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How Teni broke into the Nigerian mainstream on her own terms


Teni has embraced the politics of her presence in the music industry. How she does this? By being ignorant to the politics. She instead, refers to this politics as her life, one she doesn’t have to prove its validity to anyone.

Teni is one of the few Nigerian artistes to be featured on The Fader. In a brief profile of the Ekiti-born Apata daughter, it was written that her “catchy pop songs are designed to lift you up”.

It is an apt description. Teni’s music is courageously cheerful. Nigeria, home to over 180 million people, is often a frustrating place to live in. An unaided guide through the innermost streets in even its metropolitan states will disarm your guard. Poverty is strife; the cycle of teenage pregnancy is in full bubble; kids run about sometimes at mornings, basking in ignorance yet suffering from a lack of primary school education. Still, they rise. These people show so many teeth. For them, they can’t come and kill themselves, as a popular Nigerian phrase goes.

This cheerfulness in the face of many societal ills is the dominant tone of Teniola’s music sets. As earlier cited, her music is bubbly in its Pop quality, instantaneous in its structure. As suspected, Teni has confirmed she doesn’t write her songs. In an interview with Tim Westwood, she said:

“Everything is a freestyle. I just get into the spirit and I’m gone. Most times I can’t remember if this is me; like I’m lost. I’m lost.”

One finds a semblance in this technique with the musicality of kids, just singing and playing with whatever word pops in their head. But seeing as Teni is a professional musician, what influences her choice of words are narrowed and the sound which accompanies it precise. As a child born into a family of music lovers,  (the Afro House superstar Niniola is her big sister) Teni’s musical influences range from Fuji to Highlife. These impound on the necessary contemporary trend of Afro Pop to give Teni’s music off as s cocktail of sounds.

Teni’s come-up is quite unprecedented. On the surface, there weren’t many factors that sold her off as a mainstay. She was often berated for her looks, her sound, it was said, lacked a gut punch, she wasn’t affiliated with any of her more popular colleagues. ‘Fargin’, released late-2017 changed that: Teni would go on to write what is popularly considered one of the best songs of Davido’s career ‘Like Dat’; she signed on to Nigerian producer Shizzi ‘Magic Fingers Records’; she left the label and signed to Dr. Dolor Entertainment, a partnership she has described as ‘flexible’.

Ever since that break-out, Teni has embraced the politics of her presence in the music industry. How she does this? By being ignorant to the politics. She instead, refers to this politics as her life, one she doesn’t have to prove its validity to anyone.

An open secret it is, that for a female act to be successful, it would take at least twice the talent and efforts than it would take a man. A shortcut that has successfully been employed by the ladies is to present themselves as worthy of the male gaze, as sexual fantasies. These overblown images are sold as the pitch and depending on a number of less influential factors, they are accepted into the folds of the mainstream. Arguably, there have been few female acts that have veered from this “tested and trusted” path but these names exist on the fringes, the alternative. To be mainstream is to swim the murky swim of ‘pimping up’ In one sentence, we can confidently assert Teni as the most alternative artiste in the mainstream.

To grow into the music which dominates today is to be a participator in the trade of sound. A direct opposite from the previous aspiration of being a king in your own home; today, to be a king you have to conquer far away lands and return with trophies of domination: evidence of high charting singles, multiple streams, international collaborations and shows. To do this, many artistes have employed an on-the-go image to be sold to their followers. They always seem to be busy with getting the next collaboration, doing the big interview on a foreign media house, posting a picture of a sold-out venue. The little things that inspire genuine happiness are neglected for the business of PR.

Teni does little of such. When she does, it is with immense gratitude to her fans and God; instead, she lives through her new found celebrity life with her fans, giving them millions worth of reality television entertainment. Across her social media handles, she posts humorous videos regularly. Her kind of humor is not outlandish or forced – you get a feeling she is honest in her deeds. With her unique fashion, these videos are aesthetically elevated. It becomes a move worthy of study: how Teni turned what was deemed a shortcoming to a present-day strength. In this, Teni is a walking revolution. She presents the instantaneous quality of everyday life and she lets us live through her emotions and story.

Unarguably her most successful song ‘Uyo Meyo’ was let fly on the wings of the typical Teni social media video post. One bright 2018 day, her fans woke up to a made-up Teni, beautiful and exuding radiance through her smile. She was in a gown; through her caption (“I finally graduated”) it was discerned that she’d achieved an academic landmark. She broke into a song – the most heartfelt they’ve ever heard. It was rendered in a dialect native to Ekiti state. She was urged by its viewers to release the song as an official single and she did. It was only right that when a video was shot for it, it was of endearing scenes that showed how far she’s come.

Teni is a story in progress but for now, let’s give her due flowers. More than any song on the topic, her career has been the definition of originality and how staying one’s truest self could be beneficial.

Read next: Love Is Contagious, and so is WurlD’s music