/ 10 September 2023

Burna Boy builds beat bridges

Burna Boy Performs At London Stadium
Hot stuff: Burna Boy performs at London Stadium, England, on 3 June. He was the first African artist to sell out the 80 000-capacity venue. Photo: Burak Cingi/Redferns

In March 2021, then 29-year-old singer Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu — better known as Burna Boy — became the first Nigerian to win an individual Grammy for best album in the World Music category. He triumphed for his 2020 Twice as Tall album. 

As he noted: “This is a big win for Africans of my generation all over the world.” Burna Boy describes his music as Afrofusion; an inventive mix of Afrobeat, dancehall, reggae, R&B, and road rap drawn from Africa, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and black America, combined with classical Western violin and piano. 

Nigeria’s $73 million entertainment industry is the fastest-growing in the world. Though the albums of Sunny Ade, Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti had all previously been nominated for Grammys, none had ever won the award. This victory demonstrated Burna Boy’s gritty determination, having lost last year to Beninois songstress Angélique Kidjo in the same category. 

The Nigerian superstar has 13.9 million followers on Instagram; his albums have drawn tens of millions of streams; and Twice as Tall had five million streams in its first hour of release.

Burna Boy sees himself as part of a youthful generation that is seeking to transform the negative image of Africa as a continent of wars, disease and famine. His songs are local but seek a global audience.

Having burst onto the music scene in 2011 — the year of the youth-led Afro-Arab Spring — he identifies strongly with Africa’s 60% youth population. He is articulate and soft-spoken, and driven by a sense of divine destiny to leave a lasting legacy through his music. 

He has sought to create a body of work that captures the zeitgeist. A generous collaborator, Burna Boy mobilises a pan-African orchestra to create revolutionary anthems.

Supremely self-confident, the Nigerian singer firmly believes he is better than any of his rivals. 

But he is also a paradox: his shy and humble private demeanour contrasts starkly with his flamboyant and brash stage alter ego. He is also deeply religious, wearing a cross earring amid a body full of tattoos, rings and jewellery, all in the image of a foul-mouthed gangsta rapper.

Meteoric rise

Burna Boy was born in Nigeria’s fifth-largest city of Port Harcourt in the oil-producing Niger Delta. His father, Samuel, managed a welding company while his multilingual academic mother, Bosede, was a translator, before becoming his manager. 

Damini had a solidly middle-class background, attending Corona Secondary School in Ogun State, before studying media technology at Sussex University and media communications and culture at Oxford Brookes University, both in England. 

He is an Afropolitan citizen of the world fighting the cause of marginalised, voiceless youth.

His grandfather, Benson Idonnije, was the first manager of Nigeria’s most famous musician: Afrobeat superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. 

Burna Boy’s great idols growing up were Fela and the Jamaicans Bob Marley and Buju Banton. 

Deeply influenced by Fela — singing in English, Yoruba, Igbo and the pidgin of the masses — he has remained true to his culture. 

Like Fela, Burna Boy has also been a consistent social critic who has  condemned Africa’s political class for not taking its youth seriously, and for failing to create an enabling environment to fulfil their huge potential.

Ogulu’s 2013 L.i.f.e (Leaving an Impact for Eternity) album was a homage to the music of Fela, Sunny Ade and Marley. His meteoric rise led to a record deal with Atlantic Records in 2017. His third album, Outside, was released a year later to critical acclaim from a growing legion of youthful fans. 

Burna Boy’s popularity was confirmed as he played to a sold-out O2 Academy in London’s Brixton district, where he had spent part of his childhood among Caribbean and African youth. 

His success was further recognised when he won the 2019 Black Entertainment Television Awards, and recorded the only solo single on Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift. Burna Boy’s My Money, My Baby also appeared on the star-studded soundtrack of the 2019 romantic road-crime drama Queen and Slim.

Pan-African Gulliver: African Giant, Twice as Tall

Burna Boy’s guiding philosophy is pan-Africanism. He believes in rebuilding bridges with the African diaspora, viewing Africa as the mother continent and birthplace of humankind. 

He is “building a bridge that leads every black person in the world to come together”. As he argued, “the world started from Africa. So music must have started from Africa.” 

Burna Boy has called quixotically for all African countries to unite with a single passport and argued that history must be taught from the perspective of coloniser and colonised. 

Playing on Nigeria’s nickname as “the giant of Africa” and his childhood obsession with superheroes, he often uses the image of Gulliver to depict the huge potential of the continent and its diaspora.

Burna Boy released African Giant in 2019 as a homage to this pan-African spirit. 

It won the Album of the Year at the 2019 All Africa Music Awards and was accompanied by the hugely successful African Giant global tour which sold out Wembley Arena. 

Songs like Another Story condemn the negative impact of the Royal Niger Company in imposing colonial rule on Nigeria; Collateral Damage criticises the cowardice of Nigerians in not confronting their oppressors; while Wetin Man Go Do laments the suffering of the masses.

In 2020, Twice as Tall was released, with Burna Boy setting out explicitly to win a Grammy, lamenting his loss the previous year in Level Up. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard World Albums charts and involved collaboration with global artists such as Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Youssou N’Dour. Twice as Tall was mostly recorded during the Covid-19 lockdown, and Burna Boy’s artistic versatility is on full display.

In an era of Black Lives Matter, the Nigerian Afrobeats star has explicitly linked the struggles against police and securocrat brutality on unarmed blacks in America and Nigeria.

The world at his feet

Burna Boy’s success has attracted many accolades. Aniefiok Ekpoudom noted that he “has elegance, grace and charisma, a magnetic aura that follows him like a shadow”; Combs observed that, “he’s not just on a musical artist trip. He’s a revolutionary. His conviction is serious”; while Jon Pareles raved in the New York Times: “Burna Boy’s Afro-fusion is omnivorous and supremely catchy.”

With this Grammy win, built on his hard work, ambition and hunger to succeed, the Nigerian superstar has leapt above the rest of the competition and established himself as the leading troubadour of Afrobeats. 

The world is now firmly at his feet.

Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. This is an extract from his just-published book of essays, Global Africa: Profiles in Courage, Creativity and Cruelty (Jacana Media).