Burna Boy Is Crossing Over & He’s Bringing Africa With Him

Burna Boy’s entire career has always been bigger than him.
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Burna Boy, 2019

"If I have seen further than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants." Isaac Newton

Burna Boy’s entire career has always been bigger than him. Born Damini Ogulu in Nigeria, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter is one of the championing artists of contemporary African music—particularly Afrobeats, an exquisite blend of jazz, funk, calypso, highlife, and traditional Nigerian Yoruba sounds. In the late 1960s, the genre was pioneered by the late Fela Kuti, a musician and human rights activist whose manager is none other than Burna Boy’s grandfather. Come through, legacy.

Burna Boy’s major-label debut, Outside, released in January 2018, finds him gliding over tracks like the dancehall-inspired “Sekkle Down” and the retrospective “Heaven’s Gate,” with an impressive vocal contribution from UK hothead Lily Allen. He can truly hold his own on any rhythm. The album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart and has been dubbed everything from “Afro-fusion” to “Afropop” by various media outlets.

Consequently, as a result of labeling, we may be overlooking the rich influences that make up African music, and as a byproduct, Burna Boy’s distinct catalog. Outside carries hints of hip-hop, R&B, dancehall, calypso, and road rap, and birthed the global breakout banger “Ye,” which landed on nearly every Nigerian publication’s top songs list and was named one of The Best Nigerian Songs of 2018 by OkayAfrica.

“Ye” is more than just a crowd favorite, though. In addition to being a beautifully crafted song over an exquisitely orchestrated rhythm produced by Phantom, “Ye” has a feel-good vibration. In April, Jamaican reggae fusion sensation Koffee performed a cover of the song on the BBC show 1xtra Live Lounge. The moment was a testimony not only to Koffee’s musical tastes, but the massive impact and influence Burna Boy’s music is having across continents and cultures.

Following the success of Outside, Burna Boy created his brand of Afrobeat and Nigerian highlife sounds, enmeshed in Caribbean dancehall, reggae, UK road rap, and R&B. From growing up with Fela Kuti, who he says “was like Superman to him,” to collaborating with the next generation of Afro-Caribbean artists like fellow Nigerian singers Wizkid and Mr. Eazi, to recording with the legendary Damian Marley, Burna Boy, in many ways, is moving more like an ambassador than an artist.

Burna Boy’s commitment to his sound and message is evident in his music—the lyrical content, rhyme patterns, drums, horns, chants, roars, melodies. He creates music that goes beyond classification. It’s an energy; something you listen to with your heart, not just your ears. Africa is in Burna’s voice, his tone, and the very essence of his being. Rather than dominating a record, he invites listeners to take a look from beyond his shoulders.

In a recent interview with The Breakfast Club, Burna Boy revealed the inspiration behind his music is himself, “an African man, who was born in Africa.” Stepping up and into his own identity, he discovered a way to pay homage to both his motherland and native tongue while creating undeniably great music.

The result of Burna Boy’s artistic maturation is African Giant, his newly-released 19-song masterpiece, which he humbly proclaims is his most personal work to date. While the album is being heralded by media outlets as a crossover project, it feels much more symbolic of where Burna Boy is coming from—not just where he’s going.

Crossing over typically means an artist is graduating from the niche genre or geographic market they are well known for and reaching the great promised land of the mainstream. In this sense, Burna Boy’s journey feels more like a pilgrimage. He’s not just crossing over into the mainstream, but he’s bringing the entire sound of Africa with him. The album paints a picture of what the Afrobeats genre can be without the need for media validation.

African Giant is everything a fan would want in a successful follow-up album: beats, rhymes, life, undeniably good melodies, structure, and storytelling. It’s all present. With much of the album recorded in a variety of languages, from Nigerian Pidgin and Yoruba to Jamaican patois, Burna Boy serves to inspire listeners to feel the music, rather than merely listening to it. It’s an experience filled with a variety of relatable struggles and celebratory emotions, many of which penetrate to the core of who we are as people—regionally and collectively. It’s more than a project; it’s a portal to rich cultural history and diversity.

Like a true ambassador, Burna Boy also plays his part in educating the media on the many different African genres that exist. Examples include South African house and Ghanian highlife, and enlightening the larger society on matters of apartheid, language, identity, and culture. He sways between topics with the humility of someone who doesn’t prefer too much social attention but realizes he has something important to say.

Take “Anybody” and “Another Story” featuring Ghanian rapper M.anifest. In tone and rhythm, both songs are distinctly African. The latter begins with a clip of Jide Olanrewaju from “A History of Nigeria,” detailing how Nigeria started as a company purchase initiated by Britain. This audio sets the tone for the entire song, which Burna Boy delivers with a somewhat haunting but poetic African melody. With the air of a diplomat, Burna uses his platform to shine a light on lesser-known issues while connecting the cultural dots.

On African Giant, Burna Boy masters the art of being simultaneously smooth and commanding. He serenades the ladies and salutes the men, and his choruses come in like calls-to-action. “Omo” is celebratory, with a distinct dancehall vibe and R&B flow. And when Burna croons “Cyaah touch my destiny,” we can feel his touch. Like a general leading his listeners to victory, Burna Boy’s music reminds us that no matter what, your purpose will prevail. This energy, which is notably present on “Spiritual,” is uplifting, genuine, timeless.

There is something special about the Naija superstar that invites us to commune with him. Maybe it’s his friendly appearance or the thought he puts into his lyricism. Whether you’re a journalist, fan, peer, or spectator, you can’t help but be drawn into his world. Metaphorically speaking, a giant is “any man or woman who possesses powers, talents, abilities, creativity or insights beyond that of the average and ordinary person.” Sound familiar?

Burna Boy is large in stature and musical impact, making him literally impossible to miss. He is undeniable. By highlighting his origins and paying continuous homage to his Nigerian culture, he makes Africa undeniable as well.

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