Tiwa Savage on the global success of afrobeats: “I’m so proud of the whole spotlight on Africa”

The star reflects on her reputation as 'the Queen of afropop', bats away the idea that she's a "Renaissance woman" and discusses her latest album, 'Celia'

It seems that afrobeats is the music of the moment. With huge stars such as Davido and Burna Boy having out out Platinum-selling albums last year and the recent launch of the UK’s new (and controversial) Afrobeats Chart, it appears to be the newest musical trend to break the mainstream. And now Nigeria’s Tiwa Savage is the reigning queen of afropop.

With a career that spans over a decade, Tiwa has an extensive catalogue of uplifting sounds, true and authentic to what you hear in Africa, and sometimes blended with a little Western flair. And on her latest album, ‘Celia’, she executes her signature style to perfection; most tracks use traditional, rhythmic percussion with blaring trumpets and floaty flutes, Tiwa adding a bit of alté that she says is “now becoming commercial because of the influx of dope artists”. This is especially true of the alluring ‘Bombay’, which features the UK’s bad girl rapper Stefflon Don. Tiwa rented out eight rooms in a hotel and got to work on “90 per cent of the album in two weeks” with all her favourite songwriters and producers.

Named after her mother, ‘Celia’ is, says Tiwa, for “all the different women in different industries killing it – especially in male-dominated industries”. For her, the name comes to signify all women who are “very powerful but she’s also vulnerable. She doesn’t mind showing her soft side and letting people see it, but she’s definitely a strong woman”. So when you get the last track on Tiwa’s third studio album, ‘Celia’s Song’, she wants it to be “a prayer of hope” to all Celias out there.

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And Tiwa Savage has certainly earned her stripes. She appeared on The X Factor in 2006, when she was turned down by Sharon Osbourne. Before she was the international superstar she’s now become, she was a backing singer for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan and more. Yet after watching singers light up the stage whilst she sang in the wings, it was the late all-time-great pop star George Michael who sparked the fire within her to pursue her dreams. She once performed with him at the Wembley Arena: “My most fondest memory is performing with George Michael, may his soul rest in peace… I saw a sea of people just singing along to his song; at that moment I thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do.’”

“It’s beautiful to see everyone honing their crafts and elevating [afrobeats] higher and higher”

Having witnessed the industry from the inside out as a backing singer, she does miss the time when making music was “so magical and there’s no label trying to tell you to do this so you can get your Spotify or YouTube numbers up”. However, according to Tiwa, “slow success builds character but fast success builds ego.”

Tiwa is “indifferent” to the new Afrobeats Chart, which was criticised for lumping together disparate genre under the term. When asked whether afrobeats – a genre that’s been around forever without mainstream acclaim – will last, she insists that “it’s definitely here to stay”, adding: “I’m so proud of the whole spotlight on Africa. I only hope that this is not Africa’s 15 mins of fame or this whole afrobeats genre is a flash-in-the-pan moment.

“I love where I’m from and what all my brothers and sisters are doing – WizKid, Burna Boy, Davido, Simi, Diamond, and Nasty C. It’s beautiful to see everyone honing their crafts and elevating it higher and higher. We inspire each other because when we see one doing numbers; we all want to push harder and move this moment forward.”

So she takes her status as the ‘Queen of Afropop’ very seriously: “I put pressure on myself to do better than my last [album], but having that title… it’s sweet that there are fans who think that of me – although there’s not just one queen. There’s a load of kings and queens doing this.”

“I want my legacy to be way bigger than music”

Knowing that her name holds a lot of weight, Tiwa Savage has been using her clout for good. She’s a philanthropist and activist, working to fight against sex trafficking and rape with the #WeAreTired movement, which gives Nigerian women a voice on sexual injustices. However, thanks to quarantine, she’s realised that she “wants to do more”, and says: “[As] celebrities we have a wider reach, sometimes, more than politicians and religious leaders because the youth would prefer to listen to a celebrity than another figure. They have more trust in their idols, therefore we’ve got to use our platform to be the voice of the voiceless.

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The bigger you get, the more organisations want you for your platform to elevate what they’re doing. So as I got more involved in charity work… as a human you can’t not be touched by it. You hear certain stories or see how others live, and you appreciate what you have. That makes you know that you have to do more to help people”.

Credit: press

Given her ability to bounce between different roles, Tiwa Savage is something of a Renaissance woman. When she’s not singing her heart out or preaching for change, you can see the star penning some of your favourite singer’s sleeper hits or even acting on MTV drama Shuga, a show which educates kids about safe sex. Yet Tiwa bats away the ‘Renaissance woman’ tag: “I see myself as that in an ideal world, but I know there’s a load of areas I want to work on. Acting in Shuga, I was so glad to help educate the youth about sexual education and how to practise safe sex. As a Nigerian, we don’t talk about that with kids. Even as teenagers, your parents don’t even want to know that you’re involved in those types of things. It’s a clever way to get the information out.

“I want my legacy to be way bigger than music, so I know I have to make time to do more things I want to do [to be called a Renaissance woman].”

With a musical career filled with such passion and determination, Tiwa Savage wants now to build her “enterprise” and says: “I want to start building schools, going into the merchandise and beauty industry and movies. It’s a lot of work – but I’m a Celia!”

– ‘Celia’ is out now via Island Records

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