BURNA BOY: A New Face of African Activism


Despite clinching his second BET award for Best International Act, the afro-fusion artiste, Burna Boy, talks about the frustration in pushing for a united Africa, Vanessa Obioha reports

The instruction was clear. Only five minutes would be allotted for an interview with the self-acclaimed ‘African Giant,’ Burna Boy. Nothing more. An attempt to sway his management team to allow extra time was futile. It is no secret that Burna doesn’t fancy media interviews. He finds it sometimes stressful according to an interview he granted to international publication, GQ.
But in the more-than-five-minute Zoom call, it was a calmer and more yielding Burna that fielded questions. Donning a blue attire with his mother hovering around in a brightly-lit room.

By this time last year, Burna was celebrating his first BET win as the Best International Act. It was a recognition that many of his contemporaries admitted he deserved. It was the year he gathered accolades, performed at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, appeared on the Daily Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live where he performed his hit singles ‘Ye’ and ‘Anybody’. He was among Nigerian artistes who featured in Beyonce’s ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ album. By November, he was announced as one of the nominees in the 2020 Grammy awards. He was nominated in the Best World Music Album. Though he lost that category to Beninese Angelique Kidjo in January when the awards held, he was recognized by the latter as one of the beaming lights in Africa.

The artiste born Damini Ogulu continued his successful streak this year despite the coronavirus pandemic. He was the only Nigerian artiste that performed at the Global Citizen’s ‘One World: Together at Home’ concert. On Sunday night, he took home his second BET award for Best International Act, edging out artistes like South Africa’s Sho Madjozi, UK artiste Stormzy, and Innoss’B from DR Congo.
His ‘African Giant’ was revealed to have accumulated 86 million views on Audiomack. Two days to his historic win, he released a new song ‘Wonderful’, shortly after his feature in ‘Jerusalema’ remix by Nomcebo Zikode.

Before the pandemic struck, he had plans to go on his Twice as Tall Tour, the title of his upcoming album. With most countries still reeling from the damages caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Burna admitted that he longed for those days he was constantly on the road.

“The lockdown has given me so much appreciation towards things that I used to normally do and then almost get tired to do, because I did so much, you know, like touring. I’ll be in different homes, countries, overnight, every night. It kind of gets tiring but then times like this made me appreciate that and want to go back to touring,” he chuckled.

Whether you hate him or love him, one thing that is undeniably true is that Burna is talented. He doesn’t shy away from this fact. It shows in his music even if most of his songs are dipped in activism. He has an uncanny ability to coin titles that reek of greatness. Take, for instance, his last album, ‘African Giant’, and his single hit, ‘Odogwu’. Both titles are assertions that he indeed is the best artiste in Africa.

Some perceive his confidence as arrogance, others are quick to term him controversial. But beyond the labels is a musician who is passionate about Africa, who is keen on making Africa great, who is proud of his African identity and has refused to conform to any rules that go against his beliefs.

Burna lends his voice to happenings on the continent. For instance, during the xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa last year, Burna was among the celebrities who were vocal about that sad incidence. With the recent wave of protests going on in America over the unjust killing of black people like George Floyd, Burna finds himself thinking about the cost of a black man’s life. He grasped for words as he recalled his thoughts watching the video of Floyd’s killing by a white policeman.

“When I saw the video of George Floyd, it was the same thing that ran through my mind when I heard about the killing of Diallo, same thing I heard when I heard about Trayvon Martin, same thing I heard about when I heard about Kolade Johnson killing in Nigeria. You know, it is the same. There is nothing different. So, for me, I’m a person who…I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know how to say this in a nice way. I’m an action person, you understand? When it comes to all this, for me I don’t know what would be the best way to talk about this. It really gets to me,” he said.

The frustration of helplessness is perceived when our conversation shifted to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the revered afrobeat legend. To Burna, Fela was more than a musician. He is his idol. His adoration for the late artiste is further fuelled by his grandfather’s relationship with the deceased. Benson Idonije worked with Fela as the first manager of his band, thus he has exclusive details on the artiste more than Burna could find in the media. On his grandfather’s 84th birthday party, Dede Mabiaku, actor and protégé of Fela brought a letter written by the afrobeat icon on the need to promote African unity and his intent to push the slogan, ‘Africa Must Unite’.
Reading that letter which the ‘Anybody’ crooner shared on Instagram sparked feelings of hopelessness and courage in him.

“For me, the letter gave me so much joy and also so much sadness, because it kind of made me feel a sense of hopelessness in the sense that no matter what I say or do, Africa is not going to unite. That kind of hopelessness to see that he’s even been saying all these, not just in music. He’s written a letter saying all this and everything is still the same way, if not worse. It discourages me from doing any kind of revolutionary work because it’s almost hopeless. But at the end of the day, I still find courage in things like this.”

It is the courage of that letter that fired Burna up to make a profound statement on his BET win on Sunday night that went viral.
Thanking BET for the recognition, the afro-fusion artiste said: “I will like to use this opportunity to say that sometime around 1835, there was admission to turn the nation of Africa into a dominated nation. Now is the time to return and go back to the royalty that we were because, in order for black lives to matter, Africa must matter.”

Whether Burna realizes this or not, he has somehow promoted a slogan like his idol, Fela, to push for Africa’s unity and progress. Perhaps, he is the new face of African activism.