Burna Boy shines in Lagos for GQ Style with his first feature profile for the site detailing the rise of arguably Africa’s biggest superstar. The Nigerian born and bred performer has risen to international fame in a few short years bringing light to Africa and the musical and cultural emergence of afrobeats in pop culture.
Writer Lola Ogunnaike talks to Burna in Lagos about his music, his background and why he wants to do things the hard way. Photos by Prince Gyasi.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Because I want my children and their children to be proud to be African, to own a part of Africa.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.’ ”
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.”
Read the full ‘Burna Boy Shines in Lagos for GQ Style’ profile here.