At the end of January, Teni, Nigerian afrobeats startold me the meaning of “Bourdillon”, a standout track I received on a draft of his latest album, Tears of the Sun. “Bourdillon is a rich place in Ikoyi, where rich people stay,” she said of the Lagos neighborhood. We were having dinner at a local Caribbean restaurant in another relatively affluent neighborhood: Midtown Atlanta. “So I’m just saying in 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 November 17, “Bourdillon” was missing from the tracklist. It was a party record and she was no longer in party mode, Teni told me a few days before the album’s release. Since January, she had beaten an illness that threatened her career. Before that, she had also begun a major healthcare transformation. “I thought, ‘I want to release a song that explains exactly how I’m feeling,’” she says over Zoom from Lagos. Now, Tears of the Sun features songs like “Apata”, about her father who was killed when she was two years old. “Whenever I feel down, I feel like he is always with me,” she says. “I put on a song, ‘Capricorn & Taurus’, talking about how I don’t fight with someone I love. I put ‘Popo’, talking about how someone I love could be using me. I added a song called ‘Banga’, a soup I love from southern Nigeria. I put on a song called ‘How’ – it says I can’t stop when it’s all I’ve got.”
Teni’s music is often upbeat, if not in its upbeat production, then at least in its lyrics about the trials and triumphs of love and life, sung in Nigerian pidgin, Yoruba and its Ondo dialect. Her biggest-ever music video, 2018’s “Case,” a sweet proclamation of the insane things she’d do for a lover, has 54 million views on YouTube. Her latest album, vibrant from 2021 Wonderlandwas inspired by his love of Disney World.
At an Atlanta Hawks game after dinner, Teni was approached by an excited mother with two young children behind her. “You’re Téni, right?” she asked with an eager smile, her daughter approaching Teni for a selfie, for which Teni put on her bug-eyed orange glasses and smiled big. Her aura was always bright and welcoming.
But Teni also knows darkness well, and Tears of the Sun takes its name from its duality. She was there, at the age of two, when her father, a retired Nigerian army officer, was murdered in a robbery she vaguely remembers. “He was actually holding me when they came in,” she tells me. As she rose to music stardom after college, she was berated for her androgynous style and weight. She learned to love herself and her life despite the difficulties while maintaining her own agency. “It was really just getting up and telling myself, ‘I’m going to face these demons and I’m going to win,’” she says. “It’s like me against me, and I have to win.”
The album has had the same name since we met in January. It also had the same intro, “YBGFA”, for “Young Black Girl From Africa”. It’s a joyfully defiant ode to independence and fearlessness, bold from the first verse, where Teni sings: “Why are you worried about the one I love? Why are you worried about who I fuck? In her music and media, her romantic interests can be feminine when they are not gender-neutral, and although she does not detail or define her own sexuality with me, she emphasizes the importance of freedom for everyone. When I ask her if what appears to be a queer theme in the song is intentional, she says, “It’s everything, to me. It’s not just one. They are queer people, they are people who just want to do something other than normal. It’s about me and everyone else who just wants to feel seen. You want to feel heard. You are not alone.”
However, in June, close to the internally anticipated release of the album, Teni fell ill in Los Angeles, where she was putting the finishing touches on it. “Maybe it’s Los Angeles weather or something,” Teni thought, and returned to Lagos, but continued to suffer from a terrible sore throat and heartburn. It took several doctors to get to the root of the problem – infected larynx and acid reflux. “But it didn’t seem like it at first,” says Teni. “I felt like I was going to die.”
On November 5, she posted a documentary-style TikTok revealing what she had faced, with images of her throat being poked with a foot-long medical tool while she wore a hospital gown, drooling into a cloth and receiving injection after injection. She had been losing her voice intermittently, she says, and doctors told her she was at risk of 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 lasting up to two weeks. In addition to her illnesses, she was hospitalized due to exhaustion. “My body just wanted me to rest. I was working a lot and just needed to rest,” she says. For the past four years, she has traveled nonstop and around the world, sometimes completing round-trip flights between Atlanta and Lagos in just a few days. Recovery has meant slowing down and spending a lot more time at home and a lot less time at work. Her single, “No Days Off,” was gaining traction and she was unable to promote it locally. “It wasn’t easy at all,” she says. “I was mad, I was upset, I was angry. I was everything. But the universe has a way of putting you to rest.”
Even before she got sick, Tears of the Sun it was a reflection of how wrestling shaped her — almost literally, as Teni successfully challenged herself to lose weight. “When I started recording my album, I was following a very strict diet. No oil, no carbs. Vegetables. Do you know what this is like as a musician? You’re working so hard on low calories, going through withdrawal from eating poorly. You stay up late to work,” she says. Furthermore, she The love is food. (“Make sure this interview gets published, (write) love, like a million loves,” she adds.)
Teni had to learn to balance what she wanted with what she needed. “It was a wake-up call, even for music,” she says. “You’re facing yourself and saying, ‘This is me, but I’m going to do better for myself. This is my time, this is my era. Whatever I do with it, that’s what it’s going to be.’”
It was a combination of this intrinsic motivation and external doubt that fueled her lifestyle change in early 2022. “One of my friends came to see me and I told him, ‘Oh, I’m going for a walk.’ diet.’ He laughed and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” she says. “And every time someone told me I couldn’t, I said it.”
Teni has spoken out about the way her body was received before, and even made a song celebrating her size, “XXXL,” but she doesn’t think loving herself at her previous weight meant she was beholden to it. “And people say, ‘Oh, you were fat when you exploded and now you’re going against it.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t know anything about evolution,’” she tells me. “How can I stay the same and work hard?”
She began her weight loss journey on January 8, 2022, the anniversary of her father’s murder 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, strawberries, pineapple and just a little banana. Teni hired a chef, and most importantly, she recruited her mother, who had also been on a similar journey. “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 how to use a scale to weigh food.
Teni was raised with nine siblings (including another singer, Niniola) in a harmonious polygamous family between her father’s three wives, including her biological mother and her children. The women still work and live together in the same house, Teni says, and she considers them all her mothers. Teni wanted to attend a basketball game in Atlanta—where she used to visit as a child, moved to college around 2011, and began her music career—because she developed a love for the sport at a young age, with her brothers. “They always took the ball away from me, so I had to work really hard to get it. That’s how I learned at the beginning. I was the best in my school,” she says. “It just made me feel free.”
At the game, Teni supported the Hawks, although she is a fan of Kawhi Leonard from the rival of the night, the Los Angeles Clippers. She wore a sporty outfit – a windbreaker that looked like it was straight out of the 1990s, in the colors of Wild Berry Pop-Tarts. Her light blue, boot-cut jeans were plastered in patches, and those orange hues took up most of her face. She was makeup-free and had straight braids. “I’ve always loved fashion, but I feel like this past year has been more eye-opening for me in the sense that I’ve been able to do a lot with it, I’ve been able to express myself with it,” she said, the self-discovery aligning with her health journey. “Like today, I’m dressed how I feel. I like that. This is what I want to wear. This is how I want to feel. This is how I want to be.” After two years of transformation and a particularly difficult summer, Teni seems resolute in her power and freedom.