Between Ghanaians and Nigerians, the argument of ‘who makes the best jollof rice’ has been debated since (what feels like) the dawn of time. Ghanaians argue that Nigerian Jollof rice is too fat and tasteless whilst Nigerians label Ghanian rice too starchy. But Nigerian rapper and Afrobeats pioneer, Rema, might just have the final answer. He assures me that there is nothing quite like his hometown of Benin City’s food. “Oh man,” he sighs tirelessly. “You’ve got to come to Nigeria and try the food here, our jollof rice is authentic – it’s not like any other version!”
As I chat to the rapper on the phone, I’m quickly transported to Lagos during the evening rush hour. I can hear ear-piercing sirens wail in the background and angry car horns blare simultaneously. But none of this phases Rema, his excited grin tangible through the phone, as he begins to unravel his hectic day. From studio sessions to strategising with his team, the rapper never stops. In fact it’s been full speed ahead since he first exploded onto the scene with 2018 viral freestyle over Nigerian artist D’Prince’s local hit “Gucci Gang.” Delivering a series of rapid-fire bars while sitting shotgun with his friend in a car, Rema’s life changed when D’Prince picked up the video and invited the – then – 17-year-old to Lagos to offer the youngster a record deal. “I thought it was a little decision,” Rema says as he recalls making the video. “But it was the biggest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I bet you if I didn’t do that freestyle, if I went and hung out with my friends, played football, or played video games [instead], I would have lost the little voice [in my head] that [told] me to do that freestyle. I was really bored that day and I really needed something to do to be honest and I was like, ‘Okay let me just freestyle to this beat and I freestyled!’”
A sudden rise to fame like his is enough to distort anyone’s vision, and being picked apart by 1.3M followers isn’t for the faint-hearted. But Rema was ready for it. Upon receiving his deal, the rapper began undergoing training from Afrobeats legend Don Jazzy and mentor D’Prince to learn how to navigate the world as both an artist and an individual. “I’m glad I went through one whole year [learning] how to behave when fame hits, [and] how to behave when you get your first million [followers]. I was trained as an artist and as an individual who is about to walk into this new world, and that really helped me. That’s why when I got into the game I had this all-round confidence like I’ve been in the game a long time, that [confidence] let people know that I’m someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Not long after the rapper’s life-changing deal, a string of hits followed making him one of the most exciting acts in the ever-growing Afrobeats genre. From the heart-aching trap on “Why” to the summer dance-floor filler “Dumebi”, the rapper’s versatility and confidence quickly infected the world. Catching the ears of former US President Barack Obama and dominating the dance scene with expertly crafted videos, at just 19-years-old, this rapper had already become a superstar. But as Rema assures me, his rapid rise to fame doesn’t mean life’s always been easy. Looking back on his days in Benin City, the rapper reminisces on performing at competitive rap battles and competitions while being faced with teenage peer pressure and family struggles. “Seeing the daily struggle of the people of Benin City impacted me hugely. All the [different] struggles [became] the ingredients to finding my sound. The producers back then in Benin told me not to change who I am [and not] to succumb to the norm, the church accepted my sound and it gave me that confidence in myself to keep moving and being myself.” And to this day, Rema’s integrity shines through in his music and beyond.
In another struggle, Rema lost his father at the tender age of 8-years-old and then his brother at 15, so the rapper fought financially to keep him and his mother afloat in a ruthless city. Leaving his home at 17-years-old to take up strenuous jobs and attempt to make ends meet, Rema could not be more thankful for how God has blessed him with his career. “ I thank God for the grace of starting young,” Rema candidly says. “I thank God for giving me the ability to find my purpose at such an early stage, I thank God for the decisions I made because I wouldn’t be here without him.” Throughout our conversation the humble youngster continues to be thankful for all those in his life that helped create and shape his evolving career, from the studio engineer who gave him a free session to his family church, Rema wants to make sure everyone receives their flowers. “What I did in that free studio session was wack,” the rapper honestly tells me. “But it was the producer there that motivated me to keep going. He said ‘Ayo this is dope, if you keep going you can make something of yourself.’” Rema is solid proof.