The multi-talented musician talks challenging himself creatively and why he hopes he can change things for the better when it comes to racism in the industry
Late May rain pounds on the windowpane when Tinie Tempah pops up on Zoom. He is in Barbados and the sky is blue and cloudless. He walks as he talks and the vistas of rolling waves and palm trees would induce envy in anyone. It certainly seems like a gilded existence.
Tempah is on the island with his wife, Eve, and their two young children and he says he’s there for a mixture of work and pleasure.
The Londoner is one of grime’s most successful exponents, a crossover star who has had seven UK number one singles. He is also something of a renaissance man and can list producer, record company owner, model, food entrepreneur and television presenter among his career accomplishments. And he says there’s more to come.
He hopes to take in a couple of surfing lessons in Barbados, which might come in handy when he plays the Sea Sessions festival in Donegal in a fortnight. “I know that surfing is really big there,” he says.
“By the time I get to Donegal I may have surfed.” He says he wants to push himself to try new things, whether it’s in his career or otherwise.
For some television viewers, the news that Tempah is a musician might come as a surprise. He has become an in-demand broadcaster, making lifestyle shows for BBC One and Channel 4 on art and property respectively. The former is Extraordinary Portraits, a compelling look at modern portraiture of ordinary people with remarkable stories; the latter is Extraordinary Extensions, which features rich folk making their already amazing homes even bigger.
Would the fledgling musician have been surprised by his detour into the telly game? “Yes and no. I started making music from about 12 years old and if anyone had told me at that time that I would get a number one song, or headline a festival, or perform at the Olympics  or FA Cup Final , or be on telly, I would probably have believed none of it. But what I love now is challenging myself creatively across a number of different disciplines.”
The TV gig helped him through the pandemic, not least because it unearthed a curiosity about others. “It’s been amazing being able to connect with individuals of all different walks of life and ages and being able to connect with them on a common interest, whether it’s art or architecture.”
During lockdown, he reassessed what was important.
“A lot of artists started to panic, me included, because I was a creature of habit,” he says. “It gave me pause for thought about what else I can do creatively.”
He says he didn’t realise how much he missed playing live until it was taken away from him: “It felt like I was deprived of something that was very important to me.”
Headlining Dublin’s Trinity Ball in April was especially thrilling. “That was one of the very first shows I did after the pandemic. There was a festival energy there, a lot of young people doing the rite of passage thing and getting really wasted,” he says.
“I feel a lot of affinity for Ireland — my name is Patrick, y’know — and I know Paddy Cosgrave, who founded the Web Summit, really well.”
Tempah has been a guest speaker at the tech conference in the past. When he talks about Dublin, he talks with fondness about gigs he played at the now-defunct Guinness-sponsored Arthur’s Day.
Tempah — born Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu on November 7, 1988 — is of Nigerian extraction. He says he is keen to retain much of the culture and tradition his parents passed onto him, including Catholicism. He is a regular churchgoer.
Having made music in his teens, and making quite a name for himself in the process, he was signed by Parlophone at 21. He hit the ground running. His first single, Pass Out, was released in February 2010 and went straight to number one in the UK. Subsequent singles, Frisky and Written in the Stars, reached numbers two and one respectively.
Tempah’s brand of rap and grime has always had a commercial edge and he seemed to arrive fully formed. He has a great look too — a snazzy clotheshorse who was named GQ’s best dressed man for 2010.
Although reaching top spots in the chart in recent times may not mean the cachet — or sales — of decades ago, it still carries considerable weight and Tempah is justly proud of the achievement.
“I had a mix of feelings with that first number one, but it was mainly a case of, ‘Wow. You’re going against the odds about what some people think you’re capable of.’ I thought, if I can get one, I can get more,” he says. “There are two sides to my brain: one is disbelief that this is happening, the other side is like, ‘Mate, you were destined to do this and now that it’s happened let’s keep the ball rolling’.”
Tempah has spoken out about racism in music. Is the situation for black artists getting any better? “It’s a great question, but also it’s an unfair question for me to have the overall answer. [For me] it obviously has got better because the correlation between when I first started and the success I’ve had now carries a certain kind of weight.
“When people get more successful, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. I remember hearing people talking about Naomi Campbell and Rihanna and saying, ‘She’s so famous, she’s not even a colour any more, she’s transcended colour.’ I’m not saying I’m at that point yet…” He pauses for thought.
“I’m not saying that I don’t experience racism because of course I do, but once you get to that top percent [where his fame has brought him] you’re going to be treated like everyone else.”
Tempah believes it is better to be black in 2022 than it was when he was a child.
“One thing that’s made things a lot more of a level playing field is the internet, so regardless of what your race or [sexual] orientation is, you can put your music out there yourself and let the masses decide. With tools like TikTok and Twitter, your music can be heard.
“But once you get into the industry for things like brand deals and endorsements, there can still be a bit of nepotism or unconscious bias. But I like to think I’m one of those people who are breaking down the barriers and changing things for the better.”
Tinie Tempah plays the Sea Sessions festival, Bundoran, Co Donegal, June 17–19. The line-up also features Basement Jaxx and Kneecap. seasessions.com