Meet Burna Boy, The Nigerian Singer Putting Africa First

The Lagos-based star opens up about “Afro-Fusion,” his influences, and the politics of the music industry in his home country.

By the time we get to Burna Boy’s house in Lagos on the night of Halloween, it’s around 11:30 pm and the noise from a nearby generator is buzzing against the soft sound of falling rain. Two armed soldiers follow Burna Boy wherever he goes and, tonight, he’s just getting in from a show in Ikeja, a neighborhood on the other side of the sprawling city. Many of Nigeria’s major pop stars were enlisted to perform at an event sponsored by a telecoms company, but instead of sticking around to mingle with elder statesmen like P-Square, Burna leaves right away.

The 24-year-old, born Damini Ogulu, has built a reputation for himself as somewhat of an outsider in Nigeria’s growing pop economy. Though he has generational music industry ties, Burna Boy likes to do things his own way. He grew up attending high-profile schools in the oil-rich Port Hartcourt and eventually wound up in London for university, but soon bailed on academia and moved back to Nigeria to work on music. Over the past few years, Burna has accumulated a growing fanbase enamored with his style of smoothly blending dancehall, R&B, and Afrobeats, on an arsenal of hits like “Yawa Dey,” “Soke,” and “Follow Me.” He has also frequently collaborated with South African artists like the rapper AKA, choosing to focus on intra-continental alliances rather than looking to Europe and North America for co-signs, as so many of his peers have done in recent years.

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Over the course of an hour-long conversation, fueled by a couple of joints and some Hennessy, Burna Boy opened up about his influences, the politics of Nigeria's music industry, and why American artists need Africa.

How did you get started?

In 2010, [I] got signed to this label that was just starting up called Aristokrat Records. Started dropping singles and then I got quite big in the south side [of Nigeria]. I was like a hood star [laughs]. In 2012, I dropped a song called “Like To Party,” and that just took me all over the world. Started getting endorsements and now I’m good. Dropped one album, sold 50,000 copies on the first day. In Nigeria that’s quite big.

Who are your influences?

Music-wise obviously number one is Fela Kuti. My granddad used to be his manager. My dad used to play reggae and Afrobeats. Every Sunday, we used to have these records, vinyls. And he would just play all of them—Super Cat, Ninja Man, Buju Banton. On his side, I heard a lot of reggae and dancehall. He doesn’t even know it but he influenced reggae into me. The first reggae song I heard was in his car. I remember he bought a V Boot—a Mercedes, old school—and it was one of the first cars that could play CDs at the time. The first CD we had was a mix of all different types of dancehall. And then I turned ten years old and this girl I was trying to get with gave me a Joe CD for my birthday, which introduced me to R&B. I'm pretty much a product of my environment.

Would you say your sound is different from other Nigerian artists?

I kind of brought back everything you hear now. I kind of started all this shit, all the dancehall sounds. My genre of music is called Afro-Fusion because I fuse different types of music into a ball. There’s dancehall, there’s R&B, there’s hip-hop, there’s Afrobeats—that’s all that makes Burna Boy, really. Everything you see right now is really a photocopy of Burna Boy. While it works for some people it doesn’t work for others.

How do you see the [Nigerian music] industry as a whole?

It’s political, man. To be honest I don’t really feel like I’m a part of the industry. I don’t get awards because the powers that be don’t really like me. I’m not like everyone else, I won’t do what everyone else does. They don’t like it. Everything is really political and I’m not a very good politician. So I don’t really involve myself in all that. I just drop hit songs, and my fanbase keeps increasing.

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“Africa has more numbers than America. So if we all used our heads and focused on Africa, then we’d be good.”

But in a sense you are a part of it, because you’re still having an impact on it.

If you think about it, if I was a part of the industry then I wouldn’t have shit today. I would just be one of the songs you hear in the club and then that’s it. But right now, you see, I don’t have the most Twitter followers or the most Instagram numbers or whatever, but the things that I do, the people with one million followers can’t do it. Right now in Nigeria I’m doing shows with 5,000 to 7,000 people almost every weekend. Who does that in Nigeria? How many people can say that? And everyone is singing my songs word-for-word.

My music is a gift. It’s perceived as a gift to the people that love and understand it. I don’t really speak for myself alone, I speak for a bunch of people. How many people have dropped a song like “Soke,” stating the problems that’s actually going on in the country, and actually stepping up? And at the same time they’re dancing to it in the club but really and truly I’m actually telling you what the fuck is going on—money, no light, wata no dey flow. You get me? Real shit! Who’s doing that today?

Everything I know I pretty much learned from Fela. Obviously there will never be another person like that. He used music the way music should be used. Music is spiritual. It’s a really spiritual thing. I’ve actually never picked up a pen and pad to write a song. It comes spiritually. I don’t put pen to paper, I just pretty much black out, and you hear what you hear. You’re gonna hear things that are coming from deep down, it’s not gonna be something that’s calculated and trying to appeal to these people or those people. Nah.

What are the obstacles for Nigerian music to enter the U.S. or U.K.?

It still goes back to the thing I been saying. The politics. Africa has more numbers than America. So if we all used our heads and focused on Africa, then we’d be good. You get me? You have some people that pay a couple of hundreds of thousands to feature their songs in America. At the end of the day, I will never do that. As much as we need to put them on our songs, [Americans] need to put us on their songs. Because as much as they think they got the numbers, we got the numbers.

I keep telling people numbers is not Instagram and Twitter. That’s media, that’s not numbers. You can’t hold on to it. In reality, what the real thing is is how many people will sing along to your shit. How many people have you touched their lives with your songs? How many people have been in the hospital close to dead and listened to your songs and got fucking life? How many people can say that?

Is your outlook that you want your fan base to be more in Africa?

I wouldn’t say it’s just Africa. I feel like my fan base should be people that really understand and love my art as it is. At the end of the day, I can’t remember which American artist said it, but only the real music’s gonna last. All that other shit is here today, gone tomorrow. And that’s the realest shit I ever heard.

You’ve gone on a lot of tours all over Africa whereas a lot of artists seem to concentrate on getting to London or New York.

And guess what? The London and the New York really don’t fuck with them. So why are you trying so hard to do something that you’re really not?

Meet Burna Boy, The Nigerian Singer Putting Africa First