Earlier this year, Nigeria’s Afro-fusion music export to the world, Burna Boy knocked out the Californian desert-bound Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival organisers with a sharp criticism on the social media of the small font used in writing his name on the promotional flier that paraded the headliners of one of the world’s fastest-selling music festival. He argued in an Instagram post that he is an “African Giant” and that he represents a whole generation of creatives from Africa going global.
Born Damini Ogulu, Burna Boy’s global popularity did not begin with the Coachella platform as some western critics assert. In 2013, Burna Boy’s debut studio album, L.I.F.E hit the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart, peaking at number 7. Burna started his musical journey rock-solid with dance-hall and reggae influences perhaps before his music pedigree kicked in for good.
After an exclusive chat with his grand-father and Nigeria’s most prolific music critic, Benson Idonije in his FESTAC home three years ago just a few months before his 80th birthday, it became clear that Burna’s musicianship is from a place of true artistry.
“You can see that his music is quite different from the popular ones,” Idonije who is Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s first manager, said with a well-gauged sense of pride after the interview. At that moment, it became a self-assigned task to listen deeper to Burna’s music. For every music critic, qualities such as lyrical composition, stage persona, recording quality, vocal performance and instrumentation are the benchmarks usually explored in judging a musician’s effort. Off-handedly, Burna could have scored 60 percent on this writer’s scoreboard before his afro-fusion hits like, “Heaven’s Gate”, “Sekkle Down” from his third studio album, “Outside” commanded a rapt attention that was sustained in the following EP that featured “Gbona”, “On the Low,” and “Dangote”.
The latter songs are part of the songs that make up his latest 16-track studio album, African Giant, which has received rave reviews nationally and internationally. Even though it was difficult initially to agree to the older music critic’s view of Burna, it was wise to take him seriously when he observed that Burna is unlike his peers, he grounds his music in steep experimentation. Idonije’s biting criticism of Burna’s former grooming paid off as the 28-year old musician now looks the part of the ‘African Giant’ by appearing as an African cultural ambassador during his performances sporting batik, tie and dye, ankara-print inspired crisp shirts and pants, amongst others.
Burna’s recent appearance on the famous American talk show, Jimmy Kimmel Live! brings a zoom lens on his African Giant album, his influences, message and sound. A UK music critic argued that his music is muted, though created with nice vocals; adding that he is only an African Giant with a dim hope on western cross-over. This view was somehow corroborated by another critic who says Burna Boy’s cross- over is complete but that the overall message is the album lacks coherence.
Burna Boy’s idea of Afrobeats or afro-centric music may not be towards political consciousness but his message of existentialism is clear in “Dangote” and “Ye” where he sampled Fela’s “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” and sang the direct opposite of Fela’s anguished lyrics by singing “I wan buy house, I wan buy motor..” referencing luxury cars that his heart desires.
Burna stays true to the feel-good music, with predominantly mid-tempo tunes that contrast the hot socio-economic climate in his home country. Afrobeats musicians are not interested in propagating militant songs. They want their audience to see their music as an escapism from the numerous crises that rock their world.
Can language be a barrier to understanding Burna’s music? Not really, after all Africans relished Enrique Iglesias “Bailamos”, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito”, Los Del Rio’s “Macarena”, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s No Me Ames, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and other non-English hit songs in history without complaint. Any western critic who has challenges with Burna Boy’s use of indigenous language should feel free to come to Nigeria for tutorials.
Sentiments aside, Burna Boy needs a Quincy Jones-like producer to arrange the songs in his future albums. With more attention to lyricism and ideology, Burna can engrave his name in classic music books. After all, it took six albums before Michael Jackson made his Thriller now certified 33 times platinum, changing pop music history forever. He faced the “disco backlash” in the 80s and survived it. Burna Boy’s western conquest in music is just starting. Critical reviews are a necessary part of an artist’s development but a myopic and astigmatic view of a likely music colossus can be a career suicide.