By Nehru Odeh
It appears he saw it coming, even when naysayers doubted him. And right from the outset he exuded a kind of confidence associated with geniuses. He carved his own path and named it Afrofusion, different from Afrobeats, a music genre other artistes on the Nigerian music scene identify with.
Of course he never doubted his rare musical gifts. His debut album, L.I.F.E, an acronym for Leaving an Impact For Eternity speaks volumes about the intentionality of his art and the extent he hopes to take it to. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Welcome to Burna Boy, songwriter, singer, and rapper who has not only made his impact felt but has also proved that he is the African giant and twice as tall, as, coincidentally, the title of his Grammy Awards- winning album signifies.
Certainly, he has just won the 2021 Grammys in the Best Global Music Album category, achieving this feat with his album, Twice as Tall. He beat four other contestants: Antibalas (FU Chronicles), Bebel Gilberto (Agora), Anoushka Shankar (Love Letters), and Tinariwen (Amadjar) in this highly contested category.
Reacting to the award, Burna Boy said his win is for his generation across Africa and advised Africans never to give up on their dreams. “Africa is in the house, this is a big win for my generations of Africa. This should be a big lesson to all Africans out there. No matter where you are or what you do never give up you can achieve it.” he said.
However, the remarkable thing about this great feat is that it was the second time he was nominated for the award. He lost out last year to legendary Beninese singer, Angelique Kidjo, who herself attested to his musical genius and dedicated her win to him.
“Burna Boy is among those young artists that come from Africa that is changing the way our continent is perceived and the way that African music is the bedrock of all music,” she said, after winning the award.
Still, is anyone surprised that this artiste, whose grandfather, Benson Idonije, broadcaster and music critic, was at a time Fela Anilulapo Kuti’s band manager won the highly-coveted award?
One cannot rule out Idonije’s influence on the path Burna Boy’s music career took. As a music critic and journalist, Idonije has been unequivocal about the need for Nigerian artiste to be original and infuse African rhythm, beats and culture into their music. That he believes is the only way they can make huge impact on the international scene. And the fact that Burna Boy is managed by his mother, Bose Ogulu, who is Idonije’s daughter, makes all the difference.
The Grammys nomination described Twice As Tall as “a master class in the vibe and hustle that have made Burna Boy an international musical force”.
“[He] continues to torch limitations, seamlessly blending styles and genres and fearlessly fuelling the fire heating the melting pot of pop, Afrobeat, dancehall, reggae and more,” it said.
One thing that worked in Burna Boy’s favour is that right from the beginning he was intentional about his art and the international level he wanted to take it to. A pan-Africanist, he believes he is an African artiste first before being Nigerian. He is also of the view that he is a citizen of the world No wonder he featured international artists such as Stormzy, Youssou Ndour, Naughty By Nature, and Chris Martin of Coldplay, and had Sean Combs as executive producer.
“I want my children to have an African passport, not a Nigerian passport,” he once said in an interview. “I do not identify with any tribe. I do not identify with any country. I do not identify with anything, really. I identify with the world in the universe — I believe I am a citizen of the world, and I have a responsibility to the world. But at the same time in the world, it’s my people who are really getting the short end of the stick. It’s just doing what I have to do when I have to do it.
“So music must have started from Africa. And I feel like when everything starts kind of going left, like what is going on right now, everybody runs home.”
While working on Twice as Tall, Burna Boy made sure he recruited American executive producer, Sean Combs, better known as Diddy, to give it an international feel. It seems as though while producing the album, he had the Grammys in mind. Combs has in the past helped rappers and singers (most famously the Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige) to have wider audiences. “I’m on record that I like hit records. If they’re not hit records, I don’t like them,” Combs once was quoted as saying via FaceTime from Los Angeles.
“A lot of times when an artist wants to be coached or pushed to maybe a greater level, that’s where I’ve come in,” he said. “He, as every artist, he wants his music to be heard by the world. He doesn’t care about crossing over. You know, he’s not trying to get hot. He’s not, like, ‘I want to be a big pop star’ — he’s already a star. He wants his music to be heard, his message, his people.”
Though Combs made his presence felt in the production of the album, Burna Boy made sure 80 per cent of the work is unmistakably his. He had done major part of the work before he brought in the American rapper, singer and producer. Combs himself attested to the fact that Twice as Tall is “a modern but pure, unapologetic African body of work.”
“The thing that I learned about him is the importance of what he’s doing for his nation and representing the people that aren’t really heard globally,” Combs said. “Through this album, I think it’s important for Africa to be heard. And so it’s bigger than just an album. He’s not just on a musical artist trip. He’s a revolutionary. His conviction is serious.”
Writing in the New York Times, Jon Pareles said: “For the most part, Burna Boy hasn’t diluted his African heritage to reach his global audience. Instead, he has placed an unmistakably African stamp on music drawn from all around Africa and from across the African diaspora. He has a calm, husky, resolute voice that exemplifies the West African cultural virtue of coolness: poise and control transcending any commotion.
“His melodic sense is rooted in pentatonic African modes but unconstrained by them, and he has a stable of producers who deliver some of the most innovative rhythm tracks in 21st-century pop — usually working alongside Burna Boy in his studio, he said. He sings, most often, in a pidgin of English and Yoruba, confident that his meaning will get through even if listeners don’t recognize all the words.”
Another thing that makes Burna Boy’s music stand out is though he draws heavily from Fela, which is also where his grandfather’s influence comes in, he is not restricted to him. His music is eclectic. In Twice as Tall, you hear, as Jon Pareles maintained, “ echoes of Nigeria, South Africa, Jamaica and the United States, and there are guest appearances from Naughty by Nature, the Kenyan band Sauti Sol and Senegal’s musical titan, Youssou N’Dour. The momentum is crisp and nonstop as the songs draw on — among many other things — Zulu choir singing, electronic dance music, alt-R&B and the patterns of West African marimbas and Zimbabwean thumb pianos.”
Burna Boy sees his art as a self-appointed mission to set things right. One can also see Fela’s revolutionary influence, his pan Africanism on his music. Little wonder he samples Fela’s music and make it sound not necessarily Fela’s but his own. He once said he’s “basically continuing the mission I started, which is building a bridge that leads every Black person in the world to come together, and to make you understand that without you having a home base, you can’t be as strong as you are.”
And indeed that home base is a major strength that Burna Boy has, which he has not only exported to the rest of the world but also made it acceptable and unique. That of course, as he said, is the reason he is as strong as he is and has just won the Grammys.