Over the past 10 years, Tiwa Savage has been one of Nigeria’s most visible acts. For any artist, it doesn’t get bigger than winning the MTV European Music Awards. With a combination of her distinct soprano – that sometimes descends into warped falsetto, her good looks, sexuality, an alluring personality and consistency, she has gone from the woman Cecil Hammond had a deal with into a worthy legend.
While writing her story, she became the standard for a female pop star across Africa. Even though she was often criticized for pandering to the male gaze and never speaking for women, her career kept advancing till the change of guard in Nigeria caught her and everybody else off guard in 2019.
All her 2019 singles were either lukewarm or poor. ‘Shotan’ was a good song that was wrongly timed while ‘49-99,’ ‘Attention’ and ‘Owo Mi Da’ were roundly disappointing. She might have had good numbers, but we all know great reception isn’t just a reflection of great numbers these days.
In 2020, she bounced back with impressive singles, ‘Dangerous Love’ and especially, ‘Koroba.’ The ‘Jare’ and songwriting on ‘Dangerous Love’ and its discussion of a precarious love story served as soft-landing for the amazing, ‘Koroba,’ which discusses Nigerian hypocrisy in the face of money on a beautiful Afro-pop production with great sonic chops.
The ‘political branding’
On the back of those singles came her fifth body of work, Celia. The album which was made over three songwriting camps in Lagos, London and Los Angeles, California is titled after her mother. With news of the album came a ‘conscious branding’ that positioned Tiwa Savage as an activist and socio-political commentator.
This branding began with her highly promoted single, ‘49-99’ which tried to discuss the Nigerian struggles via the Fela-inspired rhetoric, “49 sitting, 99 standing…” in reference to the euphoric and tiring rush of Lagos and extinct molue buses. On Celia, songs like ‘Ole’ featuring Naira Marley, ‘Koroba,’ and ‘Celia’s Song’ were created with strong socio-political branding.
Her interview on Guardian UK aimed to position her as a champion of feminism and feminist movements. During her interview on Ebro In The Morning on Hot 97, Laura Stylez quizzed her about the prevalence of rape in Nigeria and she spoke on it. During her fun-filled virtual listening session for Celia, she also repeated these rhetorics.
Commendably, this represents a veritable rebrand from an artist who is entering her veteran days. It is important to stay gracious and aware as veteran days beckon. As artists age, they need a step away from pop razzmatazz and speak about issues that truly resonate. In Hip-Hop, Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop serves that purpose. More importantly, fans also ask for these things.
Here is an artist who is attempting to do something fans [especially women] have criticized her for not doing over the past five years. Yet, these fans are criticizing her for doing exactly what they have asked her to do – speak on socio-political issues. On one hand, some of these fans have what this writer calls ‘social media syndrome’ – a disease that makes people ask for change only to criticize that change.
But on the other hand, the Tiwa Savage ‘rebrand’ does seem manufactured, inorganic, convenient and sudden. The switch from the pop-themed tale of mockery on, ‘Shotan’ to the poor sonic execution that was, ‘49-99’ had no basis. Even worse, the socio-political branding for Celia is slightly nonsensical.
The branding is a subterfuge and a ploy to give Tiwa Savage some identity before an international [western] audience who sees Fela as the standard for the African artist. To that audience, you have to stand for more than just the music. In response, Tiwa Savage is getting a forced identity that has no roots or basis. Like clockwork, she then referenced and called herself an “offspring” of Fela Kuti on Hot 97, New York. Ermmm… Oops.
This is a woman who went on Nigerian radio and openly proclaimed that she doesn’t identify as a feminist. More importantly, it might work in the context of lies that the foreign audience might love, but it is not sustainable. You can’t proclaim you are something without having a track record. As Peruzzi sang on that song, “Show working for me…”
More importantly, making a woman whose brand is built on sexuality to suddenly start talking about politics will inevitably backfire. It will create a conflict for her primary audience and alienate them. As impressive as it is to see Tiwa Savage discuss some of these issues, you have to also spot the ‘convenience’ of that narrative as well as how strategic it all seems.
The western and European platforms might lap it all up like cat to milk, but to us here, it’s a PR nightmare. Even Messi needed four years of professional football to win his first Ballon D’or.
Celia’s actual key focus
It’s worse when the album she released doesn’t passionately and significantly reflect the political branding around its roll-out. Despite the political leanings of Celia, it’s still an album heavily driven by thematic millennial tendencies of love, sex and enjoyment. It’s one of the reasons why the political branding of Tiwa Savage through her roll-out was baffling.
‘Bombay’ is this writer’s favourite song on Celia in all its sonic beauty and explicit lyrics. The song is tailor made to represent the reality of the modern woman who owns her sexuality. Instead of seeing the man brag about his sexual prowess, it’s nice to see the woman take control for once.
And that beat, oh that beautiful bashment production is God-sent. Stefflon Don does what Stefflon Don does when she’s on form – she delivers. Also importantly, she lays claim to her near-inevitable application for a Nigerian passport as she sings in Yoruba and Pidgin. That said, Rema is who this track needed, not Dice Ailes.
‘FWMM’ follows suit as it sees Tiwa Savage embody a “bad b**ch” who warns a lover that, “Don’t f**k with my mind…” ‘Attention’ feels like the break-up moment.
The Afro-house tune, ‘Save My Life’ might not be a single, but it’s such a vibe. Lyrically, the song is a beautiful shambles. Lines like ‘High up in the sky, makes me come alive…” and “Save my life, if you wan hold my body, better hold me right..” are problematic and illogical. How can a life be saved with an ultimatum to hold a body tight. It’s like mixing affection with militancy.
Nonetheless, what the song inspires is an uncanny will to dance crazy while drunk. Sonically, it’s also a good opener. That line, “B’ose n gun mi l’abe…” is hilarious in its explicit glory. In English, it loosely translates to, “I love how you treat me right in bed…” Niniola would have been perfect on this song as a feature.
In its Bashment/Afroswing glory with Liquideep/Mi Casa-esque Afro-House formation, ‘Temptation’ is a well-written song on which Tiwa Savage embodies the Nigerian woman. She engages in a conversation about giving up ‘the cookie’ if she’s treated right. For detail, she also switches her delivery between Yoruba and English.
While Sam Smith feels like the wrong choice from a musical standpoint for this song, he did deliver properly and will equate great streaming strategy for Tiwa Savage and Celia. Duh… He’s Sam Smith.
‘Park Well’ follows a similar theme and it promises so much with its fusion of Afro-pop and Afrobeat trumpets, but it is slightly underwhelming. Nonetheless, it’s not a poor song – if it gets pushed as a single, you never know what might happen.
She could have spoken about these issues without throwing it in people’s faces like a would-be champion of socio-political issues from extinct Capua. The Celia roll-out could have done with a honest brand that positions Tiwa Savage as a woman who is now more aware of her power and position and aims to use them to empower women.
Songs like, ‘Bombay,’ ‘Temptation,’ ‘Save My Life,’ ‘FWMM’ and so forth could have tied into the power of sexuality that currently sells female American rappers and Cardi B’s ‘WAP.’ Then, the political songs could have positioned her as aware.
The political songs
Some of the songs chosen to sparsely fly that ‘politically aware’/activist flag are quite sonically pleasing. The Afrobeat base of ‘Ole’ and its critique of all forms of theft and deep-rooted corruption in the Nigerian spirit is quite good. In fact, the song has a unique tendency to grow on listeners.
On it, every thief in Nigeria gets a shot. The corrupt politician isn’t mentioned, but there is something for him – especially with that incredible vocal sample at the end of the song. The debtor also gets a shot just as Naira Marley destroys a woman who tries to pay her debt with sex. Ah, Naira… ‘Ole’ is the song that ‘Owo Mi Da’ felt it would be.
Even better, the London-produced, ‘Koroba’ is one of the best singles Nigerian music has seen in 2020. From its commendable execution of the Nigerian hypocrisy as regards money via a succinct use of sarcasm to the flute riff that introduced the song, it’s pop music perfection that deserves more than it’s currently getting.
However, ‘Celia’s Song’ is the best song on this album. In terms of musicality that appropriately elevates Tiwa Savage’s vocal strengths and her vocal delivery at its best, Tiwa Savage got in her element as Moelogo [also the writer of the song] backed her with vocals like instruments. With a heart of gratitude, Tiwa Savage hailed God.
During her listening party, she said ‘Celia’s Song’ was inspired by happenings around COVID-19. Errrm, that’s a load of crap. Sometimes, just let a good song be a good song – leave the forced narratives alone. At best, that ‘COVID-19’ narrative is an afterthought. At its worst, it’s a lie.
Tiwa gets personal
For the first time, Tiwa Savage chose to speak about brief union with Tunji ‘Teebilz’ Balogun. Commendably, she doesn’t focus on the bad, she also discusses how the good couldn’t save the marriage. ‘Us (Interlude)’ feels like honest acceptance of responsibility from an adult who has finally accepted the pain of divorce.
She sings, “Mama prayed for us, still wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough, you weren’t enough, love wasn’t enough…” All in all, shout-out to Jamil.
Lyrically, ‘Glory’ is a dope song as it sees Savage declare a will to enjoy her own success, but it’s not-so-sonically appealing to an African market. Even in its pop state, it feels western/European and could have done with a foreign feature.
Celia isn’t a poor album, but it’s not exceptional. While it has some really good songs, the album is mostly filled with lukewarm to good songs. That said, props must go to Tiwa Savage for seeking songwriting help in a terrain that stigmatizes artists for seeking help. However, the delivery of some of those songs revealed that Tiwa Savage didn’t write them.
That album art is quite terrible too.
• 0-1.9: Flop
• 2.0-3.9: Near fall
• 4.0-5.9: Average
• 6.0-7.9: Victory
• 8.0-10: Champion
Pulse Rating: /10
Content and Delivery: 1.3/2
Enjoyability and Satisfaction: 1.3/2
6.4 – Victory