Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage: ‘Death is something none of us can escape – but we can live a full life’

The ‘Queen of Afrobeats’ talks to Yolanthe Fawehinmi about the concept of home, pursuing dreams, and how grief and motherhood changed her outlook.

Savage makes her acting debut in new Prime Video film Water And Garri
Tiwa Savage Savage makes her acting debut in new Prime Video film Water And Garri

Nigeria is a patchwork of distinctive regions, where chaos is just moments away.

Commuters and motorists jostle in and out of pothole-ridden roads, trying to outrun each other in traffic jams, while hawkers, hustlers and dreamers are selling anything they can carry: ground nuts, agege bread, knock-off designer bags, belts and wallets, Gala Sausage Rolls. The heatwave that greets you is hot, dry and dusty.

This is one of the places singer-songwriter Tiwa Savage calls home.

“Home is Nigeria, but it’s also in the UK because I grew up and spent many years in London as well,” says Savage, 44, who performed her single with Mr Eazi, Keys To The Kingdom, at King Charles’ Coronation Concert last year – and makes her acting debut in new Prime Video film, Water And Garri.

“I think when people say home is where the heart is, I don’t think they mean a physical location. It can be the place where your loved ones are or where you were raised, not necessarily where you were born,” adds the singer-songwriter, who was born in Isale Eko, Lagos State, Nigeria, but moved to London at 11 for her secondary school education, and also spent time living in the US.

(Leon Neal/PA)

Savage – who appeared on The X Factor in 2006, making it to the final 24 – studied business administration at University of Kent before attending Berklee College of Music in the US (she was later awarded an honorary doctorate by University of Kent in July 2022 for her music career – by which point she had four albums and 23 singles under her belt).

But when she first returned to Nigeria to kick-start her music career, Savage recalls facing many challenges.

“From my accent, the way I dressed, to the type of music I was making – I wasn’t doing straight-on-the-nose Afrobeat, there was also a mix of R&B and pop influenced by my time living here [London] and schooling in America – the industry didn’t make it easy for me,” says Savage, who released her debut album, Once Upon A Time, in 2013.

“It was so tough at the beginning,” she admits. “I actually gave up and went back to LA, until I found the courage to move back. I remember questioning myself and wondering if I’m even Nigerian, but I had to find that confidence in myself [again] to pursue my dreams.

“I didn’t start being an artist until I was in my 30s, and that’s pretty unusual, because that’s when I should have legendary status – but I was starting my career, which shows that there’s no age limit,” she adds. “I wouldn’t be here right now if I gave up when I was 28.

“So please don’t give up, whatever the challenges are, you never know when it’s going to happen.”

Her experiences are echoed by those of Aisha, the character Savage plays in Water And Garri (which is a staple food in many West African homes, made of granulated cassava), written by Comfort Emmanuel and directed by Meji Alabi. Savage also wrote and performed the original soundtrack.

The film, shot in Cape Coast, Ghana, tells the story of an ambitious fashion designer – Aisha – who leaves the US to return to her native home, Eastside, after 10 years away, following a family bereavement.

But to her surprise, things have changed. There is growing violence and tension, and as Aisha reconnects with her cousin (Jemima Osunde), old friends, and her past love (Andrew Bunting) and finally deals with the loss of her brother (Mike Afolarin), she learns how to live with her decisions, and confront the guilt and people she left behind.

Many children of immigrant parents, who left their native homes to pursue their version of the British dream, can relate to the guilt it can bring up – including Savage.

(Ian West/PA)

When she’s in Nigeria, she is ‘too British’, but when she’s in London, Savage is a British-Nigerian, which comes with its own set of obstacles and limitations.

“I just didn’t fit in or feel like I was being embraced fully, until I started meeting other girls in a similar position,” Savage recalls. “It’s not my fault that I grew up outside of Nigeria. I’m still a very proud Naija babe, who uses both accents.

“There’s no such thing as an identity crisis,” she adds. “Your identity is unique to you, and something beautiful that you can bring to the table. Never be ashamed of how you grew up or your experiences. It’s what makes you who you are.”

However, being able to speak and understand the native language – in this case Yoruba – can help to bridge the gap.

“I grew up speaking Yoruba, I’m so glad my parents did that for me,” says Savage. “When people say some stuff in Nigeria, I’ll respond to them in Yoruba, ‘Mo le gbọ ohun ti o sọ (I can hear what you said)’.”

(Ian West/PA)

The ‘Queen of Afrobeats’ – as her fans call her – lost her father three years ago, which changed her relationship with grief and her outlook on life.

“It’s only God that can really heal and give us that peace. My father died at 82 and was the closest person that I’ve lost, it was very, very hard for me. But on the flip-side, when I look at his life, he lived a very full one. He was the life of the party, always out and travelling. Death is something none of us can escape, but we can make sure that we live a full life.”

Since having her son Jamil, now nine, Savage admits she has changed and learnt to prioritise things despite her busy work schedule – which can mean she forgets things like birthdays or misses weddings and friends having babies.

“I always feel guilty,” she admits. “I sometimes cancel shows so I can be at my son’s school play. I don’t want him to be the only child whose mum is not there.

“My hustle is a hundred times more now, and I’ve realised how important it is to balance your career with your loved ones. Spend quality time with them, especially because you can lose someone so easily.”

Water And Garri is available now on Prime Video.