Tiwa Savage: the Nigerian pop star fighting rape crisis by Tochi Louis

She has worked as an accountant, competed on The X Factor and had her songs banned from TV. Now she’s using her profile to change a toxic culture

In the quest to find a perfect spot for her router, Tiwa Savage has to disrupt her four-year-old son Jamil’s TV time. He puts up a mild protest but soon moves on to another engagement. “He’s so understanding about the nature of my job,” she says. “At least now I get to spend more time with him than usual.”

Even in more normal circumstances, family life is frequently disrupted – Savage is Nigeria’s biggest female pop star. After more than a decade of success, she is now wielding her influence to tackle rape culture, as her country has what she calls “a #MeToo moment”.

“Rape culture is so rampant in Nigeria that you can barely escape it,” she says. “You’re either unfortunate enough to have experienced it first hand, or through someone close to you.”

Now 40, Savage was a teenager when she started her career after her family moved to the UK, becoming a backing singer, performing with George Michael, Kelly Clarkson and more. Being from a typical Nigerian home, Savage also undertook a degree in business administration from the University of Kent, and worked at RBS as an accountant. “Music has always been my first love,” she says. “So getting a call to sing backup for Mary J Blige for a tour starting in just three days? I barely hesitated leaving accounting.”

She got to the “judges’ houses” stage of the 2006 series of The X Factor and later refocused on music, studying at Boston’s Berklee College and moving to LA to become a songwriter. “I took to songwriting because I was waiting for my time as an artist,” she says. “It didn’t sit well with me: writing songs, my experiences, and giving them out.” After getting a credit on Fantasia’s Grammy-nominated 2010 album Back to Me, and doing background vocals on Whitney Houston’s final album I Look to You, Savage became aware of the burgeoning Afrobeats scene back in Nigeria and returned home.

The video to her 2010 debut single Kele Kele, where the levels of cleavage and leg are hardly racy by western pop standards, peeved many Nigerians who saw female artists owning their sexuality as unacceptable. During her first performance there, she had sachets of drinking water thrown at her – in Nigeria, this is equivalent to being booed off the stage. “The audience felt I was too foreign,” she says. And the dearth of female artists in Afrobeats was startling. The unexpected backlash sent Savage back to the US.

She released a followup single, Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, which was just as controversial, its video featuring Savage in revealing outfits, lying in bed with a shirtless man. It was banned by Nigeria’s National Broadcasting Commission yet remained on YouTube, sparking debate about the ban and Savage’s defiance. But the controversy boosted her popularity, precipitating a return to Lagos. By 2012 she was the first African female ambassador for Pepsi; in 2016 she signed a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation; in 2018 she became the first female artist to win best African act at the MTV Europe Music awards. She now has more than 11 million Instagram followers.

Tiwa Savage. Photograph: TSE/Lakin

Many female artists have bowed out due to the harsh conditions of being a woman in the Nigerian music industry. Referencing her feat as the first African female artist to sell out London’s Indig02 venue, she says: “It felt like a lone battle trying to convince people that I can fill at least 70% of it. And upon selling out, it was heartbreaking that people still doubted if I did it, which wouldn’t have been the case if it were a male artist.” Savage considered leaving music, but “my son remains a huge factor that wheels me back”, she says, drawing an inattentive Jamil closer. “I don’t want him to ever see his mother as a quitter.”

Savage says she’s now “not trying to follow a wave – I’m going to be experimenting with the sound: vibes that evoke some fire”. Nigerian people can perceive the use of songwriters as inauthentic, so artists recruit them secretly, but Savage wants this collaboration more out in the open. “As an artist and as a person, I want to grow – I don’t want to always write music from my perspective.”

She is now lending her influence to the fight against rape culture in Nigeria, with the country’s police force having registered more than 700 rape cases between January and May 2020. According to the inspector-general, Mohammed Adamu, cases have escalated during the Covid-19 lockdown. High-profile victims include Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old who was raped and murdered at a church in her home town; another woman allegedly raped by five men; and three cases in two weeks of university students being raped and murdered in Oyo state. These incidents stirred outrage, with rape victims sharing their own experiences on social media.

Savage’s initiative, We Are Tired, began as a hashtag she used to express her frustration at negligence by the authorities. It trended quickly. “Seeing people echo the same emotion made me feel I have bigger responsibility as a public figure,” she says. While she admits “you don’t even know how to begin” with such an ingrained social problem, she is determined to help drive progress.

“A lot of people are silenced because they don’t have the finances to pursue it legally,” Savage explains. She is granting legal aid to rape victims and their families, and pooling paperwork to set up We Are Tired as a charity, while liaising with other organisations and entertainers for further financial aid. Savage has also had meetings with Lagos state’s police commissioner to help publicise phone numbers for victims to report sexual offences.

Prominent figures in Nigeria, often criticised for a reluctance to speak out on social and political issues, have atypically been vocal about rape. Savage says in her case “it’s a personal thing, I care about humanity beyond music. It’s part of our role, though not everybody thinks that. Also, not everybody thinks [political opinions] should be public knowledge.”

Her forthcoming album Celia is named after her mother, “my strongest ally. When everybody discouraged her from letting me do music, she was solidly behind me.” The songs will focus on “being vulnerable, being strong, being sensual, being in charge”. They are qualities Savage is now inspiring in so many other Nigerian women.

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