‘The green passport. Official travel document of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Entitles the holder to extra scrutiny and harassment all over the world. Guaranteed. Have mine if you want to find out for yourself.” — A History of Nigeria, a documentary by Jide Olanrewaju Naij, as sampled in Burna Boy’s African Giant.
Not so long ago, when AKA and Burna Boy were mentioned together it was almost always in the context of their chart-topping collaborations. The two musicians won several awards for the songs they wrote and performed together. One of their biggest hits, All Eyes On Me, was certified platinum in 2016; another, Baddest, is still one of the top 30 most played songs on South African radio despite being released in 2014.
Whether they realised it or not, their collaboration was always about more than just the music. Against the backdrop of tense relations between Nigeria and South Africa, the image of a South African rapper and a Nigerian afrobeats star working together —succeeding together —became a powerful symbol of 21st century pan-Africanism.
As Rhodes University lecturer Siphokazi Magadla wrote in the Mail & Guardian in May, about similar cross-border collaborations: “These elite artists are showing us that if Africans in different sectors are able to work together across countries more easily, we stand to benefit in economic, social and creative ways that propel us forward.”
But as the relationship between the two musicians has disintegrated — fraying in the harsh, relentless glare of social media — so too has that symbol.
The trouble began in September, against the backdrop of another wave of xenophobic violence in South Africa. Although some of the violence was real, there was plenty of fake news too, including several graphic videos that purported to show Nigerian nationals being attacked in an especially brutal fashion.
“FUCK ALL THAT,” tweeted Burna Boy (real name: Damini Ogulu) to his two million-plus followers. “I personally have had my own xenophobic experiences at the hands of South Africans and because of that…I have not set foot in SA since 2017. And I will NOT EVER go to South Africa again for any reason until the SOUTH AFRICAN government wakes the fuck up and really performs a miracle because I don’t know how they can possibly fix this.”
In the Twitter storm that followed, someone brought up comments that AKA (real name: Kiernan Forbes, four million-plus followers) had made after South Africa’s national football team lost to Nigeria’s Super Eagles. “Why do we always have to lose against Naija at EVERYTHING,” AKA had said, apparently sharing Burna’s predilection for caps lock.
Burna’s response was unforgiving. “…it’s Fuck @akaworldwide from now on. And if you down with him, it’s Fuck you too.”
Fela in Versace
Mandela in a ’Rari
Rubber bands, where you get em from?
— Fela in Versace, AKA ft. Kiddominant
Fela Kuti was not the first to mix music with pan-Africanism, but he was arguably the most effective. Decades later, the pioneer of Afrobeat — related, but different from Burna Boy’s Afrobeats — is still an icon across the continent.
Although many claim some connection to Fela, Burna Boy’s is more intimate than most. His grandfather, Benson Idonije, was a close friend of Kuti and even managed him for some time. Fela’s teachings come through strongly in Burna’s albums, especially on his most recent.
African Giant was released in July this year, and dwells on stories of the black African experience with regards to colonisation and cultural identity. A prelude to the song Another Story is a clip from Naij’s documentary, which explains how today’s Nigerian state began as a privately-owned company:“Nigeria started off as a business deal for them, between a company and [the British government]. Incidentally, the Niger Company is still around today. Only it is known by a different name, Unilever. But that’s another story.”
The artist soon had to come up with another story to his Twitter outburst in September though because, yes, he would in fact be setting foot in South Africa again —on his terms. He announced he was going to headline Africans Unite, a new concert, in an effort to promote unity on the continent.
AKA was not impressed: “I would love to attend this show and watch this man put his hands on me in my own country,” he said. Burna Boy responded by telling AKA to beef up his security.
The Africans Unite concert was scheduled for this weekend, November23 and 24. Sinceit was announced, it appeared to have the opposite of its intended effect, attracting support and derision in equal measure.
One high-profile supporter was a certain Julius Malema, the leader of South African opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters.
“Looking forward to receiving and being entertained by my brother [Burna Boy] here at his home called South Africa. There’s no mascot that can stop him from performing, he’s one of our own and we will protect him. We must resolutely oppose regionalism led by political illiterates … South Africa is a home for all Africans.”
To his credit, Malema has been consistent in his condemnation of xenophobia in South Africa. But there may have been some political points-scoring happening at the same time: AKA has been vocal supporter of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress.
One of the biggest critics of Burna Boy’s proposed concert came from a Tshwane-based event organiser called Katlego Malatji. Ironically, his critique seemed to encapsulate, at a micro level, the same xenophobic tensions that caused this controversy in the first place.
Malatji was upset because the Africans Unite concert appeared to have been endorsed by the South African arts and culture department (concert branding carried the department’s logo). He thought that this support —and the funding that he presumed came with it —should have been directed towards local businesses. “The truth is, the state is funding, without due process, events that don’t even align with the national development plan at all,” he said.
The department has denied funding the event, and said that their logo was used “erroneously”. But they had already lost control of the narrative. Last week, Malatji’s Tshwane Entertainment Collective sent an open letter to arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa, complaining about “hate speech and incitement by Burna Boy” and inadequate “protection of local artists”. The collective urged patrons who bought tickets to seek refunds, and warned that should their calls be ignored an “unavoidable shutdown” would take place.
So much for African unity.
Despite making his reputation on pan-African cross-border collaborations, even AKA’s world view appears to have narrowed. “Let NO ONE deter you from your patriotism. PROTECT your COUNTRY and it’s REPUTATION at ALL COSTS … You are BLESSED to be a SOUTH AFRICAN,” he tweeted.
More or less, more yawa
Less people power
Same shit, Ghana
Naija, man tire
— Another Story, Burna Boy ft. M.anifest
On Wednesday, just days before the Africans Unite concert was due to begin, it was cancelled. Burna Boy had pulled out. The event organisers said that although they remain committed to bringing Africans together as one, “the safety of all artists and attendees could not be guaranteed”.
Despite this, the two artists at the heart of this debate appear to be on the peace train now, albeit without having actually made peace between themselves.
“Please my people, there should never be a South Africa vs Nigeria war or any African country vs African country war Ever. We must unite by any means for the future of our children n their children. I want a united African passport that will be as powerful as the [United States] passport,” Burna tweeted late last week.
Shortly afterwards, AKA tweeted: “I think it’s gone far enough now, apology or not. We cannot afford for South Africans and Nigerians to continue with this type of energy. This will not end well … Don’t let politicians hijack this issue and use it for their own agendas. It will be taken to a level that there will be no turning back from.”
He later added: “I am NEVER getting involved in Politics ever again. On any level.”
But he may not have a choice. AKA and Burna Boy were pin-ups for pan-Africanism, and neither was shy of using its language and symbols to shift records and boost their own profiles. Now, for better or worse, their enormous influence means that they have come to define 21st century pan-Africanism in popular culture — and to embody its tensions and limitations.