Singer, songwriter, presenter, philanthropist and burgeoning actress; Tiwa Savage is a resilient force within Africa’s ever-growing entertainment industry. While conquering the charts in her home countries & becoming one of the most recognisable faces in the popular Afrobeats scene, she has also managed to carve a career as a reputable songwriter for some of today’s biggest and most successful musicians; all while balancing new roles as a wife and more recently, a mother.
Tiwa was born in Lagos, Nigeria where she lived until the age of 11 when her parents decided to move to London. In her early days, like most families, she would attend church with her parents and soon developed a love for performing. “I tried to join the choir at my mother’s church but I was I too young so I used to go to rehearsals and just watch them.” Undeterred, she continued to attend her church’s rehearsals until she relocated to London where she met a group of young Jazz & Gospel musicians who introduced her to new styles of music, many of whom would eventually help form the foundations of her inspirations; the likes of Kim Burrell, J Moss and The Clark Sisters soon became staples in her musical library. “I was blown away by their instruments, their voices!” Further inspired to continue on the musical path that was beginning to be laid out for her, she joined the school’s orchestra and learned to play a rather unconventional instrument – the trombone. “All the other classes were full and I had just moved from Nigeria. I think all the other instruments had been picked and the trombone was all that was left.” After years of practice, Tiwa grew bored of the trombone and asked her music teacher if she could move into singing. Her teacher initially had reservations and asked to hear a sample of her singing abilities. “My music teacher told me to learn a song and I learnt a song from The Sound of Music. He told me that I had a natural gift and from there I started to enter talent shows and competitions.” Through these talent shows, she met with Lawrence Johnson who ran and coordinated the popular Tuff Session singers who frequently provide backing vocals for a variety of musicians. Johnson encouraged Tiwa to join the group at the age of 16 found herself singing backing vocals for George Michael. “That was my first professional gig, I couldn’t believe it!”
As a result of that session, Tiwa quickly found further work over the years with the likes of Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson, Emma Bunton and Blu Cantrell which lead to a meeting with Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter Keith Harris, who at the time was touring as a drummer with the Black Eyed Peas. Despite having already completed a degree in
Business Administration at the University of Kent, Harris advised her to continue her studies at a specialist college. “He told me that if I wanted to take music seriously, I should study music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. When I started to research more about it, I realised it was one of the best music schools in the world; how am I going to get into this school?” Without the necessary funds to pay for school, she applied for a scholarship. “They held the audition in Ireland so I flew out there to audition but in order to get the scholarship, I had to be able to read music. I couldn’t so they asked me to sing.” Singing a Kim Burrell song, Savage won the scholarship, moved to Boston and studied Professional Music. Upon completion of her studies and still chasing her dream, in 2006, Savage headed back to London and decided to audition for the third season of The X Factor, a decision that wasn’t taken lightly. “It was difficult. Over 600,000 people auditioned I made it down to the final 24, so it was the last stage before the live shows.” While she was happy to have reached as far as she did, something didn’t feel right. “To me, it felt like they just wanted footage to make good TV. It didn’t feel genuinely all about the music.” Undeterred and still wanting to go all the way, she continued through the various stages until Sharon Osboune ultimately revealed that she would not be taking her into the live shows. “I was devastated, truly devastated. I locked myself in my room for 48 hours; I didn’t come out, I didn’t eat, I didn’t drink and my mother was worried about me. She even threatened to send me back to Nigeria to live with my father!” But on the third day, she had a realisation and a revived strength to continue with her music. She didn’t want to become a victim of the show, she wanted to prove her worth and her talent. “I had to go through that dark period to come out on the other side.”
With her new found strength to push forward with music, Tiwa moved to New York City and began taking meetings with various producers and industry professionals. Through her wide ranging connections, she soon found herself back in the studio writing material she initially believed to be for her own upcoming projects. “I ended up in the studio and I was writing a song. The next day I heard Fantasia [Barrino] came round to the studio, heard the song and wanted to record it.” No more than a week later, she was called into a meeting with bosses at Sony/ATV Music Publishing; the timing of which couldn’t have been any better; her student visa was nearing expiration. After playing more material, she was signed to Sony/ATV as a writer and moved to Los Angeles racking up studio sessions with The Underdogs, James Fauntleroy, Frank Ocean and Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, creating songs which would eventually go on to find placements with Mya, Monica and Kat Deluna as well as providing backing vocals for Whitney Houston’s final studio album ‘I Look To You’.
By 2010, Tiwa still had the urge and need to continue as a solo artist and was slowly putting together what would eventually become her debut solo album. “You’re writing
songs, you’re writing your experiences and then you’re giving them to somebody else. It never felt quite right; it was something I always wanted. I write these songs, I want to sing it and perform it the way I want to do it because it was something I loved through.” A meeting with then-A&R for Interscope Records Tunji “TJ Billz” Balogun set forth a change in direction; a change that would set her against the competition and help her stand out from the crowd. “I met Tunji and he told me about the growing Afrobeats scene back home in Nigeria. He thought I was wasting my talents being a songwriter & a backing singer and pushed me to move back to Africa. At first I thought it was a bit of a step backwards but he was adamant that this was my future. He knew it was what would set me apart from the rest.” Inspired and stimulated by the lack of true female superstars in her home country, she moved back to Nigeria and set up her own label imprint 323 Entertainment with Balogun, which soon joined forces with multi award-winning producer, songwriter and musician Don Jazzy and his recently launched Mavin Records label, releasing ‘Kele Kele Love’ as her debut single to widespread critical acclaim. Subsequent releases including ‘Ife Wa Gbona’, ‘Love Me (3x)’ and ‘Without My Heart’ followed with moderate success while also helping to shape and influence her debut album ‘Once Upon A Time’ which was released in July 2013. It’s unique fusion of Afrobeats, R&B, Soul and Pop cemented Tiwa’s worldwide appeal. “It opened doors to people who weren’t necessarily from Africa or into the Afrobeats movement. I remember [singer/songwriter] Brandy came to Nigeria to do a show and somebody recommended my album to her and she loved it. I learnt that there’s beauty in bringing both markets together and I had the ability to do it.” Savage’s fearlessness in combining various genres paid off, earning her an abundance of award nominations including four Channel O Music Video Awards nominations, five World Music Award nominations, two Headies nominations, MTV Africa Music, BET & MOBO Award nominations and many more.
Away from her successes in music, Savage has begun to take small steps into the world of acting. In 2011 she co-hosted the second season of Nigerian Idol and appeared in the stage version of ‘For Coloured Girls’ alongside Nollywood stars Joke Silva and Ireti Doyle. More recently in 2013, she appeared in the third season of MTV’s Shuga playing Sade Banjo, which saw her stepping into a role that wasn’t specifically involved with music. “I’d like to do more acting but I’ve held back on that a little because that’s a little too predictable. It’s about timing and finding the right role but I do think I have the knack for acting.” Savage has also been active in her philanthropic endeavours, supporting various youth engagement organisations and breast cancer screening projects across Nigeria and further afield. Through her work with MTV’s Shuga, Savage is keen to share further knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. “I feel like in Africa, all they tell you is not to have sex to avoid getting infected with whatever is out there and that’s not realistic. You have to teach them to have safe sex; that’s a more realistic approach. Not to mention the many
people infected with HIV who go on to live full, long, healthy lives. We need to teach that also; I’m very passionate about that.” Tiwa also has plans to open a music school to give the opportunities she didn’t have to the next generation of emerging African musicians and business owners. “When kids are growing up, they see artists and want to get into music but there’s other avenues aside from being an artist. There’s songwriting, film scoring, composition, production, there’s even music therapy to communicate with disabled people. There’s so many aspects of music that I want to educate people with and that’s what I’m hoping this school will do.” Tiwa’s business endeavours have also expanded in recent years. In 2013, she was announced as an ambassador for Pepsi, appearing in a number of commercials and advertising campaigns for the brand. Further business opportunities opened up after being recruited as brand ambassadors for energy group Forte Oil, mobile telecommunications company MTN, Pampers and the Nestlé-owned food & beverage company Maggi.
While her main focus currently is raising her growing family after giving birth in July 2015, Tiwa is still hard at work on future projects including new music, new videos and other exciting endeavours which will be announced in due course. “I have this renewed strength that having a baby does to a woman; you’re in a different space in your life. I want to do things bigger, better, stronger and bolder going forward. I want to encourage other women to go against the grain because – especially in our culture – it seems once you have a child you have to slow down and I believe the opposite. You have to go even harder than ever before.”