Music industry pioneers don’t come around all too often, and Burna Boy is one to cherish. Since emerging in Nigeria around 2012, he’s become a global giant, inventing his own genre, starting a business and enrapturing A-listers from Beyoncé to Ed Sheeran in the process. Music Week meets him, with his manager and mother Bose Ogulu and team Atlantic, to hear the story of a superstar revolutionary...
Burna Boy is in the shower. This year’s Grammy nominations have just been revealed, including a place in the Global Music Album category for his Twice As Tall LP, but there’s no trace of delirium inside his London residence, where he’s been with his family and team since arriving from Lagos in the summer. No, Burna Boy is merely indulging in his ablutions before picking up the phone to Music Week for a late night chat.
So, Burna, congratulations…
“Thank you, thank the most high, you know,” he begins. “Hopefully I win this one. It feels great, it feels right, like the right thing to do. It feels deserved.”
Burna Boy’s supreme confidence is understandable. Born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu in Mbiama, Nigeria in July 1991, he is an international superstar. And this is why we are here, talking on a cold winter’s night for the second part of an interview in which he and his team tell the story of how he became a modern music industry superpower.
Twice As Tall is epic, and Burna anticipated its success. On opener Level Up, he raps, ‘I’m a motherfucking legend and I say it proudly”. Released via his own Spaceship Records in partnership with Atlantic/Bad Habit, who he signed with in 2017, Twice As Tall hit No.11, his highest UK chart finish so far. His second consecutive Grammy nomination comes after he was named Best International Act at the BET Awards in America (presented by super-fan Naomi Campbell via video link), and a second BRITs nod is surely forthcoming. With livestreamed shows at an empty O2 Academy Brixton for MelodyVR and a headline slot at BBC Radio 1Xtra Live offsetting the postponement of a tour that included stops at Wireless and Glastonbury, Burna has maintained a constant, noisy presence throughout 2020. Spotify billboards for Twice As Tall (15,478 sales, OCC) appeared around the world, while Burna has collaborated with Beats and released a BoohooMan collection. He’s been trending on Twitter, too, calling out the violent suppression of the movement against police brutality in Nigeria. He gave an interview to 1Xtra on the subject and made a single 20.10.20 (‘And when we cry for justice/Them kill my people’) to express his disgust at the massacre that took place in Lagos last month.
Completed in lockdown in Nigeria and co-executive produced by his mother and manager Bose Ogulu plus Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, Twice As Tall counts legendary Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour, Stormzy and Chris Martin among its guests and is full of similarly electrifying moments. It’s the kind of record that makes your skin prickle, defined by the Afro-fusion sound (a mix of Afrobeats, dancehall, hip-hop and more) that Burna Boy coined at the start of his career. Intensity, fire and euphoric melody are constant, and his vocals – a vivid mix of rapping and singing delivered in a blend of Yoruba, Igbo and English – make it unmistakeable. Burna promotes a pan-African message, preaches unity and rages against oppression, discrimination and marginalisation. This is protest music for the dancefloor.
My whole existence is about changing the status quo
The record’s defining moment is Monsters You Made, which is more volcanic torrent than pop song. Burna says that only Chris Martin would do for the chorus, he’d have left a blank space otherwise. He fires off lines about the, ‘Hate the oppressed generate when they’ve been working like slaves for some minimum wage’, before Martin’s hook, ‘Calling me a Monster/Calling us fake/No way, no way, no way’. With black culture, civil unrest and social injustice in sharp focus, and the planet in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s an anthem for the boiling chaos of 2020.
And thanks to 200 million global streams for Twice As Tall to date, his message is resonating. With 23.5 million followers across Spotify, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, his reach is massive. He’s a go-to for A list collaborations, in 2019, Beyoncé asked him for a song for her Lion King album, The Gift. The star can be seen mouthing the lyrics to Ja Ara E on her visual album Black Is King, too. Sam Smith also sought him out for Love Goes cut My Oasis. And then there’s Stormzy’s Own It (1,277,578 OCC sales, 199,451,177 Spotify streams), featuring Burna and Ed Sheeran.
Burna’s music has always been well-loved among the UK’s African community, ever since his 2013 debut album LIFE (Leaving An Impact For Eternity). Last year, he became the first African act to headline Wembley Arena, which he sold out, and the UK connection runs deep.
He studied media at the University of Sussex and Oxford Brookes, and spent time in London, exploring underground UK music. Now, he’s influencing a generation of British acts. Reeling through his other UK collaborators – Lily Allen, Jorja Smith, Wretch 32, J Hus, Dave – shows the breadth of his reach. Outside these shores, he’s worked with everyone from Fall Out Boy to Major Lazer, Damian Marley to Future, Pop Smoke to Wizkid.
How, then to sum up Burna Boy’s importance?
“We’re creating the path that we once wished we had,” says Bad Habit’s Matthew Adesuyan. “He’s the guy out in the field with the machete, cutting down the path in a 10 foot tall jungle where all you can see is snakes popping out. That’s the fearless part of what he does, not just with business, but also in life, he’s on the frontlines rather than waiting for someone else to do it for him.”
At the start, Adesuyan says, Bad Habit “didn’t even know who the fuck to talk to at DSPs, the strategy was to break by any means necessary”. They concentrated on UK collaborations because of Burna’s fanbase here, trying to reach as many ears as possible. The label encouraged Burna to tour the US, which he did, moving from the 650 capacity Union in LA, to the city’s 2,500 capacity Wiltern Theatre in a year. Such growth continues. Before the pandemic, plans were afoot to play Madison Square Garden.
Now EVP at Atlantic, Austin Daboh was at Spotify when Burna was breaking, and is a longtime fan. He arrived at the major just before Twice As Tall, and has immersed himself in every aspect of the campaign, paying particular attention to streaming. He points out that Twice As Tall was the fifth most streamed album in the UK in release week.
“This is an artist that genuinely stands for something,” Daboh says. “Monsters You Made with Chris Martin shows the bravery he demonstrates when talking about blackness. For me, Burna represents black excellence, so it’s amazing to see his well-oiled machine that can put out world class music and promotional campaigns as well.”
He’s got that special thing of being able to be influenced but still be unique
Now at 0207 Def Jam, Alec Boateng talks to Music Week as one of his final acts at Atlantic, and is clearly emotional about what Burna Boy has built.
“He is a new generation black artist in that he takes influence from dancehall, British culture and hip-hop and still remains African,” he says, adding that Burna’s impact transcends traditional measurements.
“He’s got that special thing of being able to be influenced but still be unique. There’s no sound or style that is bigger than Burna, he’s one of the most sonically unique artists on the planet and unites black culture better than anyone.”
BBC Radio 1Xtra joint music lead and presenter DJ Target tells Music Week that Burna’s understanding of international audiences is key. “He has become an icon among a generation, and with his mainstream global success he’s reaching people from all walks of life,” he says. “In the world we live in today, Burna Boy’s impact has no ceiling. He represents change, and speaks out against injustice while representing young Africa and making worldwide hits. I’m sure he will continue to cement his legacy as one of the artists of an entire generation.”
The UK, says Burna, deserves a lot of credit, too. “It’s the place that shaped me into the man I am today,” he notes, which prompts the question of how it feels to return the favour, now he’s shaping the future for British acts.
“It brings a lot of joy,” he says. “There are a lot of younger generation UK artists that obviously wouldn’t be here if there was no Burna Boy. That makes me understand the gravity of the responsibility on my shoulders.”
As for how he approaches collaboration, Burna lets the wind take him. “Different songs have different spirits, I like everything to be organic and for everything to appease my spirits and ancestors,” he says, mystically. “That’s how the music comes and that’s how the collaborations end up. It’s always organic, it’s never a business deal…”
Burna Boy doesn’t have time for the music industry, almost forcing Music Week to cover our ears.
“I couldn’t give less of a fuck about that,” he admits. Instead, he’s building a business of his own. His Spaceship imprint has this year grown into Spaceship Collective, a records and publishing business run by Bose Ogulu, with Burna’s sister Ronami as creative and branding executive. Its remit is to nurture African talent. Producers Leriq and Telz made nine of the 15 tracks on Twice As Tall, while the label is home to Burna, Nissi (his other sister, who also designs cars) and Buju.
“The reason for the record arm is simply to provide structure, the kind we couldn’t have,” says Bose Ogulu. “For the publishing, the motive is to ensure as much as possible that catalogue for African artists remain in Africa.”
That Burna and his team are in a position to attack the industry their way is down to his mum’s work, which began when her son – who enjoyed driving his dad’s Mitsubishi in his youth – began taking music seriously. After years of graft at home in Nigeria (see box, p16), international labels came calling.
Hearing her story, Ogulu’s success with Burna seems inevitable. Her father, Benson Idonije, was Fela Kuti’s first manager, and their home was always full of music, not to mention musicians. Kuti would become an idol for Burna.
“I was born into this environment where there was a band around and my dad managed and paid them,” she explains. “My dad was some sort of celebrity, we had all the musicians around us, from Fela, to Roy Ayers, Stevie Wonder, Ginger Baker, all of them. I saw what the artists couldn’t do – pay their bands, make sure they had instruments, stuff like that. I knew that was not really an artist’s job. I learned how to differentiate good music from average music, I just learned how to recognise talent.”
Ogulu never planned to manage her son, but things soon snowballed, and it became a full-time job in 2017, after he had released LIFE and On A Spaceship via Nigerian label Aristokrat Records.
“I knew he was going to do something non-academic, but I wasn’t sure what,” she says. “Me managing him happened because he asked me to, secondly because I felt, like he did, that I had enough business acumen to handle it, and that he’d be better off with me than anyone else. And because I knew if he failed, I would have to feed him.”
Burna describes being managed by his mother as, “One of my most lucky treats”, breaking into a wide smile. “To have someone who I know has my best interests at heart has been very important to me and it’s an advantage I have over everyone, the fact that my home is in order,” he says. “It’s love, at the end of the day.”
Bad Habit’s Adesuyan emphasises the uniqueness of the Burna set-up, confiding that it runs so deep that his dad and Burna’s dad speak more than he talks to his artist.
“It’s a family thing, Bose is on a whole different fucking wavelength,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people that could keep up with somebody like Burna, she’s a special person and so is he.”
Ogulu says that it took, “A lot of bad coffee in label meetings” to find the right home. One of the most persistent chasers was Alec Boateng, who she refers to using his nickname, Twin.
We weren’t looking to ride on anyone’s back or have all the accolades given to another person and strip ourselves and our continent of our achievements
“He was like, ‘Look, this guy, his music is different and we want to do something with him’,” she says. “I remember going to his office and seeing Ed Sheeran’s poster on the wall and saying, ‘Is he with you?’ and he said, ‘Yes’. I said, ‘Get me Ed Sheeran and then we’ll talk’.”
In 2017, Adesuyan and Bad Habit popped up, and Ogulu recalls a promising conversation. “To work with Burna or any of us, you need to have an understanding of who we are, where we’re coming from and how we want to carry ourselves,” she says.
“We weren’t looking to ride on anyone’s back or have all the accolades given to another person and strip ourselves and our continent of our achievements. We didn’t want a label to say, ‘This is how you need to sound if you want a platinum album’. You need to sift through a lot of people.”
The partnership still has her approval, and Boateng even delivered Ed Sheeran, as promised.
“You never forget the first time you meet Bose, she’s a genius in many ways,” says Boateng. “She’d asked for Ed Sheeran and then when we did the Own It video shoot, she came and I dragged Ed from wherever he was, plonked him in front of her and said, ‘Look, here he is,’ which was quite funny. The business they’ve built is a real blueprint.”
Naturally, Burna Boy doesn’t put it in business terms, but his words make it clear that he and his team him are breaking new ground. “My whole existence is [about] changing the status quo,” he says. “There’s never been anything ‘normal’ or ‘blueprint’ about it. I just move, and as I move a blueprint gets created that everyone follows.”
As he leans closer and stares into Music Week’s eyes, it’s time to find out what he means…
How proud of Twice As Tall are you?
“I feel great, man. I feel honoured by everyone involved in the process. I feel accomplished, there’s a bridge that has been built that wasn’t really there before the album. A bridge becoming solid between Africans in Africa, Africans in the world and people in the world in general. It feels like my mission is getting closer to the accomplishing stage.”
There are protest songs on the album, but it’s also full of joy. Can you describe that contrast?
“There is protest music there, but at the same time there is music that helps you understand the messenger better. There are some songs that just put you in a happy mood, because I’m not a person who’s just sad [laughs]. Yes I am sad, and yes I am hurt by my environment, but at the same time, I’m happy about the things that are there to be happy about. I’m surrounded by family, I’m alive. It’s all about the good side, the happy side, the sad side and, most importantly, the revolutionary side. It takes a lot of elements to make a person. If you hear my albums, then you know me better as a person, you don’t need to meet me. I believe music should be something that makes a time in the artist’s life feel timeless. It’s almost like putting your experiences in life in a time capsule and then 50 years later, some kid comes across it and that’s how the kid sees what was happening. That’s really all my music is, man, me immortalising different times in my life. Now more than ever, we’re realising that we’re all going through the same things and we’re all brothers in the same struggle.”
Do you see it as a soundtrack to 2020?
“Yeah, but I’ve made protest music since I started. I’m from Nigeria, so we have every reason to protest. A lot of people in other parts of the world are already fighting for a revolution, but we have more reason to fight and we don’t fight enough, that’s why I’ve always put it in my music. That’s my punching bag. I’m just trying to paint a picture of reality and what I think is the solution. I want the truth to be known. I want the younger generations and our children to know the truth and have their foundation in the truth as opposed to in the lies of Europeans and colonial masters.”
Can the music world’s approach to the Black Lives Matter movement make a difference?
“It’s great what’s been happening this year with people waking up to the realities of our lives, but it’s not something you just do once. It’s a marathon, not something you just do now because you feel like everyone is doing it or it’s cool. It’s the long run. Hopefully everyone stays awake. But from what I can see, my people are getting distracted again and things are just going back to how they were. It’s difficult in a hopeless place, but I am hopeful for the future.”
How is the violence in Nigeria affecting you?
“These things are happening not 10 minutes away from where my house is. If you listen to 20.10.20 it explains everything. The world can see, the world can hear. No matter how those responsible try to cover things up, the world can see and that’s all I care about. It’s the quickest [song I’ve done] but it’s the most necessary. The situation is a lot bigger than me. I try to make sure the right light is shed in the right places.”
What has your time in London been like this year?
“It hasn’t felt the same, I’ll tell you that much. We’re making the best of the situation. It feels different in every way, I can’t do anything I used to do. When I’m performing, I’m performing for myself and for my band and cameras, the whole thing is changed. [Earlier this year] I started thinking I might never perform again. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but every disappointment is a blessing, everything happens because it’s supposed to. That’s how I see it.”
Where is the UK’s relationship with African music at right now?
“You have to understand that the fruits you pick in the UK have their roots in Africa. Everyone who enjoys apples, at the end of the day you have to thank the tree. You have to go back to the tree to make sure it’s blessed. That’s the relationship between African music and the UK, it is the root of what you see today in the UK. I feel very proud and honoured to be one of the pioneers of that.”
The OCC launched an Afrobeats chart this year,is that a good thing?
“Most definitely! But it could also turn into a bad thing. It might turn into a bad thing if you have an Afro chart in the UK and the people who are in charge have never been to Africa and don’t have any connection with Africa. If you’re going to have an Afro chart, you should be in Africa making sure you’re in tune with what’s going on, so you don’t put something that’s only big in the UK on the chart. It’s an Afro chart, it’s not a UK pop music chart. They need to travel and make sure the people who are really putting their life on this Afrobeats thing, the pioneers, actually get to enjoy the chart.”
How would you like to see Africa’s international musical imprint grow?
“What I would like is for Africa to become one country, so that we can all have an African passport, one currency and just fucking remove our differences and come together. If we were a united nations of Africa or something, then I probably wouldn’t even need to come to the UK to promote my music.”
You say you don’t consider yourself part of the music industry, why is that?
“For me to consider myself part of an industry would mean I have to dance a certain tune or act a certain way to be able to excel. I believe I’m an individual who has a message and puts his message in his music and just lets everything else just be everything else. Being part of an industry would mean there are people I’m competing with, none of that applies to me. I’m just me, I’m here on my own. I look left and all I see is me. That’s not really an industry, is it?”
But you are building a business with Spaceship Collective…
“Of course, it’s what I’ve always been doing, it keeps me happy. Everybody pulls their weight.”
How do you measure success?
“I feel like I’ve been doing good since 2013. Doing [well] is not impressive to me anymore. I want the future to be good. I want my people to be good. You’re not good if you’re surroundings are not. I’m beyond fighting for my own survival, I did that, ages ago. Now, it’s a lot bigger than me. I almost don’t even matter in the grand scheme of things.”
What do you want Twice As Tall to achieve?
“I want it to be the reference point for unity of our people. It’s time for us to really do something that matters. I don’t want children to grow up the same way I did, with separations and borders and, ‘We are all better than you’. We need to understand coming together as one Africa, even though people say, ‘We’re so diverse, we speak different languages, we have different cultures and blah, blah, blah’. Yeah we do, and most of us didn’t like each other in historical times, but now, we are all just [seen as] n*****s. We [need to] realise and try to focus on making sure we are not and that our children are not, that our children [become] powerful people, kings and queens who are a world power. That’s what Africa is, it’s the world’s most powerful place. I want this album to be the reference point for every African, one Africa and what could be gained from that. I don’t care what could be lost, because we’ve already lost everything.”