Rema on his debut album Raves & Roses, SARS and why he still wants to go to college
This inaugural release showcased to the world his incredible ability to, like a less crazed Young Thug, construct perfect little mutant pop songs. In his hands, everything – a mumble, a buzz, a moan – becomes a hook. While he may not have invented melodious sung rap, he has nearly mastered his own version of it. What at one moment sounds like boy band harmonies in another breath scans like Fetty Wap intoning sounds of classical Hindustani music, as he warps his slightly nasal voice into a variety of eerie timbres. On his unmissable viral hit “Dumebi” – which has clocked up nearly 60 million streams on Spotify alone – he fuses his favorite dialects of Nigerian pidgin, Yoruba and Edo with indecipherable gibberish to hypnotic effect. (He tends to compose melodies before he puts pen to paper and decided in this case to stick to substitute verses). And yet, he insists on emphasizing that he is a rapper at heart. Before her career took off, Rema never sang. “Even though I was singing,” he says, “it was usually to a hip-hop beat, never to Afrobeats.”
Artists associated with Afrobeats frequently address gender classification issues. Alternative labels are offered as replacements for Afrobeats (plural), which some consider detached from the guttural funk, jazz, highlife, fuji and Yoruba percussion popularized by Afrobeat pioneer (singular) Fela Kuti, the heroic pan-Africanist. and wild-eyed musical Martian. Fellow Nigerian Burna Boy calls his music Afro-fusion, while Rema himself prefers Afro-rave. Although these terms seem indefinable, they touch the heart of modern Afrobeats: a futuristic fusionism that draws heavily on rap, R&B, pop, and West African rhythms and vocal patterns.
Rema has joined Burna Boy, WizKid and Tiwa Savage among others in a wave of Nigerian pop that is penetrating Western charts with its haunting grooves. These artists are all hybrids and polyglots, musical omnivores more globally minded than any of their pop contemporaries in the West. Go anywhere in London outside of the imperious grayscale city center, especially on warm days, and you’ll hear the funky, sneaky beats of Afrobeats. The day after my interview with Rema, the contagious refrain of Rave & Roses the single “Calm Down” (an avalanche of monosyllabic “whoas”) can be heard booming from a passing car. “Good music,” he replies matter-of-factly, when I ask why Western tastemakers have only recently begun to pay serious attention to African music. “You have to start with the music. Every song we heard in West Africa wasn’t always because of the promo. Good music met us here in Africa.
Born Divine Ikubor, Rema grew up in Benin City, the former capital of the Kingdom of Benin, a pre-colonial African power with a rich history of its own before a bloody annexation by Britain in 1897. Speaking of his hometown and of her childhood, Rema leans back thoughtfully in her seat. From 4 p.m., the city sky is there, it gestures towards the ceiling, darkened by blankets of pitch black bats (whose emoji has become the badge of Rema fans, whom he calls the ravers). In this “small but big city”, he says, everyone knows each other. There is community. However, it has not always been easy.