Tiwa Savage is a talented popular Nigerian musician. Often referred to as “Nigeria’s Sweetheart”, she is also very gorgeous and can usually be found on most lists of “top 5 good-looking Nigerian female singers”.
When her hit song “Kele Kele Love” was released, it was marketed as a fresh “girl power” song. On the radio, the presenters would mention how Tiwa Savage was clearly outlining what she wants and expects from a partner. The song was praised as an advice to Nigerian women, “don’t do kele kele love o” instead be bold and show that good looks are not a sign of gullibility, demand that your significant other treats you with the respect you deserve. Meanwhile at home, my aunt convinced me to give the song a listen because she knew that it would appeal to my feminist tastes due to its assertive lyrics. Whether “Kele Kele Love” appealed to my tastes or not, it wasn’t too long before the song grew on me. “Kele Kele Love” was the song that possibly put Tiwa Savage on my radar as a female musician to watch in the Nigerian music industry.
Then I was out of Nigeria for a while and when I returned, I learnt Tiwa Savage had released another song, this one called “Love Me”. I recall seating in the passenger’s seat of my friend’s car while she drove playing “Love Me” loudly over the speakers, on repeat. Soon enough, I had “Love Me” on repeat as well. I enjoyed the song even though I found it a bit cliché with its general them which is generally that of a woman complaining because her male lover does not spend enough time with her. “Love Me” is not an interesting song in itself, however the video and reactions to it when it was released were fascinating.
Tiwa Savage’s “Love Me” music video was quickly labelled as racy and “too sexy”. It was not played on many of the music channels on TV due to strong criticism, but when it was, parts of the video were pixelized. When the controversy surrounding the music video above was at its height, there were groups of people who argued that Tiwa Savage was being unfairly criticised. At the same time, there were voices calling for a ban of the music video, there were rumours that another more “appropriate” music video was to be released. For a while the censored version of the video was played on TV, the original music video was available to watch on YouTube.
For the record, the “offensive” parts were those that showed Tiwa Savage’s outfit (first appearance at the 0.23 mark).
Considering the controversy “Love Me” caused, it would stand that other Nigerian music videos with sexy themes would face the same sort of regulation and criticism. However, this does not seem to be the case. There are music videos that some would label as even more sexy than Tiwa Savage’s “Love Me” that did not receive the same backlash for example, Lynxxx’s “Alabukun” not only features scantily clad women but also quite explicit lyrics.
When one looks at other Nigerian music videos that are noticeably sexy, in either images or lyrics, a pattern emerges. It seems acceptable for men to sing about sex and express their sexuality however openly while women are not awarded the same privileges. As Saratu Abiola pointed out in her clever piece on women in the Nigerian hip-hop industry;
Nigeria, of course, presents a unique set of problems. Women’s bodies are often the battleground for Africa’s modern identity crisis, so it should not surprise anyone that what cultural progress Nigeria has made over the past few decades has benefited, almost exclusively, men. Femi Kuti’s award-winning “Beng Beng Beng” would not have been banned had it been released in 2011, but women are still caught between the notion of traditional roles and expected behaviors which, then, affects the kinds of representations of women one can find in music. We all see the results of this: Lynxxx can rap about sexual healing and have women on his hotel bed for the video of “Alabukun”; Banky W can have the steamy video for “Follow You Go”; Terry G can have his innuendos for “Knock You Akpako”; D’Banj can talk about his sexual experiences in “Why Me”; but Tiwa Savage got her “Love Me” video got some heat for being too sexy, and St. Janet’s album gets banned for raciness.
It is reasonable to conclude that Tiwa Savage faced more criticism, controversy, censorship and ban threats because in “Love Me” she is a woman owning and expressing her sexuality in a society where women are expected to submit to expected roles and behaviours while attempting to assert their creativity. This double standard sends a convoluted message about agency. Tiwa Savage’s costumes in her “Love Me” video can be seen as an extension of her creativity as a musician yet the video was deemed “too sexy”. On the other hand, Nigerian male musicians can have sexy models in their music videos with little to no backlash.
“Don’t Leave Without My Heart” is a collaboration between Tiwa Savage and Don Jazzy. If one track could sum up the conflicting ways sexuality is expressed by men and women in Nigerian society, it would be “Don’t Leave Without My Heart”. While listening to the song, one cannot help but wonder if the song is about sex or about love.
Tiwa Savage says she will “screw your mind till it blows”, she wants to “rip this dress” and “finish up what we started on the dance floor”. Don Jazzy responds with “my freaky little flirt”, “prove to me that you really want my heart”, this is a heart that “all the girls dem dey beg for it”. From these words, it is clear that the song is very much about sex. However, they start singing “don’t leave without my heart”, what does this heart represent exactly?
Saratu and I tried to make sense of “Don’t Leave Without My Heart”, was it about sex, or about love, or about sex masquerading as love to please the holier-than-thou Nigerian audience? Perhaps “heart” is mentioned as a way to tone down the sexiness so that the song can be regarded as a love song rather than a song that is about drinking, partying and “finishing up what we started on the floor”. Should “heart” represent love, it could be that women never talk about sex unless it is connected with love. Again, we thought of male musicians who have released songs and music videos with sexually explicit themes, all without any backlash. Bearing in mind the previous controversy Tiwa Savage has faced, it seems “Don’t Leave Without My Heart” is set to cater to the hide and seek games Nigerians like playing when it comes to sex and sexuality, especially when sexuality is expressed by women. Hide and seek because one minute sex is everywhere and in the next it has hidden itself somewhere.
Tiwa Savage makes for an interesting case study due to how diverse her work and the response to it, has been. It is difficult to place Tiwa Savage in a box, or to label her brand as either the Nigerian pop “girl power” flavour of “Kele Kele Love” or the “too sexy” woman of “Love Me”? Tiwa Savage’s music unexpectedly shines a light on Nigerian attitudes towards women, agency and sexuality.