Burna Boy is having a fantastic year. Case in point: performing at Coachella, winning a BET Award, featuring on Beyoncé’s The Gift, releasing his fifth studio album, African Giant, and issuing a Burnacurrency in collaboration with Spotify. These accomplishments all point to America finally being interested in supporting the Afro-fusion artist. If only things were so simple.
In August, the African Giant himself was scheduled to perform a monumental show—monumental because this would have been his first-ever North American performance—in Toronto. However, when Burna announced he was stuck at the airport in Detroit and would have to reschedule the show, fans immediately aired out their disappointment. It was clear to Africans—extending even to famous artistes—limitations on international travel were still commonplace. Sadly, Burna Boy’s case is not unique.
In 2018, Nigerian artiste Wizkid’s absence from Coachella was just as disappointing. Shortly before the weekend of his scheduled performance, Wizkid announced that, due to an inability to obtain work visas for some of his bandmates, he wouldn’t be able to hit the stage as planned.
This unfortunate situation elicited questions about what, if anything, Wizkid’s circumstances would mean to the international future of “Afrobeats,” a catch-all term coined by well-meaning but misguided Westerners for Nigerian (and Ghanaian) pop music.
Despite difficulties with international entry, Wizkid’s invitation to perform at Coachella felt merited after a landmark Summer ‘16, culminating in his feature on Drake’s “One Dance.” The single topped charts and broke streaming records. Of course, it wasn’t the first time a popular African artiste collaborated with a foreign artist. “One Dance” was especially significant, however, because both artistes were at the top of their respective careers and the forefront of the pop culture conversation.
While some have credited Drake’s Midas touch as the final push for “Afrobeats” into mainstream American music culture, that push was not enough to warrant physical, global domination. Wizkid’s inability to secure a visa represented a persistent barrier to entry for African artistes attempting to cross over to the States.
“As the world continues to experience our art and interact with its creators, the future of African music appears bright,” says Joey Akan, a Nigerian music journalist. “Only time will tell how big the movement will grow and perhaps, someday, take over the global stage.”
As it stands, the takeover will be hard-won. Those unfamiliar with the process of applying for a visa may believe, naively, that being a model citizen guarantees entry to other countries. However, experience proves that is not the case. Timileyin A, a representative of 3 Kings Media Group, responsible for Burna Boy’s show in Toronto, knows preparedness and timing are essential.
“We plan ahead of time and send in all paperwork to get a working visa early,” he says.
Even when an artist is granted a visa early—Burna Boy, according to Timileyin, had his work visa sorted out as soon as February for his August show—they can't predict what hurdles they’ll face at the point of entry. Having experienced pushback with other revered African artistes like Mr Eazi and Davido (who, notably, is an American citizen), he speculates the infamy of Nigeria as a nation plays a part in visa and international entry considerations for these artistes.
Timileyin, who has spent more than five years in the music industry, believes continued difficulties with international entries will not only impact people invested in promoting African artistes but also contribute to negative press about Nigerians and Africans. Still, Timileyin remains relentless in his commitment to elevating African music globally through live experiences. He believes the risk is worth it if everything goes according to plan.
Eche Enziga, founder of Afropolitan Group—a San Francisco lifestyle and entertainment company interested in elevating the “African experience” in “the Diaspora and beyond”—shares Timileyin’s sentiments. After Wizkid’s failure to secure a visa to perform in California cost him immensely, Eche, who has over a decade of experience in the industry, learned seven years ago that getting an African artiste into America is no small feat.
According to Eche, the process of getting an African artiste into the U.S. is rigorous because of the considerations before endeavoring the visa process: the cultural impact of the artiste, the artiste’s commitment to their craft, the artiste’s management group, and so on.
“In the past, it was largely based on the artiste’s popularity,” he says. “However, after having some popular artistes cancel tours, I book artistes based on shared values. Is the artist committed to their craft? What is their track record with shows with other promoters? Do they understand the seriousness of the business?”
With the immigration policies and ugly rhetoric of United States President Donald Trump, Eche maintains conditions are even worse now. According to Matthew Covey, executive director of Tamizdat, a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization providing free legal services to art organizations and facilitating intercultural exchange, the president’s policies have increased the complexity and unpredictability of the visa process.
“Since then, the complexity of the process of obtaining a visa has increased, as has the degree of unpredictability,” Covey told Observer. “What we are seeing now in the Trump Administration is that the unpredictability of the process has been ratcheted up.”
So long as the right structure is in place, Eche has faith the world is ready to support and promote African artistes. “Right now, it’s the Wild West,” he says. “I’ve been working on changing that, and I believe [Afropolitan] will initiate a structure that tackles some of the issues African artistes and promoters face with tours.”
Increasing interest in popular African music worldwide necessitates African artistes can control their narrative and how their art is exposed to new audiences. Their inability to steer their careers in whatever global direction their fans demand is harrowing and disconcerting. Hopefully, immigration policies don’t undo the work these artists have done to cross over into the global market.
Truly, only time will tell.