After a stellar year as a standout talent at London’s Wireless Festival, a golden voice of The Lion King: The Gift album, and a sparkling new Universal Music Group signee, Tiwa Savage’s 2019 was yet another one for the books.
Sharing a meal with BET’s Diamond Alexis, the Lagos-born, London-raised artist explained her full circle success, beginning with this year’s U.S. mainstream breakthrough of afrobeats. The genre glided to the top of national music charts in 2019 by way of its most popular top-tier talents (Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido and Afro B, to name a few). Its popularity was dilated by the Beyonce-curated The Lion King: The Gift album, which thrusted a multitude of newly-recognized afrobeats singers, songwriters and producers to the forefront of the West African-diasporic musical movement. This included Tiwa, who lent her vocals to “Keys to the Kingdom” beside Ghanaian talent, Mr. Eazi.
In-sync with the afrobeats upswing, she later released her first Motown Records single, “49-99,” in September. The pulse-throbbing single pays homage to legendary afrobeats pioneer Fela Kuti, one of Tiwa’s greatest musical influences whom she credits as the godfather of the genre, as it references a transit bus with only 49 seats, but 99 standing passengers. The song’s title also derives from Kuti’s 1978 “Shuffering and Shmiling” record and speaks to the economic destitution in Nigeria. “We have to hustle for ourselves, we need to work hard, nobody is going to give it to you for free,” she describes of the song’s message. “Yeah, you don’t come from a wealthy background or born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but you can still achieve everything and work towards your goals. That’s the synopsis of the song.”
The music video for “49-99” visually manifests this theme. From bold greens, reds and blues, to a room of young Nigerian women in West African-originative hairstyles working as tailors, to Tiwa crashing a dinner by standing atop a table full of men, the video abstractly conveys several messages of empowerment. “There’s a scene where the girls were tailors and all of us were sewing clothes,” she explains. “That was symbolizing how a lot of the times when young girls finish school, [society] limits them, and make it seem like they can only be hairdressers, or tailors or own a store. I wanted to portray a point that we’re more than that. We can be pilots, we can be doctors, we can be engineers.”
As Tiwa’s history would show, young girls can also be the pioneers of their own musical greatness. From as young as 10-years-old, the songstress was acknowledged by her choir teacher for her gracefully sweet tone. That unique tone would later lead a teenage Tiwa to becoming a background singer for the late George Michael at a stadium concert packed with roughly 60,000 faces. “It was that moment—I think I was about 15 or 16—hearing people sing back his records, and just seeing the magic and the power of music, I knew this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Tiwa is still driven by that magic and plans to continue using it to fuel her career into the U.S.-emerged afrobeats scene. Drums, African beats and blues comes to mind when she thinks of the genre’s evolution and Kuti as its originator. “I grew up listening to him in my house,” she informs of his impact on her career. “My parents played him a lot. I saw him as a voice for the voiceless, and he definitely sang about stuff that we’re still experiencing until today, many years after his death. That’s just a testament to how powerful his music is, and what we do now as offsprings of that is blend it.”
Hear the rest of her sentiments on the evolution and state of afrobeats, her love for the genre, and the one thing she wants the world to know about the nation of Nigeria in BET’s latest Soundbites video above.
(Photo: Melissa Bunni Elian)