Afroraving Around The World With Rema

Todd Owyoung/NBC

Afroraving Around The World With Rema

Todd Owyoung/NBC

As quickly as a pop song can go viral, sometimes it’s fascinating to see one do a slow burn. A prime example of this would be Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” which was originally released in 2017, blew up in 2019 (partially thanks to a placement in the Netflix movie Someone Great), and then spent another 17 weeks climbing the Billboard Hot 100 to #1. Nigerian performer Rema (real name Divine Ikubor) hasn’t had to wait quite as long with his swaying Afrobeats single “Calm Down,” which was released in early 2022 as the second single from his debut album Rave & Roses — but a little more than a year later, Rema’s “Calm Down” remix featuring Selena Gomez has become his first Hot 100 top-10 hit.

With or without Gomez’s feature, “Calm Down” is an obvious smash. Prominently sampling fellow Nigerian performer Crayon’s “So Fine,” the rhythm is mellow yet pulsates with gentle urgency. Compositionally, “Calm Down” rides the line between classic and modern, layering traditional regional beats with rising synths and electronic beeps that bring to mind a heart monitor. Rema’s youthful, energetic cadence falls right in with the song’s overall structure, making the whole thing sound effortless and just plain fun.

Born in 2000 in Benin City, Rema has been singing and rapping since (his very recent) childhood. Initially performing in church, Rema formed a septet called 7th Dimensions, which performed across Benin City. In 2018, Rema posted a freestyle over D’Prince’s “Gucci Gang” on Instagram, which subsequently went viral and even caught the attention of D’Prince, who flew Rema out to Lagos and offered him a record deal. Rema then signed with D’Prince’s Jonzing World (a subsidiary of Nigeria’s Marvin Records, which is owned by producer Don Jazzy and also houses Tiwa Savage, D’Banj and Wande Coal). In 2019, Rema released his self-titled debut EP, which went to #1 on Apple Music Nigeria.

In the spring of 2019, Rema released a music video for the EP track “Dumebi,” which featured a cameo from Nigerian fashion personality and influencer Diana Eneje. (That video now has almost 65 million views. Not bad.) The following summer, the EP’s “Iron Man” earned a spot on Barack Obama’s summer playlist, as did Nigerian Afrobeats kingpin Burna Boy (“Anybody”).

Around this time, Rema also started to make his mark on the fashion world, making his runway debut at Lagos Fashion Week 2019. He’s in good company there: As Nelson C.J. wrote for Billboard last year, the fashion side of Afrobeats (aka the alté subculture) “is less of a set of dressing styles and more of an ideology that encourages young Nigerians to tap into honest self-expression — essentially dressing how they would personally like to, and not in the ways that conform to the socio-cultural dictates of the country. It is that same ideology that is defining the role of fashion in Afrobeats music today, particularly for artists like Rema, CKay, Cruel Santino, Wizkid, Burna Boy, Amaarae, Tems, and Adekunle Gold. With the genre gradually staking a claim on the global music scene, Afrobeats artists are learning to define their sense of fashion more by personal sensibilities and less by popular trends.”

Fast-forward to May 2021 and Rema announced that he wanted to call his particular take on the genre “Afrorave,” which layers in Arabic and Indian/Bollywood-style influences. The name “Afrorave” also gave Rema’s fans a clear name to rally under: ravers. Speaking to Complex UK last summer, Rema talked about the irony in wanting to globalize Afrobeats despite not owning a phone until relatively recently:

Funnily enough, I had never listened to Arabic or Asian music to develop my sound. It took a long time before I even had a phone; I listened to whatever I could come across. And, to be honest, if there was a route I followed or I follow now, it would be the route of least expectation. Everything in my life has been quite organic; I’ve learnt how to let go and, you know, just let the universe arrange things for me. I started with rap — I never used to do the African sound and I never used to do this Afrobeats sound. I’ve been rapping since my church days. I tried to dabble around in Afrobeats, but it just wasn’t clicking for me at the time. But in 2018, when I met D’Prince, I kept working on myself.

So when I was given Afrobeats instrumentals, I gave my all to make sure I crack this sound. And in that push and hustle, there was an unlocking and I unlocked something with that drive, because I didn’t want to go back home saying I didn’t get the chance or I didn’t get the opportunity to lock in. My sound just evolved over time. I listened to whatever my sister or my brother was playing, from D’Banj to Victor Uwaifo to Fela [Kuti] to Wizkid to Davido and Burna Boy. My brother played a lot of Burna Boy. I listened to a lot of hip-hop, gospel hip-hop too. I listened to rock… I listened to everything! But yeah, over time, everything gravitated towards this person everybody knows right now. I listen to a lot of calm music now, music that soothes my soul. All in all, though, my personality, my state of mind, that’s what bred this sound more than any musical influence. It’s tied to my personality and my spirit, not just my ears and music taste.

In 2022, Rema released Rave & Roses, the 16-track debut album that gave us “Calm Down.” With features from 6LACK, Chris Brown (sigh), British rapper and producer AJ Tracey, and French singer-songwriter Yseult, the album made quite a splash, particularly at home, charting 10 songs on Billboard’s Afrobeats chart following its debut week. As of January 2023, “Calm Down” set a new record on YouTube — it is now the most-viewed Afrobeats video on the platform, surpassing a record previously held by CKay’s “Love Nwantiti Remix.”

Enter: Selena. Their remix dropped in August 2022 and entered the Hot 100 at #91. It soon went #1 on the US Afrobeats Songs chart, where it spent 33 weeks in the top spot (it also spent two weeks at #1 on the Global Excl. US chart). “Trying to hold in the tears, I know how hard I worked to get my sound here, I’m grateful to God for how far I’ve come,” Rema wrote in an Instagram post last month. “Love to the ones who believed, love to the Queen @selenagomez.”

Speaking to Billboard about why he wanted Gomez on the “Calm Down” remix, Rema acknowledged: “I don’t really do remixes — most of my songs are solo or features. I wanted a female voice on the song. The song was already blowing up, so I felt like we needed someone that could take it up to the next level. From our discussions, planning, and available contacts and friendship, Selena was the best bet.”

Also deserving of praise is the one who wrote Gomez’s “Calm Down” verse: the Miami-based songwriter Kiddo A.I. (real name Amanda Ibanez). Last month, Kiddo A.I. spoke to Variety about her thinking in writing Gomez’s verse: “Like most girls my age, I grew up watching Selena on Wizards Of Waverly Place and always admired her demeanor of being so classy and collected. So the first line is, ‘I know I look shy, but for you I get down,’ and I thought that that would be kind of fun for her to say, because she’s so proper, I feel, from the outside. I just wanted her to feel herself a little bit.”

Like many West African pop stars, Rema is clearly eager to grow Afrobeats’ second wave — a wish that is absolutely being fulfilled. In February, the NBA All-Star game’s halftime show featured Burna Boy, Tems, and Rema doing an Afrobeats-themed performance. The “Calm Down” remix is also #1 in India, where it has spent a total of 51 weeks on the chart. Just this week, Rema announced that he would be touring through India for his “Rema Calm Down India Tour,” kicking off in May.

Rema’s mission is clear, and in an increasingly divided world, it’s a refreshing one. As he told W Magazine in February: “I believe whatever attention I’ve been blessed with should be redirected toward elevating creative narratives around Africa. 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.”


Dominic Fike – “Dancing In The Courthouse”
Euphoria standout Dominic Fike is overdue for a new chapter; his first LP What Could Possibly Go Wrong? was released in 2020 and he’s mainly done collaborations ever since. The triumphant “Dancing In The Courthouse” takes a half-serious look at Fike’s actual run-ins with the law (he was on house arrest in 2018 for battery of a police officer and served time in jail for violating said house arrest) and injects light into a typically dark place: “Put ’em on trial (On trial)/ Make ’em dance for it in the courthouse/ Make a stand for it or it don’t count (Or it don’t count).”

Bailey Bryan – “Upside Down”
I don’t know if this is purposeful, but Bailey Bryan’s “Upside Down” sounds like it owes a debt to A*Teens’ 2001 classic of the same name. Instead of singing about bubbly, crushy feelings, Bryan takes an edgier approach, with crunchier guitars, a harder-hitting beat, and lyrics referencing hangovers and an anxious-avoidant relationship. The video is a colorful, trippy treat for the eyes, too.

Jorja Smith – “Try Me”
Jorja Smith is entering a new era with the catchily confrontational “Try Me,” which clicks and whirs with a thrumming beat and gun-cocking sound effects. It’s only made more dramatic with rising orchestral strings and fiery lyrics: “Go ‘head try me/ ‘Cause I’m safe behind these walls/ Think you can take me through the fog where I’m no challenge/Childish, childish/ Yeah, you, you can try me.”

Khamari – “Right My Wrongs”
New RCA signee and rising R&B star Khamari samples Darondo’s 1972 song “Didn’t I” on this grooving, aching track where the singer looks back at happier times in the wake of a breakup.

Lauren Spencer Smith – “Fantasy” (Feat. GAYLE & Em Beihold)
How’s this for the ultimate TikTok girlie trifecta? “Lady Marmalade,” who?? Yes, I guess it was only a matter of time before Lauren Spencer Smith, GAYLE, and Em Beihold (or really any TikTok-famous trio) teamed up to form the ultimate triple threat. “Fantasy” is a booming breakup anthem as can only be expected by this wave of extremely online sad grrrls — but the UMG marketing team probably also deserves a round of applause for getting Spencer Smith, GAYLE, and Beihold in the same room. Now let’s do a tour!

Shy Martin – “Glued To The Floor”
A common anxiety from artists and musicians is that getting sober or going on antidepressants might somehow negatively affect their art (see: this recent piece in The Cut that asks “Could I Still Be Ambitious Without My OCD?”). So it’s fascinating to see a singer make great art out of getting mentally well, even if she hasn’t quite figured out the right dosage yet. “I don’t remember what it’s like to drown in my emotions,” Shy Martin admits over echoing keys and acoustic guitar. “It’s only the chemicals, but it’s the first time I don’t care at all.” I bet lots of people will relate.

NewJeans (뉴진스) “Zero”
South Korean five-piece and overnight fashion heroes NewJeans basically made an aesthetically pleasing Coke ad with “Zero,” but it’s such a catchy Coke ad. Before you judge, remember the “Joy Of Pepsi” craze? We were all running around singing “ba-ba-ba-ba-baaaa.” Get paid, NewJeans!

Lyn Lapid – “poster boy”
Filipino-American newcomer Lyn Lapid first went viral in 2021 with her TikTok hit “Producer Man” and soon after released a debut EP, last year’s The Outsider. Lapid’s in new-era mode too with the soaring, windows-down anthem “poster boy,” which deserves to vault the singer to a new visibility stratosphere, IMO.

d4vd – “Sleep Well”
I always enjoy hearing what 18-year-old wunderkind d4vd is up to, and the slow-building, lullaby-esque “Sleep Well” is another winner.

Zoe Wees – “Don’t Give Up”
Adding to its perseverance-minded message (always a classic), “Don’t Give Up” has a strong, driving beat and impeccable production, courtesy of Patrick Pyke Salmy and Ricardo Muñoz. “Don’t Give Up” is giving Katy Perry’s “Firework” but updated for 2023. (I almost wrote “not cheugy.”)


more from Chained To The Rhythm: The Month In Pop

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