When Rema is in the studio, he pursues sounds and sensations that he says touch his soul. Ignoring this instinctive creative process could’ve yielded a different rendition of a “Calm Down” remix — possibly one without Selena Gomez.
The original version of the Nigerian musician’s midtempo hit “Calm Down” arrived a year ago as the second single from his March 2022 debut studio album, Rave & Roses. The enticing, ambient song finds Rema pleading with a young woman at a local club to trust that his intentions are pure. The track, produced by fellow Nigerian native Andre Vibez, oozes with his signature style of Afrobeats, which he calls Afro-rave — a subgenre influenced by his love for hip-hop, African music, lo-fi and alternative.
After Rema, 22, noticed the single beginning to take off (debuting on the Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart two months after its release), he knew he had to capitalize on the momentum, so he trusted his gut and recruited a woman “take it up to the next level” — and immediately knew that Gomez was the right fit. The “Calm Down” remix reaches a new No. 26 high on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 and holds its top position on the Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart for a 23rd week. Billboard spoke with the rising artist about the making of his biggest hit to date, his plans to give back to Nigeria and pushing Afrobeats forward.
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How did you link with Selena Gomez for the “Calm Down” remix?
It started with being a fan [and] supporting her music. She actually came across my music too, and she also wrote to me. Our teams got familiar and we started working towards this good music that came out. It started that from friendship, to colliding our teams together, and everyone is like a big family right now. It was very much organic, and we made it happen, and it’s just so huge. I’m amazed.
When after the original “Calm Down” did you think you needed a remix, and why was Selena the right person to match the vibe?
[Around] June, I started seeing the impact. I hit my team [like], “I think this might be a song I would like to do a remix to.” I don’t really do remixes — most of my songs are solo or features. I wanted a female voice on the song. The song was already blowing up, so I felt like we needed someone that could take it up to the next level. From our discussions, planning, and available contacts and friendship, Selena was the best bet. I had my fingers crossed she would agree. Luckily for us, she did and we felt no need to reach out to anybody else.
What has it been like watching the song transform into a global hit?
Every day I wake up to good news. Not just good news about how well my career is going; it’s about how well my culture is flying. Afrobeats is going to the next level. This song is opening doors and bridges. Listeners want to know what more is coming from Nigeria, what more is coming from Africa. I’m so happy. I’m happy for me, my team, the culture and for Selena. She embraced the sound, and she did her own thing. It was the right timing [with] the right person, and the impact has been so huge. Seeing people who don’t speak my language sing my song word-for-word really shows that people are impacted by the sound, and I’m grateful for it.
Why do you think “Calm Down” has been such a long-lasting hit?
It’s not just about the song — it’s also about me and the gift that God has blessed me with. I work in the studio with no plans. I just create. However any of my songs go, I love them the same way. I push them the same way. I feel like people just pick whatever resonates with them. There’s no single element I could really pick out. If I focus on that, that would just box me in somehow. I don’t know what it is, it’s just good music.
Tell me about the song’s creative process. Did you assist Selena with her verse?
That was all Selena and her team. I don’t really know what her creative process is like, but we did it remotely and she was very concerned about how the record was supposed to turn out. Every move she made on the song, she always wanted to know if I was good with it. Some artists just be like, “Whatever I did is dope. Have it,” but she wanted to know if I resonated with whatever she did on it — and I did. I loved it. The only part I switched was with my producers: we touched more parts of the beat and let her verse breathe, but nothing else.
What have you learned from working with her?
When working with other artists, you should care every step of the way. She cared. I learned caring. When she started working on it, she called me on FaceTime, and we talked a little about it. The mixing, the music video, making sure that she didn’t take from it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, [it’s] Selena Gomez, so we have to switch the whole idea to something else,” she just embraced it. She’s such a hard worker, knowing how much she does. She acts, she has a makeup line, she does music. She has busy s–t to do, but she’s been promoting [to] her fanbase and has been very genuine, loving, kind and supportive of me. Even aside from “Calm Down,” [her fanbase] also supports my other music, just because I did a collaboration with Selena. That’s amazing.
What was the song’s initial inspiration?
I was at a party, and a couple of girls walked in, and I saw a girl in yellow. I wanted to talk to her and her friends were being really stuck up. They didn’t really want to chat. And I was like, “Yo, just calm down. Let’s have a chat.” And then she actually calmed down, and we started talking and dancing. When she left the party, she was on my mind, and I wanted to see her again. That was it. I walked in the studio fresh out of that emotion.
Any music that comes from my mouth is Afro. You can tell that my sound is very distinctive out of every other Afrobeat artist, but it doesn’t take away the fact that Afro-rave was birthed through Afrobeats. [Afro-rave] is a subgenre. Burna [Boy] has his subgenre because he’s the only one doing him, you feel me? CKay, Fireboy DML, etc., they all got what they do, and some people just keep it straight with the old genres. I didn’t take it away from Afrobeat being my inspiration, but it’s just me posing to evolve the sound to something else. I worked hard for the sound, [and] I got criticized a lot until it started making its own wave. So I feel like it needs to be labeled. It’s knowing something is special and you trademark it. It’s me vouching for my art, my creation.
What’s next for you?
I really want to keep focusing on impacting the African youth. I feel like before I started getting global [recognition], my fellow Africans have been my huge propeller. They’re the ones who took me to the world.
I want to focus on building up our trust between artists and fanbases. We’re doing so much [in] other parts of the world [that] are developed and have better infrastructure. Whatever is coming into the culture, I would like to reinvest in it. We have to start putting up good shows. We have to start making people come to us. It’s good to do world tours, but we all need to come together to build Africa. As much as we are traveling, making the news, blah blah blah, I just really want to focus on home.
What do you want to do specifically to focus on the African youth and give back to your community?
I wouldn’t say it’s on some charity level type s–t. It’s based on the infrastructure that creators need. There are a lot of complaints coming from directors, painters, even musicians — fans don’t trust artists anymore because the shows are not being put up nicely. We need infrastructure. It’s important. The rest of the world is giving us that, but I think it’s very important that we actually invest in ourselves, because we really want the world to come to us.
They’re going to Ghana, they’re going to Tanzania, they’re going to a lot of places to watch Afrobeats artists, but we really need to focus on Nigeria here right now. The lineups in different African countries are a lot of Nigerian artists, but our infrastructure is very necessary.
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