In 2016, veteran singer, Olamide announced the signing of Temmie Ovwasa to YBNL after discovery him on social media. Ovwasa has since threaded her way to critical acclaim with singles like Jabole, Afefe, Bamidele. She spoke with YUSUFF ADEBAYO what creating one of Nigeria’s first openly gay albums; E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me, means to her. Excerpts…
How best would you describe who Temmie Ovwasa is?
I don’t know who I am. I’m on a journey of self-discovery. I, however, embody certain values that will always be. I’m a radical, queer feminist, who happens to be a visual artist, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet, and more.
Would you share the build up to your recently released debut album?
Following my exit from YBNL in December last year, I decided to announce the release of my debut album, dubbed; ‘E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me.’ It’s a pidgin expression of “I feel cursed.” The 12-track project embodies a seamless progression of everything that I felt and was feeling at the time; from rage to eroticism, passion, and rebellion. Since the publication about my exit from the label came out, I have embraced this development at full throttle, living my truth while wielding my craft to shed light on the intricacies of being a queer woman in Nigeria. Yes, I admit that there is a fear that comes with the territory. It’s something that I’ve learned to live with; to be openly singing about a woman’s body, being a queer public figure in Nigeria and championing authenticity of self.
What inspired the album’s direction?
Suffering did! Being a queer feminist means belonging to marginalised communities. The album’s direction comes from a place of women, queer people around me who’re also suffering. No matter how privileged I am, it doesn’t invalidate the brutality of being a queer woman in Nigeria and I’m probably always going to be miserable.
What did you aim to evoke while creating it?
First, dropping the expectations that came with being signed to YBNL and being clear about whom I’m singing for. I’m singing because there’s a burden in my heart that I need to unload, not to be liked or anything. I was able to heal through writing and recording the album and I hope it heals others.
What inspired the title?
Basically, at the crest of the COVID-19 induced lockdown, nothing, even my bank, seemed to be working. I frustratingly yelled; ‘E be like say them swear for me’ and it just stuck because that’s how I genuinely felt.
How did the other themes you explored in the project key into the title?
All the songs are inspired by my experiences and the women around me. Again, even while you’re finding yourself, your freedom, Nigeria remains a violent place. If I want to be stressed, all I have to do is just step out of my house and someone will assuredly insult me. Everything ties into it because when you live in a violent society, it remains a primary source of your problem. It does feel like a curse, really.
Referencing songs like Osunwemimo, 37 Times, how important is it for you to express eroticism through music?
I’d wanted to do that forever. As a lesbian Nigerian woman, I’ve never made love to a queer Nigerian song. And I’m 24-years-old, time is running out. I just wanted to be a nasty Ni-gerian lesbian and make such music, because heterosexual men do that always and get away with it. I want to be able to have sex with my girlfriend or any queer Nigerian song.
What has the reception been like from Nigerian media since the album dropped?
First, I can’t entrust myself or art to people and organisations that are prejudiced and ignorant of what is going on in the world. The media contributes to most problems the queer community is faced with. As much as I would love for my music to be played on radio, I didn’t pretend or deceive myself when the album dropped, especially I’d been instructed to remove certain songs prior. Though there are a few individuals with good intention but there is a cooperation that regulates these things and they’re homophobic. We’re in a digital world and I’m fine with reaching my fans directly. For blogs and the likes, I hardly find people who interview or talk about me the way I want to be represented. This path I’m taking comes with a lot of financial sacrifice but I’m never going to put myself in a position where I have to water down my thoughts. I’ve done it before and it didn’t pay me.
What does creating the first openly gay Nigerian album means to you?
First, I made it for my younger self. I found out about my sexuality at five; I got into a lot of trouble for long because I didn’t know I was supposed to hide it. I made the album for myself. I wasn’t thinking when I dropped the album because I would have chickened out by mere thinking about my family, mum and others. To find freedom sometimes, you’ll go through fire, I did and it has been worth it.
How do you navigate the tricky waters of being an openly-queer figure and residing in Nigeria?
Interestingly, some blog first outed me before I came out of the closet. Before then, my safety didn’t really matter. Since coming out, I’d genuinely be scared that I could go to a supermarket and someone would acid-bath me. I do have concerns because not only am I out of the closet, I have visible tattoos and you know how Nigerians frown against tattoos, especially on a woman. However, I avoid people well enough and have created a safe space for myself that I revert to regardless of what is happening in the country or how people are.
You’ve been outspoken about social conditioning, how have you been able to get rid of it while championing authenticity of self?
It’s a painful one, though I’m still journeying. I first found anger, I don’t know why Nigerians treats anger like a bad thing but it did save my life. After anger, you realise how messed up everything is. The journey first took me back to pointing at everyone, then myself. It’s a continuous process and anger is an important ingredient.
What does success mean to you?
Peace of mind. I’ve been buoyant and broke, so I can genuinely say whether or not, peace of mind is just about it for me. Everyday I wake up and I choose love, peace and authenticity. Truth is, you can be in the closet and be free, you can make that space comfortable for you. When I was in the closet, I did make it comfortable enough and I enjoyed it.