Profile: The Rise and rise of Teni the Entertainer (and yes, she’s problematic too)

Teni

The fastest rising superstar in the country is a twenty-five-year-old bubbly young lady. Her name is Teniola Apata but she goes by the name Teni the Entertainer.

Every year the music industry throws up a bunch of contenders, each one claiming to be the next big thing. Some of them disappear as suddenly as they appear, some stick around. Few ascendancies have been as rapid and joyful to watch as Teni the Entertainer’s. In Teni, the general impression is that at the moment, the country (maybe even the world) is witnessing the crowning of a major star, one who is going to be around for a long time. This kind of x-factor comes around only once in a while.

To get a feel of Teni the Entertainer’s run, one has to go back to the machines that powered the hit-making careers of Davido, Wizkid and Tiwa Savage. But while these careers were made primarily by a determined team pushing and prodding at every stop on the rollercoaster ride to fame and success, Teni The Entertainer’s feels more organic and less like teamwork.

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There is a team sure enough, but at its white-hot centre is the most powerful ingredient, the relatable star who by herself captures the imagination of millions through sheer force of personality, shrewd deployment of social media and pure hit-making ability.

The uncanny ability to break through the confines of structured management and present a personality that appears free of any interference has served superstars well from Jennifer Lawrence to Davido. And Teni is merely the latest iteration.

A Star is Born

Born 23, December 1993, Teni’s infancy was marked by tragedy when her father was killed in a robbery attack in his own bedroom. She was raised in a polygamous home by the three Apata wives who famously stayed together after their husband’s death as a single family unit, choosing to nurture the legacy he left behind.

She took to music quite early and as a pupil, sang along with her sister Niniola and played instruments to entertain politicians and government officials. After her education in the family-owned school, she moved to the United States to study pharmacy. Music was pulling her but not surprisingly, there was some friction with the family over this flirtation. She described this pull and push in an interview, “Music is the easiest thing for me to do. I don’t want to live a sad life because I want to please my parents. I don’t depend on my parents financially anymore.’’ She eventually abandoned pharmacy and graduated from the American Intercontinental University, Atlanta with a degree in Business administration, after her music career had taken off.

At the One Night Stand concert in 2017 where Teni the Entertainer, riding the wave of her breakout single, the pervert shaming Fargin, opened for Adekunle Gold, she departed the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island venue amidst a sea of pressmen and women screaming her name for a photograph, a shout out or an interview. Teni spotted a lady reporter clawing her way through the mostly male crowd, calmly slowed her march and assured the lady with the words, ‘’I got you.’’ before settling in for a brief interview.

It was a quiet moment of sisterhood, one that plays out severally in different aspects of everyday living. This girl next door mode which Teni is quick to activate both on and offline, has further endeared her to her ever-growing fanbase.

Then there are the songs.

None of this would even be possible if it weren’t for the songs. In the space of the one year- since Fargin’s 2017 release- Teni the Entertainer has been hitting several home runs. Fargin was a sleeper hit, carrying messaging that frowned on pre-marital sex and creepy male relatives. A self-confessed fan of the music of K1 De Ultimate, Teni adopts the Fuji legend’s vocal inflection, samples some lyrics from Adewale Ayuba’s Omo Cinderella and adds in some Osita Osadebe for maximum effect. It is a cornucopia that could easily fail but it works somehow, thanks to Teni’s wholesome delivery.

Directed by Adasa Cookey, the video boasts a Nollywood melodrama vibe that placed Teni the Entertainer as a lovestruck damsel holding on to her senses. She is insisting her man wait till such a time that she is ready to have sex. The video ensured Teni stayed true to her playful, lovable self even when she was placed in heavy makeup and instructed to make goo goo eyes at her love interest. She introduced her bandana, baggy shirts and trousers- an eventual trademark look- and conquered the camera with her adorable dimples, visible every time she smiled. A star had emerged.

But could she follow through in a hard charging industry notorious for chewing young talent and spitting them out almost immediately?

It wasn’t immediately obvious but Teni kept at it. For her Dr Dolor Entertainment label, the challenge was how to market a tomboyish, beret-wearing above average sized female singer who was heavily influenced by music from the past and looked like no one else that had hit the pop music scene of recent. The early experiment was Pareke, a Shizzi produced early noughties influenced, dance dependent tune that borrowed heavily from street and gyration lingo. It was an awkward mash-up that didn’t quite hit the target.

For her next video, Teni the Entertainer went to her emotional bank to pull out a tune written in memory of her late dad, Simeon Akpata, a retired army officer and educator who was assassinated in 1995 when she was a little over a year old. The glittering Askamaya, a loose remake of Sir Shina Peters’ Omoge Loke loke cemented her claim as the most exciting newcomer of 2018 and by the time she put out the rough around the edges love song, Case, she had become a legitimate superstar.

Like her most popular songs, Case tells a relatable story of longing while borrowing heavily from pop culture trends past and present, like lifting lines from hip hop classics and namedropping moneybags Dangote and Adeleke. Case remains her biggest single and the video has amassed over 5million views on YouTube. In between, she earned writing credit for Davido’s late 2017 hit Like dat.

Trying it on her own

There was really no template for promoting an artiste like Teni the Entertainer and so for most of her career, she and her team have had to make it up as they go. The industry prefers its female acts skinny, flesh-baring with sex appeal to burn. Think Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade or Teni’s elder sister, Niniola, all talented women who have had to rely on their striking looks and feminine wiles to sell records. Even big-voiced divas like Waje and Omawumi haven’t been above playing the game the way it is set up. Not Teni with her baggy pants and sexually ambiguous presentation.

Her debut single Amen landed while she was signed to Shizzi‘s Magic Fingers Records. The record went nowhere fast and she promptly left the record label, signing with Dr. Dolor Entertainment in 2017. Fargin may have been her career breakthrough but it was a product of a long process of trial and error that had her embrace social media wholeheartedly to push both her music and the brand.

A large part of Teni the Entertainer’s success can be attributed to her effective deployment of social media to aggressively promote herself. On Instagram where she routinely posts updates on her career, sprinkled with news on life milestones and gimmicky videos, she has hit over one million followers (of course she made a thank you video to celebrate this!) and on Twitter, her followers number nearly 90,000.

She has an alternate career as an internet comedian/influencer that involves making video skits with the intention of providing comic relief for her teeming followers. Not all of these videos have been hits as Teni the Entertainer has received some backlash for the content of some of these skits. On a visit to Los Angeles for instance, Teni the Entertainer made one of these clips where she made a show of searching for the homes of Chris Brown and Kanye West. She approached a white guy for directions and proceeded to call him unprintable names in her native Yoruba language. This was the latest in a long line of videos where Teni plays up stereotypes about Nigerians wanting to exploit foreigners for personal and material gain, a move that many of her fans feel crosses the line from good comedy into bigotry.

This type of fish out of water material could be funny or cringe-worthy, depending on the amount of context that is available to viewers. Responding to the backlash, Teni clarified that the white guy was an old friend of hers and was definitely in on the joke. All of these social media engagement has helped bring her closer to her fans, creating an impression that she is simply a girl next door overwhelmed by the life she is living now. Highlights of her performances from Paris to Houston, Texas are posted regularly to the delight of her thirsty audience.

Making the music

The bulk of Teni’s material tends to start out as freestyle moments rather than the result of structured writing or creating sessions. This looseness, palpable in most of her material, may be responsible for giving people a sense of kinship but it has also ensured that her songs are usually not as tightly wound as they could be.

Fans got to see this process play out when for her college graduation in July last year, she put out a clip of herself singing joyfully to a folksy chorus said to have origins in her Ondo dialect. The clip quickly went viral (on Instagram, it has over 600,000 views) and months later, in time for her 25th birthday she recorded the tune and put it out as a single. Uyo Meyo quickly became one of her biggest hits and was listed by YNaija as one of the best songs of 2018.

There is a playfulness that lingers in the Teni’s delivery and in the songs she chooses to put out even when they are dealing with serious themes. A perfectly capable singer and songwriter, her lyrics are more relatable and faddish (think nods to Adeleke and Dangote) than profound. With her vocal work, she leaves the impression that maybe she could hit the high notes if she were inclined to, but more importantly for her is the idea that music should be fun and about making people dance as opposed to showing off her vocal range.

For Davido’s hit Like dat, which she has taken credit for writing, Teni explained that the song was the product of a studio session in which she looked around and saw a bottle of alcohol lying around and decided to build the chorus around the line, Hennessy ti wo body like dat. Her incredible 2018 run ended with her winning Best New Artist at the Soundcity MVP Awards Festival. She is hotly favoured to claim the highly competitive Next Rated prize when Headies season rolls around. Last month, Teni the Entertainer was featured on YouTube Music‘s Trending Artist on the Rise, becoming the first African woman to achieve this honor.

Shake it off

Teni may make the hits but her appeal seems to lie in her originality, cheerful nature and the confidence with which she carries herself. She may not look like anyone else in the music industry but millions of Nigerians find it easier identifying with her than they would a manufactured pop star with a body size that would get the Anna Wintour nod in approval.

Music journalist and podcast host Osagie Alonge found this out the hard way in a now deleted podcast episode where he made disparaging remarks about Teni’s looks and even advised her to stick to songwriting behind the scenes. Even though Teni maintained a dignified silence, the backlash was swift and furious and Alonge was forced to issue an apology. Perhaps it was he who should have stuck to his editing duties.

Niniola sprung to her defense, politely suggesting that maybe Alonge was in ‘’a bad place’’ in his life at the time. Teni the Entertainer spoke out more generally about body positivity and self-confidence in an interview with More Branches. “Whoever wants to talk should do so. I am only doing me. I learnt to define my path and focus on the journey at hand…. You can either let it affect you negatively or shake it off.’’

It is quite clear the choice she has made.

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