By Kevin EG Perry
His new album features Coldplay’s Chris Martin singing about colonialism, and the African Giant has much to say about the UK Afrobeats chart. Just don’t ask him about Beyoncé
Burna Boy was not a well-behaved student. Back then – before the Brit and Grammy nominations, the sold-out arena shows all around the world and the 600million streams of his irresistible music – he was Damini Ogulu, a recalcitrant schoolboy in southern Nigeria, skipping classes and getting into trouble. Looking back now, sat by the pool outside his luxurious home in Lagos, it’s clear to the 29-year-old where the roots of his childhood frustration lay.
“The schools in Nigeria would rather teach you another man’s history than your own,” he says. “We were angry, and that was the foundation for our rebellion. Our subconscious, our inner man, was telling us: ‘Bro, you’re being brainwashed’.”
He grows animated as he explains their curriculum was still littered with absurdities left over from the days of the British Empire. Take for example the 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who Burna was told in school “discovered the river Niger”.
“That’s one of the fucking scams we’re taught!” he splutters. “This is a river that has been drank from and bathed in, and children have been given birth to in, for thousands and thousands of years. Now suddenly a man called Mungo Park comes from fucking England or some shit and ‘discovers’ the Niger? How do you discover something that people have their history in? Then you go and teach these people’s children that in schools! That’s something to fight against. That’s something that needs to be fucking blown up into fucking space.”
On his forthcoming fifth studio album, ‘Twice As Tall’, Burna pulls off the musical equivalent of blowing it all into fucking space. He describes the record as “a continuation” of last year’s ‘African Giant’, the acclaimed album which perfected his alchemical blend of Afrobeats, dancehall and hip-hop, and established him as one of the globe’s biggest stars.
‘African Giant’ featured guest spots from the likes of Damian Marley, Jorja Smith and Future, and picked up a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album. Although Burna wound up losing out to the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, she used her speech to dedicate the award to him, saying: “Burna Boy is among those young artists that come from Africa that is changing the way our continent is perceived.”
For ‘Twice As Tall’, Burna brought in Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs as executive producer, and Combs in turn facilitated collaborations with the likes of Timbaland and Anderson .Paak. None of that has in any way diluted Burna’s music, or his message. Breathtaking stand-out track ‘Monsters You Made’ reverberates with eloquent fury against systems of oppression. Although it was written in January, the song feels powerfully resonant with this summer’s reckoning with the racist legacies of historical figures and institutions.
“[Authorities] go after the underdog who is just trying to get by”
In the first verse, Burna outlines who is really to blame for social unrest – and he’s so on the money it’s worth quoting at length: “It’s like the heads of the state / Ain’t comprehending the hate / That the oppressed generate / When they been working like slaves / To get a minimum wage / You turn around and you blame / Them for their anger and rage / Put them in shackles and chains / Because of what they became / We are the monsters you made.” In the second verse, he takes the opportunity to settle some old scores. “Fuck the classes in school,” he raps. “Fuck Mungo Park, the fool.”
To Burna, none of this feels particularly prescient. “It’s just the truth, man,” he says. “There are so many situations where a fight needs to be had. A revolution is needed, and I want to inspire it. I’m painting a picture of what we already see every day, but maybe no one has painted the picture in an honest form before. I tried to do that with ‘Monsters’.”
There was only one man Burna ever considered to sing the hook for ‘Monsters You Made’: Coldplay’s Chris Martin. “I had the two verses and an empty space for the hook, but in my mind I was like: ‘Bro, if I don’t get Coldplay on this one then I’m just gonna release it with no hook’,” he remembers with a laugh.
When I ask why it had to be Martin, Burna mulls over his answer: “I don’t know the English words to put this in, or the politically correct words to use for this, but he’s one of the only people that could bring that balance and still relate.” Is it, I suggest, something to do with contrasting the verses’ stinging critique of white Western imperialism with a hook sung by one of the biggest stars in mainstream white Western pop? “That’s the balance,” he agrees. “He’s the only one that could have pulled that off.”
The song ends with a sample from a 1987 interview with the Ghanaian poet Ama Ata Aidoo. “Since we met you people 500 years ago, look at us,” we hear her say to a white interviewer. “We’ve given everything. You are still taking. In exchange for that, we have got nothing. Nothing. And you know it.”
The interviewer interrupts her: “Don’t you think it’s over now?”
Aidoo’s reply is scathing. “Over?” she baulks. “Over where?”
Says Burna today: “We’re still in the same position. We’re still on the losing side to this day. We’re still giving, and to this day we have nothing in return. It’s a truth that needs to be told. Everyone wants to come and sugarcoat it and try to be politically correct. Me, I’m not doing that no more. For me, I know what the truth is – and the truth can never be politically correct.”
That’s not to imply that ‘Twice As Tall’ is a dark and stormy political record – quite the opposite. On the album, Burna swerves from introspective songs about lost friendship (‘No Fit Vex’) to the guaranteed-to-make-you-miss-dancefloors banger ‘Way Too Big’, which Burna grinningly describes as “just an outright flex”. The latter has to be a safe bet to land up on the recently launched Official UK Afrobeats Chart. The chart has been welcomed in some quarters as a progressive move but has also received criticism for conflating a variety of different genres and sounds, as NME’s Nicolas-Tyrell Scott recently explained.
Burna shares some of those concerns. “On the positive side, yes, it’s a good step,” he says. “There’s a genre from Africa that is now accepted worldwide to the point where it can have its own chart in mainstream United Kingdom. At the same time, it’s something that has to be done carefully. You can’t start an Afrobeats chart and not come to Nigeria!”
“Afrobeat was done by one person and one person only: Fela Kuti”
When the inaugural chart was released, some fans on social media noted that the chart’s broad definition of Afrobeats meant that artists such as Fuse ODG and Tekno appeared lower than they otherwise would have done. Burna says he worries that because the charts are based in the UK, they’ll downplay the work of true Afrobeats artists.
“My only thing is, whoever is doing the Afrobeats chart in the UK should not even be in the UK,” he says. “If you’re doing a grime chart, then you can be in the UK, but it’s not fair for the people who have really based their lives on this, who have really grown up on this. This is their culture. It’s a lot bigger than what the charts are presenting it as, but at the same time I’m still happy about it, I’m still thankful, because it’s a step in the right direction.”
On the thorny question of what exactly constitutes ‘Afrobeats’, there is one point Burna is absolutely adamant on: “I keep on letting everybody know that Afrobeat was done by one person and one person only, which is Fela Kuti,” he says. “The rest of what we hear today is Afropop, Afro-hip-hop, Afro-whatever – you know, Afro-fusion. They decided to use the word ‘Afrobeats’ to put it all under one umbrella, which is cool, but you have to make sure it gets to the people who really do this. Right now it’s coming across as some watered down thing that feels like a consolation prize. I don’t really believe in consolations. I believe in wins and losses.”
It’s no surprise to hear Burna reserving the highest praise for Fela Kuti – their connection runs deep. Burna’s maternal grandfather, Benson Idonije, is a well-known radio host in Nigeria who was also Fela’s first band manager. Burna’s mother, Bose Ogulu, followed her dad into the family business and now manages her son’s career. ‘Mama Burna’ is much loved by Burna’s fans. Last year, while collecting a BET Award on his behalf, she signed off with the show-stopping line: “And the message from Burna, I believe, would be that every person should please remember that you were Africans before you were anything else. Thank you.”
Burna is close to both his parents, and says he hides nothing from them. Indeed, he sparked a minor furore in Nigeria last year when he was photographed smoking a joint in front of his dad. The incident didn’t trouble the family. “Hypocrisy accuses in others what it excuses in us,” proclaims Burna. “I come from a very hypocritical society. Everybody knows who the bad people are. Everybody knows the reasons why we suffer, but they’d rather go after the underdog who is just trying to get by. I’m so blessed to have been born into a family who have always frowned upon hypocrisy. Always, from the day I was born, I’ve never been the type of person to hide from anybody that is not police.”
As a young man, Burna came to England to study media at the University of Sussex and then Oxford Brookes, so it’s little wonder he describes the UK as “literally my second home”. The feeling is very much mutual – last November, Burna became the first African artist to sell out Wembley Arena and this year he was nominated in the International Male Solo Artist category at the Brit Awards. He argues that his music’s popularity here, and his multiple collaborations with UK artists such as Stormzy, Dave and Jorja Smith, are in part down to the strength of the country’s African diaspora.
“Hypocrisy accuses in others what it excuses in us”
“Unlike many Western countries, the UK has Africans,” he argues. “If you go to America and see a Black man and ask him where he’s from, he’ll tell you he’s from Michigan or whatever. When you land in Heathrow, and you ask any Black man you see where you’re from, you’re gonna get an answer like Nigeria or Senegal or Ghana. The UK has very strong roots here in Africa. It’s almost like the tree that you see in the UK now was planted in Africa. That’s why it’s so strong. It’s so solid it’s unbreakable.”
His most recent collaboration with a British artist saw him team up with Sam Smith on dreamy slow jam ‘My Oasis’. It’s poppier territory than Burna usually appears in, but he dismisses any suggestion that this means he’s finally actively seeking mainstream global appeal. “Nah man, I just love Sam Smith!” he shoots back. “I’ve always fucked with Sam Smith. Whenever anyone asked me in interviews who I wanted to work with I definitely mentioned Sam Smith’s name. I’ve always loved [their] music. [Their] melodies appeal to me. It was a no-brainer.”
One collaboration Burna is less happy to talk about is his work with Beyoncé. His track ‘Ja Ara E’, originally written for Bey’s 2019 Lion King soundtrack ‘The Gift’, features in her new visual album ‘Black Is King’. The film was widely praised for its imagery – NME reviewer Jenessa Williams called the project “a feast of aesthetic excellence” – though some critics have questioned whether ‘Black Is King’ leans too heavily on stereotypical images of tribal village huts, rather than showcasing contemporary urban Africa. Burna himself doesn’t appear in the film, so during ‘Ja Ara E’ Beyoncé herself lip-syncs to the song while riding around in the back of a neon-lit car.
You might assume Burna would be keen to talk about his music appearing in Beyoncé’s much-fêted release – sure to be one of the year’s biggest – but minutes before our interview I’m told that his management team don’t want any questions about ‘Black Is King’. I imagine this is just because they don’t want it to become the focus of the interview, so as we’re wrapping up I ask Burna for a quick take. The moment that the words “‘Black Is King’” leave my lips, Burna’s publicist interrupts to say that the interview has to end immediately. For his part, Burna stays on the line long enough to tell me he’s appreciated the conversation, but offers not a single word about the visual album.
“The UK is my second home”
The truth is that even Beyoncé in all her pomp would struggle to pull the focus from Burna Boy once ‘Twice As Tall’ drops. He’s often been asked about being a ‘crossover’ success story, his stock response being that he wants the world to ‘cross over’ to him instead. That answer is pure Burna: a serious point undercut with good fun and a sense of humour. No wonder he’s fast becoming one of the biggest pop stars on the planet – and all on his own terms.
This is his moment, so it’s fitting that with ‘Monsters You Made’ he has written the song that captures 2020 perhaps better than any other. Not bad for the boy who wouldn’t behave.
Burna Boy’s ‘Twice As Tall’ is out on August 13