A Nigerian Pop Star Finds Success in the US, On His Own Terms

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By Neil Shah

One of the hottest acts in pop music now is a 28-year-old Nigerian whose blend of hip-hop, reggae and Jamaican dancehall music is drawing a growing U.S. audience—and the attention of megastars like Beyoncé.

Burna Boy, an established star in his native Nigeria, is connecting with American audiences as streaming makes it easier to discover new artists and fans increasingly ignore traditional boundaries of genre and nationality. And he’s at the vanguard of a broader groundswell of African pop music in the U.S.

U.S. on-demand streams of Burna Boy’s music totaled 89 million in the three months ending in September, up from 29 million in the quarter ending in June and 6 million in the year-earlier quarter, according to Nielsen Music. Burna Boy, whose real name is Damini Ogulu, has powerful champions: Beyoncé’s latest album, “The Lion King: The Gift,” includes a track performed solely by him.

Artists such as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour have long attracted U.S. fans, but mostly on the margins. In recent years, big stars including Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have produced blockbusters that celebrated global black culture, tapping artists like Burna Boy and Wizkid, also of Nigeria. This embrace is helping bring African music to the U.S. pop mainstream.

At the same time, for today’s Gen Z music fans, rigid genre classifications—and national boundaries—are dissolving, putting a spotlight on “post-genre” artists like Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X and Burna Boy, and fueling the popularity of Afro-pop, reggaeton and K-pop. Digital technology, meanwhile, helps members of the African diaspora connect with the sounds of home instantaneously, while driving collaborations among artists online.

“It really has been a sea change in the world of African music—unlike anything I’ve seen in 30 years covering that world,” says Banning Eyre, senior producer for the long-running radio show Afropop Worldwide.

Unlike many streaming-era artists who rack up millions of plays with their singles but aren’t a powerful draw on the concert circuit, Burna Boy is having cross-over success in part because he makes cohesive, high-quality albums and is capable of filling larger venues, experts say.

Already well-known in the U.K., Burna Boy has built an international career over the past decade. He grew up in southern Nigeria; his father ran a welding company and his mother, a translator, now manages him. He has family roots in the music industry: His grandfather is Benson Idonije, Fela Kuti’s first manager.

Burna Boy started releasing music in the early 2010s, achieving his first major hit in Nigeria with “Like to Party.” He went on to win corporate sponsorships and release a string of well-received albums that featured his distinctive voice, tuneful melodies and thoughtful lyrics.

He counts among his influences Fela Kuti, Angélique Kidjo, Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle and his own grandfather, Mr. Idonije. He is “the reason I sound the way I sound, and know the things I know,” he says.

A burgeoning “Afrobeats” club scene in the U.K. brought more attention to African musicians, nourished by the shuttling back and forth of first- and second-generation Nigerians and Ghanaians between England and West Africa.

Burna Boy, who divides his time between London, Los Angeles and Lagos, Nigeria, calls his music “Afro-fusion,” a melting pot of far-flung genres whose foundation is African music. (By contrast, “Afrobeats,” an umbrella term for African pop music, has drawn criticism for treating different African cultures as the same for marketing purposes.)

In 2016, “One Dance,” the ubiquitous hit by Drake, featured Wizkid and helped demonstrate to U.S. music executives a wider commercial potential for African influences. That summer, Matthew Baus Adesuyan, co-owner of Bad Habit, a U.S. music company that has a joint-venture label with Atlantic Records, came across Burna Boy on a Spotify playlist.

Mr. Adesuyan, who is half Nigerian, met the artist in a Nigerian restaurant in London. “Burna came from the streets,” he says. “His story matched up with the stories we fall in love with in America.” In July 2017, Burna Boy signed with Bad Habit and Atlantic, which handle his music outside of Africa. The video for “Ye,” a song from his 2018 album “Outside” that some streaming listeners initially confused with Kanye West’s album, “Ye,” racked up some 45 million views on YouTube.

“It’s only a matter of time,” says Craig Kallman, chairman and chief executive of Atlantic Records. “We’ve seen artists tap into the rhythms of Afrobeats and have success, mainstream hip-hop artists. So it’s time for an indigenous artist to have [that] kind of success.”

Last year, Burna Boy was recording with big U.S. names like Skrillex, Diplo and Timbaland, with plans to release an album called “Reckless and Sweet.” And he was invited to perform at Coachella.

But when the California music festival’s lineup was announced in January, its poster—which is widely-watched in music-industry circles—listed Burna Boy in a relatively small font.

Burna Boy expressed his displeasure on Instagram. “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means,” he wrote. The protest—which Mr. Adesuyan says also doubled as a defense of Nigeria’s culture on the global stage—went viral.

Burna Boy temporarily shelved “Reckless and Sweet” and made a new album titled “African Giant.” Its themes and music hewed close to his roots; its sound made few concessions to conventional U.S. pop tastes. “Wetin Man Go Do,” one of its catchiest tracks, laments the toil of the working class. The next track, “Dangote,” is named for a wealthy Nigerian businessman. Released in July, “African Giant” won critical praise and became his highest-profile project in America.

“He’s in his element right now, and the world sees it,” says Phiona Okumu, artist and label marketing manager for South Africa at Spotify.

Now, Burna Boy is winding down a tour of the U.K. and Europe, after which he’ll prepare to release his next album. “Recording is not something that stops,” he says.

Maimuna Hamidu-Bawa, 25, saw Burna Boy perform this summer at a packed show in Brooklyn. A Ghanaian-Nigerian who emigrated to the U.S. at age 8, Ms. Hamidu-Bawa has listened to Burna Boy since 2013 and watched his profile in the U.S. rise in the past few years.

“He just took it to another level—for African music, too,” she says. “It’s exciting to see that African artists are blowing up here.”

Write to Neil Shah at neil.shah@wsj.com

**This article was originally published in WSJ on Nov. 4, 2019

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