Saratu Abiola: Tiwa Savage’s ‘Without My Heart’ & female sexuality in Nigerian popular culture

by Saratu Abiola

Nigerian sexually-explicit songs are more likely to use made-up words with sexual meanings, probably because of the audience’s unease with sexual topics.

Among the first major female music acts in the current wave of Nigerian popular music, Tiwa Savage is in quite an awkward situation as a Nigerian woman, and it shows in her music. More than any other Nigerian female artist in recent times, her music poses new questions on how best to present Nigerian female sexuality in popular music.

Her single “Without My Heart” is designed to be a hit. One can imagine her performing this song and then asking people to clap and sing along to the “no way, uh-uh, no way-uh…” I made my friend, an eccentric Yoruba person, listen to the song, and she agreed with me that the song was a bit confusing. Tiwa Savage seems to have been torn between putting together this song in a sexy way but at the same time being cautious of the environment that this song will be played in.

That’s all the reason that I can think of that one would have such sexy lyrics like: “I just want to rip this dress/so that you can see the rest/have my body screaming ‘yes’”, and then go on and say something like “Don’t leave without my heart”, as though to subconsciously disguise the fact that the song is pretty much about sex. You could say that “heart” was not meant literally as “heart” with all the usual maudlin connotations, but come on; it’s a bit wimpy. Are “heart” and “mind” supposed to be some sort of a code?

I cannot think of many songs that have hit the Nigerian pop scene with sexual meanings titled with words that make sense on their own. D’Banj’s “Tongolo” means nothing outside the context of the song. Neither does Terry G’s “Knock You Akpako”. The closest I can think of is W-4’s “Control”, but used in the context of the song, it is clear that the word does not mean what you think it means.

Compared to most sexually explicit songs in American R’n’B, whether it’s older Silk’s “Freaky With You” and R. Kelly “12 Play” or the more recent “Love Faces” by Trey Songz, Nigerian sexually-explicit songs are more likely to use made-up words with sexual meanings, probably because of the audience’s unease with sexual topics.

What makes Tiwa Savage’s song so interesting is the double entendre; these words she uses can mean just about anything you want them to. With these other songs I’ve mentioned by men there is no mistaking the meaning, because the words used are mostly made up and really only exist within the realm of the song before becoming a part of the vocabulary of the larger culture. Listening to “Without My Heart”, one cannot but wonder how much more brazen the sexual meanings would have been if the singer were a man.

<Jazzman Olofin>

<P-Square “Bizzy Body”>

The inclusion of hit-producer Don Jazzy in the single said so much more about the pop culture surrounding Nigeria’s music industry than it is probably supposed to. It was not unlike P-Square’s smash hit “Bizzy Body”, where the woman who featured on the song  said “I will take off my clothes and get ready for you”, or Jazzman Olofin’s song “Jump” that featured a female singer in a style reminiscent of Timbaland and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous Girl”, if a bit more explicit. In both these songs, the women present were responding in the affirmative to advances made my men, their sexualities posed as answers to male sexuality, not statements in themselves.

Even in this generation, with its emulation of American R’n’B and hip-hop culture, men are more apt to benefit from the culture’s increasingly liberalism. I won’t rehash an old argument of mine here, but I will say this: It is only alright for the songs to be sexual, as long as the song is not actually the female singer’s. More directly, it says so much about how our collective problem with female sexuality is when it exists outside of the male gaze.

Tiwa Savage is probably among the first crop of Nigerian female artists who openly acknowledges her sexuality. As such, the ways that she succeeds and fails in the packaging of herself for the acceptability of a mass audience in a still quite conservative society will mean a lot for female artists that follow her. As more and more women join the Nigerian music industry, it will be interesting to study as time goes on Nigerians’ reaction to women in popular music, and how it contrasts from the men, on similar subject matter.

Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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