“When you start, dem go yinmu, then dem go start to dey love you.” – Burna Boy, “Spiritual”, African Giant (2019)
When discussing the music and person of the Grammy award-winning Nigerian superstar, Burna Boy, the initial step is to settle upon which version one is interested in exploring. For the purposes of this article, we shall delve into two iterations – disparate, yet linked eternally by the self-proclaimed Don Gorgon’s relentless work ethic and automatic inclusion in any conversation about contemporary music of African origin over the past decade.
A serial collaborator, he’s concocted great juju juice with the top-a-top of pop and hip hop royalty in his home country: From the legends – D’banj, Tuface, M.I. Abaga, Olamide; to contemporaries – Davido, Phyno, Wizkid; to the youngins, like the singer/songwriter, BNXN (formerly known as Buju), and the street rapper-turned-aspiring mogul, Zlatan.
His choice of producers has also been a cut above many. At home, it’s been the likes Leriq, who gave him his earliest hit in 2012’s “Tonight”; Kel P, whose sonic palette advances from Gospel to Afrobeats without him batting an eyelash. Abroad, the UK trailblazers Jae5 and Juls have devised miracles on boards, and the American production duo, DJDS, have unleashed the beasting traplord in Burna, forcing impossible-to-ignore flow patterns out of him in the process.
But success at the level he sought, and knew was due to him, wasn’t forthcoming for a hot minute. In fact, the path took multiple turns before that moment in 2020 at the Grammys when he came mighty close to the crown. Alas, African Giant (2019) wasn’t the album to do that for him, despite a series of bold steps to secure victory, including signing with Atlantic Records, a famed appearance at Coachella, and features – sub-par, at best – with American rappers YG and Future.
He continued to tour relentlessly throughout Europe and America. When the time to deliver album number five came, it brought with it collaborations with Chris Martin of Coldplay, and with his childhood heroes, Naughty By Nature. From Kenya, he found Sauti Sol; from Senegal, Youssou N’dour. And from the UK, he found Stormzy.
The strategy worked, and Twice As Tall (2020) gave Burna his first Grammy award.
The awards ceremony for the 2021 Grammys happened under a different set of global circumstances. The on-set of the COVID19 pandemic in 2020 had exposed the underbelly of global inequality, fuelled for a long time by corporate greed and neo-Colonialism policies, and the attendant lockdowns in the global North and South had afforded citizens in their respective states the time to think about their lives. When regular reports of police brute force exacted upon citizens led to the #EndSARS protests which culminated in Muhammadu Buhari’s deadly, state-sanctioned attacks on marchers at Lekki Toll Gate on October 20th, 2020, Burna Boy was among the celebrated public figures who heeded calls from the masses to bring international awareness to the issues at hand. He reacted by erecting pro-protest billboards in Lagos, and became one of the go-to voices when mainstream media needed someone to ‘speak on behalf of the people.’
During a private function, a Time magazine journalist asked him what role he hoped to play in the [#EndSARS] revolution. Burna Boy took a gulp from the dark-coloured liquid in his glass and, with glass remaining half-raised, responded: “I’m just a singer.”
He continued: “I’m not here to play any role. But if the Most High decides that I must, then so be it.”
Burna Boy’s reaction towards #EndSARS meant that his Grammy nomination was now the product of public spectacle. Nigerians North and South of the divide, as well as those living in the diaspora, made it their duty to rally behind his victory. Suddenly, the opinion of a man who has spoken out about how his own country ignored him until he started making moves internationally mattered.
“I got some problem, problem, problem/ could somebody show me a way that I could solve ’em/ they’re calling police, they’re saying that I robbed em/ they’re calling for backup, bringing their whole squad in/[…]/ my father complaining, and my mama bawlin’/ ‘coz her son’s a problem, problem, problem” – “Freedom Freestyle” – Best of Burn Series Vol. 1 (2012)
There are reasons for Burna Boy’s ubiquity which make it hard to pin-point who he is, or where his head is at, at any given moment.
Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu (31) is the Port Harcourt-born, DMX-and-Shabba Ranks-loving grandchild of journalist and music critic Benson Idonije, who for a time managed Fela Kuti’s affairs; a rudeboi renegade whose run-ins with the law while at university in the United Kingdom led to a five-year ban from the country; a proto-traditionalist with an affinity for Yoruba mythology and Fuji music; and a dancehall king with splendiferous dance moves and an Afrobeats star’s level of public admiration, inspiring fascination and ridicule in equal parts by the Nigerian mainstream media.
“I’m not a rapper, or a singer, I’m not even an Afrobeats singer, I’m an Afro-Fusionist, it’s a spiritual genre of music, it just comes. You get chosen and it just works out for you,” he told a reporter during his press run for Outside (2018).
Burna’s also not one to shy away from conflict. His Twitter profile has witness many a bloody back-and-forths with whomever brings offensive bullshit his way. This can be producers like Orbeat, who gave him the surreal mid-tempo cut, “Soke” (he referred to him as a crackhead and a liar when they fell out); or rappers like AKA, with whom he got into a heated exchange on Twitter amidst the spate of xenophobic violence in 2019 which led to some Nigerians boarding a one-way chartered flight back to their country.
He tweeted “it’s Fuck @akaworldwide from now on. And if you down with him, it’s Fuck you too. I respect you too much, please Don’t throw my respect out the window cuz I swear you will fly out with it,” [sic] following the rapper’s earlier comments about the Super Eagles’ indomitable presence on the African football stage.
In retrospect – and even in that moment – Burna’s anger was misdirected; else, the reaction was part of something that happened earlier, a story we’ll probably never know in full.
“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,” he wrote on his Twitter.
[UPDATE: Burna Boy did perform in South Africa, at the DSTv Delicious International Food & Music Festival, in September 2022]
“He has started on a very good note. His music in unique […] The good thing about his music is that [it] has leanings with jazz and other roots […] He has something good.” – His grandfather speaking on “Intro: My Life” on L.I.F.E
In 2014, Burna Boy was a known name in Southern African circles, especially among people whose taste is mostly flavoured by artists from around the African continent. His Tweezy-produced collaboration on AKA’s sophomore album, Levels, brought him to greater public awareness.
“All Eyez On Me” had Burna doing his best Shabba Ranks toast on the song’s intro; it had the slowed down sample (Jonanda’s “Got A Love For You“); and it boasted guest verses from Da L.E.S and J.R. The hit song is permanently etched the moment in time, and it arguably propelled both artist’s careers upward. The next year, an unannounced Burna Boy ascended the stage at Maftown Heights, a festival part-curated by the rapper Khuli Chana, and had all of the 15, 000-plus people in attendance hanging onto every word during his brief appearance.
These early years were Burna Boy finding himself, trying on different hats to see which one fit best. In roots reggae and dancehall terms, one can think of it as Buju Banton before he released ‘Til Shiloh, or early Capleton years before releasing Prophecy.
The Leriq-produced Redemption (2015) marked a departure from the earlier years. When Outside (2018) dropped, it felt like a reset. The infamous haircut had been replaced by dreadlocks, and his interviews displayed an artist with a singular vision. The album’s central song, “Ye”, was “Soke” on steriods – bigger, better, phatter. He was settling into his now-expected, Fela-esque swagger with ease.
But, who is Burna Boy?
“My mum calls me Burna Boy, it’s the same thing. It’s like I’ve been Burna Boy since before I was Burna Boy, I’ve always been this guy. There wasn’t a time where I was like, yeah, I’m going to be this guy now.”