Afrobeats Star Rema Isn’t Taking His Foot Off the Gas

The musician, whose Selena Gomez-featured track “Calm Down” is climbing the charts worldwide, brings Afrobeats to the global stage.

by Wale Oloworekende

The musician wearing a cowboy-esque outfit
Photograph by Ruby Okoro; image treatment by Ashley Peña.

Nigerian musician Rema has never been one for standing still. At any point in time, the 22-year-old rapper and singer can be found doodling art designs for prospective use, supervising song mixes, rehearsing for concert dates, or navigating interviews with reporters trying to make sense of the exciting new star and his meteoric rise. “I always have to get up to something,” Rema says with a cheeky smile during a recent Zoom call from Los Angeles. However, on the day we speak, he’s taking a little time off to celebrate with members of his team at the Virgin Music office in Hollywood. “I decided to link up with the team, take a couple of drinks, and have a good time because I’ve not really celebrated,” he says.

It has only been a few days since Rema performed at the NBA All-Star Game Halftime Show alongside fellow Nigerian stars Tems and Burna Boy in an Afrobeats-themed showcase that proves the rising popularity of the West African-pioneered musical style in America. Rema is keen to speak on the importance of that performance and the incredible culture that has propelled Afrobeats to global fame. “It was an important opportunity to represent our culture, what we stand for, and the misconceptions about us that we got to cleanse on that stage,” he says. “I felt the importance of being a representative of Afrobeats, Nigeria, of Africa, and, importantly, Benin City.”

Born and raised in the ancient city of Benin in southwestern Nigeria, Rema (born Divine Ikubor) navigated a tough upbringing that saw his father and brother pass away during his childhood, placing the central familial responsibility on his shoulders at the age of 14. Still, Benin is a city of fond memories for the singer, whose introduction to music came courtesy of trap—which he heard cousins and family members play at home and during social gatherings. A stint in church as a rapper helped him hone his skills in nexus with a group of like-minded teenagers who performed across Benin City in a septet called 7th Dimensions.

Photograph by Ruby Okoro

In 2018, a viral freestyle he posted on Instagram caught the attention of singer and music executive, D’Prince, who flew him to Lagos to offer a record deal. Rema signed with the leading Nigerian record label, Mavin Records, through D’Prince’s imprint, Jonzing World. A stint strengthening his mastery of Afrobeats melodies and cadences followed and, in 2019, Rema was introduced to the world with a self-titled EP that folded influences from soul, trap, and electronica into an edgy and daring take on Afrobeats.

In the beginning, Rema took note of the critics who derided his music for bearing similarities to the scores of Bollywood movies, which are hugely popular in Nigeria. “While I was creating my sound and making my first EP, a place like India didn’t cross my mind—until criticism of my music started,” Rema says. “When the critics started saying I sounded Indian—and I’d never watched an Indian movie or listened to an Indian album—I started paying attention to that, and took it as inspiration to empower myself and prove that I could win with my sound.”

The runaway success of the single “Dumebi” off the Rema EP served as the perfect opportunity for the artist to make more experimental music across two other EPs, along with a compilation album that established him as Afrobeats’ foremost wunderkind. In March 2022, he released his full-length debut, Rave & Roses, a 16-track effort that he says he’s been working toward from the day he hit the scene. “Rave & Roses was the final destination in terms of the sounds and aesthetic,” he explains. “It tells a great story of what Rema stands for, and gave me something that nobody can dispute: it sealed my position in Afrobeats and where I’m taking the genre.”

Close to one year after the release of Rave & Roses, it’s clear Rema is among a crop of artists set to herald the second wave of Afrobeats’ explosion. He—along with Tems, Burna Boy, and many more— aim to push the genre toward a bigger audience, and that goal is closer than ever now. This week, his Selena Gomez-featured remix of “Calm Down,” off Rave & Roses, peaked at the number 25 position on the Billboard Hot 100—and is currently the number-one record in India, among a number of feats that have followed the project’s release.

Seeing the success of “Calm Down” has been a blessing for Rema, who’s been blown away by the positive reception of the record. “I don’t aim for perfection when I’m working, my only requirement is that I’m putting my best foot forward,” he says. “To see people appreciate the songs shows my best was enough for them—even though I know a lot of people would expect me to be chilling in Bali after the success of the album,” he adds with a laugh. Despite the strenuous demands of his job, Rema is not ready to take his foot off the gas yet. Last week, he released two new songs that will be part of a deluxe version of Rave & Roses—and he’s now using his position to spotlight the groundbreaking rise of a new generation of ethical designers and the evolution of financial services in African culture. Just before he went on stage for his performance at the NBA All-Star Game Halftime Show, he wore a hat by the Nigerian house HighFashion over more-established or popular brands. “I believe whatever attention I’ve been blessed with should be redirected toward elevating creative narratives around Africa,” he says with a shrug, as though that’s a total given. “I know my music is opening a door to a whole new world, not just for me, but for everything coming out of Africa. That’s what makes me happy, because I know that if Afrobeats ever gets a bible, I’m going to be in it.”