Welcome to The Drop, Refinery29's home for music video premieres. We want to shine the spotlight on women artists whose music inspires, excites, and (literally) moves us. This is where we'll champion their voices.
When we talk about the giants of the Afrobeats genre, it's impossible for Tiwa Savage's name not to come up — she's an OG of the sound. After early pioneers like Don Jazzy, D'Banj, and Wizkid shared their tunes throughout Nigeria and the rest of Africa in the early 2000s, Savage came through to infuse the genre with a stylish feminine flair. The success of her 2010 studio debut album Once Upon a Time made her a household name on the continent, and the singles and projects that followed would solidify her status as an Afrobeats titan.
But long before hits like "Tiwa's Vibe" (2018) and "Keys to the Kingdom" (her track on Beyoncé's 2019 Afropop-inspired The Lion King: The Gift) swept the world, the Lagos-born singer was hard at work in the music industry. She spent the earliest days of her career working and learning under some of the greatest voices of our time; writing for Monica and Fantasia, singing backup for Whitney Houston and Babyface. As a result, she developed a deep love for the smooth sounds of R&B.
After years of leaning into the dancy, pop vibes that the Afrobeats genre is known for, Savage's fourth project Celia marks her official return to the sounds that turned her on to music. Tinged with R&B melodies while still staying true to the vibes that fans first fell in love with, Celia is the singer's most authentic album to date. And in the accompanying creative visuals for "Park Well," her fresh collaboration with Davido — premiering right here on Refinery29 — she journeys back to the R&B that shaped her, eschewing the standard glitz and glam of an Afrobeats video to focus on the heart of the song: true love.
Refinery29: How did you approach Celia after the success of your 2017 EP Sugarcane? The sound is still very much Tiwa, but it has a different energy, like you unlocked another side of yourself.
Tiwa Savage: "I was just allowing myself to grow as an artist and as a musician, but also going back to the drawing board. I'm such a huge R&B head because that sound was the beginning of what I wanted to be. I definitely went back to my R&B roots for this album, much more than anything else I've ever put out. And this is really the sound that I want to explore further for the next couple of projects."
"I also took a risk with the lyrics. A lot of my other songs — 'All Over,' 'Ma Lo' — had very pop lyrics, but with Celia I touched on deep subjects on songs like 'Koroba,' 'Ole,' and 'Celia's Song.' I felt like I had to use my platform for other things and be a voice for the voiceless, sharing stories that might be hard to talk about and digging deeper lyrically. After all, the godfather of Afrobeats, Fela Kuti, was all about sharing lyrics that had a message. We can't forget about the message."
What was it about "Park Well" and the collaboration with Davido that inspired a music video? The visuals are admittedly much more low-key than much of your videos in the vault.
"This is the first time David and I have ever worked on a record together, and I love when I hear him sing love songs. When we did this record, I just just knew that we would be doing an injustice to the song if it didn't have any visuals. I know David personally —he's very grand and has a lot of energy — so I wanted to strip all of that down and make sure that no one would be distracted from the song itself. And it was perfect."
You’ve been making music for more than a decade and have since become one of the foremost female artists in the genre, but before that, you were actively working in the industry. How did that behind-the-scenes experience impact your own solo career?
"I've worked with George Michael, Mary J. Blige, Babyface, and Whitney Houston, so I've been influenced by these icons who were massive commercial successes but also just real musicians. For me, it's taught me that even if you're more on the commercial side, you still have to sustain your career by investing in your craft. So I'm doing things like putting more effort into my stage performances and taking vocal lessons. That's what I've learned from my early days...just paying attention to my growth as an artist."
As one of the major forces of Afrobeats, what’s it been like to watch the genre take over the world through your music catalogue and those of your peers?
"I'm very happy to see our heritage being embraced globally. We used to travel abroad, but really people only wanted to hear American artists. Now, we're talking about Afrobeats being one of the fast growing genres in music! These days, people throughout the diaspora are sharing our music with each other, dancing to it in the club, and requesting Tiwa or Burna Boy. We're all working together right now, growing the genre and indirectly, African culture. Hopefully, this movement will spill out to include African movies, fashion, and so many more different things."
We’d be remiss to not mention the work you’ve been doing on the ground with the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria. Why was it so important for you to put a pause on promoting your album to get on the front lines of the protest?
"For me, I didn't even think twice about it. I live in Nigeria, my house is literally 10 minutes from the Lekki tollgate, and I pass by there all the time. It's right on my doorstep, and it affects me daily. This is something that Nigerians have had to live through for years, so I felt an obligation to get involved."
"#EndSARS was just a catalyst. There are so many other things that we need to keep fighting against in Nigeria — bad governance, injustice, gender-based violence, poverty, poor infrastructure. The list goes on and on. We are all trying to figure out how to come together and make our country better and safer for everyone, and we've realized now how strong our voices are. I think that we have to keep the conversation going all the way into 2023 when it's time to vote and change legislation."
There are some Afrobeats songs that are absolutely essential to the genre — Wizkid's "No Lele" and your "Kele Kele Love" personally come to mind. Do you have must-listen songs for any newcomers looking to learn more about the sound?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.