The impact and longevity of Tiwa Savage’s musical career is worth celebrating and applauding. However, it should not be viewed as a ‘saving grace’, which dilutes the collective disregard that the Nigerian music industry displays towards the milestones achieved by its women artists. Against the backdrop of a misogynistic society, Tiwa Savage’s long-term success—as a woman who creates Nigerian popular music—is an anomaly, and such success has not been without backlash.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Age of Afrobeats. Buy the issue here.
Tiwa Savage signed to Mavin Records in 2012, at a time when the label was going through a transitionary phase and shedding its old image under Mo’Hits Records. Branded as Mavin’s ‘first lady’, Tiwa Savage demonstrated that women could play a leading role within contemporary Afrobeats music. At the time, there was an unspoken rule of leaving mainstream Nigerian music ‘to the men’. This is not to suggest that women were not making great music in the mid-2000s, but to highlight that music by women was not primarily at the forefront of mainstream Nigerian consciousness, music or media. Waje and Omawunmi were widely recognized as Nigerian R&B singers, Asa and TY Bello dominated the alternative music space and Weird MC, Sasha P and Mo’ Cheddah were key players in rap music. Although Tiwa Savage’s musical sound did not fit neatly into these genres, she showed it was possible for women to create equally great contemporary Afrobeats music on both a national and global scale.
Alongside her widespread exposure and acclaim, Tiwa Savage’s success as a mainstream artist within a male-dominated industry and society has been laced with moral panic from her audience. Such moral panic is worth revisiting because it brings into focus the alarming ways that Nigerian society views the bodily autonomy of women artists and entertainers.
THE TIWA SAVAGE ‘WANTED’ VIDEO—SHOWCASING THE FEMININE BODY AS A SITE FOR UNWARRANTED CRITIQUE
In 2013, Tiwa Savage released a music video for the ‘Wanted’ single from her debut album, Once Upon a Time. In the Moe Musa-directed video, Tiwa Savage can be seen wearing a nude body suit, which caused widespread shock and controversy at the time. Nigerian media outlets described the video as ‘raunchy’, and a Nigerian housewife wrote an open letter to Tiwa Savage, therefore highlighting the hysteria and moral panic that the video caused within the Nigerian pop cultural landscape of 2013. In the letter, the housewife mentioned that prior to the ‘Wanted’ video, Tiwa was ‘perceived as an ambassador of the youth,’ and by releasing such a provocative video, she had tarnished her reputation. The letter also went on to call the video a ‘mistake’, insinuating that it was a piece of work that Tiwa Savage should be ashamed of or apologize for. Although such a response appears to be quite hyperbolic and overdramatic today, it was nothing short of expected at the time.
The negative comments about Tiwa Savage’s ‘Wanted’ video emphasized a wider general consensus, whereby the sexual autonomy and freedom of women made Nigerian people and the Nigerian media disproportionately uncomfortable, particularly when such displays were made by Nigerian women such as Tiwa Savage, as opposed to Western artists. At the time, there was a misconception that women revealing too much of their skin was solely done in the West. In the mid to early 2000s, while Western popstars wore mini-skirts, tank tops and bikinis in their music videos, Nigerian women artists were still expected to uphold an illusion of conservatism and purity through their musical work, due to fear of being ridiculed and critiqued if they chose to go against society’s expectations of them. Through the ‘Wanted’ music video, Tiwa Savage not only shattered this illusion, but she equally laid a foundation for younger women artists, such as Ayra Starr, to do the same. This is demonstrated through Ayra Starr’s musical discography which includes songs, such as ‘Cast’, where Ayra Starr sings that she wants to be herself ‘with no shame.’ It is further highlighted through Ayra Starr’s fashion choices, which are heavily inspired by early 2000s fashion, consisting of micro mini-skirts and tank tops that are ironically similar to the looks which Nigerians and the Nigerian media in the early to mid-2000s viewed as solely reserved for Western artists.
As acknowledged by the writers Jane Bowers and Urban Bareis in the 1991 article titled Bibliography on Music and Gender—Women in Music, ‘it is important to look at gender both in and around music as expressive of a society’s arrangements as to power and authority. But to do so completely, the entire social complex surrounding the music must be considered.’ In light of this, the ‘Wanted’ music video exposed the hypocrisy within the Nigerian music industry and the double standards that existed (and still exist today). At the time of the ‘Wanted’, video release, Nigerian male artists constantly had overly sexualized images of women in their music videos, and this did not cause widespread backlash. However, when a woman artist took ownership of her sexual freedom (as seen through Tiwa’s visual and creative direction for ‘Wanted’) it suddenly became a controversial issue. Through the ‘Wanted’ video, Tiwa Savage demonstrated that the feminine body is a site of ridicule and critique when it is displayed in a way that society (in this case, Nigerian society), does not expect or approve of. In such cases, the shock does not simply remain a shock. Instead, it leads to vitriol, moral panic or frenzied reactions as seen through the open letter that the housewife wrote to Tiwa Savage.
THE ARTISTRY OF TIWA SAVAGE WITHIN A GLOBALIZED AFROBEATS CLIMATE
Tiwa Savage was one of the first contemporary artists that showed the Nigerian music industry a glimpse of the global reach and exposure that was possible for Afrobeats and Afropop music in the mid to late 2000s. In 2019, Universal Music Group announced that it had signed a seven-year exclusive recording contract with Tiwa Savage. At the time, Nigerian artists were not signing international record deals on the wide scale they are today. The only other contemporary artists who had these international record deals were the largest artists in the country—Davido signed a deal with Sony Music in 2016 and Wizkid also signed a deal with Sony Music the following year in 2017. On the other hand, Burna Boy signed a deal with Atlantic Records in the US and internationally he signed an exclusive deal with Warner Bros in 2017. Tiwa was the only woman at the time, who gained this international footprint and was playing in the same global field that the ‘big three’, artists in Nigerian music were gaining traction and exposure in. Despite this, she is often left out of conversations about the beginnings of the ‘Afrobeats to the world’ momentum.
As noted by the writers, Emília Ferreira, Joana d’Oliva Monteiro, and Sílvia Prazeres Moreira, women artists are ‘shrouded behind an “Invisibility Cloak” that naturalizes a masculine aesthetic world.’ If this ‘Invisibility Cloak’ is applied to Tiwa Savage’s career and the contributions that women make not just to Afrobeats—but equally to the Nigerian music industry at large—it becomes quite clear that the role women play is diminished to maintain the social order and hierarchy of a male-dominated industry. Tiwa Savage was the first African woman to win the ‘Best African Artist’ award at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2018. She was also the first African woman to sell out the Indigo O2 venue in London in the same year. She was one of the first Nigerian artists to be featured on ‘The Colours’ show, where she performed her song, ‘Attention’, in 2019. This then led to a stream of other successful performances by Nigerian artists, notably Oxlade’s ‘Ku-Lo-Sa’ in 2022. Although international recognition, acclaim and appeal are not (and neither should they be), the primary markers of success, it is still worth noting that Tiwa Savage has achieved a great amount within a global context.
However, in a culture and society that places an ‘Invisibility Cloak’, on the work of women, Tiwa Savage’s contributions although acknowledged to a certain degree, are not acknowledged enough. Tiwa Savage’s milestones are discussed or mentioned, but they are not archived, documented and cemented in collective popular culture memory, the same ways the achievements of male artists often are. This alludes to a wider issue, where the collective achievements of women in the Nigerian music industry are often hidden and belittled, while the achievements made by men are celebrated openly and magnified. The September 2023 Headies ceremony serves as a recent indication of this, as the male-focused categories were announced on the Headies stage, while the women-focused categories were solely announced through social media.
Although Tiwa Savage’s global reach cements her position as one of the main faces of the Nigerian music industry, this has not been without controversy, as seen through her recent performance at the May 2023 British coronation concert (in celebration of King Charles III), which was watched by over 12 million people. Performing at such a large event raised Tiwa Savage’s profile and most likely exposed a larger audience to her music, but at what cost? At the coronation ceremony, Tiwa Savage performed ‘Keys to the Kingdom’—a song she recorded for Beyonce’s 2020 Black is King album. If the music is solely considered, Tiwa Savage delivered a sonically strong performance. She represented her country in a green dress, which symbolized the Nigerian flag and her band complemented her vocals cohesively.
However, in this circumstance, it should not solely be about the music. The music should be considered alongside the culture and shared history of European colonialism and imperialism that Black people have been affected by for centuries. This view brings Tiwa Savage’s coronation concert performance into focus as a satirical act, whereby the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ song is divorced from its original purpose (that is, to serve as a musical contribution to an album celebrating and taking pride in collective Blackness). Within the space of the coronation concert, ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, served a function which was opposed to its initial purpose. The song was no longer about celebrating Black joy, power and authority. Instead, it was turned on its head to portray the inverse message that ‘White is king.’ In other words, ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, became a sinister tool used to celebrate the coronation of a white monarch, whose descendants once colonized the country Tiwa Savage is from. The satirical nature of the performance is further heightened when the meaning of Tiwa Savage’s surname is considered, as ‘Savage’ was a common surname of emancipated slaves known as Saro.
Admittedly, Tiwa Savage has never positioned herself as a politically active artist and turning down such an opportunity may not have been the most economically or commercially viable choice. However, her decision to perform at the coronation ceremony raised an important question surrounding the extent to which, socio-critical thought, integrity and analysis play or should play a part in how Afrobeats and Afropop artists navigate their positions on a global stage. In response to this question, successful artists, such as Tiwa Savage should ideally challenge themselves to look beyond the music. They should make decisions with a more critical lens skewed towards protecting and guarding Black musical art, so it is not commodified to celebrate events or milestones that do not enhance, but instead call into question the sacredness and value of the work.
BEYOND AFROBEATS – REINVENTION AND EXPERIMENTATION THROUGH THE MUSICAL WORK OF TIWA SAVAGE
Tiwa Savage is an artist who is unafraid of re-invention and experimenting with different genres of music. Her ability to adapt to different musical climates has kept her relevant in a fast-paced industry which is quick to leave its legends behind. For instance, the mix between Afrobeats and Amapiano is a current form of music that Tiwa Savage has embraced, through her recent collaborations—notably ‘Loaded’, featuring Asake (2022) and ‘NSV’, featuring Bella Shmurda (2023).
Through her collaborations with alternative artists, Tiwa Savage has also expanded her musical palette in recent years to welcome experimental forms of musical production and sounds in her work. This was particularly evident through her 2021 EP, Water and Garri, which featured artists such as Tay Iwar on ‘Special Kinda’, and Amaarae, who can be heard on ‘Tales by Moonlight’. Both songs are very different from anything else in Tiwa Savage’s musical discography. ‘Special Kinda’ and ‘Tales by Moonlight’ have a soft quality, often associated with R&B music. However, the production of both songs embodies a unique edge, which takes them out of a neatly packaged R&B box and puts them in a category of their own. Another highlight from the EP is ‘Somebody’s Son’, featuring Brandy. Although ‘Somebody’s Son’, has subtle infusions of Afro-pop, the melodies and cadence through which the song is delivered are much more rooted in R&B and soul. Through Water and Garri, Tiwa Savage showed that her musical practice is expansive. She demonstrated that in addition to Afrobeats, she is also inspired by hip-hop, funk and experimental R&B.
Water and Garri might be Tiwa Savage’s most recent project filled with experimental sounds, but she has always shown versatility and range. Her first hit single, ‘Kele Kele’, was more of a pop than an Afrobeats song. On Tiwa Savage’s third studio album titled Celia, she delivered a softer version of Afrobeats music on the following songs—‘Dangerous Love’, ‘Attention’, and ‘Pakalamisi’, featuring Hamzaa, which served as welcomed contrasts to her earlier up-tempo Afrobeats hits such as ‘Sugarcane’, ‘Eminado’ featuring Don Jazzy and ‘Ileke’.
Tiwa Savage has also remained relevant through her consistent collaborations with newer artists that are currently dominating the Afrobeats and Afropop space. When Tiwa Savage appears as a featured artist on a song, she often adapts to the musical tempo required, while retaining her distinct voice. This is not something that is easy to do, particularly on a song with other talented artists. For instance, on ‘Stamina’ (featuring Ayra Starr and Young John), Tiwa Savage’s voice forms a recurring loop as she sings the chorus and background vocals throughout the song. Although Tiwa Savage plays an important role within the song structure, Young John and Ayra Starr still shine and have their moments—Young John commands the bridge of the song, while Ayra Starr delivers a verse that offers a unique melody, which does not entirely mirror Tiwa Savage’s singing style in the first verse. On the face of it, ‘Stamina’ is simply a fun song. However, a more critical view presents ‘Stamina’ as a masterclass in how artists can play to their strengths and work together to deliver a great performance, as opposed to letting the more experienced and established artist (which in this case would be Tiwa Savage), dominate the collaboration.
FROM MORAL PANIC TO WATER AND GARRI—TIWA SAVAGE WITHIN A GLOBALIZED AFROBEATS CLIMATE
Ten years since her debut project, Tiwa Savage has not only survived but also continues to thrive and remain musically relevant in an industry that was not built for women to take centre stage, particularly when these women decide to go against the moral codes of how Nigerian society expects them to behave. The moral panic and hysteria caused by Tiwa Savage’s ‘Wanted’ video parallels the misogyny that Ayra Starr continuously experiences when she posts a video of herself performing in a short skirt. The digitized nature of these ‘moral panic’, examples should not go unnoticed, as both Tiwa Savage and Ayra Starr were exposed to misogynistic remarks through X (formerly known as Twitter). These stark parallels demonstrate that the barriers women faced in the mid to late 2000s are still prevalent in today’s musical landscape, irrespective of the economic and cultural growth, development and exposure that the Afrobeats industry has experienced in recent years.
Despite such barriers, Tiwa Savage has managed to stay relevant primarily because she makes a consistent effort to collaborate with new talent within and beyond the scope of Afrobeats. Tiwa Savage’s experimentation and willingness to try new genres may not always present itself clearly, due to her close association with Afrobeats and her previous affiliation with Mavin Records. However, a close look at her discography demonstrates that her commitment to musical experimentation and trying new sounds stands alongside her core position as an Afrobeats artist with a globalized footprint. By collaborating with a wide range of artists with varying musical palettes (particularly seen through her Water and Garri EP), Tiwa Savage continuously demonstrates her versatility and willingness to sonically evolve.
However, such evolution appears to be limited solely to the music, as her decision to perform at the King’s coronation ceremony brings into question her political evolution and convictions, particularly within a globalized Afrobeats climate where Afrobeats and its artists can easily be used and exploited but not valued. Perhaps it is too idealistic to hold the view that Tiwa Savage should have declined the offer to perform at the coronation ceremony. Perhaps this view also undermines the exposure and acclaim she would have forgone by declining the offer. Regardless, it is still a view worth holding because it honours and holds space for the discomfort, which may arise when socio-political history and Black music intersect⎈
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