Some would say finally. But for those who know, Burna Boy’s Grammy 2020 nod is nothing but manifestation. He’s been working for this, and African Giant was sure to get a nod. On its opener, Burna Boy is prophetic; with well-enunciated words, he summons an opening performance which is reminiscent of the regal grace of an Osadebe. “I know say one e day e go better, I go carry Grammy,” he sings over the Kel P–produced production.
However, Burna Boy is no prophet. His talent, paired with his fiery personality, makes for an interesting combo. In January, Coachella announced the artiste on its lineup, alongside Mr. Eazi. On that January day, Burna Boy delved into a now-epic rant on his social media handles. He didn’t accept the small font used to display his moniker on the event flyer. He was an African Giant. Fans warned him; he wasn’t to be too proud, surely his egocentric tendencies was part reason for him being under-appreciated (then).
Burna Boy, however, had unknowingly stepped into a field full of land mines – he was bound to blow. His stars aligned. He was “suddenly” positioned on the basis of his character, one which he has, like the most talented of writers, worked into a most satisfactory content, ready to be made glisten by capitalism’s eager hands.
However, before African Giant, Burna Boy had been making moves. The so-called sudden turn in his character arc was long heralded, and his popularity amongst international audiences was marked by his album, aptly titled Outside, released in 2018 to critical acclaim.
The 2018–released album features the likes of J Hus and Lily Allen. The effort of a fusion artiste, the genre-bending album defined the cross-cultural impact of music in recent times. More than just creating an album, he did so with a profound appreciation for his audience. Consequently, the tag “Outsiders” wouldn’t only refer to international fans, but listeners everywhere. A pun of some sorts, the name could be revealed as a recognition of Burna Boy’s likelihood to be the unpopular, the untypical. Outsiders consider themselves to be this too.
Many international listeners came to Burna Boy’s music through “Ye“. Searching for a Kanye West album of the same title, they stumbled upon the effervescent song.
The lyrics seemed to be written to welcome listeners unfamiliar to Nigerian idiosyncrasies – there was something about the song that demanded the ears of the world, not just Nigeria. Before performing the song on the Coachella stage, Burna Boy would lead the dominantly foreign crowd by the hand, detailing that back in Nigeria, “Ye” held a different implication from what they thought. It was a signal of an unfortunate happening. “Ye!” a Nigerian would shout when something unsavory had occurred; the Westerners’ Ye! was done with a clinched fist, and a pound to the air.
Burna Boy is an artiste whose life background makes for an interesting listen. His songs are vivified by boisterous tales brought to life by succinct songwriting and vocal delivery. “Ye” is one of such songs. However, that narrative was seized, and blown to something bigger. Burna Boy flew with it. He was being assumed as a socio-political commentator, an “enlightened” guide to the White Tourist into the heart of Dark Africa. The reign of the African Giant began with “Ye”.
Outside (on which “Ye” features), has been hailed as a crossover effort. This was achieved with sounds patterned for the ears of Westerners, replete with familiar sonic embellishments. More poignantly, is Burna’s full embrace of his sage-like African guide narrative. On songs like “PH City Vibration” and “Streets of Africa,” he sings passionately, his every word hitting as true as it possibly could. On the former, he, like a master motorcyclist, cuts into streets and swerves, honking here, swearing, laughing, turning back on his passenger, and seeming to possess the most enchanting grin, as if to say, “This is what it’s like. Port Harcourt.” A journey with Burna Boy promises thrill, but more than that, it promises segments of aspirational talk. Important-sounding rants about color, identity and all that.
To the Western Outsider, this was the dream ride into Africa. A mind-blowing one. Sure to elicit some sort of I’m-impressed response.
African Giant (2019)
At the time of the Coachella incident, Burna Boy was already working on an album. Reckless and Sweet as revealed to several media houses, was almost done. After that font incident, he saw another route, a better one. He stopped work on R & S, and began to record African Giant, named after his epic rant which most likely appeared on your timeline.
Thus African Giant is prompted by improvisation. Burna Boy, after Outside, understood how to sell to a market. Better, he understood his artistry. The Pan African consciousness which he had only discussed in passing in times past, now had to be sustained. The sound had to be more African. A crossover triumph is complete when the traveler strips off the Western clothing – and his nativity emerges beneath. To the people you sell to, this recognition of your other-ness is essential to your acceptance.
On African Giant, Burna Boy has been said to “[incorporates] a potent emphasis on national record-keeping while maintaining the sultry, atmospheric quality that Burna’s early records established.” A presentation of the music’s hybrid nature, he sought artistes who furthered his vision, whose music was as protestant as his aspired to. Damian Marley. Angelique Kidjo. M. anifest. Artistes of the second ilk (“atmospheric quality”) were the Futures, YGs; Jorja Smith, who slot right into “Gum Body,” a slow paced romantic bop.
On African Giant, Burna Boy, yet again, channels Fela. No doubt the Afrobeat pioneer’s music serves as a creative stash for Burna Boy. On “Another Story,” he interpolates a line from 1977 Fela, singing, “My people sef dey fear too much. We fear the thing we no see”. The motorcyclist is getting emotional. But Burna Boy better not get too personal or critical. He must maintain subjectivity akin to a judge’s – in such a position, his word will be taken too seriously. He doesn’t want that to happen. As Oris Aigbokhaevbolo wrote, he really hasn’t earned the right to be critical of Nigerians and their well-documented fear in the face of power.
African Giant deftly moves around these themes, and thrives off being a generalised shot at corruption, white oppression, and the likes. Unlike Fela, Burna Boy’s anger was sexy, rated fair enough by international viewers. The xenophobia incident was his first moment of pure emotional reaction. (since his crossover in 2018, that is.) Trading online shots at South African rapper AKA, it escalated pretty quick, with Burna Boy threatening (“on Gambo’s grave”) that AKA would need protection if he saw him. Nigerians stanned. The boy hadn’t lost his edge, it seemed. To the Outsider, Burna Boy presented a man who embraced the complexity of his character. African Giant in this sense, is held through its nineteen track entirety by the vividness of this character; in a sense, affirming Burna Boy’s words, that it was his most personal album yet.
To go down that path, the 28 year old’s relationship with his mother is to be viewed with some carefulness, as an indispensable tool in his myth creation. Mummy’s Boy would be too easily-conjured a phrase. Soft, and nothing as tough as Burna Boy has shown himself to be. However, the very typically-Nigerian phrase applies to his relationship with Bose Ogulu, his mother. Once his manager, she has emerged as a mainstay beside him in these run-up years, on his way to the much coveted Grammy acknowledgment (and maybe victory).
A direct link to Fela who she once described as “the closest thing [I] had to a godfather.” She was the daughter of Benson Idonije, Fela’s first brand manager. By Burna Boy’s extensive collaboration with Mama Burna (as Nigerian Outsiders christened her), he was tapping from a familial link to his major musical influence. The public image of his mother rubs off positively on his PR too. Mama Burna is cool in a way most Nigerian parents aren’t – she was a liberal. A video once circulated of her hugging her famous son who held a joint between his fingers; she was energetic, passing off an air of ease in the powerful spaces; she was Burna Boy’s mouthpiece at times: her words famously draws a close to African Giant, words spoken when she accepted his BET Best International Act award. “And the message from Burna, I believe, would be that every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.”
On the back of these, it is seen how African Giant is a well-marketed effort. It is a masterclass on how best one sells a Third World reality. The rise of Afrobeats, too, cannot be separated from Burna Boy’s narrative. The tag, which is an umbrella for music made with sonic affliations to a drum-heavy sound, reminiscent of Fela’s music. Artistes like Mr. Eazi, Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, and most notably, Burna Boy, have packaged their music under this umbrella tag, and its dominance in foreign markets have now led to the subcultural movement dubbed “Afrobeats to the World.”
‘African Giant’ getting a Grammy nod is less than 30% about him singing ‘sensible’ songs or even content… In the year that Afrobeats got some decent attention, that has been the well-promoted and intentionally marketed body of work and it was near inevitable it happened…
— EGGHEAD (@ehiscombs) November 20, 2019
The Grammy 2020 Nomination: What Does It Mean?
Africa has congratulated its giant. Superstars, from Wizkid to M. anifest to AKA, have tweeted the words. On social media, joy abound, the continent seemed to contain an effervescent energy.
Trolls have been set free. 9ice, who peaked at the start of the decade, once sung (“Street Credibility“) of how he would “bring home” a Grammy. On some threads, social media unknotted itself as a respecter of no persons. Burna Boy could possibly win a Grammy before 9ice, how ironic – the veteran had almost a decade head start.
But trolls and congratulations apart, Burna Boy’s nod, like 9ice sung, is a sort of “return-home” item. He’s most penetrated into the American reality. His recent successes is more of a psychological exercise than it is a creative endeavour. So when he’s nominated for a Grammy, the category should be observed, as this is an important part of the study.
Most notably alongside Beninese American legend Angelique Kidjo, Burna Boy will contest for the “World Music Album” award. A problematic category, it is very inclusive phrasing: albums, as diverse as could be, can be considered, given that they be as culturally similar to the narrative the Grammy-giving Americans fancy.
That African Giant got a nod in this category is a hurried jump down from the passenger, a quick tip, and a dash into the safety of a hotel, far removed from the unpatronizing reality the motorcyclist’s drive offers.
David Byrne, in this essay, posited how the World category of the Grammy is “a way of relegating this ‘thing’ into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.” He further went on, sentences later, noting how the category “ghettoizes most of the world’s music.”
African Giant, if nominated in the Album of the Year category, would have earned it. Since its release, it has made The Best lists of many American publications. Surely, the Grammy categories isn’t subject to voting outside its 21k Academy members but what’s good for the goose… Rather, Burna Boy’s seminal effort falls victim to the constant repackaging of believed truths about music which isn’t American enough. Sure, it’s an American award. But David, once again, with wisdom:
“Hearing the right piece of music at the right time of your life can inspire a radical change, destructive personal behavior or even fascist politics. Sometimes all at the same time. On the other hand, music can inspire love, religious ecstasy, cathartic release, social bonding and a glimpse of another dimension. A sense that there is another time, another space and another, better, universe. It can heal a broken heart, offer a shoulder to cry on and a friend when no one else understands. There are times when you want to be transported, to get your mind around some stuff it never encountered before. And what if the thing transporting you doesn’t come from your neighborhood?”
The Grammy is the world’s most visible award. Many artistes, from the beginning of their careers, desire the golden gramophone. It is no secret that Burna Boy does. Yet his first individual nomination should be viewed with skepticism. Should African Giant fail to win the category, – even with its American appeal – it will signify a stubborn headed Academy, and their somewhat perverse desire to preserve their politics of regionalism. It goes beyond trolling 9ice – we must question the validity of The American Dream. Subsequently, we must question what passes off as “local enough” to be un-American.