At last year’s Grammy Awards, Burna Boy’s fourth album, African Giant, was nominated to some controversy in the Best World Music Album. Critics saw the niche nomination as a snub and an othering of music from outside of the Western sphere. With African Giant's record-breaking 1billion plus streams, (the most streamed African album ever), and mass critical acclaim, Burna Boy could easily have been nominated for Best Album or any of the pop categories.
The eventual winner on the night, Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, dedicated her award to Burna Boy, real name Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu. She declared him among a new generation of artists “changing the way our continent is perceived, and the way that African music has been the bedrock of every music.” Few could question her comments.
Along with his peers in the loosely defined Afrobeats genre, 29-year-old Burna Boy measures among the most influential musicians of his generation – his fifth album Twice as Tall, released today, hammers the point home. In his home country of Nigeria, he’s a megastar. Multilingual, he shifts between Nigerian Pidgin, Yoruba and English. His music fuses elements of reggae, Azonto, dancehall, hip hop, ndombolo, R&B and highlife. And while Afrobeats is considered distinct from the Afrobeat sound pioneered by Fela Kuti, Burna himself serves as a direct link to the legendary Nigerian bandleader and activist.
His grandfather, Benson Idonije, was Fela’s first manager and there are (disputed) claims that Burna’s manager, mother and Twice As Tall exec-producer, Bose Ogulu, was once a dancer with Fela’s band. Burna Boy has the Lagos legend and political activist’s face tattooed on his arm, and a diamond-encrusted pendant depicting Fela, fists aloft in defiance, is rarely far from his neck.
Burna Boy’s music frequently interpolates Kutian rhythms, and he borrows melodic flourishes and a penchant for chanted vocals too. Fela’s fierce brand of anti-colonial political activism increasingly finds a vessel in Burna Boy as well: in recent interviews he’s expressed his commitment to Pan-Africanism and the armed African-American group of ex-military personnel NFAC (Not F______ Around Coalition), which has drawn comparisons to the Black Panthers. Burna uses his music to call for unity among Black people across the globe – as well as critiquing the poisonous legacies of colonialism and the slave trade.