Charting the ascendancy of African musicians to world acclaim, it’s almost ironic to look back at a moment in 2006, when a little known singer, Tiwa auditioned for X Factor in the UK. Although she was to leave the competition after the ‘Judge’s Houses’ round, Tiwa Savage has since gone on to fashion a lane for herself as an international Afrobeats singer, songwriter. An artist who loves to mix and overlap many influences into her music, she’s now certified her place in amongst the leading artists in the West African pop genre.
I go to meet Tiwa in her Central London hotel suite to find out more about the artist and her journey in music so far. “Oh my goodness X Factor was bittersweet,” she says with a small laugh when I ask about her time on the show. “It was a heartbreaking experience at that time. Obviously, because I didn’t get through – I think I got eliminated just before the final 10, and I was heartbroken. But then, I say sweet because I feel like if I’d gotten through I probably wouldn’t be doing the type of music I’m doing now. I probably would be doing strictly Pop music or R’n’B music. So I think God knew what He was doing.”
Internationalist from early, Tiwa spent many early years honing her craft in both the UK and US, “It was a situation where I got a glimpse of what was to come and I was able to go back and really prepare myself. I always say this: ‘Opportunity favours the prepared’ – I don’t know if I was prepared mentally then. And also, I had to really go back. Go to Berklee College of Music, learn music. Moved to America, learned how to write songs. Worked with a lot of amazing artists that I’ve always looked up to – all my life. And that’s where I discovered the buzz that was happening in Africa because when I was in America, everyone would say ‘Tiwa, where are you from?’ and I’d tell them oh, I’m from Nigeria and they’d say ‘wow!’ They were so fascinated by the music, the culture and I was like why am I trying to do something else when these people are interested in what’s going on in Africa? And that’s when I moved back [to Nigeria from America] so it all adds up. I’m glad I actually didn’t get through on X Factor but at the same time, if you’d asked me I probably would have ripped your head off at the time. You know, sometimes when you go into situations and this door is shutting, and this door is shutting and that door – it forces you to look inward. Because you can’t get what you thought you needed at that time, it forces you to reevaluate yourself.”
Prompted by the advise of then Interscope A&R, Tunji Balogun (now A&R at Sony), Tiwa made her move back home to Nigeria and stepped into the frontline. Nigeria gave her the platform to refine her voice as one of the leading musicians in the Afropop world and draw together sounds of Afrobeats, R&B, Soul and Pop. Collaborations with Busy Signal, Wizkid and Fuse ODG only confirmed Tiwa had hit the right note. “I’ve known Wizkid for many years, as soon as I moved to Nigeria. I would like to say we kind of started around the same time really – when he was signed to EME, and came out with ‘Holla At Your Boy’ – so we have a really really good relationship. And when I had the song [Bad] for the album ‘Red’, it was actually the producer’s idea to reach out to Wizkid because [Wizkid] was the only person [the producer] could hear on the song as a feature. And I sent the record to him, and when he laid the vocals down it was just one of those really perfect synergies – we did the video, and the song really, really, got a lot of buzz so I’m grateful to Wiz for jumping on that record.”
Tiwa’s collaboration with Fuse ODG has also proved to be another moment of perfect synergy. The song ‘Diary’ has clocked well over 900,000 YouTube views and so I ask how this one came about, “Fuse reached out to me about the song ‘Diary’, he sent it over – I loved it, I thought it was very catchy and it still had the Afrobeats element to it. And I know that Fuse is such a huge artist out here [in the UK] so it was something I was excited about, he’s an artist I was excited to work with, and really respect a lot as well so it was really exciting to do that. I’ve just been blessed with a lot of the features and a lot of the collaborations that I’ve been a part of.”
I ask Tiwa how she handles the balance between Afrobeats innovation and adhering to the foundations that built the sound. “With anything, there’s always an evolution. With sound, with fashion – anything. I’m just really happy that elements of the traditional Afrobeat is still there – who I attribute to Fela Kuti, who I think is the king, the godfather of that sound, that movement. But like I said, it’s an evolution and it also stems from influences. A lot of us grew up outside Nigeria – in the UK, the US, Europe wherever. Even outside Nigeria but within Africa – so there’s a lot of influences of Reggae, Soul, R’n’B, Pop – even the sounds from here in the UK. But in everything, I’m still very very happy that elements of it are there whether it’s pidgin or whether it’s Yoruba or Nigerian language – elements of the beat is still there. And I’d like – I hope – it still remains in there as the evolution goes on.”
I don’t really mind as long as it has the Afro in it, you can call it Afropop, Afrobeats, Afrobeat, Afrosoul.”
African musicians are taking their sound to a global audience while astutely aware that a lot of eyes are on their movement. Maintaining the integrity in their authentic view of modern African music and loaded with an uncompromising vision, this new wave of artists have woven in multiple influences without losing their uniqueness in sound. “Just like in reggae music, yes it has evolved but it’s still reggae music – it still has the elements and energy – anywhere in the world you listen to it you know the genre of music it is so I just hope we can maintain the genre and maintain that in Afrobeats. Like when you have a pot of stew, the main ingredient is the meat – the main ingredient is the Afrobeat sound, but I colour it with maybe R’n’B adlibs, maybe soulful background vocals or maybe lyrics here or there. I don’t really mind as long as it has the Afro in it, you can call it Afropop, Afrobeats, Afrobeat, Afrosoul.”
I ask Tiwa whether the interest of major labels in Africa and the music’s emerging international appeal could damage the sound before it’s developed, “Personally I try to maintain either the drum pattern or pidgin English or a lot of times I speak in Yoruba and Igbo as well so there’s always going to be something. It’s either in the instrumentation, the lyrics or the video. I want a situation where it’s always present. I think it’s a good time now because they [record labels] are looking for us – so, it would be a different situation where I’m knocking on the door and I’m like, hey, listen, I have huge fans back in Nigeria and this music is growing and I’m trying to convince somebody of the sound, or of the movement. Then I can understand [labels] really trying to, you know, change the branding or the music or whatever.
Jay-Z’s foray into Africa kicked off at the same time as his launch of Tidal Music, with an expansion into Nigeria and soon after signing Tiwa to Roc Nation. The singer, songwriter, explains why the deal made sense, “because they are the ones more so interested with what’s going on with Afrobeats and the movement. From my personal experience, especially signing with Roc Nation – they are more interested in maintaining what it is that’s gotten me this far and what has gotten us this far. So, they’re not really trying to change the sound. I would say maybe branding and artist development – in terms of, our music industry is completely different in Africa than it is in the US or UK – so it’s just learning a different infrastructure – the product is still the same. It’s just working on the branding or packaging a little bit. I have to maintain that otherwise, what’s the point really? You’ll lose the essence of the movement and this movement is bigger than one artist. It’s a revolution. So we have to be mindful that we’re representing a continent and we’re representing new artists that will come up after us and they have to maintain that sound as well.”
More than the music Tiwa Savage is also a philanthropist involved in various Humanitarian causes. When it comes to moving forward and building African unity, Tiwa knows musicians often have a special place in society, “it’s very, very important. I’ve always said that musicians have such a huge influence – we can say things to our fanbase that a politician might not be able to get across as easily so we have a huge responsibility. We can use our music actually to sing and talk about other things and share a different light on Nigeria and Africa.
While juggling her music career, motherhood and pursuing acting, Tiwa understands the real impact her position offers her, “I don’t really advertise [my humanitarian work] that much. Especially on my social media because it’s just a personal thing I think – but now I’m in two minds. I think it’s important to do it, and before I used to feel like if I talk about it too much will people think I’m exploiting the situation or I’m just doing it to look good in the public eye. But then I also feel like I have to talk about it because I have a voice and there might be situations where people don’t know of certain things happening in a specific area – then a celebrity talks about it and then it shines a light to it.”
From breast cancer screening projects to HIV/Aids prevention and awareness programs, Tiwa’s unrelenting sense of responsibility gives her the capacity to expand her work further and further. “I’m a Polio Ambassador, I’m actually very actively involved in that. I’m passionate about Polio because to me it hits home because I have a child. And at one point, we thought it was eradicated in Nigeria – and it actually was – but we had four cases come up last year that not a lot of people know about. With me doing that cause and not talking about it, it didn’t really help the situation because a lot of people still didn’t know about it. Yeah, I can go home at night at say ‘oh Tiwa you did your bit, you helped’, but I realised I need to talk about it more so that other Nigerians can know this is a situation we’re dealing with.”
Tiwa Savage has only just begun taking her Afro sound to the world, with each accomplishment, she hopes to carve out a real space where the musicians of modern Africa are seen in the light of today and not the past.
Watch Tiwa Savage’s new video for ‘All Over’ below;