected.”
Rave and Roses doesn’t fully give into his sentiments. There’s depth in moments where you can find it. Like a drive through his origins on sprawling opener, ‘Divine.’ Listeners get to start from his defiance, and follow a thread through the peculiar circumstances of Rema’s delayed birth, and into today’s dominance. Before his arrival on earth, Rema’s birthday was delayed past due date, and his mother named him Divine, to memorialize her struggle with his unborn form. You can also extract subterranean lessons if you peer under the rage in ‘Are you there.’ A current focus track that has him co-opting the endemic chaos of Nigerian society. A swashbuckling song about everyday commotion, Rema moves between his preferred brand of escapism (girls and money), through political arenas where he’s yet to receive his cut of Buhari’s largess, and his decision to thrive through living unapologetically, regardless. We’ve seen him squeeze, and consume plain bread and soda, commandeer a danfo bus, and menacingly run through a field with Agberos. All these to to connect audio with visual storytelling.
But that’s all the consciousness you get. It’s paltry, appears early and feel peripheral. Love, lust and hedonism own Rave & Roses. You can conjure lucid images of sloppy fellatios and sexual energies on ‘Dirty.’ This boy loves to fuck. And if you do too, you’ll never be far from a pleasant horny experience. Rema’s description of sex is vivid and sensual. (This one no be matter wey I go chop you clean mouth, How many, many, many, many round, round, round, round? She dey bounce on my thing with my song for background. I dey give her new new style, she say wow, wow, wow, wow. When I start to go too deep, she say ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch)
Sex aside, if your preferred branch of the man-woman interaction lies in the pursuit of romance and the uncertainty of feelings, you’ll find yourself more at home. Loving is complex, it takes effort to unfurl the knots of human connection into its barest form. Mutual desire might sustain it, but only if both parties embrace vulnerability, or see finish, as Nigerians love to call it. On Rave & Roses, Rema goes seeking for human connection holding his heart in his hand. US rapper 6LACK comes in clutch on Hold me, a sappy duet from two men held down by love, and completely lost in a lady’s sauce. French singer, Yseult guests on R&B number, ‘Wine,’ improving everything with her famed vocals. And then there’s Chris Brown, extending his involvement with Nigerian music via another stellar collaboration on ‘Time N Affection.” ‘Runaway,’ a song about embattled lovebirds eloping into the sunset, and arguably Rema’s best work here, is given closing duties. Rema’s Trap iterations are absolutely absent here, but a deluxe version has been teased, with his compatriots probably getting a run on a follow-up. Rave & Roses provides an abundance of his skillset, taking you into the life of a young man in the grips of a colorful existence.
In the buildup to the album release, last year, I spoke with Rema. I found him on the brink of Soundgasm release, with lofty plans and honest intentions about his first time out with an album.
I’m just very curious about what Ghana represents to you. You go there sometimes but you never share what happens there.
I don’t really share my hustle to the world literally. If it’s not something public, I don’t feel the rest of the world should know. It’s just some personal P that I do there. Nothing much. I still make music. But even when I make music I don’t really post up and let people know that I’m working. I just feel like the result is much better than the process. Letting people know the results is better than letting people know the process.
Have you always been like this?
Yeah, I’ve always been keeping things on a low like for a long time. It’s one of my survival skills.
In the last six months, you’ve given people a window into what goes on in your head. Like the record with JAE5. Immediately the song came out, you said you spoke your truth. What is does that mean?
The truth is literally what you hear in the verse and the chorus. If you listen and follow line by line, you would understand a few truth that I put out. “The place wey I come from be another dimension,” I’m not from here. I don’t belong. “Nobody been look my face when I dey on my own.” That’s nobody send me when I was underground when I was working. I just touched different phases of my life. “Badman no threaten me, you no fit kill who don die before,” I was just touching different situations. I hid some truth in some punchlines while some I just spoke out raw. So yeah, it’s just me talking about different phases of my life. Spilling little teas of different phases of my life. I can’t spill everything in one song. There are plenty more songs where I will share these truths.
You do come across as an old soul. The way you talk, the things you’ve shared. It does feel like you’ve been through a lot on earth.
Yeah, I have.
And what were these phases? Can you just walk me through a few of them?
Hmmm… It’s too many to talk about. But I’d just say there were struggles in growing up. You know, between my mum and my dad, losing my dad, the insecurities. The fear within school trying to meet up with people’s expectations, peer pressure, within the church, living by the rules. I would say trying to convey the feeling of giving praise to the Most High and also feeding my family going through a lot. Switching up the sound, going into secular music, the competitions I went through in Benin City, the ones I won. The people that used me in different phases of life, in different aspects where I was deemed not smart enough. So most of my knowledge or wisdom didn’t really come from books or people, it literally came from experience. Running away from home, going to Ghana to work shit out for my life, my family. My mum going through her phase and me being the only man to provide for my family at the age of 15. I had to get my hands dirty in different aspects. So yeah, that’s it.
You grew up way too early.
I would say I grew up way too early and you know, I was forced to abort my childhood. I know I’m still young. But I’d say, my early youth, I didn’t really enjoy it. I didn’t really do what youths do during their 15s or their 20s or 21. I’m 21 but life got serious real quick, so I had to man up. I feel like a lot more people have gone through their own phases, but not a lot of people wake themselves up. but I did and I had to put down some things. Like some sacrifices which some youths won’t like to drop. They want to live life fast but I had to stay grounded and push.
I’m just wondering about that sense of I-must-get-it-right because of the cards life dealt you, how did that influence your music?
I would say my music is influenced by my personality. My mind state. I won’t really say it’s the music. I’d say whatever way I feel or whatever situation I go through affects or unlocks a new phase to my music. I do not solely believe on talent. I believe in everything that has to do with my inside. Whatever comes out, if the music is good, if the music is…I’ve not made bad music but yeah. Let’s just say it’s like a bunch of flowers inside of me. So I have to water them, I have to make sure they are in the sun at the right time. So literally, whatever music, whatever my talent speaks out, is as a result of how well I’m taking care of my spirit, my soul, my mind state, my heart, my emotions, my insecurities or fears. That’s it.
And this sound that you brought in, Afro Rave, is this still a product of your spirit?
It’s a gift from God. I cannot personalise it. It’s beyond my power. It’s unusual. At this point, it’s quite tough even singing on normal notes. I don’t even know what normal notes sound like anymore. I’m not super-musically educated. I just know how things should sound. I don’t know what is EEFK. I don’t know any of that shit and what it should sound like. But all I know is, I know how music should sound. I know what a hit song sounds like. So I can’t give credit to myself. People feel like I go through a deep state when I’m trying to create, I have candles all lit up in one spiritual room. I just play in the studio, I just have my fun. It’s not tough. It’s just a gift. And after my sessions, after my releases, I always give glory to God because sometimes I listen to my music, and to be honest it’s like I was not consciously creating until I leave the studio. And I’m playing the song when I’m driving, and I’m like ‘Wow, I’ve been in the studio for about 1 hour and I created these songs, wow. Wow, I’m talented.’ But I cannot personalise it, I just give glory to God. It’s not normal. I don’t even understand myself so why should people understand. Abeg (laughs).
Do you hold it against people who try to put you in a box so they could properly understand you?
I feel like whatever people call me is how far their mind can go. So how far their mind can go might be Indian, ’cause that’s what their mental state can relate with. I won’t call it Indian, I’d just say that I’m different. But now slowly, it’s getting much more visible and people can tell that I’m really not one of the artists out here. In as much as people want me to make it big, or publications want me to make it look big or super intense, I would say plain and easy that it’s a gift from God. And I cannot put it in the same category of music as everybody’s sound that we say Afrobeats. It’s clearly not Afrobeats. This is not Afrobeats. What I’m doing is different. So I cannot normalize it because I’m trying to fit in. No, I’d rather create my own. It’s different, it’s influential, it’s spiritual, it’s from another dimension. I cannot give it a name that has been normalized. I want to be different from everybody. It’s the way I stand out.
Your aesthetics have become darker with bears and bats signalling to your followers. Why do you do this?
I’d say they are all unplanned. It comes from my phases. I told you, whatever you see out there or through Rema is literally a phase that he’s going through. It’s different type of phases, there are emotional phases which brings out ‘Peace of Mind.’ There are creative phases which brings out ‘Iron Man,’ there are love phases that bring out ‘Ginger Me.’ So it’s literally what takes a hold of the spirit more at a point in time. So it’s not something that the label can really strategize. The label really moves with my move. Whatever I act on, that’s what the team can strategize towards. They never knew I was going to cut my dreads until I posted. And they were like what do you do next? I said, what is to be done. Let my spirit lead me to whatever it’s drawing me towards. But did that take anything away from my brand? No. I’m still Rema, yes. I’m getting bigger, yes. Is the magic in the dreads or what? I’m still making hits.
So it’s never planned. I just take decisions, creatively, brand-wise that is led by a phase that takes a hold of the spirit. It could be emotional, it could be spiritual, it could be artistic or whatever. I let my spirit enjoy its freedom. That’s why my music is free, that’s why I don’t keep making the same thing because my spirit is a free spirit creatively. I understand my inner self. It’s a whole new world inside of me. I see past what everybody sees. Everybody is too normal. The world talks too much. Everybody’s trying to meet up. Everybody’s trying to catch up and make the next man proud. I’m not looking at that shit. I’m just enjoying myself. Because I know that when I close my eyes and say it’s done, it’s really done. People should not be scared of me, they should be scared of the people I’ve inspired. People who are coming. It’s been a really long period of time where people have been meeting up with people’s expectations, and it’s just like I came and broke that simulation. I don’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks or what I wear or how I look. I just do me. I’m so happy.
Am I right to say you don’t feel like you belong here?
At all, I don’t.
Then where do you belong?
I feel like every day I wake up, my soul always yearns for something. I feel like my soul wants me to achieve things that will lead me to where I ought to be. Like if I sit down in my crib and not work on my talent, not do that freestyle that my soul yearns for, I would not be speaking to you today. So I would not be in the same room with Virgil Abloh, I would not be in the same room with the likes of Kylie Jenner or Drake. I feel like my spirit is actually pushing me to get to stages that would lead me to where I ought to belong. Even though I have to deal in a lot of spaces, I don’t really fit in. I don’t force myself. If I walk into gatherings and they say jokes that I don’t laugh to, I don’t force it. I shake who I want to shake. When I feel the energy is violated, I leave. I don’t forcefully make friends, so people can appreciate healthy competition or call me humble. I just go towards what my soul yearns for and I do it in humility. But however people want to take it, they should take it but as long as I’m happy. As long as I know that I did not open my mouth to curse any man or to downplay any man. I’m just minding my business and people have an issue with not just understanding me, I feel it’s okay not to be understood. I just ride along like that. Nothing much.
This growth process, being in the same room with people you’ve mentioned what has it done to you?
This growth has literally taught me a lesson that I’m very special and I should not let anyone undermine me or overwork me. It shows that I should trust my ideas. It shows that I should trust the voice in my soul that speaks, that leads me.
Can you recall the first room you entered and you felt something in your spirit say I’m on the right path in this growth journey?
My first time on stage, I knew I was on the right path. At the (2018) Homecoming, after my Rema EP, I knew I was literally at the right path. Ever since then, it’s been smooth for me. I’ve not had a point of doubt apart from when I was in my dark state. But asides that, I always knew I’ve been on the right path. But there come times that you’re tested and the devil pushes you to doubt yourself. I’ve gone through so many tests that I’ve gotten used to this formula. So I know when a phase is about to be unlocked. So I go to the dark state and come out of the light with a new phase, a new knowledge, a new mode to act and all.
When you go on this ‘wisdom dump’ on the world via Twitter or any other platform you use, is that symbolic of the next stage? Why is it important that world treats you the way you want them to treat you? Or the world responds to you the way you want them to?
If I shame myself, nobody can shame me. That’s one. I want to be able to walk out of my house feeling like myself. Not succumbing to the rules of the game or how to act. I’ve been brought up by my mum and I’ve been taught a lot of things growing up spiritually, and I’ve gotten parental advice and financial advice. How to move, how to act. And it has really brought me this far. And seeing people trying to change me or trying to push me to switch myself up for them to accept me, I cannot accept that. Even though I succumb to their rules, there would still be people who won’t like me. Which would be the real people not liking me because I’m fake. So I’d rather be real, so the fake people cannot like me. Rather than be fake and for real people not to like me. I stay real, stay true to myself. I want to be comfortable. I want to be able to go to restaurants and eat and clean my mouth and walk. I don’t want to owe anybody, I don’t want to owe no stylist. I want to buy my clothes, I want to repeat my clothes. I want people to see me in the economy flight and say yes, he’s rich but he doesn’t give a fuck.
I want to be free. I just want to enjoy my life ’cause I’m young. I don’t want to be all stuck up. In as much as I’m free, I know I’m not everywhere. I’d never be that guy that’s everywhere. But I just want to have that inner peace that I’m me. That when I talk, Divine Ekubor talks. I just want to be myself wherever I go. I want to laugh, I want to chill with people. If I don’t connect with people, I want to walk out and they say ‘he’s like that. Leave him. He’s not feeling it. Just let him go.’ I want to be that guy. I don’t want to force shit in this game because I’ve seen a lot, I’ve heard a lot. People’s fake out here. So when I’m in dinner tables, those meetings, I no dey force anything. If you don’t understand me, cool. If you love me, cool. I’m so free. And I feel like that’s why a lot of artists go through their drug phase, the alcohol phase because they’ve spent a lot of time not being themselves. And they feel like when they take those things, then they can have stability. But I just feel like this is my medication. Being myself is my medication. So this is my drug. So who wants to do whatever he wants to do can do it, as far as that can make the person be themselves. But this is my drug, this is my medication. This is my weed, this is my smoke. Being creatively free, my personality-free, I feel so at peace.
The world made you grow up fast. With stability and resources at your disposal, have you been able to afford yourself space to be a child?
It’s tough. It’s tough to be a child again. Even when I try to have fun, it’s like it’s forced. I feel like I have gone too deep into this, that even when I want to have fun, I spend a whole bunch of money to have fun. Being a child, being young, you could have some things taken care of. If I want to have fun, I need to pay for security, I need to… you have to have fun with other people. You can’t even have fun by yourself. I can’t go anywhere by myself. I can’t do nothing by myself. Responsibilities everywhere, expectations everywhere. If I go to the beach and say I just want to have me-time, I cannot have me-time now. I’d still carry 200k or 100k to settle alaye boys. I can’t meditate on the beach or something ’cause when I’m trying to meditate, there’s someone shouting ‘ah, Rema baba.’ So the best place I can be a child is just in my house, playing video games, drawing and having my creative fun. But it’s not really fun. But that’s past now, I just feel like in whatever you want to achieve, you must sha sacrifice something. So I think what I sacrificed is my youth, it’s my childhood and I should just learn to live like this and move on. David became a king at the age of 17, so why should I feel like I lost something? David controlled the whole of Israel, controlled the armies for war at age 17. David was fighting bears in the bush. His father did not know what he was going through. No police, no poachers to help him fight the bear and the lion he killed. But he conquered right? So why should I feel like the world is on my head? What I can do, I will do. That’s what I let my label know. I would do my best but I will not kill myself.
When you came into this game, you were very young. You had this baby face thing going on, people would look at Rema and say ‘who is this small kid? I want to hug him. He’s so cute.’ Now nobody thinks of Rema as cute again. People look at Rema now and in their head, they’re like ‘who’s this bad boy? Was this transition deliberate?
To be honest, no. The songs came at the right time, the knowledge came at the right time. It’s just like when God wakes you up and tell Abraham to go to another state. And says, ‘don’t worry he’d make you successful. Just go.’ That’s what it’s like. Wake up, go to the studio, make that type song. Or just wake up, cut your dreads off. Or wake up, eat healthily and get a nice body. Everything’s just the same thing. It’s not like everybody, Don Jazzy was strategizing one crazy-ass plan. It’s just in-built I swear. I just listen more than I talk. I don’t really watch to copy. I just look within myself and believe myself. I can literally switch how I’m ought to be seen. I can switch it back from that bad boy to that baby boy. It’s in my power. It’s in the power of my sound. I control my shit now. That’s what people don’t really understand. Unconsciously, I control my shit. I control my content, I control how I should be seen. I control how my sound should be perceived. I control everything. And I’m glad I’m in a label where they listen to me. It could be three days to when I want to drop a song and I say take it down, I’m not dropping anymore. You feel me. Sometimes I say take it down, I don’t think they deserve this sound. I’d drop it 2023. I’d drop it 2024. I’m that guy. So I orchestrate how I’d be seen, I orchestrate how I’d be perceived. It’s not planned at all. There’s no strategy towards it. The label just rides along with what I put on the table.
One of your photos with Don Jazzy went viral. What’s the dynamic between you and Don Jazzy? And how does that relationship play into your work and your career?
Musically, I gain advice from Don Jazzy. Industry-wise, I gain advice from Don Jazzy. But that picture speaks a lot. Asides music, Don Jazzy teaches me the business. Not a lot of label bosses teach the artist that. But when they find the right minds, they share. I’m not saying I know everything that Don Jazzy knows, I’m just saying slowly, Don Jazzy is walking me through the business. That’s what that picture really speaks out for. It’s not literally about oga and son. It’s not that vibe. It’s the boss and the boy who does the dirty job. That’s what’s like. It’s a cartel boss who sends his boy to go get security money from the game. That type shit. Yes, he’s teaching me to see from another angle. If people want to compare me music-wise, they are good to go. But in terms of knowledge pertaining to the industry, I think I’m at a very good point. I actually see the game from another point of view. So that’s why my mind is kind of placed so I see past the mirage, past the fog. Because I’m being mentored. So literally that picture really speaks out for that. Mavin Records sorry, I’ve been saying label all this while. I just want you to understand, it’s not a label. That shit is not a label. It’s a fucking cartel. We run the business. When you print out this publication, just call me the boy from the cartel that does the dirty job.
You’re vocal about not bowing down to people. About running your busines and being hyper-independent. Did that viewpoint also come from this mentorship dynamic with Don Jazzy?
It’s a mixture of knowledge from Don Jazzy and D’Prince and my personal behaviour before the fame. It’s a bit of me, it’s a bit of D’Prince, it’s a bit of Don Jazzy. And that bit, we’re only sharing 50%. While the remaining 50% is from God. So Don Jazzy’s knowledge, D’Prince’s knowledge and my knowledge are sharing 50%, while 50% goes to the visions from God. I see myself as a king. So my mode of operations is just influenced by those four entities and it’s not everything I pick. I sieve what I want to gain because everybody will share what they know. But I cannot be them. I cannot be Don Jazzy, I cannot be D’Prince, I can only be myself. So what I do is take what I need or what my spirit is drawn towards or it catches. I take my notes down when I’m around them. When I meditate, I take my truth. When I connect with my past I take the truth from the past. And whatever is set for my future, God gave me the vision and I connect it. And when it’s out there, people feel like it’s smart or ‘look at the way he’s operating. He switched it up.’ I did not switch it up, I was just living my life according to the vision. The formula I’ve put in place for my journey. That’s all
What is this new project? What is this new direction? Where are you going with Rave & Roses?
In terms of direction, I have read a lot of publications about a lot of artists when they are about to drop albums. Yes, everybody has their own vision. I feel like everybody is too deep abeg. Everybody is too serious; coming from the mountain vibe, I had one revelation that…abegi. All I want to do is influence the sound. I’m going to put out a project that depicts my inner self. That depicts my level of creativity and how I see sound and how sound should be projected. I’m here to globalize African music. I won’t just give all the glory to myself. I would say I’m here as one of the soldiers in the army to globalize Afrobeats.
Latin had their run for a lot of years before they were globalised. Now they are recognised and they have good categories in the awards. And they’re having huge concerts, and they have a large fanbase. Which is what I’m yearning for. I’ve done two US tours without an album. So it’s really visible that my sound is really tripping into territories already. Some territories we’ve not really gone for because I want to put more fuel. So that when I light that fire, it goes crazy. I’m not forming I’m fighting for the nation, or I’m doing this with the album. I’m saying is I just want to make sweet music. I want to make music to make people elevate themselves, perceive African music in a different way. I want to feed people’s souls with sounds and frequencies. And asides the message, whatever topic the song entails to the listener, good. I’m not saying this is what they’d expect because genre-wise, my hands are wide open. There’s not a particular genre for this one, there’s not a particular topic for this one. I’m touching everywhere according to my experience.
I will not force it and say ‘oh, this guy is singing for the country, let me add one song for the nation.’ Whatever the nation has done to me, I’d speak about. But if I feel like I’m matured enough to touch some topics, I will. Topics that people will expect and not see on the album, they should hold on for it because I’d be here for a long time. So why rush it? I will surely sing about a lot of things but I want to just enjoy myself with this project and share my experience of what I’m most intimate about musically, that’s all.
What’s the end goal for all of these things? How does it all come together for you?
End goal? Wow! There’s no end. The journey is unlimited at this point. Where I see myself years to come is beyond any man’s expectation or my expectation. The sound, the brand, the personality. All I just ask for from God is good health and more grace and more ideas. At this point in time, it’s hard to pinpoint an end goal. There’s no end goal. All I know is that there’s going to be a huge influence of Rema in this world. I would leave a huge mark on this world and that’s all there is to it. That’s all. In terms of every aspect of life, what people know for now is music. So I think just as someone will do music to have capital to pursue passion of fashion, or pursue a passion of engineering, that is what I see every aspect of my life. I feel like every aspect of my life is a capital leading to another aspect of my passion-driven self. So I’m literally at an infinite state, in terms of what I will achieve and what I’m yet to achieve.