Tiwa Savage can’t seem to catch a break. Her news appearances run along a spectrum, from a world-beating collaboration with Universal Music Group to spa-session fights with a colleague, Seyi Shay. One morning she’s getting shout-outs from the New York Times for her musical abilities. Then by the evening, a hit piece from a local journalist might have her tweeting out her discomfort and standing up for herself. The underbelly of human nature requires the world to be attracted to—and foment trouble for—those at the top. Light attracts darkness. Being the queen of African music comes at a cost. One which Tiwa pays conspicuously. Sometimes it opens up as a reality where she is forever placed in competition with her peers. “She’s undeniably good, but is she better than Artist B? What does she do better than that other pretty dynamite over there? Who’s coming to dethrone her?” Her art is stripped and compared with real and imagined rivals. Hardly anything she makes takes on its own life before it is processed in relation to other entities. Being Tiwa means the microscope can appear too sharp. The headlights glare with a mixed beam, shining into her world with equal rays of success and meanness. And when she stumbles, Tiwa is rarely afforded the grace to be human.
Through all of this, some things remain self-evident. The Nigerian singer’s decade-long dominance of the African music industry is on the scoreboard. She’s the queen of hearts, ears and eyes. Her music is battle-tested and her wits have defended her position: standing tall (and rolling in the mud on occasion) against incessant attacks from both within her ranks and the outside world. On the business end, being a journeywoman has its demonstrable benefits. Tiwa has worked through different back-end situations to power and push her music. She was once the focus of 323 Entertainment, a company based on a family business model through which an ex-husband introduced her art to Nigeria, over 10 years ago. Her Mavin Records stint under Don Jazzy’s guidance is just a speck in our rearview. And her 2019 announcement of a UMG deal was cosigned by the highest brass of the music industry: Sir Lucian Grainge, the UMG CEO. In recent years she’s become very public and expansive with her creative process. Her writers’ camp has revolving doors. A variety of artists, songwriters, producers and A&Rs stream in and out, providing the needed output to move her hit train down the tracks.
The hits have been a constant companion on her journey. Even now, each release comes with something for the big moments, turning the charts into her playground. For more than a decade, Tiwa has never been too far from hugging radio with a popular song, another verse or visual displays of her renowned beauty.
But she wants more. More than the tamed love that greeted her previous album, Celia. More than localised success and the increasing scrutiny that follows all her dealings. More than being called “Queen” at home, when there are more territories to conquer and annex. Why not? It’s the season of expansion for the Nigerian music industry. Afrobeats to the world is in full swing, and entire legacies are being rewritten. Nigerian artists are moving beyond generational ceilings and planting their flags in new spaces. Concerts and festivals are lapping us up. Our art is considered competitive in the global pop framework. Wizkid’s “Essence” is the global song of the summer. Justin Bieber is publicly marinating in the culture. Drake has us in his sights. Global music companies are just a stone’s throw apart in Lagos. And the industry is shifting too fast and minting new heroes. People are falling off. It’s anyone’s game now. It could be Tiwa’s game now, and for the future.
And that’s why the Water & Garri EP exists. There’s a point in an artist’s career where things need a little novelty. Those walls could do with a fresh coat of paint. A new lick of colourful life. Or even a step in an experimental direction. Without those advances into new territory, growth turns horizontal and an artist milks more from an existing base, rather than aim for new believers. That’s unsettling for any true creative hustler. “It is the nature of man to advance in this place we’re in,” the rapper Nas raps in the EP’s opener, “Work Fada,” where Tiwa plays her new hand from the jump. Water & Garri—which was announced with a cosign and testimonial from legendary artist and producer Pharrell Williams—is unlike anything we’ve ever seen from Tiwa Savage. It’s a new presentation of her arsenal. She’s mixing music in a way she’s never sold to the world. A fresh spin of her wheels, new collaborators (Brandy, Tay Iwar, Richard King and Amaarae) and Mystro gaining songwriting placement on three tracks. “There’s a song on there, very first song called ‘Work Fada.’ It’s featuring Rich King and Nas. I’ve never created music like this. You just have to listen to it. You have to hear it. It’s not one of those things that you just listen to, you experience it,” she tells Zane Lowe of Apple Music.
She’s right. Flip through Tiwa Savage’s discography and nothing she’s made in the last decade remotely looks like “Work Fada.” Part melancholia, part “aspire to perspire,” the simple dreamy production offers a swaying bed for repetitive, stretched-out phrases, emoting through a central message: wake up, hustle, swat penury and mediocrity away from your doorstep. “Work fada o, work fada o,” she calls out, followed by the warning “or sit back and grow older/sit back and envy a shot caller.”
In many ways, your favourite artist is just like you. They wake up, they hustle, they pay school fees, they need to bring the bread home. Network needs to grow. Status needs upgrading. Sounds need progression and dynamism. Advancement is the only true religion, and moving your life, art and business to the ever-shifting “next level” is an existential obsession.
When viewed from this side of the field, successful artists have it worse. Once they enter the scene with a breakthrough single and begin to burn bright and fast, making music that lodges deep in our hearts, they’re soundtracking our every waking moment. We reward them for their efforts with an endless stream of money, prestige and attention. The attention, when sustained, makes them celebrities, provides hypervisibility and crystallises fame. But this is a Trojan horse. Fame makes one business everyone’s business. Your life and career become public property, forever subjected to commodification into intrusive public discourse. You will forever be measured against unachievable perfection. New standards will be invented to measure and judge you against inventive parameters.
This is where things get tricky. Artists are humans. They bleed uncertainty, just like we all do. We rise, we face obstacles, we fall, we learn, we surmount them and move closer to our end. Their creative delivery is an expression of their lives and the society that has conditioned them. It also carries traces of their humanity, snapshots of their stream of consciousness made into words and melody for consumption. Sometimes their songs lodge in our hearts and fit into our lives. And on some days, it goes over our heads. But their humanity is never far from our screens and radio, no matter how much we choose to ignore. On “Ade Ori,” the pain is displayed with a helping of defiance. “I can heal my pain, I don’t need yours.”
Where the message gets lighter on Water & Garri,the focus inevitably shifts to the utility of the art. Amaarae’s falsetto finds sure footing in “Tales by Moonlight,” where there’s uncertainty in romance. Named after the classic TV show, the song simply asks a romantic interest to not go heavy on the storytelling. And even when words are offered, there’s still the mistrust that lingers. Will this sweet talker carry me home? Or am I watching another episode of deceit by a sweet talker, a fine boy, a Barawo.
But that paranoia gives way to familiar yearnings on the album jewel and runaway favourite, “Somebody’s Son.” For Tiwa Savage, Brandy on a record is a dream come true. The US R&B legend is the reason why Tiwa’s heart first beat with a musical note. “Brandy is literally the reason why I started singing, literally,” she reveals on Apple Music. “As a kid, just listening to ‘I Want to Be Down,’ every interview I’ve ever had, she’s my favorite, my all time, my mentor, everything. And I’ve been trying to work with her for years. It was a dream of mine. And when it happened this time, it’s not even just music, we connected like sisters. She’s someone that I speak to literally every other day. It’s beyond my expectation.”
This mix of personal nostalgia and professional obsession provides the highest point of this album. While Water & Garri’sbig idea is to sell a new bent of life for Tiwa’s art, it is the familiarity of local percussion and Highlife melodies that will live long on radio and linger in personal playlists. Everything lights up here. The universal yearning for companionship (“Somebody son go love me one day”) carries on the hook, and Brandy and Tiwa form a satisfying team, harmonising the old, the new and the recognisable on their way to pop music perfection. Love is a primal need. Life can get so cold. A pandemic is bringing our mortality to the fore. Everything we know is changing with these times. Please love us. Now, one day and always.
Emphatic vulnerability carries this project to a conclusion on “Special Kinda,” a song that seems unsure of its purpose. Tay Iwar’s gifts are criminally underused, ushering in an anticlimactic disco finish to a new journey. Regardless, Tiwa Savage has done enough to introduce a new direction for her art: The writing here is pliable and speaks to a relatable everydayness; the sounds lean to a future of unfamiliarity; new collaborators let the sun in; and a freer Tiwa Savage has been unleashed.