With the release of his enormous breakout album, African Giant, Nigerian-bred Burna Boy is staking a claim as one of the biggest stars on the global music scene—a crossover sensation who refuses to compromise. Instead he's letting the world cross over to him.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PRINCE GYASI
March 4, 2020
Jacket, $5,190, and blazer, $1,630, by Yohji Yamamoto / Pants, $875, by Giorgio Armani / Boots, $1,095, by Christian Louboutin / His own sunglasses, by Louis Vuitton Men's / Jewelry (throughout), his own
We're backstage just moments before Burna Boy makes his Tonight Show debut, and Africa's biggest superstar is tucked away in his dressing room, surrounded by an entourage of more than a dozen people. Dressed in slim-fitting Louis Vuitton with matching black patent leather loafers, he sits quietly at a weathered upright piano, tickling the keys and toking on a blunt, as two members of his crew vigorously debate who sang the 1981 classic “In the Air Tonight.”
“It was Lionel Richie,” says one guy, who is as emphatic as he is incorrect.
“How can you mix up Lionel Richie and Phil Collins, man? You're mad,” another counters. A distinctly pungent cloud begins to envelop the room.
After a quick Google search, the Richie fan begrudgingly concedes that he's wrong and the conversation devolves into comical absurdity. “Whatever, man,” he says. “Phil Collins was a light-skin Lionel Richie, anyway.”
“Nah, my nigga. Phil Collins is white. White. White.”
The mood is light, but make no mistake: The evening is a big one for the 28-year-old Burna. His appearance marks both how far he's come and how ascendant Afrobeats music is right now in the culture. It's sparking sold-out arena tours and garnering heavy rotation in the clubs and on major hip-hop radio stations throughout the U.S. Burna sits at the center of it.
He's focused on none of that right now. Instead he's staring at the flat-screen television that hovers above him, watching intently as Jimmy Fallon fawns over Tomi Adeyemi, a young Nigerian American author whose debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, has resided on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 100 weeks. Adeyemi is utterly endearing onscreen—all wide-eyed and thrilled-to-be-here smiles. But when Burna takes the stage shortly thereafter to perform, his energy is decidedly different. He asks the Fallon crowd to throw their fists in the air. They hop up and eagerly oblige. “This is protest music,” Burna declares before launching into “Anybody” and “Collateral Damage,” his hits. “This is African music.”
Shirt, $2,010, and pants, $2,010, by Louis Vuitton Men's / Shoes, $1,095, by Christian Louboutin / Socks, his own
By all measures, Burna Boy (born Damini Ogulu) is on a remarkable run. With the release last summer of his latest effort, African Giant, he cemented his standing as the reigning king of African music. In less than a year, the singer released 10 music videos, performed in 200 cities around the globe, and had his songs streamed some 600 million times. Even Barack Obama is a fan: Burna's “Anybody” landed on 44's list of favorite songs of 2019.
Perhaps not surprisingly, African Giant was nominated for a Grammy for best world music album. Burna was on the Paris leg of his European tour when he received the news. “My uncle ran into my hotel room screaming that I was nominated,” he says. “We were all so happy.” With the recognition, he joined a small but illustrious group of Nigerian artists who have been nominated in the category (King Sunny Adé; Babatunde Olatunji; Femi and Seun Kuti—sons of the late, great singer Fela Kuti).
Suit (price upon request), by Pyer Moss / Sweater, $535, by Issey Miyake Men / Belt, $135, by Maximum Henry / Sunglasses, $845, by Louis Vuitton Men's
And while he didn't end up taking home the Grammy, it speaks volumes that the winner, Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo, used her acceptance speech to praise him. “This is for Burna Boy,” she said, noting his position at the vanguard of a group of young African artists, “changing the way our continent is perceived and the way African music has been the bedrock of every [type] of music.”
Nothing Burna has produced exemplifies what Kidjo highlighted more than African Giant. His most ambitious and expansive album to date takes listeners on a glorious sonic journey across the diaspora, seamlessly genre-hopping across a musical spectrum that includes hip-hop, dancehall, reggae, R&B, and more. The album's collaborations are numerous and perfectly reflect both the depth and the immense breadth of black musical expression. Up-and-comers (Nigeria's Zlatan, Ghana's M.anifest), legends (Kidjo and Damian Marley), and current hitmakers (YG, Future, Jeremih) are all welcomed. As Pitchfork observed in one of the album's many rave reviews, “Tracing all blackness back to the wellspring is the crux of Burna Boy's new album.”
Recorded in less than eight weeks, African Giant is made for languorous gbana-filled days and sumptuous palm-wine soaked nights. It's also meant to provoke. “Another Story,” opens with a searing look at Nigeria's complicated colonial history. “Dangote,” named for Nigerian magnate Aliko Dangote, addresses wealth inequality while celebrating the art of the hustle. “Collateral Damage,” takes on rampant government corruption. And on “Different,” Burna rhymes about the perils of democracy: “Different election sell a different false hope/Then them hang us with a different rope.”
And while African Giant is marinated in social commentary, exuberant bangers like “Killin Dem,” “Gbona,” and “On the Low” serve as proof that the message can easily coexist with the melody. “The streets love him because he doesn't shy away from talking about issues like corruption, police brutality, the everyday struggle of living in Nigeria,” says Olamide Ayodeji Adedeji, a prominent Nigerian television producer and former G.M. of the Lagos-based music network Soundcity. “He drives a G-Wagon and a Bentley, but he still manages to be a mouthpiece for the poor.” Kel-P, who produced 9 of AG's 19 tracks, calls Burna one of today's greatest living artists. “And not just the greatest in Africa,” he makes clear. “The greatest in the world.”
Shirt, $1,345, by Missoni / Pants, $700, by Acne Studios / Shoes, $850, by Giuseppe Zanotti
What makes Burna's impact even more noteworthy is that, really, the world crossed over to him. Refusing to water down his sound and singing primarily in pidgin English and Yoruba has ensured that many outside his homeland don't always grasp the totality of his art. Burna has made peace with that. He'd actually prefer the response to his work be rooted in something deeper than streams, sales, and fluctuating chart positions.
“I don't really have a high regard for numbers, because numbers have no feelings, they have no soul, whereas I do,” he explains. “My 'numbers' is the people who have actually felt the feeling that the music is supposed to carry across and in the process received the message.” During a brief rehearsal break at The Tonight Show, his bandmates are crowded into a cramped greenroom, discussing Burna's lack of interest in Western validation. “Burna is undiluted,” says Emmanuel Abiola, the band's drummer. “He's not trying to conform.”
Success, Burna determined long ago, would not come at the expense of his authenticity. “Anything you chase will run,” he states. “And right now I don't have the strength to be chasing stuff that's running away.”
It's the day after his Tonight Show appearance, and we're having lunch at a sprawling steak house near Rockefeller Center. Burna should still be on a high from his stellar performance, but he's deeply agitated. The area is crawling with tourists, of course, and police officers are swarming about. Burna, staring at his Sprinter van idling out front, looks as if he's imagining worst-case scenarios. Pesky canines with sensitive noses could spell trouble for the marijuana-loving singer, who has had some minor brushes with the law.
“I don't like this place,” he says. “It's too much with these people all around here. Shit's stressing me out. Why are there so many police cars? Is this the White House? I don't understand.”
Matthew Baus, his A&R rep, attempts to pacify him. “They're here because Donald Trump's in town,” he explains. “Relax. They're not worried about weed right now.”
Shirt, $3,825, by Hermès / Pants, $975, by Rochas / Shoes, $525, by Stubbs & Wootton / Socks, $18, by Etiquette Clothiers / Sunglasses, $490, by Ahlem
I've been warned that he's not a fan of interviews, which becomes clear about 60 seconds into our sit-down. Burna glares suspiciously at my recording devices. Initially his answers are terse, his eye contact scarce, his wariness palpable. Baus and Burna's music-label publicist, who have insisted on being present throughout our entire discussion, shift awkwardly in their seats. If Burna's intention is to make us all uncomfortable, he has succeeded.
“It's not that I hate interviews,” he tells me. “It's just that I find them stressful. I find them more stressful than going on tour.”
How is that possible?
“Because,” he says, “most of the questions you all ask are very direct, simple questions. But then I answer simply, and then you're waiting for the rest, like there's supposed to be a rest of the answer when there really isn't.”
I ask him about his relentless tour schedule. By month's end, he will have performed in Tanzania, Abidjan, Düsseldorf, Lagos, Accra, Mombasa, and Manchester, among other places. “At this point,” I say, “you don't really have to work as hard as you do, so why take on such a punishing schedule?”
“What makes you think that I don't have to?” he asks.
You're successful, your albums are—
“So should I go and sleep?”
There are a lot of people who don't have half of your success, and they work about a quarter as hard as you do.
“Well, they're here for different reasons than I am. That's all it is.”
Coat, $745, and shirt, $275, by Ami / Sunglasses and watch, his own
Burna's reticence gives me time to take him in. His locs are immaculately braided into supersized cornrows. His lean, chiseled frame lends itself to high fashion. He likes his labels loud—sneakers blaring the Gucci logo seem to be a favorite—and he isn't one for subtle jewelry, either. Rocks gleam on his fingers. Diamond ropes rest dutifully around his thick neck. On his track “Killin Dem,” he boasts of making money “rush, rush like Indomie” (an instant-noodle brand that's beloved in Africa) and it shows.
“What's it cost to get Burna in the building these days?” I ask him.
“You should ask management that question. I don't know. I'm a musician.”
What's the first thing you splurged on with your first big check?
Where, specifically? I know Lagos well—
“You want me to give you the address of the land, so that you can write it in your magazine?”
Is it in Lekki, Banana Island, Agege.… I promise we won't show up.
“It's not about you showing up. You can show up. You're invited, but I don't want everybody that reads your magazine showing up.”
I play the Fela card. Images of the iconic singer figure prominently in Burna's work, and the link between the two artists dates back decades. Burna's grandfather managed Fela early in the singer's career and helped form his first band. Still, Burna resists the comparison. “I don't think anybody in their right mind would compare me to Fela,” he says definitively when I raise the subject.
“Well,” I counter, “it happens often.”
“Fela is my inspiration and my childhood hero, so if you think comparing me to Fela is honorable, it's actually not,” he states. “It actually makes me feel weird. Fela was Fela, and if it wasn't for Fela, there probably wouldn't be any me, so I don't understand the comparison.”
Do you talk to your grandfather about Fela?
“Every time. Almost every other day.”
And what sorts of stories does he tell you about him?
Is there one that you can share?
“Maybe another time.”
I think that this is the only time that we're going to have together, so…
“Well, we never know, because I don't plan to die anytime soon, and I'm sure you don't plan to die anytime soon.”
No, I'm not planning on it.
“Exactly. Life is long.”
“But you have to seize the day,” I offer.
He flashes a jewel-encrusted smile. “Just tell them that all of the stories come with a parental-advisory sticker.”
Coat, $2,315, by Maison Margiela / Tank top, $148, and pants, $2,398, by Boss / Boots, $1,095, by Christian Louboutin
He doesn't begin to thaw until the conversation segues into more serious territory. Last year, when xenophobic violence broke out in South Africa against migrants from other African nations—including Nigeria—Burna Boy spoke out forcefully. In an incendiary tweet, he wrote: “I have not set foot in SA since 2017. And I will NOT EVER go to South Africa again for any reason until the SOUTH AFRICAN government wakes the fuck up and really performs a miracle because I don't know how they can even possibly fix this.”
He remains deeply troubled by the deadly attacks, and though he's been cautioned to avoid speaking about the matter, he can't help himself.
“It's all just very fucked-up and twisted, and I wish to God that it wasn't so, but it is, and all I can do is try and do my part to change it, no matter how small that part is,” he says. The clipped responses have now given way to passionate soliloquies about the vestiges of colonization and apartheid. “It's almost as if the oppressors have won when the oppressed start acting like this,” he says. “Do you understand?”
“My family is Africa, which is why you will hear me speaking on the South Africa issue, which is why it strikes a nerve. It's almost like having your whole body, and your hand is not working. That's what it feels like.”
He's not finished.
“There's too much going on in the world for everybody to just care about being fucking rich and fucking Instagram-clouded; everybody can't be that,” he rails. “The more of that there is, the more the world suffers, and what's important just goes down the drain and the downward spiral continues. It's even accelerated. Now is the time. Everybody should wake the fuck up. South Africa and the whole of Africa needs to wake the fuck up.”
He's momentarily forgotten about the canines and the selfie-obsessed tourists outside, as we hit upon what he sees as his objective as an artist. “The reason for everything I do and how I do it is for one goal and one goal only, and that's the eventual unity of Africa,” he explains. “One day we'll have one passport, one African currency, one Africa. Then and only then will my mission be complete.”
Do you see this happening in your lifetime?
“No, realistically I don't,” he concedes. “But that's why I'm going to keep on fighting for it, and that's why I'm going to keep pushing this message in my music. Because I want my children and their children to be proud to be African, to own a part of Africa. What I don't want is for my children to still feel like foreigners in their own home.”
Blazer, $2,500, by Umit Benan B+ / Shirt, $1,245, by Dolce & Gabbana / Pants, $975, by Rochas
It's not lost on Burna Boy that his breakout is coming at a momentous time—one in which the African continent is enjoying an unprecedented level of visibility in global culture. You see it everywhere: Black Panther, set in a fictional African utopia, reigned at the box office; Christian Dior's runway show from last year was awash in Ankara prints. Burna's Naija-bred compatriots Naira Marley, Rema, Teni, Wizkid, Davido, and Tiwa Savage dominate airwaves at home and abroad—and Hollywood can't seem to get enough of actors of African descent.
“The collective self-confidence of the continent is at an all-time high,” says Tuma Basa, YouTube's director of urban music. “African Giant epitomizes that. I can't stop listening to the album. I've listened to at least one song from it every day since it was released.”
As for the roots of Burna's strong pan-Africanist worldview, he credits his mother and grandfather, who had a massive statue of a black-power fist in the home while he was growing up. Last year, when Burna was honored at the BET Awards, his mother, Bose Ogulu, accepted the recognition on his behalf. In her remarks, she took a moment to remind the largely black audience of its ancestral connection to the motherland. “The message from Burna,” she said, “would be that every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.” A sample of her speech closes the African Giant album.
Mama Burna, who is fluent in French, Italian, and German, worked as a translator for the West African Chambers of Commerce before following in her father's footsteps and leaping into the music business. After inviting his mother to fully take the reins of his business three years ago—“She's the only one I trust to really have my best interest,” Burna says—his career truly began to flourish.
Ogulu says she knew her son was special. “When he was two years old,” she says, smiling at the memory, “he walked around like he owned everywhere.” At restaurants, baby Burna would jump up on tables and perform. His precociousness paid off. “Instead of nursery rhymes,” his mother says, “he'd be singing Naughty by Nature's 'Hip Hop Hooray.' He got so good at it we would get free food. 'Hey, don't pay. You know your son's a star.' ”
At the family's home in Port Harcourt, an oil-rich city in southern Nigeria, music was a mainstay, his sister and team creative director, Ronami, remembers. Neighborhood power outages turned into family house parties. “We had a rechargeable radio, and we would dance the whole time until the power came back on,” she says. “It was just the five of us having fun. We never needed anyone else.” Over the years, her brother's love of hip-hop intensified. Burna learned the Yoruba language from his great-grandmother, who spoke no English. In exchange, “he taught her Bow Wow and DMX lyrics,” Ronami says.
Jacket, $1,195, by Emporio Armani / Shirt, $415, by Bode
By his late teens, Burna had joined a rap collective, DEF Code, had honed his freestyle skills under the moniker Shotgun, and was producing his own beats. He moved to London for school but dropped out and returned to the PH to pursue a solo music career. His 2013 debut, L.I.F.E (Leaving an Impact for Eternity), featured the hit song “Like to Party,” which quickly caught fire and established Burna as one to watch. But there were no guarantees. “He was just one of a thousand struggling artists at that time,” Adedeji explains. “But that song had an incredible hook. Every time it came on in the club, everyone would rap all the lyrics. People really started paying attention to him after that song.”
His next two releases—2015's On a Spaceship and 2016's Redemption—brought him international attention. Kirk Harding and Baus flew to the U.K. to meet with Burna after discovering his music on Spotify. Over dinner at 805 Restaurant, a beloved South London haunt that's served modern West African cuisine for nearly two decades, they quickly realized that Burna was already a bona fide celebrity. “He walked in with a small group of people, and all of the servers in the place started crying,” Harding recalls with a look of disbelief. “People were running out of the kitchen to see him.”
“It was like a miniature pandemonium,” Baus adds.
“He performed six songs in front of us that night,” Harding says, “and I called Bose the next day and said, 'Your son is really special.' ” The success of 2018's Outside and its Kanye West-approved breakout single, “Ye,” proved a portent of things to come.
Along the way, however, there have been bumps that have threatened to derail Burna's rise: There have been a few headline-making scuffles with fellow African artists. But his gritty past has only endeared him to his fans, says Adedeji: “He's a rebel who has been able to fight his demons and triumph against all odds, and they like that story.”
Burna turns philosophical when asked to reflect on the lessons he's learned on his journey. “Unlike a lot of other people, I've had to go through never-ending steps to get here, whereas other people have taken the elevator up,” he shares. “I've always been too heavy for that kind of elevator, so I had to take the stairs. Now I know every floor and everything on every floor.”
His march toward world domination continues. He'll spend most of 2020 on the road, and fans may get new music later this year. “We've already recorded 33 new songs,” Kel-P reveals. If the folks at his label have it their way, he'll be a household name in America. His mother, meanwhile, is focused on longevity. “Look at Stevie Wonder, look at Barbra Streisand, look at Willie Nelson, who's still touring,” she says. “That's what you want. And the only way to have that is you have your own fan base and to be known for something that's true.”
Burna, meanwhile, has dreams of playing a sold-out stadium in China but remains vague when asked about any other ambitions. “As long as we're moving forward, I'm okay,” he says. “It doesn't really matter how many steps forward, just as long as it's continuous, I'm good.”
China will have to wait for now. Tonight, Team Burna has taken over the private room of an Asian-fusion restaurant in downtown Manhattan, and what was meant to be an intimate Grammy-nomination dinner has now morphed into a full-on bacchanal. Gold Mylar balloons that form the word “Giant” sway near the open bar. The Hennessy is flowing. Tracks from Burna's upcoming album flood the speakers. He and his crew are amped and jumping on banquettes. Burna, elated and sweat-drenched, roars triumphantly before bounding onto the makeshift dance floor, where he joins his mother and sister, who are jubilantly waving napkins above their heads. It's just like old times in Port Harcourt for the Ogulu family—but here the power stays on all night long. Burna's party is just getting started.
Lola Ogunnaike is a Nigerian American writer whose work has appeared in 'The New York Times,' 'Rolling Stone,' 'Elle,' and many other publications.
A version of this story appears in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of GQ Style with the title “Global Giant.”
Photographs by Prince Gyasi
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Skin by Tope Onayemi
Tailoring by Julia Olaotan
Produced by Bola Belo at 256 Artistes Ltd.
Location: Ndali's Place, Ikoyi, Lagos
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