Tiwa Savage is running late, having just tumbled out of the Maki Oh show and entered a dimly lit bar a few blocks away in Union Square. “I’ve been up since about 5 a.m.,” the Lagos-based Afrobeat star says. “I’m jet-lagged. Everything seems like a blur.” This makes sense, when you consider all that Savage has seen and done this past week, from attending shows like Laquan Smith and Pyer Moss to performing at basketball player Carmelo Anthony’s second collaborative collection, called Melo Made.
As for Maki Oh, Savage wouldn’t have missed it for the world. She is a devotee of the brand’s designer Amaka Osakwe, and is even wearing a piece from one of her older collections, a black and dark blue jumpsuit featuring two very sexy slits running up each leg. Savage met Osakwe about seven years ago through their mutual friend Dr Sid, another Afrobeat artist from Nigeria. Savage has since become one of Maki Oh’s biggest fans. “I love the fact that there’s stuff that I immediately see myself wearing,” she says of Osakwe’s pearly new collections inspired by The Boondocks. “I loved I’d say 95% of it,” Savage says, before thinking better of it, “and the other 5% as well.”
Savage keeps up with the cutting edge of Nigerian fashion (she counts Lisa Folawiyo and Deola Sagoe among her other favorites), but the sultry style she shows off in her videos is all her own. Just take her latest visual for her recent track “49-99” (the title references a Fela Kuti classic). All the fashion in that video was custom-made, from the tasseled cherry red boots to the baby blue schoolgirl’s outfit, based on a traditional design which most Nigerian girls would recognize. “I usually like to put tassels on my costumes on stage,” Savage says of the eye-catching statement boot in particular. “It’s because I love the girls that used to dance for Fela Kuti, the godfather of Afrobeat. Every time I watch them, their skirts always have these tassels and when they’re moving and dancing it makes them look so sexy.”
The threaded hair in the clip, too, was important for Savage to get right. “We used to do that growing up, and I wanted to put that in for girls to see, or for guys to be like, ‘I remember I had a crush on a girl who used to do her hair like that!,’” Savage exclaims. The impossibly long, Medusa-like artificial braids that she dons later on in the clip took two days for a team of six hairstylists to create. “It was so heavy. I couldn’t even stand. I had to lie down to get that shot,” she describes.
Savage was born in Nigeria and while she now calls that country home, she had a peripatetic upbringing, moving to London at age 11 and later to Boston where she attended the Berklee College of Music on a scholarship. More recently, she has lived in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where she started songwriting for the likes of Fantasia and Monica. “I got a publishing deal with Sony, but then I felt a void. It was great that I was writing songs for these artists that I grew up listening to, but I wanted to do my own thing,” Savage says. “I wanted to do Afrobeat so much because I saw how that industry was growing back home. I decided that I was going to give up everything and move back to Nigeria.”
It’s these global influences that set her apart in her new home of Lagos — musically and also when it comes to fashion. She often switches between sporty, comfortable fashion and unapologetically sultry looks, which make her a perennial target for Nigeria’s tabloid paparazzi. “I don’t really think of it too much,” she insists of these boundary-pushing looks, which can rustle feathers in relatively conservative Nigeria. “I just want to show that side of me. In the beginning of my career, I got a lot of backlash, but now it doesn’t stop me. I feel like it’s an extension of my art. It’s an extension of me.”