Rema remembers the distinct feeling of despair he felt performing some of his new songs at shows outside Nigeria as last year’s momentous #EndSARS protests began to take shape.
“It was deeply troubling for me,” he admits when we catch up to talk about that period on a Zoom call in March. At 20, and being in-tune with the flow of popular culture in the west African country, even being physically removed from the emotional catharsis and soul-crushing devastation of the anti-police brutality protests did not shield the musician born Divine Ikubor from the movement’s wider anxieties.
"I was happy to be doing shows but seeing how young people were suffering despite the protests affected my mental state," Rema adds. "This is something we have all faced, so I could relate to it all.”
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When Rema speaks about facing it, there’s a steeliness to his voice that hints at more personal grievances playing below the shadows that were magnified by last year’s protests which ultimately became a wider denunciation of the state of politics, public life, and state-sanctioned violence in Nigeria. In September, just a few days before the protests began in full flow, Rema went on a tweeting spree that culminated in him calling out the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), one of Nigeria’s frontline political party, to investigate the death of his father, Justice Ikubor, a PDP stalwart who was found dead in a hotel room in Edo over a decade ago.
It was a brief glimpse at one of the personal traumas that litter the life of the ascendant superstar, even if that’s not something he’d necessarily want to get into, instead choosing to guide the conversation back to his music and the potentiality of it to heal. “My best therapy is music,” he explains. “Whatever way I feel with life, I let the music speak for me because I can feel free”
On 'Peace Of Mind', released in the last month of 2020, Rema’s feelings and the impulse of the nation converged over Kel P’s spectral beat for what was, at once, a counting of cost and aural therapy after one of the hardest years in recent memory. “During that period, I was trying to express my feelings through music and I think I expressed where my mind and energy were at on that record,” he says. “I wanted to create a song where I could still dance to my pain instead of letting it weigh me down.”
Curiously, 'Peace Of Mind' was one of the first times when Rema’s hypnotic, genre-meshing version of afrobeats won unanimous acclaim with some detractors quick to chalk up his genre-bending to the whims of a Gen Z-er, but the reluctance doesn’t bother Rema who maintains a philosophical air about it. “Because I’m always creating new stuff, it doesn’t have the praise or acclaim it should have,” he starts candidly. “There’s always criticism or people saying I shouldn’t do something. Other times, they question why I’m making hybrids of afrobeats with other sounds, they even say that my melodies are too weird. People always want to look for faults but I think everyone connects to the vibes they like and I’ve probably not put out something they liked.”
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Across three EPs and one compilation album, Rema has proven why he’s widely regarded as a leader among today’s crop of artists by first making an international splash with 'Dumebi', and establishing himself with a series of pop fusions that position him as a citizen of the world more than a young Nigerian born and raised in Benin, Edo state. “It’s a great thing when I hear people say that I don’t sound like anything they’ve heard or that has been released. People recognising the difference motivates me to do more and I feel special that way,” he says.
His latest song, 'Booty Bounce', boasting a rare Don Jazzy production credit, sees Rema take his experimentation to the next level with an effervescent anthem that has taken Nigeria by storm and heightened expectations for the debut album that he says he’s done with. “My album is also going to spark a new set of hybrids and do wonders for what afrobeats sounds like,” he tells me assuredly. “I know what’s on there and it’s going to give a new definition to Africa to the world.”
A week after we speak, Rema shares a tweet that puts his success into context: his debut project, Rema E.P., came out two years ago. But because of the heights he has scaled and his presence, it is difficult to remember what afrobeats looked like before he came on the scene. As our conversation meanders to a close, I wonder aloud if he knew he was going to achieve all that has come his way. If he knew he was going to be able to command the world’s attention.
“I knew it was coming because I made the sacrifices,” he offers almost immediately. “I know the sacrifices I made before I came here. I know the sacrifices I made when I came here and I know the sacrifices I’m still making. “
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Words: Wale Oloworekende
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