Rapper, singer, songwriter, collaborator, Grammy winner: in 2021, the Burna Boy has taken ‘Afrofusion’, a sound uniquely his own, all the way to the top. Speaking here at home in Port Harcourt, he explains his music is the start and solidarity is the end, sharing a strident vision of a continent united – with itself, its diasporas and the world
When he was young, Burna Boy would sit, watch the Grammy Awards and dream. He still carries fleeting memories of iconic past performances. He remembers being at home and staring into his box television screen and seeing famed artists of an era gone, crooning velvet vocals to crowded auditoriums, inspiration stirring.
For as long as he can remember, for as long as he has released songs, the Grammys have floated somewhere in his periphery, a milestone he was sure he would one day reach.
That day finally arrived in March this year at the 63rd iteration of the awards show. The world watched as he won Best Global Music Album. It being a year unlike any other, the awards were accepted over video link. When his name was called, the feed cut to a jubilant Burna Boy. The artist was sat in a pearl-white suit, diamond grills glistening in his mouth, twisted dreads softly falling by his earlobes, both hands on his head, reeling back and forth in his seat, the magnitude of the moment nibbling at his surface. “Africa is in the house, man,” he said proudly, staring down into the screen. “Africa, we’re in the house.”
Off camera, the shrieks of his elated family drowned the room, waves of screams and cries carrying over the speakers. It was a spirited rejoicing, a childhood dream crystallising into reality. Burna gathered himself among the pandemonium and finally settled to accept his prize. “This is a big win for my generation of Africans all over the world,” he continued. “This should be a lesson to every African out there: no matter where you are, no matter what you plan to do, you can achieve it, because you are a king.”
His triumph will likely outlive him. His emergence onto the world stage in recent years has been representative of a wider shift, a symbol for how sounds and cultures rumbling from Africa, and its diaspora scattered through Western countries and continents, have crossed into the heartlands of global pop culture. In the soul of his albums, Life, On A Spaceship, Outside, African Giant and Twice As Tall, the latter three released in a concurrent stretch between 2018 and 2020, is a mood of pan-Africanism and continental unity that has defined the time period for his generation of musicians emerging from the continent.
‘THIS IS A BIG WIN, A LESSON FOR EVERY AFRICAN OUT THERE… YOU ARE A KING’
For many, including the artist himself, the win for Burna Boy was bigger than Burna Boy – bigger than the Grammys and ceremonies and silverware. It was a time stamp on an era that has seen a dispersed diaspora come together in song and, in that reunion, display the richness of their varying cultures and heritages to a watching world. Among the music of contemporaries such as Wizkid and Skepta, Burna Boy stands at the vanguard.
There is an elusiveness to Burna Boy, a mystery that shrouds his movements and a subtle indication that he prefers things that way. When he speaks, it’s through his music – anything more is a bonus. We talked in crackled bursts over a few days, back and forth across calls that dipped in and out of shaky mobile signal and then eventually fell dead. “You must admit this is very frustrating,” he said, after dialling back on the same line that had shut him out moments prior. “I’m close to giving up.”
He was back home in Port Harcourt. A long Easter weekend was settling over Nigeria and his Grammy win, the first for a Nigerian solo artist, beginning to sink in. The win, he says, “should just make everybody understand that there’s power in where you’re from and you are that power. No matter how bad the situation is, there’s something to take [from it]. There’s diamonds in the earth, you understand? Where I come from, there are so many diamonds.
“I wasn’t celebrating because of myself,” he tells me. “It was almost as if I’ve broken a mental cycle of our people. Because our people have been very mentally oppressed to feel like they can’t do certain things and that certain things are unreachable. You are what you think, at the end of the day. [It is] time to start thinking about ourselves, not what the society said we should be or what our limitations say we should be. I’ve come from Port Harcourt, the bottom of the map in Nigeria, and now I’ve become a champion. It may not mean anything to someone else, but to me, and to us, it means more than you can imagine.”
After his win, Burna Boy was thrown a homecoming ceremony. Crowded lines of Port Harcourt residents greeted him on his return. They held placards and wore T-shirts with his face laminated across the front. Bounded by security, he waded through the crowd, screams and hands and iPhones thrust into his face. Later, he was hosted at a concert in his honour, where musicians from the city turned out to celebrate his achievements and the Rivers State governor presented him with the Distinguished Service Star, its second-highest ranking award.
‘I’VE COME FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE MAP AND NOW I’VE BECOME A CHAMPION’
“It really tipped me off balance, super emotional,” he explains. “For me, I never have any expectations for these things so I never get disappointed. It was the best reaction I could ever hope for, even better.”
Port Harcourt is the fifth-largest city in Nigeria and where Burna Boy’s journey began. He was born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu into a family already steeped in music and its capacity to mean more. His grandfather, Benson Idonije, was at one time the stage manager for the late, famed national hero Fela Kuti, a revolutionary musician and activist who, through his social commentary, held the country’s political Establishment to account, as well as being vocal in his support for a united Africa. That sense of union and rebellion beats through Burna’s music today, a consequence, he has said in the past, of Kuti, of Burna’s mother and grandfather and of the home in which he grew up, where a Black Power fist adorned the walls. “Tell ’em Africa we don’ tire,” he rumbled on the intro to 2019 album African Giant, “So here comes the African giant.”
At home his father played dancehall and reggae, exposed a young Burna to the likes of Shabba Ranks, Super Cat, Buju Banton and Ninjaman, cult artists from Jamaica’s music scene, while elsewhere he grew a love of US rap from his uncle, who brought the music of Naughty By Nature, Busta Rhymes, Big Pun and DMX into his world. That bridging of borders has been the backdrop to his music and Africa’s crossing into the mainstream. Burna terms his music as Afrofusion, in which he blends those tones of his youth into a rich palette, smudging the strata between Afrobeats and dancehall and R&B and rap until it has become something of his own. On those records, his music pulses with those same sentiments of pan-Africanism, the political and cultural philosophy that seeks to unite and bond the peoples of Africa and their sprawling diasporas.
“It’s something I’ve always known, coming from the family I come from,” he says, “but it’s not something I always believed in, because I was living in the real world. But, you know, at the end of the day, you come to realise that we’re all losing.”
The world Burna inherited was a country still wrestling with the forces of a post-colonial era. He remembers how in school (Montessori International in Port Harcourt and then Corona Secondary in Lagos) they were taught a history that had been whitewashed, were educated within a system that told them regions such as the Niger River, which Port Harcourt sits at the mouth of, were founded by European settlers and colonisers such as Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer who stumbled into the region during the 1700s. On reflection, he says, “It is disrespectful, to say the least, because people have been there for centuries. That’s just one of the many deceitful things that we were taught and programmed to call the truth.”
“Monsters You Made”, taken from Burna’s latest album, Twice As Tall, released in 2020, is a holding space for that angst and frustration and a potential teaching ground for those seeking to understand the country as it exists today, the forces of racism and colonialism that have turned within it. It is an alternative history to the miseducation of his youth.
‘YOU WANT TO TEACH MY CHILDREN HISTORY THAT MAKES YOU SMELL LIKE ROSES AND ME LOOK LIKE…’
“If me and you go to war,” he says, explaining why he believes they were taught half-truths, “and you win that war, then automatically what is mine is yours. So you’re going to want to teach my children the history that will make you smell like roses and make me look like… Step one is re-education, because we’ve been miseducated. As soon as we were born, miseducation began. I think a deliberate effort should be made to re-educate us, because a very deliberate effort was made to miseducate.”
It’s a subject that Burna has tackled before. “Another Story” (from 2019’s African Giant) opens with a snippet from Jide Olanrewaju’s documentary A History Of Nigeria. “To understand Nigeria,” says Olanrewaju, “you need to appreciate where it came from.”
Nigeria began as a business deal, an exchange of £865,000 in 1900 between the British government and the Royal Niger Company, a former mercantile company that controlled swaths of territory that have come to be known as Nigeria. In the aftermath of that trade, the relentless forces of colonialism pushed more than 200 ethnic groups, who collectively speak more than 500 languages, into a nation that sits today at a population extending past 200 million people, the largest on the continent and the seventh largest on the planet.
After 60 years of colonial rule under Britain, the country seized its independence in 1960. The union has been uneasy ever since. Nigeria broke into civil war in 1967, fracturing along ethnic lines, one of a string of African countries that have suffered similar fates in the decades following post-colonial rule. These accounts of history are woven into Burna Boy’s music. They are sampled in his songs and blared from speakers at his shows. There is a passing of information amid his exhibitions. For the newcomers and wider audiences who have come to adore the melody in his music, who shuffle their frames to his gentle rhythms, the confrontation with the reality of Nigeria and the external influences that have played a hand in its history is unavoidable.
“Monsters You Made” opens with the voice of Ebikabowei “Boyloaf” Victor-Ben, former commander of the Movement For The Emancipation Of The Niger Delta, a militant group that banded together in the early millennium to push back against economic inequality, oppression and the environmental devastation claimed to be perpetrated by the government and international corporations in the oil-rich region. “Oil is not something that our ancestors knew or passed down,” Burna commented last year. “Now, they’ve come and discovered oil, polluted all the rivers and left the people with nothing.”
Further into “Monsters You Made” he half raps, half sings, “We need a change and it ain’t no way I’ma take an excuse,” the line further testament to how, in the rhythmic tones and anthemic threads of his music, the local and mental consequences of the continent’s relationship with the West will continue to find new light and reach new ears.
“Music is the strongest way to get a message across,” he says. “I feel like that’s the role of music in all this. And now there’s a few people playing that role, so we’re heading in that direction.”
Turning towards the future, without forgetting the consequences of the past, he desires to see an Africa united and has spoken about seeing the continent pull together with a shared currency and a shared passport. And now, that sentiment remaining the same, the misgivings over education echoing in his words, he goes further: “In Africa, we’re the place that everything comes from,” he tells me, his style ever forthright. “Anything that makes any powerful country powerful comes from Africa. We have all the resources. We have gold. We have everything. What don’t we have? Why are we still not the world power? It’s because we’re not united. We’re not able to carry that kind of weight because of our lack of unity and our lack of understanding of each other. That’s simply what it comes down to.”
‘AFRICA HAS ALL THE RESOURCES. WHY ARE WE NOT A WORLD POWER? BECAUSE WE’RE NOT UNITED’
It was autumn 2019 and I had flocked with a crowd of more than 10,000 to the SSE Arena, Wembley, for the London leg of Burna Boy’s African Giant tour. The album had been released a few months earlier, unity in its essence, making true on his intent to connect the diaspora. Among the 19 songs were features from American rappers YG and Future, Britain’s Jorja Smith, Jamaica’s Serani and M.anifest of Ghana. Spread across the night, the music was blackness through many of its regional and cultural iterations.
There was a mood of celebration and pride among us in the audience, a tide of elation that rose with the elegance in Burna Boy’s performance. Those hours under the spotlight were career-defining, saw him join ranks as one of the most gifted performers of his time. When the curtain dropped and the music began, he emerged from the jaws of a giant gorilla prop, floated down to the stage in the grips of a wired harness, then proceeded to serenade an enthralled crowd.
Throughout the evening, his live band beat traditional drums, pulled fingers over saxophones and moved hands across guitar strings as he danced and turned under a roving spotlight. There was grace in his step, a magnetism in his presence, the feeling that this, here, among African Giant’s orchestral instrumentals and the mass of gathered supporters, was his most natural state. A child of music following instinct.
During the course of the show a large Nigerian flag passed through the crowd and as he eyed it from the stage he smiled. “If there is anything like a second home,” he would say a little later in the show, “it would have to be London.”
The musician’s connection to the city stretches back several years. After finishing school and college in Nigeria in 2008, Burna Boy moved to London for university. In Britain he found the music of Amy Winehouse, encountered dancehall and reggae and, he says, went to his first concert proper, a reggae show fronted by legendary Jamaican artist Burning Spear. The experience with those various forms of music, he says, “was just really kind of showing that there was so much more that you could do”.
‘IT WAS ALMOST AS IF I’VE BROKEN A MENTAL CYCLE OF OUR PEOPLE, THAT CERTAIN THINGS ARE UNREACHABLE’
He stayed out east first, in the far reaches of Romford, before moving to South London. He roved around Brixton and the surrounding areas during a time when young UK rappers were flexing their flow patterns over bashment and dancehall instrumentals. Southwark’s PYG & SI unveiled kerbside freestyles underscored by Jamaican producer NotNice’s England Town Riddim. Elsewhere, Brixton rappers Sneakbo and Political Peak covered Vybz Kartel’s “Touch A Button”. Both were crown jewels of an era that shifted and altered Burna’s approach to music. “The energy matched their energy. That energy kind of triggered another energy in me, just the aggressiveness in the way words are put together.”
In 2010 he returned home to Nigeria, yet the influences of that time in London settled in his sound. Early songs such as “Don’t Cross That Line” from his first mixtape, Burn Notice, released in 2011, saw Burna take to similar bashment instrumentals, a distinct London drawl now in his inflection. By doing so he joined a long line of Nigerian-born artists pulling from the rhythmic bonds and communal ties that have long existed between Africa and the black diaspora in Britain. In the years that followed his brief stay, that relationship would bear fruits of commercial success and a world gaze.
By 2018, as he released third album Outside, Africa had begun a major crossing into the mainstream of pop culture. British-born Nigerian John Boyega was front and centre of Disney franchise Star Wars, while Anthony Joshua was heavyweight champion of the world. Actress and writer Issa Rae, of Senegalese descent, and Nigerian-American Yvonne Orji were both actors starring in award-winning sitcom Insecure. Outside came out just weeks ahead of Black Panther, in which black actors from across the continents – Daniel Kaluuya from Uganda via London, Chadwick Boseman from South Carolina and Lupita Nyong’o of Kenya – gathered on film sets for a movie that would go on to gross more than $1 billion. It was the African diaspora meeting itself and Burna Boy, with his psalms of unity, was among the individuals leading the charge.
He has since shared verses with British rapper Dave, of Nigerian heritage, on the sun-soaked smash “Location”, traded songs with J Hus, of Gambian heritage, on Outside and J Hus’ Brit Award-nominated album Big Conspiracy. Elsewhere he has recorded with Stormzy and Headie One, both with Ghanian roots, and with British rappers Wretch 32 and Chip, of Jamaican heritage. “We’re all kind of waking to the realisation that we’re much stronger together,” he says. “It’s an honour to represent as best as I can.”
‘THERE’S POWER IN WHERE YOU’RE FROM AND YOU ARE THAT POWER’
That period coincided with a crucial time for him privately: “I just kind of made up my mind that I wanted it all. I wanted to be the greatest. That’s when it kind of just hit me really hard, like, ‘I have to do it. It’s that or death.’”
In 2018 he broke out with a song titled “Ye” and so began the journey to becoming a household name among his generation. After a night at Club Quilox in Victoria Island, Lagos, he pieced together the single’s silk croons and alluring melodies that would carry his voice across continents. Over a production etched together by Nigerian producer Phantom, he glides over the instrumental with grace and steadiness, singing in pidgin English, at one with the celestial rhythms.
It was a song moulded for dances and club nights and house parties, for carnivals and street parties and day festivals, his glowing harmonies pulling feet to makeshift dance floors wherever it played. “Ye” was crowned Song Of The Year at The Headies, Nigeria’s annual music awards show, went gold in both France and Canada, silver in the UK and reportedly earned 11m streams over seven months across major US streaming platforms. Burna’s journey from major African influence to global icon had begun in earnest.
African Giant was nominated for Best World Music Album at the 2020 Grammys, eventually losing out to Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo. In her acceptance speech Kidjo said, “Burna Boy is among those young artists from Africa that is changing the way our continent is perceived.”
In the closing months of 2020, not long after the release of Twice As Tall, Burna Boy spoke out again, this time alongside a whole generation of young Nigerians. The youth of the country began protesting against police brutality and the SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), which had been allegedly brutalising and murdering their own citizens. The protests morphed into the End SARS movement and was intensified when police opened fire on protestors, killing at least 12, according to Amnesty International, in a dark, blood-soaked evening that would come to be known as the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre.
The following afternoon Burna Boy turned out at a protest in London, staged outside the Nigeria High Commission, as a wave of demonstrations were held across the diaspora. In an interview with Sky News he said, “This is the most important moment in Nigeria’s history, because if nothing changes after this, if this doesn’t work, then it is over.”
‘I REALISE THAT THINGS ARE BIGGER THAN ME. I HAVE TO THINK FOR A WHOLE GENERATION’
Shortly after, he released “20 10 20”, a song of sorrow and a memorial for the protestors who were killed in Lekki. “Dem fail my people,” he crooned mournfully, “And when we cry for justice / Them kill my people.” He has spoken up “my whole life”, he says. “Anytime I’ve gone on any stage I’ve spoken up. End SARS was not the beginning of any speaking up. It was more like an eye-opening of the power that the youth have, that I always knew we had, but society doesn’t really allow the truth to be celebrated, you know?”
The role of statesman and spokesperson is a tightrope that Burna Boy walks. It’s a responsibility he both accepts and rejects. He will shy away from claiming any direct duty as a vehicle in the political and social future, saying, “I don’t play any role. I just play my music.” But in himself he seems to have realised that his symbolism to the people who cling dearly to his words, who show up elated at Port Harcourt homecomings and see themselves in his presence when he bounds across the world’s stages, that there is a distinct and unique sense of responsibility demanded of him. “Every day I realise more that things are bigger than me,” he says and speaks of certain risks and sacrifices that arise out of his position. “I have to think for a lot of people – basically a whole generation – before I think for myself.”
When this time period in Nigerian history is etched into stone, Burna Boy’s name will be carved deep in permanence, a figurehead for music that connected diasporas with home, speaks for those who have been silenced, played its own role in bleeding truths about the history of his country and the wider continent. There is a deep sense of profound meaning now attached to the man and his music. Yet, perhaps, for his own sense of wellbeing, for the space to make music with freedom and to play crowds with that distinct looseness in his limbs, these are not pressures he feels he can dwell on.
“I’m just making my music and just saying what my spirit is telling me to say,” he explains, the video link between us going fuzzy and glitching once final time, the face and voice of Burna Boy dissolving into a million scrambled pixels. “I don’t know about all the rest. All the rest is what’s supposed to happen. It’s – how do you say? – God’s will.”