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Teni’s Health and Spirit Were Tested as She Made Her New Album

In late January, Teni, the Nigerian Afrobeats star, told me the meaning of “Bourdillon,” a standout track I had received on a draft of her latest album, Tears of the Sun. “Bourdillon is a wealthy place in Ikoyi, where wealthy people stay,” she said of the Lagos neighborhood. We were dining at a local Caribbean restaurant in another relatively wealthy neighborhood: Midtown Atlanta. “So, I’m just saying on this song that from the strip club to Bourdillon — from Bourdillon to the strip club,” she explained.

When Tears of the Sun was released on Nov. 17, “Bourdillon” was absent from the tracklist. It was a party record and she was no longer in a party mode, Teni says to me a few days before the album dropped. Since January, she had beat a career-threatening illness. Before that, she had begun a major health transformation, too. “I was like, ‘I want to put out music that explains exactly how I’m feeling,’” she says over Zoom, back in Lagos. Now, Tears of the Sun features songs like “Apata,” about her father who was killed when she was two. “Whenever I feel down, I feel he’s always with me,” she says. “I put in a song, ‘Capricorn & Taurus,’ talking about how I don’t fight with someone I love. I put in ‘Popo,’ talking about how someone I love could be using [me]. I added a song called ‘Banga,’ a soup I love from the south of Nigeria. I put in a song called ‘How’ — it states how I can’t stop when I’m all that I’ve got.”

Teni’s music is often optimistic, if not in its lively production, then in her lyrics about the trials and triumphs of love and life, sung in Nigerian pidgin, Yoruba, and its Ondo dialect. The music video for her biggest record, 2018’s “Case,” a sweet proclamation of the insane things she’d do for a lover, has 54 million views on YouTube. Her last album, 2021’s vibrant Wonderland, was inspired by her love of Disney World. 

At an Atlanta Hawks game after dinner, Teni was approached by an excited mom with two small children behind her. “You’re Teni, right?” she asked with an eager smile, her daughter approaching Teni for a selfie, for which Teni threw on her orange, bug-eyed shades and smiled big. Her aura has always been bright and welcoming.

But Teni is no stranger to darkness, too, and Tears of the Sun takes its name from her duality. She was there, as a two-year-old, when her dad, a retired officer of the Nigerian military, was assassinated in a robbery she fuzzily remembers. “He was actually holding me when they came inside,” she tells me. As she grew into music stardom after college, she’s been chided for her androgynous style and weight. She’s learned to love herself and her life in spite of its hardships by holding on to her own agency. “It was really just standing up and just telling myself, ‘I’m going to face these demons and I’m going to win,’” she says. “It’s like me versus me, and I have to win.” 

The album has had the same name since we met in January. It has also had the same intro, “YBGFA,” for “Young Black Girl From Africa.” It’s a blissfully defiant ode to independence and fearlessness, bold from its first verse where Teni sings, “Why you worried about who I love? Why you worried about who I fuck?” In her music and media, her romantic interests can skew feminine when not gender neutral, and though she doesn’t detail or define her own sexuality with me, she emphasizes the importance of freedom for everyone. When I ask her if what sounds like themes of queerness in the song are intentional, she says, “It’s everything, for me. It’s not just one. It’s queer people, it’s people who just want to do something else that’s not the regular. It’s about me, and it’s about everybody else who just wants to feel seen. You want to feel heard. You’re not alone.”

However, in June, around the album’s internally anticipated release, Teni fell sick in Los Angeles, where she was putting what was then the finishing touches on it. “Maybe it’s L.A. weather or something,” Teni thought, and returned to Lagos, but she continued to suffer through a terrible sore throat and heartburn. It took several doctors to get to the root of the problem — an infected larynx and acid reflux. “But at first, it didn’t feel like it,” says Teni. “It felt like I was going to die.” 

On Nov. 5, she posted a documentary-style TikTok disclosing what she had faced, complete with footage of her throat being prodded with a footlong medical tool while she wore a hospital gown, her drooling into a cloth, and getting injection after injection. She had been losing her voice on and off, she says, and doctors said she risked a permanent loss without a major operation. 

“I was sick for three, four months,” she tells me. She was in and out of the hospital, with some stays as long as two weeks. In addition to her illnesses, she was hospitalized for exhaustion. “My body just wanted me to rest. I’d been working so much, and I just needed to rest,” she says. For the past four years, she had been moving nonstop and around the world, sometimes completing roundtrip flights between Atlanta and Lagos in mere days. Recovery meant slowing down and spending much more time at home and much less time on the job. Her single, “No Days Off,” was gaining traction, and she couldn’t promote it on the ground. “It was not easy at all,” she says. “I was mad, I was upset, I was angry. I was everything. But the universe has a way of making you rest.”

Even before she got sick, Tears of the Sun was a reflection of how struggle has shaped her — almost literally, as Teni successfully challenged herself to lose weight. “When I started recording my album, I was on a very strict diet. No oil, no carbs. Veggies. Do you know what that is as a musician? You’re working so hard on low calories, going through withdrawal from eating bad. You’re staying up late to do work,” she says. Plus, she loves food. (“Make sure if this interview comes out, [write] love, like one million loves,” she adds.)

Teni had to learn to balance what she wanted with what she needed. “It was a wake-up call, even to the music,” she says. “You’re standing up to yourself and you’re saying, ‘This is me, but I’m going to do better for myself. This is my time, this is my era. Whatever I make of it is what it’s going to be.’” 

It was a combination of this intrinsic motivation and external doubt that kicked her lifestyle change into gear at the top of 2022. “One of my friends came to see me, and I told him, ‘Oh, I’m going to go on a diet.’ He laughed and said, ‘You can’t do it,’” she says. “And for every time anyone has told me I can’t, I have.”

Teni has spoken about the way her body has been received before, and even made a song celebrating her size, “XXXL,” but doesn’t think loving herself at her previous weight meant she was beholden to it. “And people say, ‘Oh, you were fat when you blew, and now you’re going against that.’ And I’m just like, ‘You know nothing about evolution,’” she tells me. “How can I stay the same and work hard?” 

She started her weight loss journey on Jan. 8, 2022, the anniversary of her father’s assassination in 1995. “Let it be tied to something that means something to me,” she told herself. She learned to love different foods, like smoothies with kiwi, strawberry, pineapples, and just a little bit of banana. Teni hired a chef, and as importantly, she enlisted her mom, who had gone on a similar journey herself. “My mom moved in with me for the first two weeks,” she says, and taught Teni and her cook how to make healthy meals and use a scale to weigh her foods.

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Teni was raised with nine siblings (including another singer, Niniola) in a harmonious polygamous family between her father’s three wives, including her birth mother and their children. The women still work and live together in one home, Teni says, and she considers them all her mothers. Teni wanted to catch a basketball game in Atlanta — where she often visited as a kid, moved for college around 2011, and began her music career — because she developed a love of the sport at a young age, with her brothers. “They would always get the ball from me, so I had to work hard to get the ball. That was how I learned at first. I was the best in my school,” she says. “It just made me feel free.”

At the game, Teni rooted for the Hawks, though she’s a fan of Kawhi Leonard of the night’s rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers. She wore a sporty outfit — a windbreaker that looked straight out of the 1990s, the colors of Wild Berry Pop-Tarts. Her crisp, light-blue, boot-cut jeans were plastered in patches, and those orange shades took up most of her face. She was makeup-less, with straight-back cornrows. “I’ve always loved fashion, but I feel like last year was more eye-opening for me in the sense that I could do a lot with this, I could express myself with this,” she said, the self-discovery aligning with her health journey. “Like today, I’m dressed how I feel. I enjoy it. This is what I want to wear. This is how I want to feel. This is what I want to look like.” After two years of transformation and a particularly trying summer, Teni seems settled in her power and freedom.

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