Interview
Photo: Michael Sope Johnson.

Teni.

Interview: Teni Is a Star Reborn On 'WONDALAND' and Beyond

Teni unapologetically chooses to be her authentic self amidst a picture perfect world.

All through February and March, Teni's romantic single "For You" featuring Davido dominated Nigerian airwaves, making it known that Teni season had arrived. With no other features on WONDALAND, Teni utilized the 17-track blank canvas as much as she could "It's my first album and I wanted to be a bit selfish, I just wanted everyone to hear me out, I'll never have a first album again, so I just wanted to keep it special."

Since Teni's 2018 breakout, she's released a barrage of hits and amassed a huge following befitting of an A-list artist. Teni has also broken boundaries regarding how a female artist should look and act in order to succeed in the mainstream. After years of fresh experiences as a star, Teni's debut album signals a new dawn for the entertainer.

WONDALAND's vivid imagery, and playful spectrum of sound, is a reference to the merriness of Teni's pre-pandemic visits to Disney World. "I've gone to Disney World in Orlando seven years in a row, I haven't missed it. Last year, I was stuck and I couldn't go, so making my album, I wanted to feel like I was in Disney World again."

Listeners are ushered through a funfair of tracks sprinkled with influences from fuji, highlife and hip-hop, complete with a virtual reality experience and 100 VR sets gifted to fans. WONDALAND begins with "Maja," where Teni sings about a resilient spirit with the determination to overcome obstacles, and ends with "Black," a self acceptance song for black people all over the world.

We spoke with Teni about WONDALAND's creation, the importance of representing her roots, and what legacy means to her.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Photo: Michael Sope Johnson.

How long did it take to make WONDALAND?

It took like a year. For example "Moslado" has been ready since last year, it's a year old, March 20 was when I recorded that song. I remember because that's a smash hit.

You had the album listening party in September, there seemed to be a delay, what was the cause of that?

We wanted to do it right, like everything just had to be right, from the music to mixing, to the rollout, I wanted to really do it for my fans, they've waited this long, why will I just come back and do something 'jaga jaga.' I had to take my time to plan something that they would enjoy. So in this album we have VR experiences, we also have a video people can watch on YouTube, they either use the VR set—we're giving out 100 VR sets to my fans—so things like this take time, especially in this part of the world, takes time to put together, I wanted to make sure I was putting out something that was worthwhile.

The art direction for WONDALAND depicts fun through vivid colors and intricate details, what was the idea behind that?

Disney, I've gone to Disney World in Orlando seven years in a row, I haven't missed it. Last year, I was stuck and I couldn't go, so making my album, I wanted to feel like I was in Disney World Again.The first place I recorded "Billionaire" was in LA, and then I didn't have a second verse so I left, I knew I had a hit, but you know how the second verse can take away the hit factor from it, so I took time. I recorded "Billionaire" in June, I didn't visit it till September, I flew my friends and Pheelz, the producer, to Orlando, so we went to Disney World and then I record the verse two. So you can imagine how much fun I have in Orlando. Recording my album I wished I was in Orlando, in a mansion with a pool, and floaters at night, not taking things too seriously, so I wished I was there again, and that was the idea behind the album.

Photo: Michael Sope Johnson.

Davido is the only feature on the album, was there a particular reason for this?

It's my first album and I wanted to be a bit selfish, I just wanted everyone to hear me out, I'll never have a first album again, I might have a second and a third, so I just wanted to keep it special. Not that having people would not take it special, but there are some things I said in my verse 2, If I remove them, people are not going to hear it. I just wanted to make it very Teni. I've always wanted Davido on a song, and he's a good guy, such an amazing guy, apart from the music, his person, he's a ride or die if he fucks with you, he will actually turn mad tables for you. So, even if he's the only one on this album, he's worth it, cause minus the music, he's that guy.

The album was 17 tracks, why 17 tracks? And can you talk us through some of them?

I have too much to talk about, so I just wanted to talk about many things, being black, body positivity, sex, and more. On "Maja" I'm telling them that if they don't let me in I'm going to break the damn door, I've always been someone like that, if I ask you to do something for me, if you can't do it I'll find a way to do it myself.

For "Hustle" basically, this industry there's a lot of pressure, and as a musician, your life is very delicate, regular people can walk on the streets without anyone asking them for money. You've already started living a life of one standard, like now I cannot fly economy, I have to fly business, so I have to start thinking about my future, finances, how I can manage myself, so that till the day I die I'm set, I'm good. And that's what I was trying to talk about there.

Photo: Michael Sope Johnson.

"Toxic" is about how sometimes I can be toxic, I'm human, and I'm creative, creative people are crazy, don't let anybody lie to you, I could fight in my relationships because I want to write a particular kind of song, and I'll need the emotions. Until I realize what I've done later on. I remember making "Were" in 2016, and here I'm basically saying that God made it easy, everything I've been looking for all these years, God finally gave me, and I'm a living proof of it.

"Injure Me," "Game Over" and "Okocha" have sexual undertones. I'm a sexual being. I make music by the things that I live, places that I've been, or other people's lives, other people's experiences, my love life, my friends love lives.

"I just wanted to talk about many things, being black, body positivity, sex, and more."

You paid homage to your Ondo origins on "Maja" like you did in the past with "Uyo Meyo." Is being connected to your roots something you consider important?

Very very important, I just went to Ondo like three weeks ago. That's who I am. When I want to chill in this country, I go to my hometown in Ondo. I'll go and relax, I'll go and climb Idanre hills, we even picked agbalumo from on top of the mountain. 682 steps, I always get to the top, I don't mind dying along the way, but you see that top, I must get there.

How does it feel to have a number 1 album?

It's amazing, but it's not just about having a number one album, it's having an album that people will love and appreciate, and my main fans, as they listen to it I hope it can help them once or twice in their lives when they go through something, or everyday. Cause I know how many people tell me "your song 'Billionaire' motivates me." So for me, it's not just about the number one, it's about the impact. You can have a number one song, but how well does it impact people. So I'm more concerned about the impact. A number one album definitely makes me happy, but when I see and hear people singing it, that means more to me.

"It's not just about the number 1, it's about the impact."

So you worked with different producers on the album, P.Priime, Pheelz, etc, what's it like working with a variety of people and tapping into different people's creative processes?

It's a blessing, cause when you watch these people make the beats for these songs, then you now finally hear what the song sounds like, it's amazing. For example, Pheelz, he's just crazy, P.Priime, Ozedikus, they're good at different things, they're good at their art in general, but they have strengths in different things so I feel blessed to be able to work with these different producers, and getting the best songs from them.

What do you want your legacy to be when it's all said and done?

Daring, I just want people to be stubborn, be daring, don't wait for other people's approval, I want to be known as that stubborn girl that just went and fucking did it. Knocked all the fucking tables down and did it. This album, once the world is open, let's go! I know this album is going to change my life.


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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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