Tiwa Savage is the one-of-one afrobeats heroine paving a lane for artists in her genre to take flight along. She spent years in the background on stage catching glimmers of legends’ spotlights, before singing her way towards stardom. Always cultivating her sound, the Nigerian songstress became a contender across the pond on The X Factor, before pushing her pen as a songwriter for Sony/ATV, and inking her record deal with Roc Nation.
Queening isn’t easy, but Tiwa Savage continues championing the male-dominated music category with her acclaimed EP, Sugarcane. Billboard caught up with the singer to discuss the afrobeat scene going mainstream, her global experiences, an important lesson from Mary J. Blige, and why spreading love in these sensitive times is essential.
You initially began as a backup singer. What was your transition like into the spotlight?
I began as a backup singer, then I went into songwriting. It was like a gradual transition from doing backup vocals, to kind of being seen in the limelight. So, there was learning a lot about artistry from behind the scenes. It was hard to adjust to being in the limelight. Your private life is somewhat public. Apart from that, [it’s great] being able to have creative control, now as a solo artist.
What would “Sugarcane” Tiwa Savage tell her “Once Upon a Time” younger self to prepare for musically?
A lot more hard work, and traveling. Right now, the afrobeat genre is becoming global. The listeners are not just Africans, like before. The market is a lot wider. I’d tell myself to get ready!
You’re Nigerian, and you’ve lived all over the world. What has this done for your afrobeat music creatively?
Essentially, I am still an African, and my music will always reflect that. I’ve lived in the U.K. and the United States. This was great because I was able to learn about other genres of music. I gravitate towards a lot more soul and R&B. I studied Jazz while at Berklee College of Music.
Living in two different countries, opened my ears to other sounds now. With afrobeat [expanding], you can hear elements of it in pop or R&B.
The “All Over” music video now has over 8 million views. What was your fondest memory during filming?
[Laughs] I had to fly to New York for an event. During that time, I literally flew into Miami, and we shot the video in 4 and a half hours. I’m not kidding you. I remember rushing between three different locations. I was changing my makeup while in the car. So, although it was very exhausting, it was fun. And to think of how the video turned out, after having a limited amount of time, and for the video to have the views it has, that obviously means a lot to me.
You’re the first African Pepsi ambassador. What has that experience been like?
It’s been great. I’m still with them. It has been a long relationship. We keep doing it, because, you know, both parties have had great experiences. Plus, it’s just such a huge brand. It’s a global brand. And I just love what they represent. They represent youth and freshness. They know what’s trending.
I love that they’re able to cater to the younger generation, as well. It’s also a household name in Nigeria. So, I’m really, really delighted to be apart of the brand. I hope to work with the brand for many more years to come.
What is next since you’ve signed to Roc Nation?
I’m really super excited. I feel the same thing [as I do with Mavin Records]. They’re like family. I have a good relationship with Mavin. I’ve got a good relationship with Roc Nation. I love the fact that they support me and the genre, even when a lot of people were not aware of it, or didn’t really believe in it.
They were one of the first people to actually invest time and money into learning about the genre. [Roc Nation] came to Africa to experience it firsthand. I love the company, I love what it represents, and I love that they empower their artists.
You’ve lent vocals to Mary J. Blige, George Michaels, Kelly Clarkson, Chaka Khan and beyond. What’s been your favorite collaboration thus far?
Oh, my goodness. [Laughs] I don’t know. I think I worked with Mary J. Blige the longest, in terms of being backup vocals. I really enjoyed learning about how much work she puts into [her craft], just learning about passion.
I remember being on stage, and every show, every night would be different. She put so much emotion into her performances, and so much energy, it’s about overall quality. I learned so much from her. But you know, having said that, I learned from all the artists. I don’t think I can honestly pick which one was my favorite.
Sugarcane went No.1 on the Apple Music and iTunes World Chart. How did that feel you for?
Oh, it’s amazing. I’m blessed to have such dedicated followers. It was a blessing because as you know, it was not an album. It is an EP and something that I had worked on quietly, on my own, for a bit. So, I wasn’t really sure how Roc Nation was going to feel about it. When I started to sing the songs to everyone, they loved it. They were willing to take the chance.
It’s not your typical album or afrobeat music. It has a lot of influence — it has a lot of mellow and sweet [songs], which is why I called it Sugarcane. So, I’m excited that everyone received it well. It did really, really well back in Nigeria. It’s just a blessing.
With everything going on in the world, what is your message to fans?
My message is to try and be safe. Sometimes things are unavoidable. I think the more we all spread love to each other, the more we will reduce the hurt and the pain that people are going through. I feel the need to serve people. Sometimes things happen as an effect of an issue, a mental issues or depression.
We need to see how we can prevent these things from happening. So, it is just all of us coming together and realizing that this is not an issue that is just somewhere across the world. It can happen anywhere. And the next time it happens, it could be on your doorstep. I think we all have to take advantage of the opportunity to spread the love.