Tiwa Savage, Queen of Afrobeats, makes a new start
By Jon Pareles
For a singer and songwriter just making her American album debut, Tiwa Savage is wildly overqualified.
“Celia,” released last month, is actually her fourth full-length album in Nigeria, where she was born and has been hailed in recent years as the Queen of Afrobeats, the West African pop finding its way to a growing worldwide audience.
It’s the global leveling-up of a solo career that also includes plenty of nonalbum singles and collaborations with top Afrobeats performers like Wizkid, Davido and Patoranking. Savage was featured on “Keys to the Kingdom” with Mr Eazi on Beyoncé’s “The Lion King: The Gift” (repurposed this year for Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King”).
Savage, 40, has also been a television host (on “Nigerian Idol”), a stage and television actress, her own video director and an activist devoted to HIV/AIDS prevention and to combating rape culture in Nigeria. Her international reach, on streaming services and beyond, reflects international experience.
“I lived in Nigeria; I lived in London; I lived in America,” she said via Zoom from her home in Lagos, casually dressed in a T-shirt and, she noted, not wearing makeup or eyelashes. “Those are three different, completely different cultures and different continents. So I’ve just grown up just being a sponge for different kinds of music.”
Before she started her solo career in Nigeria a decade ago, Savage worked behind the scenes in the American and British music business. She has songwriting credits on albums by Fantasia, Kat DeLuna and Monica, and she sang backup on tour with Mary J. Blige, in the studio on Whitney Houston’s final album and onstage at Wembley Stadium with George Michael.
“Celia” is an album of sleekly insinuating Afrobeats grooves that carry love songs and understated but purposeful messages of empowerment. The lyrics switch between English and Yoruba as Savage glides through her melodies, rarely raising her airy, unflappable voice. Her latest single, “Temptation,” is a duet with English pop singer Sam Smith, who was “flattered” to join her, Smith said via Zoom from London, because “I think she’s sensational.”
Smith added: “Tiwa has this natural tone in her voice that makes you feel like you’re listening to a friend. It feels comfortable and feels wholesome and homey. And she sounds kind when she sings. My favorite singers have a softness to their voice that doesn’t, you know, smash you in the face. It just sits with you and talks to you in a kind and soft way. That’s how I hear her voice.”
Savage is treating “Celia” as both a culmination and a new beginning. “When I first started out as an artist, I was seen a certain way, and I’ve grown since then,” she said. “I’ve experienced a divorce, being a single mom and seeing backlash for being sometimes too sexy in a male-dominated industry.”
Savage was born in Lagos, and she grew up listening to the Nigerian music her parents loved — the politically charged Afrobeat of Fela Kuti and the juju of Sir Shina Peters — along with imported Western pop. She was 11 when she moved with her family to London, and while she was drawn to music and sang in the school choir, she dutifully followed her father’s advice and earned her first college degree in business administration, going on to work as an accountant at a bank.
But music beckoned, and Savage decided to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, adding jazz to her vocabulary. Her next move was to Brooklyn, where she concentrated on writing songs. One night she finished a session and left her engineer working on a track. Fantasia, who was working in a nearby studio, heard the song “Collard Greens and Cornbread” and immediately wanted to record it.
That led to a publishing contract with Sony/ATV and a move to Los Angeles, where Savage worked as a songwriter and backup singer. “I learned 70% of how to handle industry stress from being a backup,” Savage said. On the road with Blige, she recalled: “The focus isn’t on you, but you’re just watching how she handles the press, how she handles fans when she’s tired, how she handles the pressure. So I was mentally prepared. I knew it’s a lot of work.”
In 2010, Savage started her solo career, moving back to Lagos — which was already the center of Afrobeats — on the advice of Tunji Balogun, who was then an A&R representative at Interscope Records. He went on to become her manager and, in 2013, her husband; they had a child, Jamil, in 2015.
“He said, ‘Look at Rihanna, look at Beyoncé, look at all of these girls — you have to be sexy,’” Savage recalled. “And I have to give it up to him, because that strategy worked in getting me into the market. Because when I showed up on the scene, there wasn’t anything like it. It was just like: ‘Yo, who is this? She’s Nigerian? And she’s wearing a multicolored cat suit in a video?’ So it got their attention.”
Her first single, “Kele Kele Love,” was a hit; Savage sang about expecting all of her man’s love, not half. But its video — modest by American norms — drew a backlash in Nigeria, along with some awards nominations. Her next video, for “Love Me Love Me Love Me,” showed her in bed with a shirtless man and was banned by the National Broadcasting Commission in Nigeria; some of her performances were canceled.
Savage said she was told: “‘This is too sexy. You can’t be this.’ And the more they kept on saying no, the more I just kept pushing the envelope. The skirts got shorter, the lashes got longer.”
At one point, Savage retreated to Los Angeles and considered going back to simply being a songwriter. “But then I would open my DMs, and I’d see all these young girls being like, ‘I love your sleeve tattoo; I love your piercing,’” she said. “And it was like, I have to go back for these girls. Now I say that I want to inspire girls, but they inspired me to come back.”
For all the programming, planning, brand management and careful messaging that go into her music, Savage is determined to loosen up. She is trading pinpoint choreography for more spontaneous moves; she’s revealing her tomboy side as well as her glamorous one; she’s leaving bits of noise and imperfection in her songs. Her next album, which may arrive sometime next year, might dip into Brazilian music or other styles that have caught her ear.
“I’m never going to stop experimenting,” she said. “That’s just who I am. Get used to it.”