Meet Rema, Afropop’s Next Big Thing

Rema takes a cash bath

The Benin City rapper has managed to get the world's attention in less than a year.

There's been an emergence of the Afrobeats sound in countries like the United Kingdom and the U.S. since the late 2010s, however, both countries are still a tad bit late to the trend. With the likes of Burna Boy, Davido, and to some extent D'banj finding success by crossing oceans, I have hope for the genre to catch up. For this to happen, we need an artist who is too interesting to ignore.

Rema does all he can to catch your attention. He is active on social media, where it all began for him. He wears elements of hip-hop and trap music on his sleeves to show his genre-crossing range. His music matches his fashion sense, with fits from the crossroads of high fashion and streetwear and D R I P that'll make Gunna shed a tear of joy. In a interview with Pitchfork, Rema makes sense of his appeal, saying "If you don't like the songs you like my style. And if you don't like my style you like my hairstyle." This isn't to say everyone is on board with Rema. Critics might say his sound is too similar to American pop music to truly be Afro-Pop, or that his cadence sounds like his fellow countryman and global star WizKid.

Arguably, Rema's biggest breakthrough to date is his hit song, "Iron Man," which was included in Obama's 2019 summer playlist. I don't think you know how MASSIVE an achievement that is for an artist relatively unknown. Soon, the sound of a young, emerging Nigerian talent will be heard everywhere.

This begs the question, who is Rema and how did he become one of Africa's rising stars?

Beginnings in Benin

Rema, or Divine Ikubor, was born in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria in 2000, just after the start of the new millennium. He was inspired to become an artist at 11, as he enjoyed rapping with friends at church. He was told that to make it in Lagos, a shift to a more mainstream Nigerian sound would be necessary; advice he would eventually refuse to embrace. After losing both his Father and Brother by the age of 15, Rema had to get a job on the side to help support his mother but he still remained determined to make it in the music industry.

SoundCloud was an essential influence on Rema, as the streaming app introduced him to the rising underground internet rap scene. The likes of Juice Wrld and Trippie Redd were all over the platform, and their influence would bleed into Rema’s music. He also noticed how rappers promoted themselves on social media. In particular, Instagram was a haven for rappers to either a) record themselves vandalizing property, b) lie about their race and discourage black people all over, or c) record themselves freestyle rapping. Rema chose the latter and went viral in his country for his trap-based freestyles to local pop songs.

Breakthrough

A crucial step to stardom occurred on an uneventful day in February as Rema recorded a freestyle to Afropop superstar D’Prince’s, “Gucci Gang.” The video caught the attention of D’Prince himself, who made arrangements for the Benin city teenager to fly into Lagos to meet and record demo tapes. At this point, Rema had never recorded a demo but D’Prince’s brother and Mavin Records founder Don Jazzy took a liking to Rema’s vocals. This led to Don offering him a recording contract with the powerhouse label that, at the time, included talents like Reekado Banks and Tiwa Savage.

After months of practice and prep in the studio, Don Jazzy was ready to reveal the new signee on March 22, 2019, with the release of “Iron Man.” The song features melodies inspired by Bollywood productions mixed with an unorthodox beat.

Baby come make I be your Iron man
You must to be my Nwanyi Oma Baby
You must to be fine Chioma Baby
Come make I be your iron man
Follow me go
You must to be my Nwanyi Oma Baby
You must to be my fine Chioma
Baby come make I be your Iron man (Man)
‘Aahh, Aahh’ 

The foreign-sounding track split employees of Mavin Records between embracing the single or rejecting it before Don Jazzy gave the approval to release the single for Rema’s debut.

 

Rema EP

Rema EP Cover

Rema EP uses the Afrobeats sound more than anything else and for good reason. Mavin Record’s in-house producer, Ozedikus Nwanne, is behind the beats for the majority of the project.

Along with “Iron Man,” the most successful song on the EP is “Dumebi,” which uses Pidgin, Yoruba, Igbo and Edo flows that, all together, sound irresistible. The track, which was passed over by three artists prior, led to a dance crazy all over Nigeria and boosted Rema’s name even more.

“Corny” finishes out the EP with lullaby-like vocals over sharp drums and the occasional brush of strings.

“Why” is the only exception in sound for the EP as it’s more in the emo-rap realm and resembles the artists Rema would listen to when he was crafting his sound.

By the beginning of April, all four songs made it into Nigeria’s top 10 Apple Music Chart, with “Dumebi” reaching #1.

Rema Freestyle EP

Rema Freestyle EP Cover

Following the success of his debut, Mavin released another EP based on Rema’s viral Instagram freestyles. This project was different from Rema EP because it shifted to a hip-hop sound with deep, cloudy guitar riffs borrowed from soft rock.

“Boulevard” is a reflection upon girls who didn’t want Rema because of his poor status, only for him to blow up and wisely not fall for those who come around now. Rema builds on his observations of attraction in “American Love.” He sees love as comforting and dangerous at the same time. His girl even knows how to use a Glock!!! The project also has a comic book theme to it, with a track titled, “Spiderman” and name drops for Bruce Wayne and Venom.

“Trap Out the Submarine” addresses Rema’s doubters, as he raps:

Man I believe in me. I am a prophecy. I trap out the submarine, i’m taking a walk on Mississippi.

And just like superheroes, Rema describes himself as immortal and immune to the evil he might face.

 

Bad Commando EP

Rema Bad Commando EP Cover

On October 4th, Rema released his third EP of the year in Bad Commando. On YouTube, under his music video for the title track “Bad Commando,” Rema commented, “Bad Commando is a sound of my identity, its a raging sound for the force that I represent (the new generation) This sound is a statement, recognizing my place in the game as part of the special force standing in the front line sent to raid the world with the new sound. Also, it states the trials faced in the journey of breakthrough and warning to those who come against this alter backed by Prophecy.”

The wild, wild, west inspired title track feels like witnessing a shootout between Rema and “The Man with No Name” from the safety of a dusty saloon.

Bad man dem know. They know say I be bad commando. Each and every night on the road, I pray you never come near my zone. They no send me many years ago, when they hustle for the street on the low. Each and every bad man dem know. They know say I be bad commando.

The music video for the song is curated with spectacular detail, as the backgrounds come from various moments in Rema’s career from the Instagram videos to recreating his first EP cover.

“Rewind” is co-produced by OVO Sound Founder and Drake’s right hand, Oliver El-Khatib and the Indianapolis collective 1mind. In this track, Rema looks into problems that Nigeria faces, especially from the government.

Government y’all tell me what y’all governise. The people never organise. Even when I try to socialise. The people make me lose my mind. My people suffer. Political poker. I put the burden of the masses on my shoulder.

He then tells the audience that dancing away their worries is the best option to stay optimistic about a better tomorrow.

Top Afro beatmaker Altimis gets behind the drums and keys for the remaining tracks, starting with the more Afrobeat traditional song “Lady.” “Spaceship Jocelyn” has a noticeably slower R&B vibe to it, which was uncharted territory for Rema but not too much to handle for the Edo State MC.

It’s astonishing to think that Rema doesn’t have an hour’s worth of material out yet! With only 12 released tracks, Rema has developed into one of Africa’s rising talents.  If Rema can stay consistent with future projects, he’ll have a shot at becoming a global superstar in 2020.

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