With his supremely catchy Afro-fusion and a new album due Aug. 13, the Nigerian songwriter, singer and rapper makes music as a true global citizen.
By Jon Pareles
- Aug. 5, 2020
Burna Boy — the Nigerian songwriter, singer and rapper who was born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu — once thought he’d be content writing the sleek, self-assured party tunes that first drew fans to his mixtapes in the early 2010s. But as his popularity spread worldwide, the spirits who guide his songwriting had other plans for him. Soon, he was taking up broader, more consequential ideas.
“Music is a spiritual thing,” he said in an interview via video call from his studio in Lagos. Wearing a white Uber jersey and puffing a hand-rolled smoke, with jeweled rings glittering on his fingers, Burna Boy spoke about his fifth album, “Twice as Tall,” which was still getting some finishing touches ahead of its Aug. 13 release date.
“I’ve never picked up a pen and paper and written down a song in my life,” he said. “It all just comes, like someone is standing there and telling me what to say. It’s all according to the spirits. Some of us are put on this earth to do what we do.”www.youtube.com/AMMediaTv
Success has brought him “a very huge responsibility that I didn’t think I would have,” he added. For his new album, he 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.”
Burna Boy, 29, has assembled an international following since he released his 2013 debut album, “L.I.F.E.: Leaving an Impact for Eternity.” He sold out Wembley SSE Arena in London last year, and songs from his 2019 album, “African Giant,” have drawn tens of millions of streams and views.
His fans include Beyoncé, who featured a solo Burna Boy song, the irresistibly insinuating “Ja Ara E,” on her album full of collaborations, “The Lion King: The Gift,” which became the visual album “Black Is King” last month. Sam Smith shares their new single, “My Oasis,” with Burna Boy as singer and co-writer. And when the 2020 Grammy Award for world music went to Angelique Kidjo, a three-time previous winner, over Burna Boy and “African Giant,” she held up the trophy and dedicated it to Burna Boy, praising him as a young African artist who is “changing the way our continent is perceived.”
Burna Boy is a leader amid a bounty of new African pop that has been increasingly welcomed in the West: a confluence of widespread availability via streaming, discovery via word-of-internet rather than former gatekeepers, and the sheer inventiveness taking place outside established music-business strongholds.
But Burna Boy also sees newfound interest in African music as a turn toward refuge. “From what I’ve read and from what I’ve studied and from what I researched, the world started from Africa,” Burna Boy said. “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.”
He calls his music Afro-fusion rather than the catchall label, Afrobeats, that has been attached to recent, electronics-driven Nigerian music from performers like Wizkid, Davido and Mr Eazi, and even more vaguely to other current African pop as international listeners discover it. (The term Afrobeats also invites confusion with Afrobeat, the complex, steadfast, handmade protest funk that Fela Kuti, also from Nigeria, forged in the late 1960s and 1970s.)
Burna Boy’s Afro-fusion is omnivorous and supremely catchy. Its beats are often programmed, but their stops and starts evade expectations. Instruments, sampled or hand-played, bounce against the rhythms or deftly dodge them, while his voice — which can be as staccato as a rapper or as cottony as a crooner — glides easily across and atop everything else.
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For “Twice as Tall,” Burna Boy enlisted an American executive producer: Sean Combs, a.k.a. Diddy, who has long guided rappers and singers (most famously the Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige) toward wider audiences. “I’m on record that I like hit records. If they’re not hit records, I don’t like them,” Combs said 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.”
Most of the album was recorded during the pandemic, and Burna Boy and Combs collaborated across an eight-hour time difference via frequent Zoom calls and file transfers. Combs brought in musical contributions including drums from Anderson .Paak on the foreboding “Alarm Clock” and additional production from Timbaland on “Wetin Dey Sup,” a song punctuated by gunshots and sirens that warns, “They only respect the money and the violence.”
Combs also makes his presence audible with voice-over intros on some songs, briefly upstaging Burna Boy. But he said that the music was about 80 percent complete, including all of the songwriting, before he was brought in to provide “fresh ears” and his sense of detail. The album he added, is “a modern but pure, unapologetic African body of work.”
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.
“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.”
Hip-hop, reggae, R&B and rock were all part of the mix of music Burna Boy grew up on in Port Harcourt, the southern Nigerian city where he was born, and then in London, where he spent some teenage years in Brixton before returning to Nigeria. His lyrics have often mentioned that he kept some rough company. In “Level Up,” the brooding-to-triumphant song that opens “Twice as Tall,” he celebrates his own achievements, but also notes, “Some of my guys might never see the sun/Some of them still peddle drugs.”
On “African Giant,” Burna Boy pointedly addressed Nigeria’s colonial history and lingering corruption alongside more hedonistic songs. And with “Twice as Tall” he sought to make music as, he said, “a citizen of the world.”
In the 15 songs on “Twice as Tall,” Burna Boy takes stock of his accomplishments and his vulnerabilities, and he encourages ambition and perseverance against long odds; he also parties. And he lashes out at racism, exploitation and widespread misconceptions about Africa.
“We’re not what they teach in schools out here,” he said. “They don’t teach the right history, the history of strength and power that we originally had and that they should be teaching now. They don’t really teach the truth about how we ended up in the situation we’re in. They don’t teach the truth about what’s going on now and how to overcome it. And I believe that knowledge is power.”
He wants all the countries and cultures of Africa to unite as one continent. “I want my children to have an African passport, not a Nigerian passport,” he said. “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.”
The songs on “Twice as Tall” hold 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.
On the album’s most vehement song, Burna Boy, with Chris Martin of Coldplay arriving on choruses, turns to stark, echoey roots reggae in “The Monsters You Made,” an indictment of miseducation, historical injustice and systemic racism, delivered in clear English with mounting fury. “When they’ve been working like slaves/To get some minimum wage,” he sings, “You turn around and you blame/Them for their anger and rage.”
It’s the rare Burna Boy song where he lets coolness fall away. “That song comes from a lot of anger and pain, and me having to witness firsthand what my people go through and how my people see themselves,” he said. “I see how many people are deceived and confused. I just try to blend all of that in and make it understood that we’re all going through the same problems. We just speak different languages.