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There are some shows that feel like just another date in an artist’s tour diary. But Burna Boy’s sold out Wembley show last November felt more like an inauguration. Somewhere between bursting out of the mouth of a supersized gorilla, drifting down in a harness to perform to a mostly-black crowd of dedicated fans – many of whom knew every word and Pidgin inflection – and the high energy appearances of peers-slash-collaborators Wizkid, Stormzy and Dave, one thing became clear: African Giant is more than an album name. It is the title Burna Boy is taking as he’s sworn into office as Nigeria’s global superstar.

In keeping with the ceremonial atmosphere, there were even speeches honouring his chieftaincy. One was made by his mother, Bose Ongulu, as she unexpectedly presented him with his MTV EMA award mid-performance, and the other when he was handed a commemorative plaque for being the first Nigerian artist to sell out Wembley Arena. Weeks after the show, as the decade drew to a close, he racked up another impressive accolade: a much-coveted Grammy nomination.

“That’s something I’ve basically spoken into existence,” Burna Boy, real name Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, says reflecting on the moment he knew he was in the running for Best World Music Album. In this case he actually sang it into existence, in the title track of African Giant: “Can’t nobody do it better‚ check am and see/ I know say one day e go better‚ I go carry grammy.” Perhaps that’s why during the aforementioned frenzy of affection and awards at his concert his expression was full of joy, tinged with a little humility – but certainly not shock. He’s exactly where he told himself he’d be.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Sunglasses: Gentle Monster
Jacket: Barena
Top: Napa by Martine Rose

“Everything in this world, including you, was an idea. It was either your idea or somebody else’s idea, but before it became a reality that’s what it was.” His assured voice deepens as he expands on his personal philosophy, one which certainly seems to be working. “It depends on who is speaking and how much the person believes in what they’re saying. That’s the real power of the tongue. Do you understand?”

It’s a question he asks a few times throughout our conversation. Mostly because he makes a lot of analytical statements – his own little Burna-isms that span how he looks at life, his identity, and the diaspora at large. Even over the phone, I can tell he’s exhausted, speaking in a low voice after performing back-to-back shows during December, Nigeria’s busiest party season. Despite this, the 28-year-old musician seems to possess the wisdom and conviction of someone much older. Perhaps you could attribute this to the years of hard graft that preceded his success, a success that an international audience might mistake as sudden when it was anything but. “Performing has always been a part of me,” Burna Boy says, revealing that he used to dance on restaurant tables during Sunday lunch with his family. “But I wasn’t really professional until 2010.”

Born in the seaport city of Port Harcourt, the majority of Burna Boy’s childhood was spent in Lagos State before moving to London to complete his studies. A resident until the age of 20, he calls London his “second home” despite having his visa rejected when he tried to re-enter years later; something that was only restored as late as 2016. “London taught me to be realistic,” he laughs. “It taught me patience.” Throughout his youth, it was his tight-knit family that laid the foundations for the artist he was to become. “I was exposed to a lot of different sounds in my childhood,” he recalls. His mum, a lecturer, would listen to French music, Ivorian music group Magic System and Anita Baker.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Sunglasses: Gentle Monster
Coat: John Lawrence Sullivan
Vest: Silhou Archive

His father, who ran a welding business, was into reggae. His uncle would listen to Naughty by Nature and “rap stuff”. “My grandad was Fela [Kuti]’s manager,” he adds. The Afrobeat pioneer is one of the most influential Nigerian musicians in history, an artist who used his music to take aim at the country’s corrupt elite and spread messages of African unity, socialism and resistance. “He was all about African pride,” he concludes, clearly relishing the familial connection to an icon.

It’s not hard to see how these experiences have moulded Ogulu into Burna Boy. His 2013 studio debut L.I.F.E., released on Lagos label Aristokrat, was heavily influenced by pan-African sounds and marked him out as one to watch in Nigeria. Subsequent releases have continued to build on his distinctive musical identity, a blend of Nigerian music, dancehall, rap and R&B, sung in English, Pidgin, Igbo and Yoruba. Indeed, while almost all of the music coming out of Nigeria is erroneously dubbed Afrobeats by outsiders – whether that be Tiwa Savage’s R&B-tinged sound, the sunny melodies of Afropop, or the slightly more underground alté scene – Burna coined his own term for his output: Afrofusion. It’s a term that embodies and honours Burna Boy’s rich mix of musical influences.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Jacket: Village Boy 256

As an interest in African music began to spread beyond the continent’s borders, Burna Boy’s clear vision caught the attention of the right people. He jumped on tracks for UK and US artists as diverse as Fall Out Boy – a band he says he listened to as a teen – to J Hus, Jorja Smith and Future. Own It, a collaboration with Stormzy and Ed Sheeran released at the tail end of last year, went on to become the UK’s first No. 1 of 2020. He even got the Beyoncé seal of approval when she tapped him for a song on The Lion King: The Gift, which she curated and executively produced. Still, the most potent expression of Ogulu on his own terms is, of course, African Giant, his colossal fourth studio album and Grammy-nominated global breakthrough. Released in July 2019, it shot to Top 20 in the UK charts and was ranked as one of Billboard’s Top 50 albums of the year. The album bounces between club-ready bangers with infectious beats like Killin Dem and Gbona, and love songs for your Netflix and chill playlist like Gum Body and cheaters’ anthem Secret. He also demonstrates his own curatorial ability by cherry-picking collaborators from across the globe, inviting the likes of Jeremih, Damian Marley and fast-rising Nigerian rapper Zlatan to the project.

Most importantly, African Giant is an album with a marked sense of purpose. The record has moments of evoking his musical hero – and his granddad’s old friend – Fela Kuti, most notably through Afrobeat rhythms and narratives of inner city struggle on Wetin Man Go Do. Elsewhere, Dangote details his hunger to work towards success in the same way as Nigeria’s richest man Aliko Dangote. He even uses the music video – over 10 million YouTube views and counting – to disseminate a stat about Nigeria’s 23.1 percent unemployment rate, stating that it should be “a priority for any government” to empower the workforce. The outro on Spiritual includes a sample of the acceptance speech his mother gave at the BET Awards when he won Best International Act. “And the message from Burna, I believe,” Mama Burner said, addressing the crowd in LA. “Would be that every person should please remember that you were Africans before you were anything else.”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
(Left) Vest: Silhou Archive
Shoes: Asics
(Centre) Sunglasses: Gentle Monster
Coat: John Lawrence Sullivan
(Right) Full look: Louis Vuitton

“Every time I go on any stage it feels like I've gotten just a little bit closer to achieving unity”

“I feel like a lot of my people don’t really understand the situation we’re in right now. We must go back to the beginning and understand how we started as a people,” he explains. “Nigerians are the kings of suffering and smiling but everybody is going through their own things. These things are caused by our situations, by the hand we’ve been dealt, and our inability and unwillingness to change it.” For Burna Boy, who spends his spare time watching historical documentaries, music is a tool to educate his fans.

Take the brief history lesson that introduces Another Story, which details the potted history of modern Nigeria. The opening sample, which is orated by director Jide Olanrewaju and lifted from his documentary A History of Nigeria, traces how, in 1899, Britain bought the country’s territory from The Royal Niger Company for £865,000. “Actually, there’s one additional detail that bears mentioning,” Olanrewaju declares on the track. “So let’s establish a simple truth: the British didn’t travel halfway across the world just to spread democracy. Nigeria started off as a business deal for them.” As the song’s jangly guitar and mellow percussion swells into the fore, Burna Boy’s melodic coos directly acknowledge the wilful deception of British colonialism: “They wanna tell you another story/ Since 1960 them dey play us.”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
(Left) Sunglasses: Gentle Monster
Jacket: Village Boy 256
(Right) Sunglasses: A BETTER FEELING

Burna Boy’s message of African solidarity comes at a time when Nigeria is assuming its position as a cultural heavyweight on the continent. Its music industry generated $39 million in 2016, according to a PwC report. This is expected to grow to $73 million by next year. A new generation of artists are riding the wave of Afrobeats. Their influence in the UK can be read in emerging interest in genres like Afroswing, Afrowave and Afrobashment. Burna’s response to this development? Of course, pride. “The world finally gets to experience the greatness – and this is just the beginning. There are so many incredible new artists and producers coming out. You lot aren’t ready!”

When I ask where he sees himself within Nigeria’s growing music scene, he says that it’s for us to assess. So here it goes: what Burna Boy offers is a rock star energy, writ large in his style and the pageantry of his shows (“where I’m happiest, I morph into an adrenaline junkie,” he admits). Compared to other Nigerian crossover success stories, say Afrobeats hero Wizkid or pop superstar Davido, Burna’s effortlessly cool demeanour and unfiltered opinions furnish him with a harder edge. The Coachella organisers got a taste of just that in January last year, when he took to Instagram to berate the size of his name on the poster. “I really appreciate you. But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small in your bill,” he wrote, in a post that was later deleted. “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix tings quick please.” The subtext to the US industry was clear: widen your Anglocentric gaze.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Full look: Louis Vuitton

“The world finally gets to experience Nigeria's greatness – and this is just the beginning”

But for all of Burna Boy’s rapidly growing recognition beyond Nigeria, it’s his home continent that occupies his mind the most. “I hope Africa [feels united like] a country one day. For me that’s the most important thing that has given me motivation,” he reflects. “You know, when people go to work every day and hope they can get a new car or something, this is what I hope. Do you understand?”

Spend any amount of time with Burna Boy and it becomes clear that he’s an artist looking at the bigger picture of connecting black people to our shared culture and ancestral homes, and making Africa a united entity, culturally and politically. I’m reminded of something he said at his Wembley show, back in November, when he told the crowd to research their history because “any tree without roots will fall”.

“Every time I go on any stage it feels like I’ve gotten just a little bit closer to achieving unity,” he explains. “The greatest achievement is, and always will be, the lives you’re able to touch while you’re on this Earth.”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
(Left) Vest: Silhou Archive
(Right) Jacket: Village Boy 256
Trousers: Armani
Shoes: Asics

Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Photography Assistant: Zoi Pahtalias
Styling: Ade Udoma
Styling Assistant: Isaac Luutu
Grooming: Lai Zakaria

African Giant is out now via Atlantic Records. Find Burna Boy’s upcoming live dates here.