University of Johannesburg: The Afropolitan troubadour emerges

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that appeared in the Business Day on 29 March 2021.

This month, 29-year old singer, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu – better known as Burna Boy – became the first Nigerian artiste to win an individual Grammy for best album in the World Music category. Nigeria’s $73 million entertainment industry is the fastest growing in the world. Burna Boy triumphed for his 2020 Twice as Tall album. As he noted: “This is a big win for Africans of my generation all over the world.” Burna Boy describes his music as “Afrofusion”: an inventive mix of Afrobeat, dancehall, reggae, R&B, and road rap. The Nigerian superstar has 6.3 million followers on Instagram, and his albums have drawn tens of millions of streams.

Burna Boy sees himself as part of a youthful generation that is seeking to transform the negative image of Africa as a continent of wars and famine. His songs are local, but seek a global audience. He is articulate and soft-spoken, and driven by a sense of divine destiny to leave a lasting legacy through his music. He has thus consciously sought to create a body of work that captures the zeitgeist. A generous collaborator, Burna Boy mobilizes a Pan-African orchestra to create revolutionary anthems.

But he is also a paradox: his shy and humble private demeanour contrasts starkly with his flamboyant and brash stage alter-ego. Burna Boy was born in Nigeria’s city of Port Harcourt. His father, Samuel, managed a welding company while his multilingual academic mother, Bosede, was a translator, before becoming his manager. Damini thus had a solidly middle-class background, studying at England’s Sussex and Oxford Brookes universities as an Afropolitan citizen of the world. Burna Boy has also been a consistent social critic who has condemned Africa’s political class for failing to create the enabling environment for its youth to fulfil their huge potential.

His meteoric rise led to a recording deal with Atlantic Records in 2017. His third album, Outside, was released a year later to critical acclaim from a growing legion of youthful fans. Burna Boy’s popularity was confirmed as he played to a sold-out O2 Academy in London’s Brixton district where he spent part of his childhood among Caribbean and African youth. His success was further recognised when he won the 2019 Black Entertainment Television Awards. His song, “My Money, My Baby,” also appeared on the star-studded soundtrack of the 2019 romantic road crime drama, Queen and Slim.

Burna Boy’s guiding philosophy is Pan-Africanism, viewing Africa as the Mother Continent and birthplace of humankind. He sees himself as “building a bridge that leads every Black person in the world to come together.” He thus called for all African countries to unite with a single passport. Burna Boy released African Giant in 2019 as a homage to this Pan-African spirit. It won the Album of the Year at the 2019 All Africa Music Awards, and was accompanied by the hugely successful African Giant global tour.

In 2020, Twice as Tall was released, with Burna Boy setting out explicitly to win a Grammy, lamenting his loss the previous year in “Level Up.” Collaborating with such superstars as Sean “Diddy” Combs and Youssou N’Dour, the album was mostly recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown. Burna Boy’s artistic versatility is on full display: the pop song “Monsters You Made” is accompanied by an aesthetically brilliant video; “Naughty by Nature” is a rap song; while “Time Flies” is a sultry melody.

Burna Boy’s success has attracted many accolades. Aniefiok Ekpoudom noted that he “has elegance, grace and charisma, a magnetic aura that follows him like a shadow,” while John Pareles raved: “Burna Boy’s Afro-fusion is omnivorous and supremely catchy.” With this Grammy win, the Nigerian superstar has leapt above the rest of the competition and established himself as the leading troubadour of Afrobeats. The world is now firmly at his feet.

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