Fresh off a new album and collaborations with everyone from J Hus to Lily Allen, Burna Boy is on a mission to redefine how the UK views African artists.
Burna Boy is what a modern rock star looks like. Locks tied on top of his head, chain-rolling spliffs as we talk, he radiates the cocksure charm of the Gallaghers, Bowie, and Lennon before him. Like all of those artists, he’s overcome the odds to be sitting here talking to me about his new mixtape Outside and like many of them might, he chooses to keep his sunglasses on throughout our interview.
Born Damini Ogulu, Burna Boy grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Music surrounded his upbringing. His father was a huge reggae fan, introducing the young Burna to the likes of Ninjaman, Shaba Ranks and Super Cat, while his grandfather served as the first manager for arguably the most revered African musician of all time, Fela Kuti. However, it wasn’t until Damini moved to London to study that he began to take his own music seriously.
“[London] influenced me a lot, that’s basically where it started. That’s when I went to a proper studio for the first time,” he explains of his short-lived time in the city, spending only a year or so here before dropping out of university and returning to Nigeria. Now back in the city to launch Outside, the impact of the UK on Ogulu has never been clearer. He speaks in London slang and chats fondly about hanging out with some of the city’s current luminaries; Lily Allen, J Hus and Mabel to name those featured on his mixtape. In the last few days, he has also been reacquainting himself with the studio where he records all of his music nowadays, a boat owned by Pete Townshend, former lead guitarist of The Who. London is Ogulu’s second home, though he’s still not entirely won over by the capital just yet, joking that “if it weren’t for music I’d probably never come back.”
The sounds of reggae, afrobeat (which in Ogulu’s own words means exclusively the music of Fela Kuti) and London’s diverse rap scene provide a good basis with which to understand Ogulu’s music. Originally an Africanised version of the party hip hop that ruled America over the years, his sound has developed and become more nuanced, paying more direct homage to these three worlds.
“The same things you had over here, we had as well” he explains of the reggae influence on his work, drawing a parallel to the development of jungle and grime in the UK. “Super Cat, Ninjaman, we had all of that. The same way it was influencing you guys here, it was influencing us [in Africa]” he explains patiently. “In Nigeria, we have reggae nights,” he tells me, the implication being that most people would assume otherwise, “most people’s dads love reggae.” It might seem like there would be a natural conflict in Ogulu’s music. Trying to be an artist from Africa, who embraces a love of reggae and dancehall as well as British rap music, without losing some of the Nigerian-identity in his music is no small feat. Luckily for Ogulu, that’s where Fela Kuti comes in.
“[His music] shaped me into the African musician I am now,” he admits openly, “If it weren’t for [him] you probably wouldn’t even know I was from Africa.” Like Kuti, Ogulu wants to present a new image of Nigeria and in a wider sense, Africa as well. One that instead of focusing on stereotypical narratives of ‘escape from the slums’, showcases the diversity of talent and life in Lagos and beyond. Ogulu isn’t coming to the UK in hope of a chance to win over a western audience, in fact, he’s expanding his empire. In Nigeria, in Ghana, and elsewhere on the continent, he’s a fully-fledged star. He boasts over one million followers on Instagram and often clocks up two or three times that number in views on his music videos. He’s been selling out shows since 2012.
Outside track ‘Streets of Africa’ is written in that spirit. Over a trap-inspired instrumental, Ogulu sings of his joy at being African, celebrating his heritage. A tongue in cheek tribute to his hero coming through on the outrageous line ‘I’m Fela Kuti with the hoes’. It’s closer to DRAM and Lil Yachty’s smash hit ‘Broccoli’ than it is to anything held up as a pinnacle of African music by heavily-patterned-shirt-wearing ‘world music’ aficionados and that’s precisely the point.
“Really and truly, you’ve probably never heard anything happy about Africa, have you?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s what I’m trying to do. There’s really not much good news about Africa anywhere in the world so I’m just trying to show it is a happy place. At the same time, like everywhere else, we have our challenges and our fucked-up sides… but at the end of the day, we all still manage to wear a smile and go about our daily lives. While he’s keen to change perceptions about his home continent, he’s also wary of painting with broad strokes.
Later in our interview, he makes a point to highlight how narratives around ‘African’ or worse, ‘world’ music can reduce an artist to geography, totally removing the hopes and ideas put into their work. “Everyone’s got different missions, so when you say ‘African music’ or ‘African musician’ you kind of put everyone together and the mission just becomes one thing,” he explains.
It’s for this reason that he concentrated on building his career in Nigeria before trying to break into British or American music industries. In his mind, too many artists spend their resources trying to gain attention with big name features early in their careers. It might seem like a conflicting stance given his latest two releases feature Lily Allen and J Hus, but Ogulu had been releasing music for six years in Nigeria before turning his attention to the UK. “I thought I was better than that. Why do I need someone else to make you see me? Am I not visible enough?” he asks, his grill flashing in the sunlight as he speaks.
However, it goes deeper than mere self-assuredness. For Ogulu, there’s a sense of identity that strengthens his music and his presence in the UK. “When you’re black, and you know exactly where you’re from, I feel like it gives you a power that we generally lack” he explains. Announcing himself in the UK with a mixtape that features some of its most beloved stars, with over five years’ experience in the industry and a positive, progressive sense of himself as a Nigerian artist, he’s in a much stronger position to control people’s perception of him. “It’s like a tree with no roots. You just see a tree standing and with no roots, you can kick it and it will just fall over. That’s why I fought to make sure people know this is where this guy’s coming from and this is where his roots are planted. You know that no matter how big the tree grows, it’s not going to fall.”
This article first appeared in Notion 79 – The Break Through issue.