It’s a Tuesday afternoon and there’s a golden hue shining over the Manhattan skyline. The 82-degree heat can be felt swarming through the busy streets of Manhattan’s Flatiron district. The time is slowly creeping towards half past the hour and at any minute Roc Nation’s newest member Tiwa Savage will walk through the door. From the looks of it, today seems like the perfect day to chat and get familiar with one of Nigeria’s biggest Afrobeats artists.
The Nigerian-born and London-bred singer quietly strolls into the office decked in a black, adidas track jumpsuit with a small four-person entourage. Her afro-puffed ponytail and hoop earrings give off “chill girl next door” vibes, which is quite contrary to the diva-licious attire she wore during her performance at the inaugural One Africa Music Fest at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center over a month ago.
After a brief introduction, she breaks the serious ice that often lingers for about three seconds during first meetings with a simple, pleasant smile. With her far from American accent, Tiwa softly greets everyone with a purposeful handshake, making sure that not a single person is left out of the mix.
It was not too long ago that the singer-songwriter was just starting to make a buzz on the radio (and party) airwaves. Within six years of her solo career, Savage has managed to release two studio albums, rack up numerous award nominations (including one from BET and MTV Africa Music), walked the green carpet of the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, starred in a hit international television series aimed at educating the masses about the realities of HIV/AIDS (by the way, don’t sleep on MTV Shuga), and served as an ambassador for global brands like Pepsi and Pampers. But after digesting all this information, one can’t help but wonder how she got to this very point in her life.
“I’m the only girl. I’m the last-born. I have three older brothers. Life was beautiful. I had two loving parents; my brothers were always very protective because I was the only girl. Because I grew up with only boys, I was very tomboyish and a lot of people don’t see that,” she says. “A lot of people see heels, makeup and being glammed up, but 90% of the time, I like sneakers, track suits and being cool and relaxed. Growing up was fun and [had a feeling of] being free. Strict at times, but fun.”
Music, however, was something that would enter her life at a very young age, thanks to a boy she found to be cute in secondary school. “I played trombone. Don’t ask me if I still play [laughs], but I literally picked it up because I had a crush on a boy in high school. He used to hang around with the cool kids, the musicians and dancers.” She chuckles to herself as she recalls how it all started. “Here I was: this kid fresh from Nigeria, strong accent, my mom shaved my hair off. I tried to get his attention. I went to this music teacher and said that I really wanted to do music. He looked to the corner of the room and said the trombone was the only instrument left. I picked it up, but eventually got bullied for it because it was always getting in the way on the bus. That was having the opposite effect of what I wanted because this guy’s now laughing at me instead of falling in love with me. So, I gave up and joined the choir.”
“[My sound is] African, pop, soul. When I say soul, I don’t necessarily mean soul music. I mean it has some grit.”
From that moment on, singing stuck with her, just as it did while performing in the church choir. When she wasn’t listening to or singing Christian music, she’d listen to the Afrobeat king and originator Fela Kuti, before learning from some of gospel, hip-hop and R&B’s greats. But if you were to ask her if she always thought she’d become a professional singer, she’d confidently nod, ‘yes.’ “I always knew I was going to be [one], because I was very creative. As a young girl, I used to make clothes and I used to do dances with other kids from the estate. But I never actually thought that music would be my thing until that moment.”
A college bound Tiwa decided to break the news to her parents that she wanted a career as a musician. “When I did tell my parents that I wanted to do music, my dad thought that I just wanted to sing in the choir,” she recalls. “I told him I wanted to be a musician and initially he wasn’t really for it, so he told me to go to school and study in either business, engineering or be a doctor or a lawyer.” She obliged and agreed to earn a degree in Business Administration from Kent University. But after she graduated, that itch for music was still there. “I wanted to do music and he said that I have to go and study music. I’m glad he did because I ended up going to the Berklee College Of Music and I studied jazz and music business. It really comes in handy when I have to look at music contracts.”
“I would love to work with Kim Burrell. Her voice is like an instrument.”
After completing her education at the prestigious U.S. college, the singer decided to test the waters of the music industry in America and take a stab at making her mark in the music business as a solo artist. Little did she know, her life journey would take her to New York City and down the career path of a songwriter.
“Songwriting kind of happened. I was in the studio trying to create a demo for myself. I finished the song and went back home. The next day, I was supposed to come and do some ad-libs on it and learned that when I left, Fantasia Barrino heard the song and liked it. Long story short, she took the record and I got a publishing deal. I had to start writing songs for other people, which is a learning process for me because usually I write songs just for myself. When you are submitting [music] for other artists, they make like the song, but they might say tweak a certain part. I had to learn how to tailor a lot of songs to different artists, but the beauty about being an artist now is that I can say what I want say and how I want to say it.”
The song that Fantasia ended up taking out of her hands was “Collard Greens and Cornbread,” which ended up on the Barrino’s third studio album, Back to Me. From there, the rest is history. Savage would then relocate to Los Angeles, California and go on to write for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Mya, Monica and more through landed studio sessions with hit-makers like The Underdogs, James Fauntleroy, Frank Ocean and Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds. She even went on to singing background vocals for “I Look To You,” one of last songs from the late and legendary Whitney Houston.
But, again, those accolades were not satisfying either. Coincidently, Savage would run into former Interscope A&R executive Tunji “TJ Billz” Balogun, who would eventually convince her to take her talents back home and take a stab at bringing something new and fresh to the Afrobeats music scene in Nigeria. Shortly after heeding his advice, Savage released a fresh, lady anthem called “Kele Kele Love,” and indirectly contributed a spark to the rising smoke of the emerging “funky, and hyped, and energetic” Afrobeats genre of today.
“You can’t please everybody, all of the time.”
Unfortunately, after receiving much positive feedback for her debut single, while receiving airtime on Nigerian radio (amongst fellow artists like D’Banj, PSquare and Tuface), the negative criticism came on just as strong the song’s fresh, yet sexy visual. During another sit-down with Pulse, Tiwa admitted that the far-from-pleased response to her video was “heart-breaking” and influenced her decision to take a break from the Nigerian music industry.
“You get this acceptance and then you’re seeing all these headlines. Now I’m a really immune to it. I don’t care who you are, when you first start, there’s no way it will not affect you, so I ran back to Los Angeles. I was like, ‘I am not doing this anymore.'”
Shortly after regrouping and changing her perspective, despite the opinions of others, Savage marched on and released a music video for her next track, “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me” (which ended up getting banned from Nigeria’s NBC network) and eventually teamed up with Mavin Records founder and super producer, Don Jazzy. As time progressed, Tiwa eventually released her debut album, Once Upon A Time (2013), featuring fan favorites like “Eminado,” and “Without My Heart.”
Three years later, the mother of one debuted her sophomore effort, R.E.D (2016), where she expressed her strength amidst the negativity surrounding her personal life or career decisions. Not only does she classily exhibit her “no f**ks” given stance to the naysayers, she comfortably experiments with fusing the popular Afrobeats sound with the waist-winding vibes of reggae and dancehall. And because of the buzz Tiwa has unintentionally garnered over the last six years, Jay Z’s New York City-based company has added the Yoruba songstress to its roster of domestic and international artists to manage (thanks in part to Mr. Carter’s right hand man and living trend tracker, Briant “Bee-High” Bigg).
“I stand for every strong woman. Someone who typically doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Someone who would go out of their way to prove you wrong and break the mold of what you think she should be.”
As many international artists have attempted to cross over or garner ears and structural business of the American country, one can’t help but wonder: Why take the risk with your brand?
“I know a lot of artists have gotten international deals, but for me the genuine passion for Africa was just there and it started with me and Bee-High and just him taking time to come to Nigeria several times. That speaks volumes,” she replies. “For someone who is not from there, coming and spending time and learning about the culture and saying that this can crossover, it made me feel really comfortable. When I went to the Roc Nation office here in New York, there was a genuine interest and genuine love. It was the same feeling when I met Jay Z. He was genuinely interested in the African culture and you can even see from some of the artifacts he has in his office. It was a no brainer for me. I didn’t have to shop around and see what my options were. There are some things that when it just comes, you know it’s right. That was just the situation. You hear a lot of times when people sign after a month, they’re on their own. With Roc Nation, it seems their day-by-day support is only getting stronger.”
As for any of her fans concerned with her decision to jump management boats, Savage offers nothing but assurance that Tiwa will still be Tiwa, and that who she is and what she stands for will not change.
“I’m still very pro-African and you can’t take that away from me,” she points out. “There’s nothing you can do to change that. I think only time will tell and they need to be rest assured that Roc Nation is really trying to introduce the African culture to the world, not even just America. When I say culture, they’re not just interested in the music, they’re interested in the fashion, in the culture and in the movement. I think that is because everybody is kind of reconnecting back with each other. A lot of the Africans in the diaspora are connecting back home and they see that buzz and they’re just trying to assist in building that bridge.”
Although her latest album was released 10 months ago, there is no doubt that her third studio album is on the way and will have more in store for fans around the world, as well as those just getting familiar.
“It all starts with great music,” Tiwa says. “I love that at Roc Nation they’re giving me the liberty to create great music. Mentally, I’m just trying to create something that crosses over, but appeals to Africa. Once we get the right music, I think the music is going to determine what we do. Obviously, the press, the plugging in to radios, the strategic collaborations, all of that is in the works. It depends on the music that we determine which artist I collaborate with.”
Before we wrap up, we can’t help but ask one last question, a question that many Nigerians (whether born and raised in America, London, Lagos or elsewhere) often debate on: What is the difference between Afrobeat, Afrobeats and Afropop?
“I don’t even know how it came about,” she admits. “I know Afrobeat is from Fela and the reason why I guess people wanted to start a new genre of Afropop was because a lot of the music we’re doing now is influenced by hip-hop, R&B and pop. You can’t really say it’s just Afrobeat, because Afrobeat has a sound. When you hear it, you now it’s Afrobeat. I think that’s where the argument is.” She ends with a smile. “I think at the next forum we have in Nigeria, we should have this discussion.”