BURNA BOY: Grammys and the Audacity of Hope


The Recording Academy’s long anticipated nod for a Nigerian artist in the Global Music Album Category at the 2021 Grammys is not just a victory for Burna Boy but a hope for a generation of contemporary music artists from Africa, writes Yinka Olatunbosun.

Burna Boy’s celebrated win in the Global Music Album category was not a surprise to many who had followed his ever-evolving music from the time he broke into the mainstream popularity with hits like “Like to Party”, “Yawa Dey” and “Run My Race.” In fact, his die-hard fans thought he was due for the Grammys since last year and so the win was an anti-climax of sorts. But last year, he had a stronger contender in Angelique Kidjo, the Beninese singer and a fire-brand performer whose Celia album seem to be better arranged than Burna’s African Giant.

Now, Burna Boy has joined the ranks of past winners like Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Manbazo, Soweto Gospel Choir, Ry Cooder and Ravi Shankar, thus living the dream of many other hard-working artists from Africa such as Tubaba, Sauti Sol, Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage and more. Burna Boy is not the richest artist from Nigeria but he is arguably the most-sought after because his name is synonymous with sold-out concerts, massive streams and immersive stage experience.

In spite of his popularity, there are people who claim not to be familiar with his songs. Blame it on his code-switching of English, Pidgin-English, Yoruba, Patois and street slangs. His lyrics are considered muffled but if you can endure the rap trio named Migos, then you can enjoy Burna Boy. His instrumentation is everything: transporting the listener through time, culture and shades of emotion. He started with Dancehall, R&B and then designated his music as Afrofusion, to avoid the label of “Afrobeats.” He wouldn’t call his win a victory for Afrobeats, as the forerunners before him in that category gave him the raw materials out of which he created and refined his music.

Repeatedly in his career, he had cited Fela as a major influence. And Fela’s first manager in Nigeria was his grandfather and a most revered music critic, Benson Idonije. The octogenarian had influence Burna’s music direction with the benefit of hindsight drawn from experience in broadcasting, artist and band management, musicianship and wisdom. Whilst debates are rife over the superiority of Afrobeat over Afrobeats or the non-acceptance of the latter by the custodians of Fela’s music heritage, Burna Boy will certainly not call this Grammy a win for Afrobeats. His acceptance speech said it all.

“This is a big win for my generation of Africans all over the world,” Burna Boy said during his acceptance speech. “This should be a lesson to every African out there, no matter where you are, no matter what you plan to do, you can achieve it… because you are a king.”

His acceptance speech echoed the same sentiment in the Queen of Pop, Beyonce’s at the ceremony. Whenever an African or a person of colour gets an opportunity to hit the global limelight, it is a unique platform to preach unity, celebrate the race and black identity. And Burna nailed it with the speech. His generation started rebuilding music industry when international recording companies like Decca West Africa, fled Nigeria due to political instability and its economic concerns.

Of course, Burna Boy was not the first Nigerian to win at the Grammys. Several Nigerians in diaspora had won including Lekan Babalola (percussionist) and Sikiru Adepoju (percussionist). There are American and British artists of Nigerian parentage who had also won the Grammys. The rapper, Chamilionaire, Sade Adu, Seal, Kevin Olusola of the Pentatonix fame all belong to this category.

The choice of National Theatre as the venue for his Grammy performance is a reverberating statement for the arts in general. Not even the aesthetic touch of the video editor could mask the state of deterioration that the great cultural symbol is in. The performance is an unintended reminder that the building is for artists and they should never be the least informed of whatever renovation or concession plans are in view. Burna wrapped the performance with his street anthem, “Ye” which was accompanied by rapturous instrumentation.

Today, Burna Boy represents young artists who are pushing the envelop for their music to be heard across the world. Even on stage, he is like a teacher, who can’t stand an unresponsive member of audience. Once, he had refunded someone for wearing a morose face during one of his concerts in Nigeria. Burna understands that his music is feel-good music at shows and because he is sensitive to the mood of the audience, he notices it when his music fails to move them. It was no coincidence that Wizkid was also named a co-winner with Beyonce in the Best Music Video category that same night. Nigerian music artists had been parading the corridors of global recognition in the past few years. That commercial appeal that contemporary music artists from Nigeria and indeed Africa possess is a magnetic pull to recording companies who are returning to the Nigerian shore to put some structure into the organically developed music industry aided by technology.
For Burna Boy to remain on top of his game, his next album has to be twice as nice, with strong themes. Undoubtedly, Twice As Tall was a very coherent album; it features great acts like Youssou N’Doir, Stormzy, Naughty by Nature, Chris Martin with Diddy and Timbaland as Executive Producers.