Teni, Feminist-Humanist Singer Rises to Stardom in Nigeria
A self-declared humanist, feminist, defender of the chubby — and a blossoming African talent into the bargain — Teni The Entertainer is surfing a superstar’s wave.
The 26-year-old Nigerian singer — full name Teniola Apata — is a breakout star whose performing and songwriting talents make her one of the continent’s hippest artists.
Manager Edobor “Redman” is amazed to see how far Teni has come in a short time as he mulls over the hits she gets on her Instagram profile.
“Look! I posted this video on her Instagram account 30 minutes ago… and we hit 47,000 views already. It’s unbelievable!”
Few would have ever predicted such a meteoric rise to fame for Teni, the self-styled “vice-president of fat people association”, gleefully free from pressures dominating the entertainment industry to be slimmer or modelesque.
She prefers rakish headgear to the ultra smooth blow-dried hair extensions of other high-profile songbirds and jogging pants to miniskirts.
Strutting her stuff as a feminist tomboy and sassy superstar is not the easiest act to pull off in a patriarchal, conservative and strongly religious country — making Teni’s rise to fame all the more remarkable on the face of it.
Yet for her, making it big time in the music business comes as no surprise.
Born into a family of musicians she was playing the percussion from the age of just two. By four, she had performed before regional governors in Nigeria’s Yoruba west, from where she hails.
“If you take music away from me, I would die. Period,” she tells AFP.
Today, most of the country rocks to her hits such as “Case”, “Uyo Meyo” or “Askamaya”.
Her Instagram account has more than 1.5 million followers while her videos have been viewed around 10 million times on YouTube.
Domestic appreciation is one thing — but Teni has loftier goals, saying “wait till I fill up Wembley” stadium in London.
But she adds that real fame to her would be performing in South America.
“I want to go to a Latin country and they will sing my songs. Then you can say I am popular.
“God has given me a gift,” she says without false modesty. “He’s made me different for a reason. why would I rob the world of my greatness?”
High heels v football
And different from Afro-pop stars she certainly is.
Her similarly successful sister Niniola more closely reflects conventional beauty ideals in Nigeria– often in trademark ultra high heels, fake eyelashes and long manicured nails.
“She’s always been a diva, very pretty, even when we grew up… (whereas) I would play soccer, basketball,” Teni says, speaking of her sibling with affection.
“The biggest fight a human being can fight is to be yourself,” she concludes — though that requires some guts in a country where “women are second class citizens.”
In ‘Case,’ a tale of street gang love, she tells the putative love interest: “I slap police for your Case, I go to war for your Case, I go to court for your Case … I punch the judge for your Case … anything you want baby, get for you baby.”
As part of pushing the envelope on cultural conventions, Teni doesn’t hesitate to portray menfolk as serving women — even as far as sending them out to buy sanitary towels in humorous videos.
Although that gives her an untypical image for a Nigerian woman she’s not sure it makes her a feminist.
“Is there a word for humanists?”, she asks to cover her world view.
“I just don’t want anyone to be treated badly — women, men, rich, poor… I don’t want anyone to be treated any less because they are less privileged.”
‘Just a regular girl’
Such talk is at odds with the kind of patter usually associated with the world of African music, where many singers prefer to show off private jets and bejewelled teeth than empathy with the less well-off.
Yet her approach goes down better than might be expected.
At this year’s Gidi Fest, one of the biggest festivals of contemporary African music which Lagos hosts annually, an audience of thousands roared its approval when, wearing trainers, she bounded on to the giant stage.
The cheers resounded again as she launched into some Shaku Shaku, a trendy street dance which has been dubbed Nigeria’s answer to Gangnam style.
Women profess to like her “because she is herself” while male fans say “she’s entertaining.”
“Teni is one of the hottest artists right now,” Gidi Fest co-founder Chin Okeke tells AFP. “She’s really great, super talented, with a beautiful voice and wonderful stage presence.”
“I saw her in concert in Accra, in Ghana, and Port Harcourt,” says Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, a journalist for Music in Africa.
“It’s really incredible — all you associate with Nigerian singers, she’s the opposite.
“She’s not too pretty, she’s not super rich. That’s why people like her, She’s just a regular girl like all of us.”