From George Michael’s erstwhile backing vocalist and an X-Factor also-ran to a Grammy-nominated R&B contender, Nigerian songstress Tiwa Savage finally gets her groove on. The noughties were not good to R&B. Like any other black urban music style, R&B doesn’t get to enjoy the privilege of ageing gracefully the way that, say, rock veterans might. It was
From George Michael’s erstwhile backing vocalist and an X-Factor also-ran to a Grammy-nominated R&B contender, Nigerian songstress Tiwa Savage finally gets her groove on.
The noughties were not good to R&B. Like any other black urban music style, R&B doesn’t get to enjoy the privilege of ageing gracefully the way that, say, rock veterans might. It was only as late as last year that a glimmer of hope for the genre appeared via the emerging left-leaning singer/songwriters of the internet age like Odd Future’s odd man out Frank Ocean, Prince disciple Miguel or Canada’s Drake- endorsed The Weeknd, and even hipster favourite Solange Knowles. Before that, we’ve witnessed R&B lose its way, at first reduced to the mere hooks on which to hang commercial hip-hop hits, and, more recently, the maimed casualty of mainstream radio’s obsession with electronic dance music. Ne-Yo, for instance, a self-proclaimed messiah who, at the start of his recording career, vowed to lead the music back to its melody-driven precedent, is the frequent collaborator of one Dave Guetta.
Back home in Africa, R&B has never actually taken off. Speaking comparatively, hip-hop has triumphed over almost every possible cultural obstacle thrown at it. It’s the universe’s accepted conduit for street culture and no less so in Africa by show of the rise and rise of the myriad regionalised raps. The continental take-over of house music is playing out before our very eyes – see, for example, Angola’s evolution from Kuduro popularised in Europe, to its own developing house music scene. Or the way Ghana’s dance movement, Azonto, carries traces of old-school South African kwaito – itself descended from ’80s and ’90s techno house rhythms.
It’s only R&B that wanders aimlessly like the problem child who just won’t fit in at school.
“The tricky thing is, if you’re going to do it, then you must do it as well as the pioneers of the genre. I was fortunate to have worked with the greatest R&B artists. I do R&B for those people,” explains singer-songwriter Tiwa Savage from her home in Lagos.
“I did a song called ‘Collard Greens and Corn Bread’ for Fantasia. I’m an African girl. What do I know about about collard greens and corn bread? That’s not a dish we have in Africa, but because I learned how to write R&B the way it’s supposed to be written, it was easy for me to be able to do R&B.”
That song, by the way, was a Best R&B category nominee at the 2010 Grammys. And such is the aplomb Tiwa applies to Once Upon A Time, her debut album – arguably the most polished in the genre the continent has seen or heard yet.
“Song-writing opened me up completely. When I got signed in America, I learned that you had to be versatile,” continues Savage. “You can get called to write for a country artist, or to do a hook for Miley Cyrus. You have to be able to roll with it. So I got to be involved in really different genres of music and now that it comes to my own album, I am able to bring all of that into one melting pot.”
A generous 21-track set, the subject matter on Once Upon A Time spans a range including love, bereavement, national pride. There’s a pleasantly surprising left turn in “Middle Passage”, her jazzy nod to the African immigrants in New York she came across, holding down several jobs to support their families at home. Afrobeat architect Fela Kuti also gets a hat tip as Tiwa coos layered harmonies in her rendition of his classic, “Lady”.
Top-shelf Nigerian names such as her own label boss, Don Jazzy, as well as Warren “Oak” Felder (Rihanna, Chris Brown and Alicia Keys), were enlisted to produce the month-old mélange of Afro-pop steeped in R&B. The wait was long for a public introduced to Tiwa Savage in 2010 by the single “Kele Kele“, a leaked song whose popularity caught Tiwa – at the time still based in the U.S. – completely off guard. A mix of Yoruba and English, it’s a thumping stand-off with a perfectly manicured palm in the face of this quintessential R&B villain who would be comfortable in the company of that no-good guy from Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills”, or the one in Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough”. “The trick is to make it more acceptable to Africans – you have to put a twist to it. You can’t just come here and do pure R&B because they can just go to America and get that music. You have to blend some kind of Africa into it and tailor it to us.”
And that’s what ‘Kele Kele‘ and [follow-up single] ‘Love Me X3’ did. It had some very African elements in the production. Things like the drum pattern. And also lyrically: I did some pidgin English and some Yoruba.” The Lagos-born beauty relocated to London to join her now-retired nurse mother, and older brothers for secondary school. By the age of 16, Savage was singing backing vocals for the likes of George Michael, Mary J. Blige and The Spice Girls. A scholarship to study jazz at Berklee yielded a second degree to add to the one for business and finance.
Finishing in Boston, she headed for the bright lights of New York, where she landed her deal with Sony/ATV as a songwriter. A participant in 2006 for the U.K.’s X-Factor, Tiwa’s world came crashing down when, after making it to the Top 24, Sharon Osbourne gave her the news that she was no longer in the running.
“I felt, like wow, this is it. There’s no tomorrow. Because I had put all my hope into it, it felt like the whole world was saying ‘no’. In my head I was, like, ‘I am gonna get through this competition, I tick all the boxes I’m gonna win, it has to be me’. It was a very hard period but it was also very humbling. Because of the experience I am who I am today.”
The winner that year was Leona Lewis, to date the most successful British alumnus of the reality TV singing contest franchise, which was the blueprint on which American Idol was developed. A glance up and down the path walked by previous and subsequent winners reveals that theirs is not always the last laugh to have.
Spare a thought for poor Alexandra Burke’s flatlining career despite Simon Cowell’s industry muscle and her own good looks and above-average singing voice. To hear Tiwa tell it, it was a bullet dodged. “I am glad it happened. I could have ended up singing, like, bland pop music. I wouldn’t have been able to do Afro-pop, which is what I do now. So it was a blessing in disguise.”
Moving from New York to L.A., Tiwa inched ever closer to her dream of being a performance artist, enabled by the manager she met there, a fellow Nigerian whom she credits for identifying the gap in the market back home for successful female performing artists, and for her unique Afro-pop/R&B blend. It was based on his vision that they eventually moved back to the Nigerian commercial capital to set up shop as co-owners of their 323 Entertainment imprint (and, most recently, officially as an engaged couple).
The England Tiwa left behind is notoriously unkind to the black female singers of urban persuasion. Marsha Ambrosius, the vocal powerhouse whose haunting singing can be heard on Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” – and who wrote one of Michael Jackson’s last truly great songs, “Butterflies”, as half of the now defunct neo-soul pair, Floetry – had to seek greener pastures in the States in order to receive some acknowledgement back in the U.K., where no one would give her a record deal. Same thing for singer and rapper Estelle. Had she not shoved a copy of her demo into Kanye West’s hands at a chicken take-away outlet in L.A., she might have ended her career with her first album.
Today in the U.K., there is a sprouting scene called Afrobeats. It’s a young club scene fuelled by the latest hits from mostly West African artists living there, as well as from the continent. It’s the board from which acts like D’banj have sprung globally, and the result of a renewed worldwide interest in global African fashion and music, which, by slowly working its way into the consciousness of young consumers, creates the opportunity for self-pride amongst black African immigrants based there. It’s becoming cool to be African, where it wasn’t when Tiwa – teased mercilessly for her thick Nigerian accent – was growing up.
That’s not to say that her homecoming was a walk in the park. She had grown accustomed to the modern conveniences of residing in L.A. There, in the capital city of the world’s music industry, everything works with machine-like efficiency. Back in her birthplace, day-long power failures several times a week are not unheard of. And, just like everywhere else on the continent, the business of music is a sort of Wild West, with everyone figuring it out as they go along.
In fact, Tiwa’s reassurance about the move back home only came about after the resounding reception of “Love Me X3”, her follow-up to “Kele Kele“.
“First of all, because I had been away for so long, it was hard to prove to the Nigerian market that I’m not just coming to exploit the market. It was hard to convince them I was genuine. They even test your ability to speak your language. They want to know if you’re coming in there thinking you’re better than everyone else. I had to win their trust, and ‘Kele Kele‘ did just that.
“The other thing is that Nigeria has a male-dominated industry. A lot of product endorsements don’t go to females, a lot of show headliners aren’t females.” Nowadays, aside from pop singer Wizkid, Tiwa Savage has bragging rights as the only other artist in Africa with a Pepsi endorsement. It’s only a matter of time before Nigeria’s mammoth music industry submits entirely to her increasing domination. The writing’s on the wall.
This article is from the August 2013 issue of Rolling Stone SA, to subscribe to the magazine.