Burna Boy is reversing the pop crossover

In an interview with The FADER, the Nigerian superstar sits down to talk about his African Giant album, the importance of connecting the African diaspora, and rethinking the idea of crossing over.

August 26, 2019

The second half of the 2010s has seen a significant rise in the U.S.'s interest in music coming out of West Africa. Most people would pinpoint the genesis of this curiosity as Drake's collaborations with artists like Wizkid — though their work together also sparked internet-wide debates on Americans' misinterpretation of genres coming out of West Africa and throughout the Caribbean. Misunderstandings aside, these conversations and newfound interest helped artists like Wizkid and Davido land deals with American record labels, opening the door for collaborations with stateside superstars and for some of their biggest hits to be in regular rotation on urban radio. Now, in 2019, with box office hits like Black Panther and The Lion King featuring a plethora of African talent on their soundtracks, artists who have long been major draws on the continent are getting their shots at stardom in the U.S.


One of the biggest stars to emerge from this steady momentum is Nigeria's Burna Boy who, unlike many of his peers, is a master at not only blending sounds of West Africa, but also incorporating elements of dancehall and hip-hop to create afro-fusion, a sub-genre that he's found himself the face of. Though he'd been actively working at this meshing since his first mixtape, 2011's Burn Notice, his work reached new heights with 2018's Outside. The album scored him an international hit with "Ye" and helped propel him to a set at Coachella.

Upset with his placement on the Southern California festival's flier, he asserted that he was an "African Giant," and his spot on the lineup should reflect that fact. Shortly after, he announced that his newest album would be titled the same and since its release in late July, Burna has found himself with a bigger international spotlight on him than ever before. A few weeks after it released, the 28-year-old sat down with The FADER at the Atlantic Records offices to speak about the journey leading up to African Giant, the importance of connecting people throughout the African diaspora with his music, and how he interprets crossing over.


Obviously you end that song with your mother's quote when she accepted your award at the BET Awards. I feel like when the album ends and that quote, the echo, that slight cheer you can hear after that, It makes me think about the album differently. Now I have to think about what I just absorbed based on that quote.


So why did you feel like you had to end the album like that?

Because I feel like that there was no better way to close the album. Because I feel like that's basically the whole message in one little speech.


Was she accurate in that that's something you might've said if you would've took the stage?

Most definitely. I wouldn't have said it like that. I probably — It was perfect, the way she did it.


It's been about three weeks since African Giant dropped. As far as the reception that it's gotten, is it what you hoped for?

I mean, yeah, man. It's great, man. It's amazing to see the reaction to it. And it's still growing so it's like, it's very amazing to witness.


Obviously I've been listening to it ever since it dropped, but you know, you cover love on there at certain points, spirituality, you fit in the little history in there. What was the most gratifying part of putting the album together for you? Whether that be one song, one session. Was there something that really fulfilled you while you were putting it together?

I mean, I feel like my best moment of recording this album was in Ghana. And I was recording... The songs I didn't recorded while I was in Ghana. I feel like those are the best moments of the album because that's when it felt it all come together. That's when I felt it all... I felt it all like it was real now. Because it was all a vision in my head on how I wanted it to be. But at that moment, I just felt it all become a reality.

What was that? Did you record particular songs there? I seen a video of you on the balcony?

Yeah, that's when I was recording “Another Story” With M.anifest there.

And that was when you felt like, I really got what I want?

Yeah, I think it was before that, when I made, I think it's when I made “Collateral Damage.” That's when I felt like, "Yeah." And then, I made “Another Story.”


“Spiritual” is the song that I always come back to. I was looking in my iTunes library, it's already in my top 25 because I keep running it. But it's just a really special song to me. And I think I just really like when you get into that mode of the spiritual Burna, Pastor Burna, or however you want to think about it. But even like loose songs like “Hallelujah” are songs I really like. But what was going through your mind when you put that song together? Is that one of the more natural tracks that just come up?

That's one of the first songs I recorded when I was making the album because it's one of the songs where it just comes from a very peaceful place. Where it's an aware place as well. So yeah.


Are those conversations, the quote that she said, as far as — "All black people worldwide, please remember that were are African before anything else" — are those conversations that you have started to have more as you've gotten older, or was that something you always kind of had?

That's something I started to have more once I got older because I started to learn more. I dig deeper into the truth about my existence.

I want to read a tweet to you. There's a photographer, I don't know if you're familiar with him, but his name of Joshua Kissi — he is based in New York. Maybe a month ago he was shooting Kranium and he was saying, this is what the tweet said: "Today I was shooting portraits of Kranium and he said Burna Boy makes ‘spiritual’ music. It's not even a genre. This man has me speaking Nigerian pidgin.” It feels good as a Black person to be able to recite certain words in pidgin and Yoruba. And it drives me to look it up.


Because I want to know what I'm saying. So through listening to your music or listening to different Nigerian artists, now I'm listening to Pidgin and I'm seeing, okay, these are parallels between pidgin and patois. It might've been “PH City” where you had said, "pikin ya," but in the way that you said it, I was like, it sound like you're talking about kids. And Jamaicans say, "pickney". So I'm getting these parallels.

Yeah. So it's the same message, man. It's the fact that we're all the same. Even though the world, we've become so different, we're all still the same. Because look at the language now that we're talking about. It's nothing but broken English. We were all in Africa, we all had our tribes and all that. And then the English came. So we all had to break it down in a way we can understand it. So the Nigerian would have their own pidgin. The Ghanaian have their own pidgin. The Sierra Leonean would have their creole. You understand? But it's all basically the same thing — the Jamaican patois. It's all basically the same thing. It's just different accents and different — what's it called?




Yeah. It's crazy. I was talking to a friend about it — after listening to your music now I started following BBC Pidgin. They got a version of BBC that's only in pidgin so I'm like, Shit, I might as well read this. So when I'm listening to the music, I know what I'm hearing.


So it's education, but in a way that don't feel, you know what I'm saying? It's not oppressive. It's not like a teacher telling you, "Hey, you need to learn this."

Because it's the real education. It's what resonates with your being. It's not something that is forced on you because of some agenda or some motive. Because our subconscious always know these things. Whether we choose to accept it or not.

Burna Boy is reversing the pop crossover

What did it feel like for you to see artists like Koffee covering “Ye”?

Felt very amazing, man. It feels great because it felt like a part of — almost like a mission accomplished in a way because it goes back to what I'm saying: we're all connected. So that kind of proves it as well. That's just another proof.


Thinking about Koffee and your connection to Jamaican artists, I don't know if you've seen this on Twitter, after the album came out, but people were going in on YG about the “Bomboclaus” [on “This Side”] Why nobody told him?

Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, I feel like it's great, man.

I loved it.

Yeah, it's great. For me, I think it's amazing because, as I said, we're all connected and it's almost something that has been purposely kept a secret.

“Another Story,” in the beginning, is like a brief history lesson about Nigeria.

The whole song is a brief history lesson about Nigeria and Ghana, when M.anifest comes in.



Why did you feel like that was necessary to include? Do you feel like Nigeria is kind of misunderstood by outsiders?

Nigeria is misunderstood by insiders.

In what way?

I can guarantee you that at least 90% of my people that are my age group in Nigeria —who are considered the youth — had no clue about how Nigeria, the real origins of Nigeria. There's so much knowledge, there's so much truth that needs to be told. There's so much that needs to... there's so much that the youth needs to know in order to be — how do I explain it? — In order to be almost respected. Because really and truly right now, the only thing that can save the youth is knowledge and financial independence.

When would you say you started becoming aware of these things if the average young person is not aware of it?

When I just started becoming old enough to really understand what was going on around me. I feel like that's when I kind of saw things for what they were.


Thinking about African Giant coming out of releasing Outside last year, creatively, did you approach African Giant any different than you approached Outside?

Of course, of course.

In what ways?

For me, every project is different, and it serves a different purpose. So that's basically what that is.

Well, what would you say the purpose that you set out for Outside when you were making it?

Outside was more of a personal project. This, the African Giant, is more of an African project. It’s more of a show — a light of ok, this is this person and these are his people. And these are their trials, their tribulations, their joys, their happiness. This is the truth.



My favorite song from Outside is “PH City Vibrations.” The way I took it as a listener is it's kind of like an autobiography.

That's exactly what it was.

Because you talk about your birth date, the hospital you were born. You talk about the people in your family who are born in Port Harcourt just like you were. What was the making of that song? Because I liked it already, but what took it to the next level for me is when you performed at, I wanna say Gramercy last year, and I saw it with the band and I was like, Damn, this song, it feels big. What was it like for you even putting that together? Did it feel like a celebratory, like, this is my story?

That's exactly what it was. I mean, as I said Outside was a personal project. It was so personal that you have my basically autobiography in this album.

Something I always noticed when it comes to non-American artists, and it's not even just whether they Black or not, there's always talk of attempting at a crossover, or wanting to crossover. But just from conversations [I’ve had] with different artists, some people resent even the idea of wanting to crossover. Is that something that you care about or is that something that you maybe pushed back against when you were early in your career?

I care about crossing over, but in the opposite way.


How do you mean?

I want to come here and cross you over to where I am. You understand? Because where I am is the actual home of the beginning. I'm kinda like the (gestures towards himself) I don't know.

The reverse cross back?

Yeah, exactly. The reverse crossover (laughs).

Do you feel like that's been a success? Because I would say in the past three years or so, the average Black person I know listens, or is at least aware of, African music.

I would say it is being accomplished because now, almost everyone, if not everyone I've come across is proud to be African, or to say they're African, or to say, "Oh, I did this ancestry thing and it says I'm from this place.”

Burna Boy is reversing the pop crossover

What's been something that's been an unexpected part of your musical journey over the past few years? Something that's happened for you that you didn't even anticipate?

Man, I don't know. I don't know.


Everything going as planned?

I don't plan stuff. I don't believe in planning. I just believe in doing your best at what you do best at all times and everything else is everything else. Everything else is a plus.

You had said you really enjoyed working with YG, but you also worked with Future. Were y'all in the studio together?

Me and Future? Yeah.

How was that?

It's amazing. It's great man.


How was that back and forth? Was it like you go in do a verse, he come back —

No, we'll record and then he just smashed it. He just did his verse. Because I think I had my mine done, and I got to the studio and we just recorded a bunch of other shit. Then I just played this in the booth. And then he just killed it.

So as far as this album, with African Giant, it's already been having the reception that it has, traveling like you said, bringing everybody's focus back to Africa. What other hopes or aspirations do you have for this album outside of that?

I mean, that's my primary thing. Everything else is plus, everything else is, I'm grateful for.


Burna Boy is reversing the pop crossover