After releasing her 2013 debut album, Once Upon a Time, on Nigeria’s Mavin Records and 323 Entertainment, Lagos native Tiwa Savage established herself as an influential voice in Afrobeats — her fans have even crowned her as queen of the genre.
Now, thanks to a global recording agreement with Universal Music Group, she’s eyeing a U.S. crossover. Savage, who signed to Mavin in 2012, left to join UMG in May. Two months later, she signed a recording contract with Motown Records, a move orchestrated by Capitol Music Group executive vp Ethiopia Habtemariam, who reveals she has been a longtime fan.
“To be under the guidance of Ethiopia is incredible,” Savage tells Billboard. “She’s in full support of working with my brand and not changing my sound or my image. Motown really believes in the genre of music that I’m doing, and Ethiopia really gets the Afrobeats movement.”
Despite singing and writing songs professionally for a decade, the 39-year-old says, “I see myself as a new artist again who’s hustling. That’s my mentality. I don’t walk into a room expecting anyone to know who I am. I’m just here to get a seat at the table.”
Meanwile, Habtemariam says, “Being a part of Motown has been all about re-establishing the label in new cultures today. So choosing a woman who has charge and breaks boundaries in that [African music] space was really important for me.”
Habtemariam insists that Savage has “already gained the respect of so many creators around the world,” and now sees her job as supporting her already-strong brand stateside. “People are excited to learn about their heritage, so there’s a hunger for music from the African continent to exist here in the U.S.,” says Habtemariam. “[Afrobeats] is really breaking in a big way, and it’s beautiful to see it happening in real time.”
This year has proven that the genre is steadily becoming a key fixture for major labels to further connect to a previously untapped market. In March, Warner Music Group (WMG) announced its partnership with Chocolate City, a leading independent record label based in Nigeria. Davido made history as his “Fall” single became the longest-charting Nigerian song in Billboard history (it remains on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay after 21 weeks), while Nigerian stars Burna Boy and Mr. Eazi secured slots at Coachella. And in June, EMPIRE signed AfroWave sensation Afro B of “Drogba (Joanna)” fame.
And as seen with dancehall’s previous resurgence in mainstream music, which inspired songs like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Afrobeats is also becoming a go-to source of pop influence, from Casanova’s “2AM” to Calvin Harris and Normani’s “Checklist.” Some may be quick to brand the genre as yet another music trend in the States, but it derives from multiple countries across the African continent that have been cultivating their unique spin on the sound for decades.
“I don’t know how many billions of people live in Africa, but it’s not a trend,” Savage urges. “If you look at the history of pop, hip-hop, R&B, soul, gospel, blues and then negro spirituals which came from Africa — it’s the foundation of all these genres. I feel like it just did a 360 now, because the Internet has made everything so small. That’s why people are able to search for artists back in Africa.”
The singer is using the rapidly expanding interest to her advantage — so far this year, Savage was featured alongside Mr. Eazi on Lion King: The Gift soundtrack’s highlight “Keys to the Kingdom.” “Someone called me and said, ‘Beyoncé’s putting an album together and she wants to make it Afrobeats. Your name popped up,’” Savage recalls with a laugh. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, please don’t get excited for no reason.’
“The project came out really well and it was very authentic,” she continues. “It’s easy when you’re not an African and you want to do a project like that, for Africans to be like, ‘Nah this isn’t Afrobeats.’ But she did a great job, so huge shout-out to her for putting so many of us on that kind of platform.”
Following the soundtrack’s release, some critics pointed out the music focused too much on West African nations like Nigeria and Ghana, rather than other deserving countries in Central or East Africa. But Savage attributes the disparity to Nigeria’s population of nearly 200 million, as well as the genre’s roots.
“The world is calling this genre ‘Afrobeats,’ and the godfather of Afrobeat is Fela Kuti — he’s Nigerian,” she explains. “So it only makes sense that a lot of the attention is going to be towards West Africa, because that’s where the pioneer really came from. But the beautiful thing about African music is you get great sounds from each region. If you hear some of the records from South African artists like Moonchild Sanelly and Nasty C, they are incredible.”
Savage quickly kept her momentum going with the release of “49-99,” her debut single for Motown and first taste from her as-yet-untitled third album. The powerful sociopolitical tune immediately pays homage to the aforementioned Kuti in the opening line, “49 sitting 99 standing, oh my God o.”
“I wanted it to be a conversation starter,” she says. “It’s a phrase that he coined, which is referencing a transit bus that only has 49 seats. Kuti said, ‘You’re suffering and smiling.’ So you have 49 people sitting, but twice as many standing. That’s just the level of poverty we have [in Nigeria].”
The accompanying video’s imagery is striking as well, using American documentary photojournalist Eliot Elisofon’s “Congo High: Class of ’72” photo collection as the main source of inspiration.
“Those hairstyles were something I could relate to since I used to do my hair like that in secondary school,” Savage says of the visual, which highlights women working in a factory. “So I wanted people to look at that image and see themselves, and also remember where they’re coming from and how beautiful and rich our culture is.”
With a new album on the way — she describes it as the 2.0 version to 2017’s romance-themed Sugarcane EP — and a string of upcoming festivals throughout the African continent, one thing Savage wants to stress is that this major-label signing doesn’t equate to a complete rebranding.
“The good thing about Afrobeats artists is that most of us have 10 million followers already,” says Savage. “We just need that engine to push our music to territories that normally wouldn’t have access to it. So it’s going to be hard for us to change [our sound], or else we’ll have 10 million people cursing us out!”