Interview: Temmie Ovwasa Embraces the Complexity of Queerness In Nigeria
The singer tells us what creating one of Nigeria's first openly gay albums—E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me—means to her.
Defiance remains a common denominator in the art of people from a marginalized group no matter how unintended. Back in 2016, veteran singer Olamide announced the signing of Temmie Ovwasa to YBNL after a discovery on social media. Ovwasa has since threaded her way to critical acclaim with singles like "Jabole," "Afefe," "Bamidele," and more.
Following her exit from the label in December 2020, Ovwasa announced the release of her debut album dubbed E Be Like Say Dem Swear For Me, a pidgin expression of "I feel cursed." The 12-track project embodies a seamless progression from rage to eroticism, passion, and rebellion.
Since being outed by a Nigerian tabloid, Ovwasa has embraced this development at full throttle, living her truth while wielding her craft to shed light on the intricacies of being a queer woman in Nigeria. Nigeria is already known for its discriminatory laws against its LGBT+ population. In 2014, the country passed the Same-Sex Prohobiton Act (SSMPA)—a law that has encouraged illicit harrssaament and assault on not just gay people but also people perceived as gay.
Ovwasa, while admitting a "fear that comes with the territory" that she's learned to live with, speaks to OkayAfrica about openly singing about a woman's body, being a queer public figure in Nigeria , her album's reception by Nigerian media and championing authencity of self.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo courtesy of Temmie Ovwasa.
Who is Temmie Ovwasa?
I don't know who I am (laughs). 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.
What inspired the album's direction?
Suffering. Being a queer feminist means belonging in 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 who 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-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 Nigerian 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 to mine or any queer Nigerian song.
What's the reception been from Nigerian media since the album dropped?
First, I can't entrust myself or art to people & organizations that are prejudiced and ignorant of what's 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; moreso I'd been instructed to remove certain songs prior. Though there are a few individuals with good intention but there's a corporation 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 mean 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 and from that. I wasn't thinking when I dropped the album because I would have chickened out by mere thinking about my family, mum etc. To find freedom sometimes, you'll go through fire, I did and it's been worth it.
How do you navigate the tricky waters of being a public, 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's happening in the country or how people are.
Tell us about your journey of getting rid of social conditioning and championing authenticity of self.
It's a painful one, though I'm still journeying. I first found anger, I don't know why Nigeria 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.
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