As Rema continues to break new grounds both historically and geographically, the next sets of doubts will center around whether he can extend this fame beyond “Calm Down”, and insert himself properly in world stardom. But that should be no problem. A combination of his astute singing talent, evocative writing and undeniable star power should ensure Rema fulfils his promise as prince of Nigerian music.
Afrobeats City doesn’t own the right to the images – image source: Instagram – @Scrdofme
Rema and Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down” continues to shatter worldwide records as it advances its claim for 2023’s Song Of The Summer, and indeed for every other season—it has in fact completed a year on the Billboard Top 100 chart, and even now continues to chart in the Top 20. And as its impact has been far reaching, so also have the accolades. The most recent of these came only a few days ago, when the song officially crossed 1 billion streams on Spotify, crowning it the first African song to reach this feat, and also one of the 500 most streamed music tracks of all time. Before this was the MTV Video Music Award ceremony, where a charismatic Rema received an award for the maiden ‘Best Afrobeats Song’ category. Before calling on his co-creator to say a few words of thanks, he paid homage to Nigerian music icons that paved his way to the world’s biggest stages—names like Fela, pioneer of Afrobeat (no ’s’); D’banj and 2Baba, prominent figures who ruled through the 00s; Don Jazzy and D’Prince, his mentors at Mavin and Jonzing, his record labels; and of course Nigerian music royalty Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido.
It is fitting that he makes such acknowledgements at a time when he too is progressing towards a career of this status. Nigerian music’s growth, like he succinctly put, has come slowly but surely off the back of these creators, so that now, “Calm Down”’s worldwide acceptance does not draw the surprise it deserves from the Nigerian audience; exploits of the last two years appear to have numbed its citizens to what is possible. Two years ago, Essence, the Wizkid-Tems sultry collaboration that got a Justin Beiber touch for its remix, was having its moment in the sun with each new step applauded by the country, and it is important for context that Rema’s song has already amassed five times as many Spotify streams as its predecessor.
For many, this moment was always going to arrive for Nigerian music, the day when we would no longer need tags like “For an African artist” to qualify a new win; we would compete with parity against music from anywhere in the world. And for a tiny subset of these believers, it was always going to be Rema at the forefront of the vanguard effecting this cultural revolution for Nigeria. For the artist, born Divine Ikubor, has always borne a mark of divinity.
After catching the eye of D’prince, CEO of Jonzing record label, via a cover of his song, “Gucci Gang” that he posted on Instagram, the Benin-based singer got an invite to come to Lagos for a proper audition, after which he was signed to Jonzing, a Mavin record affiliate. At the age of 19 he made his entry via a self-named EP, a Mavin tradition, that highlighted in only four songs what Rema was set to bring to the industry. His euphonious vocals were for many the biggest and most prognostic highlight, but they masked other crucial aspects of his artistry—the depth of emotion he channels on “Why”, and his dexterity in balancing this beside the fast-spinning Afropop bangers, “Dumebi” and “Iron Man”.
A few months later, he made his reprisal, but in a new apparel—Trap music. His Rema Freestyle EP projected speedy delivery, snappy trap beats and rhymes about money, as Rema displayed another aspect of his artistry. Most noticeable was his sparsity of romantic themes on the new project, the substance with which he propped up his earlier effort. His third project, Bad Commando, found the balance between these two extremes, placing confident statements of self-aggrandisation (Dem know say I be bad commando”, he sings on Bad Commando) side by side with affecting professions of infatuation (The moment I see you na up NEPA, he begins on “Lady”), while he switches between Trap and Pop on the production side of things.
Releasing this project meant it was a very busy debut year for the singer, and at the 13th edition of the Headies he was awarded the Next Rated award—earmarking him as the next big star. In January he picked up a similar plaque at the Soundcity MVP Awards, and together with his City People Award for Revelation Of The Year, these plaques underscored how outstanding his debut year was. In 2020, though, it was time for the next stage of music release strategy, and this time he worked by releasing singles, as he tried to establish his sound as a balance of his Afropop, Trap and Arabian music origins. His first effort of the year was the two single pack of “Rainbow” and “Beamer”, and the latter was the significantly more successful song, featuring Jamaican producer Rvssian who incorporated traces of the Dancehall genre.
These songs, along with his June release, “Alien”, were drawn chiefly from the Trap corner of his artistry, but to properly dominate a country like Nigerian, he would need to create for a dance-loving audience, and with his next two singles, the melodious, groovy “Ginger Me” and the explosive “Woman”, he sought to do exactly that. With the latter, Rema’s material also took on a sultry turn—“I too like woman, me I no dey gboran”—that he reprised with his next single, the Don Jazzy–produced “Bounce”. Already Rema’s profile was growing exponentially on a national level as he sought inroads into the global market.
2022, for Rema, was the time to crystallise this three-year dominance in Nigeria’s industry into a recognisable global profile. He released “Calm Down” in February, melding Afropop, Arabian and Dancehall influences for a track that was still authentically Nigerian—”Girl you sweet like Fanta”, he says, reworking a popular Nigerian children’s rhyme into a missive of playful adulation—and yet lent itself to foreign acceptance. To advance its entry into foreign markets, a stroke of collaborative genius brought a Selena Gomez remix, pouring fuel into the fire of the song’s momentum so that it sauntered into the next gear of its worldwide ascent. With this remix has come multiple broken records, a couple of awards (including one for Rema as Headies Best Male Artist), and certifications that continue to roll in by the day.
As Rema continues to break new grounds both historically and geographically,—as in his recently-completed Indian tour—the next sets of doubts will center around whether he can extend this fame beyond “Calm Down”, and insert himself properly in world stardom. But that should be no problem. A combination of his astute singing talent, evocative writing and undeniable star power should ensure Rema fulfils his promise as prince of Nigerian music.