Written by Eniafe Momodu for Glam Africa Magazine’s Spring 2021 Edition

When Teni arrived at the Spotlight Photos & Imagery studio on March 10th 2021 after weeks of planning and coordination, I was excited to finally be conducting a sit-down interview with the widely beloved singer, and to be creative directing one of the most colourful shoots of her career thus far. Teni’s boisterous voice announced her arrival first, from a distance, as she bantered her way up the staircase with three of her team members, escorted by the studio assistant, Ayomide. Our shoot, originally scheduled for March 1st, had to be postponed to give Teni a few days to take a break from work commitments before the final stretch of press engagements for the release of her debut studio album, Wondaland, released on all major platforms on March 19th. When the new D-Day had finally arrived, Teni had just returned from a short trip to Cameroon, and seemed to be in very high spirits.

I welcomed Teni and her team to the studio and asked if they needed anything before we got started.

“Food!” Teni replied gleefully. Thankfully, I had already arranged for the best small chops in Lagos to be delivered to our set, and they were only a few minutes away now.

When Teni saw Toby, one of her usual makeup artists, set up and waiting for her in the dressing room, she chuckled in a way that indicated she was surprised to see her there – like she had been hoping to get away with wearing no makeup for this shoot.

“You!” Teni exclaimed. “Our regular customer. You already know I don’t like stress.”

“Don’t worry,” Toby replied, clearly unsurprised by Teni’s reluctance. “We’re doing a very minimal look today. It’ll just take 10 minutes.”

Assured by her words, Teni made her way to the fold up chair and took a seat in front of the mirror, ready to begin her makeup session. Teni’s energy was all the way up, perhaps owing to her recent trip to her hometown in Ondo State where she’d taken a spontaneous getaway to rest and re-energise in the first week of March. Above anything else, I wanted to know how Teni had been faring amidst her rigorous press schedule, and how she was doing mentally and physically.

“It’s been very stressful, to be honest with you. Having to do a thousand things in one day – get on interviews, get on phone calls. But this is the life we chose. Or, should I say, the life that chose us.”

It’s true. As all industry insiders know, the life of a superstar is not all glitter and gold, it involves time, dedication and a lot of unseen work. Teni, by now, was no stranger to this lifestyle, and this was not my first time taking a sneak peak into the behind the scenes life of Teni the Entertainer, although when Teni had said the words ‘nice to meet you’ just a few minutes earlier, I declined the opportunity to tell her this.

The story takes place in London, in August of 2019. I was supposed to interview Teni before her live mini-concert, ‘A Night With Teni’, which was taking place at a Nigerian restaurant called Enish. I had been invited by Teni’s management to the Hilton Hotel in Wembley, where Teni was staying. Having enough experience to know she would never have been ready on time, I decided to arrive at the hotel an hour or two later than the agreed upon time. But despite my prudence, when I arrived at the Hilton, Teni was nowhere to be found.

I sent a message to Teni’s manager to let him know I was around. He replied that Teni was at a recording studio working on some tracks, but would be returning to the hotel shortly. Encouraged by his words, I waited in the hotel lobby for what I was sure would be an imminent arrival. But then an hour passed. And then two. Then three. And four… 

Still, the singer failed to materialise. In retrospect, I might have left after the first hour or two of waiting if not for the semi-regular updates from Teni’s management letting me know that she would be “leaving the studio any minute now” or that she was “just finishing up”. Meanwhile, the hours went by and the day turned to evening. Coincidentally, my friend Osas Ighodaro, a Nollywood actress, was staying at the same hotel that weekend and came to the lobby to keep me company. We spent about 3 hours together before I received a text informing me that Teni was at the hotel.

It was close to midnight already, and by the time she’d returned, a tinted black car was already waiting outside to take her to the concert venue. Her manager, ever-focused on the objective, invited me to accompany them and conduct the interview at the venue. I obliged, reluctant from my fatigue and hunger, but still keen to ensure the hours I’d spent waiting did not go to waste.

Of course, the interview never happened. The restaurant was noisy and crowded, and even though the VIP area was somewhat secluded from the rest of the large room, any kind of meaningful conversation could never have been possible. Teni sat in the corner quietly, relishing the performances by her opening acts. Shy fans approached Teni with selfie requests, which she granted with a smile, while waiters brought endless trays of food to our table, an array of soups and swallows that I eyed longingly but dared not touch. While I didn’t get to fulfil my assignment to interview Teni that night, I was given a rare opportunity to witness the magic of Teni the Entertainer up-close.

The crowd erupted with cheers as Teni mounted the stage, beginning to perform a medley of her most recognisable songs, supported by a live band. At one point, midway through her set, Teni paused the show and invited an excited audience member onto the stage, posing a few questions to him in preparation for one of the legendary freestyles Teni had become famous for. His name was Damilola, and he was wearing a bright rose-coloured, button-down shirt.

‘Superstar like me,’ she sang to him over a romantic beat. ‘Fine girl like me, Teni Makanaki baby o, Damilola bobo o, oya bobo, hold my waist o. Bobo, take me home o. Baby, hold my waist o…’ 

The audience laughed and screamed in excitement as Teni pulled the tall, young man towards her in a playful embrace, gently swaying her hips to the beat of the talking drums. The performance was an enchanting mix of sounds and moods, seasoned with catchy lyrics and Teni’s unique brand of humour. The audience couldn’t get enough of her, and neither could I. ‘She’s a star,’ I thought to myself. ‘She’s a one-woman show.’

Toby lowered her makeup brush after about 10 minutes. She had not been exaggerating when she said that was all the time she needed. Teni’s album, Wondaland, was playing over the bluetooth speakers. It was still 9 days away from being released, but Teni’s creative director, Oreoluwa Peters, had sent me a private listening link back in February. From my very first listen of Wondaland I’d been viciously hooked, and after 14 consecutive days of assimilating the aural masterpiece, I was itching to know everything there was to know about the album’s formation.

“It all happened because of the lockdown,” Teni told me. “Before the lockdown, I could never stay in one place. There was a time I went to Atlanta two days in a row. You wouldn’t believe it. I flew to Atlanta for a show, came back to Lagos the same day and then had to go back to Atlanta again the next day. So, COVID keeping me in Lagos actually gave me the chance to stay in one place and work on my album. The album would have probably still come out eventually but I don’t think I would have given it as much attention and time as it needed.”

And it’s a good thing she did. From the very first listen, Wondaland proves itself to be a masterclass in expression, lyricism and musicality. Teni glides dexterously between genres, combining influences from Afropop, Afrohouse, trap, R&B, soul and traditional Yoruba music, while Teni’s smooth vocals possess the confidence and versatility to transition between these musical styles without ever sounding out of place. The infectious danceability of tracks 3 and 4, Moslado and Game Over, is instantly followed by the sombre pensiveness of Hustle (track 5), in which Teni reflects on the pressures and expectations of fame. ‘Sometimes it feels like success is a trap,’ she sings over a tranquil guitar loop. ‘And sometimes it feels like people don’t understand.’ It’s an intimate and sincere departure from the uptempo pop hits Teni is most associated with. The raw emotion is enough to hold the listener’s attention, inviting a close listen, and perhaps even, some introspection.

“I wanted to make an album that different people could relate to. If you look at the album art you’ll see roller-coasters. To me, they represent different emotions, ups and downs. I actually cried on a rollercoaster once while my friends were happy and having a great time. That was the goal of my album – to give people a range of experiences. You can dance to it, you can cry to it, you can even have sex to it.”

The album’s 14th track, simply titled Dad’s Song, is another bundle of emotions in which the song’s narrator finds herself in a one-sided conversation with her late father, reliving the sad days following his death in 1995.  ‘I know you wish that you were here for this, just to witness this. Daddy, last night I had a dream and you were next to me.’  The lyrical content, of course, is biographical. Simeon Apata, a civil war veteran and the founder of Apata Memorial High School, was assassinated in 1995 by unknown gunmen. Dad’s Song serves as a moving tribute to Teni’s father, supported by a soulful musical arrangement which would hardly feel out of place on the soundtrack of Disney’s The Lion King.

“Anyone who knows me knows how important my dad is to me – his legacy. This is my first project and I just felt like I had to honour him in some way. When I recorded the song I was actually watching his funeral. I didn’t want the song to be forced. I wanted all the emotions to be pure so I decided to relive that moment by watching his funeral  videos and recording the song at the same time.”

With songs like Dad’s Song and Were gracing the record, Teni’s lyrical prowess is on full display. In fact, before making her mark as a vocalist and entertainer, Teni was known to many for her songwriting skills first, and for her singing second. In November of 2017, Teni revealed via a now-infamous tweet that Davido’s hit single Like Dat had been penned by none other than Teni herself, a revelation which garnered an onslaught of criticism, particularly from Davido fans, who felt that Teni’s announcement painted him in a negative light. Years later, the backlash is still difficult to comprehend. Some users voiced their opinions via social media, insisting that Teni had shot herself in her foot, and that A-list artists would no longer be interested in working with her. Fast forward a few years and Teni has reunited with her old collaborator Davido for a long overdue power duet titled For You, shutting down once and for all any talks of bad blood between the pair.

“I went out to eat in Ikoyi one day with my friends and as we were leaving in the car I saw David driving. I was like, ‘Guys, that’s David!’ So we followed him all the way from Ikoyi to VI. At one point he made a U-turn and I wound my window down and started yelling his name as he drove past us. He was like ‘Teni! Come, come, come…’, so I crossed over to his car and I just said, ‘I need you on my album. You have to be on my album’. He said, ‘Let’s do it’, and the rest is history.”

The single became an immediate radio hit, and a timeless collaboration between two of Afrobeats’ biggest names. Collaboration-wise, Teni told me she has her sights on Jamaican hitmaker Koffee, as well as Puerto Rican singer/rapper Bad Bunny. But with the entire music industry at her fingertips, many observers will be left wondering why For You is the only collaborative song on Teni’s 17-track album.

“I knew I wanted David on the album, and I knew that if he jumped on that particular song he would do justice to it. But I also wanted to be selfish. I didn’t want anyone else on the album. This is my first album. It’s my baby. I just wanted the world to hear me out, to listen to the music. To listen to me. On my second album there will definitely be a whole bunch of collaborations.”

Teni singled out two rising artists, Victony and Yusufkanbai, who she expects big things from in the years to come. Over the past few years, the Nigerian music industry has welcomed numerous young artists to the centrefold, many of whom were introduced to us by one of their predecessors in the music industry. Megastars like Olamide, Wizkid, Davido and Mr Eazi have been known to use their positions within the industry to elevate emerging talents, ushering in the eras of Mayorkun, Joeboy, Fireboy, Bella Shmurda and numerous others. So as Teni continues her ascent into megastardom, does she have any plans to discover or mentor new artists and prepare them for life in the spotlight à la her peers in the industry?

“Most definitely. The thing is, with artists, we’re very sensitive people so if you’re going to take on somebody’s life – somebody’s career – you cannot mess it up. You can’t just say ‘I want to sign an artist’ without having the resources. You need to make sure you’re setting a stage for them to excel. I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it right. I need to be prepared so I can provide everything they need to succeed.”

We were ready to shoot now, but after almost 3 hours on set, Teni’s stylist was still stuck in traffic. Teni and her crew made the most out of the down time, gisting, laughing, singing, dancing and recording videos. Teni had a Zoom interview with Apple Music scheduled for 6:00 p.m., so by the time Teni’s stylist arrived with the clothes, we had less than an hour to shoot both looks. Her first look was an all pink co-ord topped with a bright, baby pink fur coat (faux, of course), which Teni seemed to enjoy wearing.I got the idea for this look after seeing an old photo of Missy Elliott wearing a fur coat. Missy, like Teni, is a shining example of an artist unapologetically defying the stereotype of how a female artist should look or act. Over the years, Teni has confidently shut down critics who have told her to lose weight, dress ‘girlier’ or adopt a more feminine persona.

“This is who I am. I can’t not be me. I’d be a very sad person. My happiness is key. I have to be myself at all times. Don’t ever apologise for being yourself.”

By the time we finished shooting the second look, Teni’s manager had already joined the Zoom call with Apple Music’s top executives, and had been stalling, muting himself every few seconds, to implore us to round up quickly. As Teni stepped away from the bright red backdrop, her manager handed her his phone and some earphones, instantly thrusting her into her next press engagement, not even having a moment to rest after our shoot, or to change back into her normal clothes. As she took her seat in the corner of the studio and began to introduce herself over the phone, I thought back to the beginning of  our conversation, how she spoke about the hidden struggles of the life she’d chosen, the life that chose her.  ‘She’ll be okay,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is what she was born to do.’

PHOTO CREDITS:
Creative direction: Eniafe Momodu @EniafeMomodu
Photography: Emmanuel Arewa @SpotlightPI
Styling: Angelina Ellah @ellaxstyling
Makeup: Beaute By Toby Makeup Artistry @BeauteByToby_
Hair: Tosin Ayomiku Shobowale @ayomikufifehan
Set Management: Ayomide Adekoya
Editing/retouching: Opeoluwa Olorode