Tiwa Savage, a Nigerian songstress, songwriter and actress is one of the continent’s biggest stars.
Having just signed with rapper Jay Z’s Roc Nation music label, it looks like she is set to enjoy even more success than she already has.
She was recently in South Africa to launch her latest album, R.E.D, an acronym for Romance, Expression and Dance.
The trip was an initiative by South African Tourism’s Nigeria office, which also saw stars like Juliet Ibrahim and Praiz enjoying the city’s many attractions.
When I got my invitation to a private listening session with Tiwa at a yacht party, I could not believe what I was seeing.
I have been a fan of Tiwa’s music for years and know just about every song on R.E.D and her previous albums. After gushing to my peers about my invitation, I went into stress mode: I was going to meet one of my idols in less than 24 hours.
The listening session was on a private yacht, and other guests included South African stars such as Lunga Shabalala and Ntando Duma.
There was a lot of fanfare, with many journalists vying for an interview with Tiwa. After her television interviews, I approached her and asked if we could chat. She first had to have something to eat and 15 minutes later she returned to say: “I’m ready. Let’s do this.”
We went downstairs to the bar, which was quieter than the rest of the yacht.
“I’m so happy to be in South Africa right now,” she said. No stranger to the country, she has been here a few times. Her most notable visit was when she performed at the 2014 MTV Africa Music Awards in Durban.
Born in Ikeja, Lagos, Tiwa and her family moved to the UK when she was 11 and later to the US.
At 16 she played back-up vocalist for stars like George Michael, Emma Bunton and Mary J Blige.
After high school she studied business administration at the University of Kent, but after working at the Royal Bank of Scotland she decided to follow her real passion, music.
She enrolled at the Berklee College of Music and graduated with a degree in professional music when she was 27.
In 2009 she signed her first music deal with Sony, and soon thereafter released her debut album, Once Upon A Time.
After the album’s success, and collaborations with various Nigerian stars, all eyes were on Tiwa.
In 2013 she signed a million-dollar endorsement deal with MTN Nigeria in 2012 and became the first African female artist to sign an endorsement deal with Pepsi.
Tiwa now owns her own record label, 323 Entertainment, and is also signed with Mavin Records, which is owned by Don Jazzy.
“I am obviously influenced by hip hop culture and rhythm and blues, but when abroad I saw hundreds of girls who sang R&B and hundreds who rap. What set me apart from them was that I am African. I decided I would not blend in with the rest, but rather stand out by marrying R&B with my African sound.
“Even though some of my songs have a contemporary sound, they are still African because I’m so proud of our continent and I truly believe we are the future. We’ve always seen ourselves as kings and queens – now the West sees us that way too. And at the end of the day, music is universal.”
Of her latest album, which she recorded when she was seven months pregnant, Tiwa said each song held a special place in her heart. “This album is me being unapologetic. I didn’t really care whether it would be commercial. I just wanted to make music and I wanted it to be about romance, expressing myself and, of course, dance.
“Every song on it reminds me about a moment in my pregnancy, so this is a special album.”
“As musicians, our job is not just to make people dance and have a good time. We need to speak about things that are wrong in our society, and there are some things musicians can talk about that politicians can’t.
“We have a huge influence and I want to look back one day and say I made a difference.
“If I Start To Talk is a song on the album that I want to influence people with. I want people to realise that we don’t know what other people are going through or what their challenges have been, so it’s important to appreciate what you have.”
Tiwa said meeting Jay Z had been incredible. “I went to New York for something very different and while I was there his team wanted to meet.”
Although the deal is still being finalised, she said she was beyond excited.
“Jay Z knows so much about music. I love that he’s excited about Africa and showcasing it to the world. His office has so many African artefacts. I’m honoured to be taking this journey with Roc Nation and with Mavin. ”
Tiwa also has an endorsement deal with Pampers, thanks to her son, Jamil Bolugun.
“He is just so precious. I was paranoid before being a mother. Now that I have him, my paranoia has got worse. I will leave him for just a minute and wonder if I turned the iron off or if there’s enough food for him. But sometimes I realise I need to just calm down,” she said.
Tiwa played an overprotective mother on Shuga, a series intended to educate people about HIV/Aids.
“My character was different from me in many respects. Her son was HIV positive and she was a businesswoman who felt a need to always be defensive. I’m not like that, so it wasn’t easy. The topics about sexual education were so important that I was determined to get it right.”
Asked about African artists joining forces, she said: “I think we have done ourselves a great injustice by not mixing. Artists like AKA and Lira from South Africa, Diamond from Tanzania, artists from Ghana and elsewhere on the continent are amazing. Imagine the power if we start working together.