Rema vs. the world
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“I’m 21, but life got serious real quick,” Rema states over a phone line from Lagos. He isn’t exaggerating. Many years ago, aged just eight, the Nigerian star-in-the-making lost his father. At 15, he ran away from home, making the journey from Benin City in southern Nigeria to Ghana’s capital Accra, where he says he went to “work shit out for my life, my family.” He had a mum who depended on him, siblings who needed schooling and support, and a budding talent to nurture and exploit. “Being the only man to provide for my family, I had to get my hands dirty.”
Rema, real name Divine Ikubor, never speaks about the specifics of what went down in Accra during one of the most difficult periods of his life. But that premature initiation into familial responsibility defined his approach to work. As the world shut down in 2020, Rema returned to Ghana again; the enforced downtime in some ways suited the singer, who – although outspoken when he wants or needs to be – seems to prefer privacy. “I don’t really share my hustle with the world,” he sighs. “If it’s not something public, I don’t feel the rest of the world should know. Even when I make music I don’t really post up and let people know that I’m working. Letting people know the results is better than letting people know the process.”
And the results are definitely showing. He was just 18 when he inked a deal with a subsidiary of Nigerian label Mavin Records, but despite his close association with an industry powerhouse, Rema is clear that he runs his business. He dictates his creative direction, preferring to lead with his ideas and many of his lived experiences. Indeed, one of Rema’s recent, pivotal moments has come from a collaboration with ties to his one-time home, Ghana. Last year, he sang the hook and verse on Dimension, a 2020 hit by in-demand British-Ghanaian producer JAE5 – most famous for his work with J Hus. The Accra-shot video sees Rema raise his fists to the sky while singing in the lucid, dreamy voice: “Bad man don’t threaten me/ You no fi kill who done die before”. On the day the song was released, Rema simply tweeted: “Spoke my truth.” The post came with that hint of defiance that is typically Rema, a suggestion that he’s working to some grander plan. But what truth is he referring to?
"I don’t really share my hustle with the world. Letting people know the results is better than letting people know the process"
“The truth is literally what you hear in the verse and the chorus. I’m not from here; I don’t belong. Nobody been look my face when I dey on my own – that’s saying that nobody send me when I was underground, when I was still working. It’s me talking about different phases of my life,” he explains.
Rema’s life has never obeyed convention, nor has it been an easy ride. His gift for music was discovered early, singing in church back in Benin City. And while the tragic death of his father, local politician Justice Ikubor, plunged his family into poverty, music provided an opportunity to escape. Building on his raw talent, Rema linked up with boys from his neighbourhood, and helped run a rap programme in church.
Still, these formative years were turbulent for Rema. Thrust into the brutality of the real world, the young artist was forced to conquer hardship many wouldn’t be exposed to in a lifetime. “I would say I grew up way too early and, you know, I was forced to abort my childhood,” he recalls. “I know I’m still young, but I didn’t really enjoy my early youth. I didn’t do what young people do during this time. A lot of people have gone through their own phases, but not a lot wake themselves up. But I did. I had to make sacrifices; I had to stay grounded and push.”
This push resulted in Rema’s arrival into mainstream consciousness. In February 2018, Rema shared a freestyle he rapped over Afropop singer D’Prince’s song, Gucci Gang. The track, featuring Don Jazzy and Nigerian-American superstar Davido, caught the attention of D’Prince, who later signed him to Jonzing World, a subsidiary of Mavin Records. Next, a move to Nigeria’s creative hub Lagos, where he began his artist development. Here, under the mentorship of Mavin CEO Don Jazzy, Rema began to find his identity and voice. (“He teaches me the business,” Rema says of Jazzy. “Not a lot of label bosses teach the artist that. But when they find the right minds, they share.”) In 2019, Rema dropped his first official release – a four-track eponymous EP. It made a mark, mostly due to Dumebi, a one-take smash that revealed Rema’s intuition as a recording artist. Another single, Iron Man, was listed by former US President Barack Obama as a personal playlist staple. The baby-faced singer may have adopted a teddy bear as a totem, a not-so-subtle nod to his youth, but he was on track to becoming an international contender, backed by a fanbase which he coined ‘ravers’. It’s a nickname that stems from ‘Afrorave’ – a self-proclaimed descriptor, of sorts, for his style of music.
But his rise didn’t come without controversy and detractors. His compelling use of melody has polarised fans: people debated his influences, with some critics claiming he sampled heavily from Bollywood soundtracks. The situation hasn’t sat well with Rema. According to the singer, his sound was “a gift from God”. Indeed, when speaking of the approach that catapulted him to success, Rema says he owes it all to the powers that be. “I cannot personalise it; it’s beyond my power. At this point, it’s quite tough even singing on normal notes. I don’t even know what normal notes sound like anymore.” Here, his voice lights up, as it tends to do when he discusses music. “I’m not super musically educated, all I know is how music should sound. I know what a hit song sounds like. I can’t give credit to myself,” he admits.
But regardless whether or not Rema can articulate what it is, something is resonating. When we speak, he’s just returned to Lagos from a two-week tour of the US, where he lit up venues in cultural hotspots like Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta and Washington D.C. Perhaps inevitably, Rema doesn’t credit a wider trend for this: “This is clearly not Afrobeats.” He explains, eager to put clear water between what he’s doing and the genre that, over the last few years, has grown into a worldwide sensation. “I’d rather create my own sound. It’s different, it’s influential, it’s spiritual, it’s from another dimension, so I cannot give [my music] a name that has been normalised.”
"I’d rather create my own sound. It’s different, it’s spiritual, it’s from another dimension. I cannot give my music a name"
In life or in music, Rema has never been one to hold back on his views or convictions. Recently, though, this outspokenness became a matter of life and death. On 3 October 2020, a video surfaced of a Nigerian Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) officer shooting an unarmed young man. It was then alleged that one of the officers stole the victim’s vehicle after the fact – unsurprising for an organisation that is known for illegally detaining young Nigerians and extorting their families for money. Just as the #endSARS hashtag began to trend on social media the world over, another report of the killing of emerging musician Daniel Chibuike, known as Sleek, came to the fore. Incensed, citizens took to the streets to protest against the corrupt government unit, in what became the country’s second – and perhaps most potent – wave of the #endSARS movement. It resulted in the brutal murders of peaceful protestors at Lagos’ Lekki toll gate, at the hands of the national army.
Rema also joined the rallying cry for justice. This once-in-a-generation resistance, led primarily by the youth, was intensified by calls for reform and clashes with the police.
“People are suffering. I care about people. Life would be better if the people in power listened to the people,” Rema told British Vogue in the wake of the uprising. “But, right now, the youths are confused and tired.” At the height of the conflict, he even symbolically shaved his head; a means to convey his own message of defiance to SARS officers who often target young men who wear dreadlocks.
But it was on Peace of Mind, the meditative single released in December 2020, where Rema documented his frustrations in full colour. “But, we no dey certain weytin go sup tomorrow ewe/ One bottle schnapp to cure my craze/ You no fit dey this country wey you no they craze,” he laments in Nigerian Pidgin. “Gunshot no let me meditate/ Hypertension full all the place /People they die/ Police sef no go deny the case.” This direct condemnation of the government’s denial of the Lekki toll gate massacre echoed across his peers, becoming something of a mournful hymn. But even in all its sorrow, Peace of Mind also offers glimmers of hope in its paced production and jangly west African guitars. It signified a defining moment for an artist who has the makings to become the voice of a generation.
One of his main goals is to advocate for African music on a worldwide scale. “I want to make music so [people] perceive African music in a different way. Latin [artists] had their run for a lot of years before they were globalised – now they’re recognised. That’s what I’m yearning for. I’ve done two US tours without an album,” he continues, “so it’s clear that my sound is tipping into new territories already.” Now, his focus is on his debut album, with the rest of the summer one big push – that word again – towards its release. Tracks like the Don Jazzy-produced and slow-building Bounce, with its hypnotic low end and addictive synth, suggest Rema is well equipped to make good on his plans for a world takeover. “I want to make music that helps people elevate themselves – I want to feed people’s souls with sounds.”
The 21-year-old from Benin City has certainly come a long way from the days he used to clutch to teddies – though still a trademark – and wear balaclavas to mask his social anxiety. To mark this personal shift towards maturity, he’s chosen to adopt the bat as his artistic emblem, writing on Twitter: “In Benin City, when you look up at the sky in the evening all you see is bats flying and that’s why it’s my signature emoji, a constant reminder of where I’m from.” The artwork for recent single Bounce, in particular, reflects this mood change to literal effect: a human-bat hybrid hovers over a sea of cartoon people being abducted by UFOs, while a furious-faced teddy bear and skeleton stand at the centre. It’s a fitting visual for an artist that refuses to be defined and relishes in his supernatural abilities; a space traveller who just happened to land on Earth. Not that he’d ever claim that description – he’s far too ambitious for that. Instead, he offers: “Whatever people call me is how far their minds can go… I’d just say that I’m different. Now I’m much more visible, people can tell that I’m really not like artists out there.”
Rema appears at YAM Carnival in London on 28 August