Oluwa Burna! SON. BROTHER. GIANT. STAR.
There’s an opportunity here. Statistically speaking, African music still has a lot of reckoning to do on the international stage. The continent hasn’t produced as many successes as, say, the UK or South Korea, despite being the belle of the ball in the last year. Yet, this moment shouldn’t be the opportunity to prove our worth, but rather, the choice to own it. In a lot of ways, it feels like the presence of BURNA BOY, his success, and his attitude – the latter especially – is the very embodiment of that ownership and agency. He gives off BFE – Big Fela Energy – and as a people, it appears we are finally ready to embrace that energy, in this new form, emphatically. This isn’t about performing to The Man, as much as it is about, finally, waking up to the value of what we have and dancing
in defiance of any attempt to take it, bottle it and sell it off. We are taking charge of our stories and expressions and we are welcoming the world to celebrate with us. Bearing this in mind while putting together this edition, where we explore and celebrate Nigerian pop culture through the OGs and the newbies, placing the spotlight on Burna Boy, the African Giant, feels not only right, but rather satisfying.
By Sonia Irabor
“The passion that he has for music is so great, that once he switches into that creation mode, he can get over anything”.
“You never take photo finish?”, asked a very over-it Burna Boy on a Friday morning when my team and I showed up at his video shoot for the second time in as many days. The hope was, with permission from his team, to steal about 15 minutes of his time in a last-ditch attempt to get images for this edition. The day before, after waiting about three hours, Burna Boy, jet-lagged and wishing to be elsewhere, showed up to the location, a warehouse in Ikeja, and obliged us by posing for a few photos, in-between set-ups. However, due to a few logistical issues, we lost daylight and, more significantly, his enthusiasm. So there we were, the next day, trying to convince this very in-demand, very reluctant, and very tired star, to give us 15 more minutes of his time, before he went off to shoot the rest of his new music video, directed by Clarence Peters. You see, Burna Boy is a very Busy Man. His is a measured, finely re-tuned and steady rise to the top, domestically, and, now, internationally. What this means in this case, is that we had to improvise, choreograph and ensure that we got a cover image within those 15 extra minutes, by any means necessary. The interview, however, was still up in the air.
A writer is never as desperate as when a deadline is approaching. In my case, this desperation lasted about two weeks. I pestered and hounded both his sister, Ronami, and Buki, the head of his PR in Nigeria for answers to interview questions I had sent. (A phone or face-to-face interview, though preferred, had not been possible). I finally got them back, only to realise that I had kept the questions a little vanilla, for fear of falling victim to another, “What kind of stupid question is this?” moment. Let me explain.
There was a short-lived meme that made the rounds in 2016, in which Burna Boy, in response to a question about who the best pop star was out of the three presented, asked, quite calmly, “What kind of stupid question is that?” This fear wasn’t helped by the fact that I had also recently watched his Breakfast Club interview, in which he seemed just a little irate by some of the questions, lack of research and mispronunciations, (Charlamagne tha God in a moment of ignorance, referred to Africa as a country, and in another uninspired moment, pronounced Fela as Feela). However, by the time he got to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, a fellow African who seemed more rooted in an understanding of culture and didn’t require Burna Boy to Africansplain things that felt obvious, he had loosened up. He smiled a lot. He was even funny. I watched this just before I sent the questions and rushed to add one more.
On your international press tour, did you feel a sense of duty to clarify inaccurate or single-minded perceptions of “Africa” and of Nigeria? What message was most important for you to share?
“Definitely! A lot of people who don’t know the truth about Africa only have the images they see on TV or what they hear in the news. We’re all the same. North America isn’t that much different from Africa, and it’s important for people to know that. It all about the reverse crossover for me.”
An ambassador is the point of contact between the two nations, providing representation and appropriate information to ensure that both nations enjoy a fair and balanced relationship. It’s a very intriguing thing to see Burna Boy take on a similar role for the Culture, especially when you consider how bumpy the road became just as he approached this checkpoint.
Between 2015 and 2017, the singer’s reputation had swung from consistent hitmaker, and pretend love interest to many, to a scoundrel. While the age of social media is certainly such that one side of a story – and the iterations that one side produces – is enough to count a person out, rumours and accounts that circulated were enough to put a dent in his career. Despite the fact that he had some successful projects during that time, there was an air of retreat amongst many of his fans.
Through it all, the studio was his respite from the noise. “The passion that he has for music is so great, that once he switches into that creation mode, he can get over anything. His escape is making music and I think that’s a blessing in itself; finding a place to pour whatever emotion you have [out],” DJ Jimmy Jatt, his friend and collaborator, said. Aside from this, another form of therapy occurred, the insertion of his family into key roles in his entourage. “He wasn’t always surrounded by his family on a daily basis. Now things run smoother because the members of his team that are not blood family, are family by choice.” Mama Burna, as many fans call her, added.
For Ms Bose Ogulu, Damini’s mother, Burna Boy’s manager, and occasional stand-in at major events such as the BET Awards, deciding what role she needed to take on to support her son through his most trying moments was a no-brainer. “In low moments being his manager becomes secondary. [I] separate the truth from lies and preserve my child, Damini Ogulu. Honestly, [I] just love him through it.” The ability to see someone with such a growing status as more than just their superhero alter ego is, even in the case of family sometimes, a truly important distinguisher, in how we respond to people in their darkest moments. As for Burna Boy the biggest lesson from that is simple, “I’ve learnt to take the good with the bad. I also don’t stress out about things I can’t control. It’s pointless.”
The significance of family has proven to be one of the gear shifts in Burna Boy’s recent trajectory. Not only is his mother his manager, his sister, Ronami Ogulu presides over much of her brother’s day-to-day, as well as being his stylist. Her impact, notable in his recent fashion choices – she was the eye behind the Kenneth Ize ensemble for Coachella Week 1 – is even more significant in his daily dealings. If Ronami greenlights it, it’s good to go. “Styling him is less than 1/8th of my job description, so it goes far beyond that. He trusts that whatever decision my mum and I make is in his best interest so it works.” Observing Ronami as she navigates styling and managerial demands, you see her influence all over her brother. From the clothes that she selects for him to wear, to his increasingly important press engagements, to making sure that he’s alert and good-to-go while on tour, to making sure that he has the right energy around him during video shoots (and last-minute photoshoots too), Ronami, in more ways that one, is his brand and image consultant amongst other job titles. For Coachella, which marked Burna’s first proper international performance, Ronami had to pull all the stops. “I’m literally working with a couple of hour’s notice and crazy deadlines. I’m extremely passionate about ensuring his entire brand is strong, so deciding on a look for his first outing [Coachella Week One] was nerve-racking, as it’s such a big platform, he truly had to make an unquestionable statement.” Spoiler alert, he did.
It might be a bit of an understatement to say that those nights in the dingy studio in Port Harcourt where he grew up, paid off. And while it may surprise some people to see just how far he’s come, it doesn’t surprise the man one bit: “[I’m not surprised at all] I’ve had clarity about my purpose for a while, so I’m comfortable with the fact that delay isn’t denial. What is for you will be for you.” These aren’t just words either. Seeing him command platforms that have long seemed unattainable for any artist from this continent, and occupying spaces that once felt closed off to us, you begin to understand that when he calls himself the African Giant, he’s not meddling in hyperbole. Sure, he wasn’t able to fly, as he had hoped to, when he was younger, but the sheer willpower and determination to be great, might just count as a superpower in itself. Make no mistake, he’s still working at it, but the once bumpy road, the false starts, and the low moments, have placed him back on track.
When you reach budding superstar status, where you are the only feature on a Grammy-nominated Fall Out Boy album, or the only other artist – aside from Beyonce herself – to get your own solo track on the Lion King soundtrack, which she produced… Or when the likes of Rihanna, demand to listen to Ye on the radio at “black people volume”, or when your music is featured in a hit TV show, or when your album is on everyone’s Best Of list for 2019… Or when that same album debuts on the Billboard charts… It becomes a complicated game, trying to keep both feet planted on the ground. You have the ones who somehow infiltrate your team and stay there, planting themselves as Yes People. You have the people who somehow make a living just by being by your side. You have the ones who somehow derive pleasure from leading you down a seedy path. This isn’t exclusive, watch any music biopic, you’ll notice these archetypes, they’re staples of any level of success but especially prominent in the top tier of the pyramid. For Burna Boy, his family, once again, are the ones that ensure that he stays rooted. As Ronami puts it, “In this industry it’s very easy to be derailed by all the frills and noise that are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. [Family] keeps him grounded”.
Nissi, the youngest sibling, adds, “The entire unit is one that is built on the foundation of family. With family, there’s no pretence, zero bullshit so you constantly see yourself as you truly are. Beyond flashing lights and adoring fans.” But in addition to that, and just as significantly, is Burna’s own dedication to being himself – whether you like it or not. This is where the defiance comes in. In taking ownership of oneself, their past and their present, their best and their worst, a person becomes an immovable force, not easily swayed, not easily broken. Perhaps this speaks to the experiences of his past and the decisions he made to get to where he is. But ultimately, it speaks to his clear ability to just not give a damn. It is true of the man, it is true of his music as well.
Back at the photo shoot, I have brought with me, a random painting from my house and three pieces of leftover asoebi from weddings I did not attend, to create some sort of vibe and backdrop for this very brief shoot. On Day 1, we use the artwork, we click a few times before he has to leave. On Day 2, we arrive early and set up a yellow piece of fabric in the middle of a walkway outside, and we place a stool with no actual cushion to sit on and we wait. Just as we are testing the shot, Burna Boy’s convoy pulls in. He gets out of the car, takes one look at my eager face and says, “You na never take photo finish?” But we keep moving, we don’t have the luxury of time here. We suddenly possess the precision of five people desperate to get at least five usable images, and we pull him out of his shirt and into a white vest top – minimalism is key. With no practice, we choreograph our movement, leading him first to the makeshift studio set-up, then to a blue door where we ask him to just… stretch? And then, in about 10 minutes we’re done. That’s it. We can only hope that we got something, anything. As we head home, leaving the artist, the director, Ronami, the crew and extras, to focus on the main reason for his being there, I wonder about his gruelling schedule, the ever-growing demand for his time and his presence, and what it must mean to someone who doesn’t seem fazed by any of it; for someone who just wants to make the music.
The answer, to me, is an album. African Giant, arguably his most personal body of work yet, earned Burna Boy a spot on the Billboard 200, the first African album to do this “in contemporary times”. African Giant gives us a glimpse into what it might be like to be as high and as at peace as Burna Boy. It feels like you’re sitting in on a jam session; a very streamlined, atmospheric jam session, the one you might tell your children about years from now when they ask you why you’re playing “old music”. But you won’t be offended, you’ll sit them down and tell them the legend of the African Giant, who made music for himself but welcomed you into his space.
“I don’t make music to please anyone. I get in the studio and I deliver the message that comes to me. It’s a spiritual thing. People that get it, get it. People that don’t, don’t. I guess. For the most part I hope they do but if not it’s all good. I’ve done my part.”
We are experiencing a rebirth of Burna Boy, and in many ways, the skill of reinvention is the true mark of any good superhero – or African Giant; that ability to keep the wheel turning and still stay fresh and up-to-date without ever truly compromising your core sound. It comes from focusing solely on the quest, which in Burna Boy’s case is to create the best music he can, every time. To hear him tell it, the evolution that African Giant showcases, is one tiny little thing: “Truth. I speak my truth.”