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Tiwa Savage talks life in Nigeria, growing up in London, #ENDSARS and life

Nigerian superstar Tiwa Savage’s song, ‘Dangerous Love’, is currently the most-played song on my playlist. It’s the perfect companion when I’m working out, cleaning the house or need a pick-me-up.

Singer-songwriter and actress Tiwa Savage is one of the world’s most-loved and followed Afrobeat artists, and has many accolades to her name. Her latest album, Celia, gained over 200 million streams globally, and Time magazine named it one of the top 10 best albums of 2020. Tiwa talks to Glamour about life in Nigeria, growing up in London, #ENDSARS and life.

G: Your fondest memories of growing up in Lagos?

Tiwa Savage: I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, the last born and only girl with three older brothers. My childhood was average: I’d attend school during the week and a family party or wedding on Saturdays, then spend most of Sunday at church. Beans and Agege bread remind me of home.

G: You moved from Lagos to London when you were 11.

TS: It wasn’t great, to be honest. I went to the UK under the illusion that it’d be a holiday to visit my brothers who’d relocated to London at the time. I was so excited and showed off to my friends that I’d be travelling. When we got there, it was grey, wet and cold. To my surprise, my mom announced I wouldn’t be returning to Lagos, that I was going to start school in London. I was bullied horrendously in school, mainly for having a thick Nigerian accent and being super-skinny with long arms and legs and no hair. Music became my way of coping. I grew up surrounded by music, at home and in church, and so, it’s been a constant in my life. When I was bullied in school, I had a crush on a boy in the music class, so I joined the school music program. I played the trombone because that was the only position available in the band. I fell in love with singing after auditioning for the signing group.

G: Who or what inspires your sound?

TS: A few people inspire me: Brandy, Fela Kuti and Sade Adu. I remember when I first heard ‘I Wanna Be Down’ by Brandy. I was, like, “This is so great! This woman is amazing!” Her tone and vibe were just wow! She was so young when she started in music, and what she’s achieved is incredible. I fell in love with R&B when I heard her sing.

WATCH: The Queen of Afrobeats, Tiwa Savage.

G: You began your music career doing backup vocals for artists such as George Michael and Mary J. Blige. What did that experience teach you about the industry and where you wanted to be?

TS: I learnt so much about hard work, and how harsh the music business can be. A lot of work goes into being successful, such as spending many hours in the studio, at rehearsals and interviews, travelling, and always having to be away from your loved ones. I also learnt the power of music, how it touches strangers; it can make you happy just as it can move you to tears. For me, music is a journey without a destination, for myself and my fans. Where I am now is where I’m supposed to be, and I believe my music will live on even after I am gone.

G: Most of your songs are about heartbreak and people you love.

TS: Love inspires me; whether you’re in or out of it, it’s an endless story that can be told in a million ways. God is love, and that’s why I write about love, even if it’s about heartbreak. I don’t have a powerful woman. She [Celia] represents women in various industries who’re out there killing it – particularly those in male-dominated industries. Celia also signifies women who’re powerful yet vulnerable, and don’t mind showing their soft side. The last track on the album, ‘Celia’s Song’, is a prayer of hope for all Celia’s.

G: Celia, your third studio album released by Motown Records, is named after your mother, Celia Savage. Tell us about it.

TS: My album was named after my mother, but Celia is a celebration of all powerful women. She [Celia] represents women in various industries who’re out there killing it – particularly those in male-dominated industries. Celia also signifies women who’re powerful yet vulnerable, and don’t mind showing their soft side. The last track on the album, ‘Celia’s Song’, is a prayer of hope for all Celia’s.

G: Do you think African artists receive enough global recognition?

TS: The response to the album has been overwhelming, and, honestly, unexpected. I didn’t set out to make a record that’d be a streaming success; I just wanted to make music that felt good to me and told the stories I wanted to tell. It was important to me to make Afrobeat music from a female perspective, so to get such a positive response has been encouraging. African artists like me have more global recognition now than ever, and opportunities to promote the genre internationally, precisely what we need to push our music forward.

G: You made history by becoming the first female to win the MTV EMA award for Best African Female in 2018, and the 2020 MOBO Awards (Best African Act). Tell us about navigating and excelling in the entertainment industry, which is mostly dominated by men.

TS: I believe it’s by the grace of God. People ask me this question a lot, but I still couldn’t tell you what the secret is. I work hard – really hard – and have a great team who’s been with me for years. There have been quite a few memorable moments in my career so far: winning an MTV EMA was one, as was being on the cover of Billboard magazine. I like to keep challenging myself, so I still don’t feel like I’m there yet. I don’t take it for granted that I have lots more to achieve.

G: You’ve collaborated with celebrated and renowned artists such as Sam Smith, Davido, Stefflon Don and Hamzaa. What’s that like, and what would be your dream collaboration?

TS: I’m grateful to every artist I’ve worked with, but everyone who follows me knows how much I love Brandy!

G: You were very vocal about #ENDSARS, so much so that you dedicated your music video, ‘Ole’, to victims of injustice in Nigeria #ENDSARS. What’s your take on artists being vocal or involved in social issues?

TS: I think artists are very instrumental in bringing change to the world, and it’s equally important to me, as an artist, to use my gift to reflect the times we live in.

G: Did protests and global support make a difference to #ENDSARS? How can we, outside Nigeria, help make the situation better?

TS: I’m happy with the level of support we received, but the journey is ongoing, the fight for justice never ending.

G: Nigeria is known as one of the busiest countries in Africa, big on culture, where most people are proud, ambitious and driven to succeed. Did that affect your upbringing and drive to succeed?

TS: There’s an infectious energy in Nigeria that pushes you to succeed. We have a saying, ‘Naija no dey carry last’, which means that Nigerians strive to finish first or win. It’s like an unofficial national motto, and as it’s ingrained in my mentality, I work hard in all aspects of my life.

G: Describe Nigeria in a few words.

TS: Full of energy!

G: Is being a mom everything you thought it’d be, and how do you juggle motherhood with your busy schedule?

TS: My son Jamil is the best thing to have happened in my life; he changed me for the better. Juggling motherhood and a career can be challenging, but I have a support team – including our nanny, a heaven-sent, who’s been with us since he was born. I’m very lucky.

G: You’re one of the most followed African women on social media. How do you use social media to your advantage?

TS: It’s a blessing to have the platform and followers I have. Social media is such a powerful tool, so I’m going to tell you a little secret: I’m no longer on social media, but I have a team that runs my accounts.

G: Instagram or Twitter?

TS: I prefer Instagram as it’s visual.

G: You’re a stylish artist. What or who influences your style, and how would you describe it?

TS: My style is influenced by many things. I’m a tomboy at heart, so you’ll catch me looking at menswear before I check out women’s fashion. For me, fashion and music go hand in hand. I love fashion, so it’s a big part of my brand. At the moment, my favourite designers include Banke Kuku, Dior, Burberry, Maki Oh and MaXhosa Africa.

G: What’s in the pipeline for Tiwa Savage, in 2021 and beyond?

TS: More music, another body of work, be it an album or an EP. You can expect to see me venture into the beauty space and push my charity #WeAreTired a lot more.

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