‘Going into music, I wasn’t afraid of anything’: How teenage runaway Rema became a global superstar

Evident in the hysteria that trails him on a visit to London, the Nigerian singer has become an international star. He explains his journey from teenage runaway to working with Selena Gomez

On a Saturday afternoon in Soho, a collection of art kids are caught up in what you might call the Rema whirlwind. The Nigerian artist is making an appearance at a pop-up for London brand Places + Faces to promote a recent clothing collaboration. Never mind the gawking crowd; it’s hard to miss his star quality: the glistening jewellery, cowrie shells in his hair and immaculately manicured nails are a dead giveaway.

Divine Ikubor, 22, is a shining star in the new school of afrobeats. He first broke out in 2019 with the frenetic, cheerful single Dumebi. Earlier this year, he released his debut album, Rave & Roses, which featured guest spots from AJ Tracey and 6lack. He has, quite accurately, named his sound and performance style Afro-rave: there’s a focus on strings, violin and bassline, and live he is often accompanied by his mascot, a large teddy bear.

This week marks two more career highs: he has two spots on the soundtrack to the forthcoming film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and has sold out two nights at London’s Brixton Academy. On top of that, his single Calm Down continues its chart stronghold – bolstered by a remix that includes a surprising verse from Selena Gomez. It’s one of many conspicuous recent hook-ups between an emerging Afro-pop artist and an established chart act – one that suggests an older school of pop star, whether Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran, is riding the coattails of a new generation.

Ikubor is diplomatic on the matter, insisting that the pairing came from his and Gomez’s friendship rather than a business deal. “It was not on some label vibe,” he says, speaking from behind a large pair of Balenciaga glasses when we talk after the pop-up. “She’s been rocking with my music for a while. I dropped the offer and she embraced it.” He points out that the original song had been “going No 1 in countries I didn’t even know about” during the six months before they released the remix. “But Selena opened doors for it, she took it further than I could.”

He’s pragmatic about this state of affairs. “I’m happy the western people are hopping on this sound, I don’t see another way it can work out,” he says. “It’s like an artist trying to blow up in Nigeria – you got to work with Nigerian artists. I don’t think anyone should be called a culture vulture. We just have to focus on knowing that we were the ones who started it.”

And Ikubor is confident about the originality of what he has to offer. “I’m creating a rave culture,” he says. “Over the years I’ve visited a lot of afrobeats shows; everybody just stands and watches. I want to push the culture of raving, like going nuts, crazy, freedom, rebellion. You’re feeling like a 22-year-old holding on to a teddy bear is childish, but to me, it’s freedom.”

His sound has deep roots in his home town of Benin City, the capital of Nigeria’s southern Edo State. Ikubor might be the best modern ambassador the region has: he passionately runs me through the city’s culture and social history, right down to matters of political leanings and land ownership. One of his local heroes is the late Victor Uwaifo, a notable highlife artist; Ikubor asked his son, Andre Vibez, to produce Calm Down.

“People are gonna fight with me, I don’t want to fight people’s legends,” he says cautiously. “I don’t understand why Nigerians are not talking [about him]. Yes we’re talking about Fela [Kuti], big respect – but Victor Uwaifo? The scene in Benin is amazing. The only thing we don’t have is a spotlight.”

Ikubor is friendly and energetic when we speak, slipping in and out of Nigerian Pidgin and giggling when talking about his love life. Despite his baby face – he could easily pass for 19 – his music has established him as something of a heart-throb. His lyrics range from doting on a besotted partner (Ginger Me) to the likes of Bounce, a lascivious ode to a girl’s rear end. He plays the part well, too: at the pop-up, he expertly handles a gaggle of young girls who plead to hang out with him afterwards. Slipping into entertainer mode, he pulls them in for hugs and pictures one by one, coolly enquiring about whether they’re attending his shows next week. Afterwards, they scream their way down the hallway and argue over who he looked at first.

“Everybody’s just sexualising me!” he says. He insists the state of affairs is more chaste than it seems. “There’s this perception that you have different girls, different songs, but most times it’s one girl inspiring a shitload of songs. There’s some people who know that they got a lot of love from the females, [they start] licking lips and doing all that bullshit – abeg [please]. That’s so weird.”

The joy in Ikubor’s work has been hard won. He was a “rough” kid, he says, loud and talkative. He started rapping and singing at eight, absorbing music through his parents and siblings. He was reliant on their listening devices and had to memorise the music he loved. “Respect in Benin is a very big thing, I couldn’t tell my sister to play it back,” he says. “You can’t say: ‘Yo, I want to listen to that song again’ – who are you? I had to learn the melodies, that’s why I hum. I learned how to hum before even singing,” he says, mumbling some lines for effect.

‘I’m taking it to the next level’ … Rema
‘I’m taking it to the next level’ … Rema Photograph: SCRDOFME

Finally, aged 14, he was given a phone by a member of his church, and started downloading free beats and rapping over them. He was inspired by Nigerian Afro-pop trailblazers D’Banj, Wizkid and Burna Boy, the latter of whom his older brother greatly admired. He would soon die in a botched operation. “Burna actually looks like my brother somehow,” Ikubor says fondly. “I feel like if my brother was alive, they would really look alike.”

By the age of 15, he had also lost his father, a politician who died in mysterious circumstances. “I started changing,” he says, his smile becoming strained. “[When] I lost my dad, seeing people switch up on us like that – my soul just got darker. I slowly became a very quiet person. I lost a lot of my social skills because they were my mentors; I didn’t know what to do with life.”

Their deaths pushed the family into financial difficulties which Ikubor, the sole remaining male of the family, felt forced to rectify. Overwhelmed by the pressure, he ran away from home aged 17, settling in Ghana in an attempt to make money and further his music career. “I was tired of everything,” he says. “I ghosted; started a new life. Nobody could reach me.”

Ikubor attended talent shows and auditions, performed hard labour in exchange for cash and went “door to door” looking for any work he could find. He credits his determination with his survival, as well as charity from fellow Nigerians he met in the country. Although bleak, he found the experience prepared him for the cut-throat nature of criticism and life in music. “When I went to the industry I was not afraid of anything. Because what can be worse than being alone, in the middle of nowhere?”

After he had saved enough money to support his family and settle some longstanding financial issues, he returned to Benin City to join his mother and sisters. Once he was home, a moment of boredom prompted him to record a freestyle and post it online. It went viral and caught the attention of musician D’Prince, who offered Ikubor a record deal in 2019.

Three years later, he has a global chart hit. He’s confident that this growth is sustainable. “Afrobeats is going to countries that we have never charted [before],” he says. “It’s obvious that I’m taking it to the next level.”

We are urged to wrap up by his management – we have already run over Ikubor’s tight schedule, cutting into a tiny break where he will be taken for food, Nigerian Egusi soup. The pacing and pressures of his career seem intense on such young shoulders, but he is largely unfazed. “I don’t really like to cloud my mind with a lot of things,” he says.

His leisurely attitude is more meaningful than it might seem. Ikubor wants the “freedom” of his music to help him make up for lost time and get a chance at the youth he missed out on. “I didn’t really have much of that when I was young. I lost a lot of my childhood because I needed to feed my family. Now I have the chance, I want to get it back.”

 Rema plays Brixton Academy on 7 and 8 November.