Multiple award-winning singer, Damini Ogulu, better known as Burna Boy, tells MOBOLA SADIQ about his music career, choosing his mum as his manager, Grammy Awards nomination and other issues
You have become one of the most successful singers to come out of Nigeria and Africa, what does that mean to you?
It is great. It is an incredible privilege to have a platform and at the same time, it is a burden as you have to ensure you’re using your platform for the right things. It’s also important to realise that you can’t please everyone.
It means a lot to me and the continent that African music is once again being accepted and consumed globally. It is time that the world started listening to Africa because like I have always said, music started from Africa and I feel like when everything is going in the opposite direction, like what is going on right now, everybody runs home.
Growing up, did you know you would become a music artiste?
I have always loved music. Since I was a little boy, my goal was to become a superstar. At the age of two, I knew I was going to be a star. As a toddler, I would dance and sing when my parents took me to restaurants. I liked to get on the table and sing Naughty by Nature’s song titled, Hip Hop Hooray. There were also a lot of positive influences such as my family who were into good music. I am close to my parents and I don’t hide anything from them. I am thankful to be grounded in the kind of family I was born into.
Every artiste has a story to tell. What were some of the challenges you faced, including any one that almost made you give up?
My latest album – Twice as Tall – tells my story. Life is a journey of ups and downs and I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is probably a cliché that goes, ‘It is not how hard you fall, it is how you rise up after the fall that matters’. I am not one to ever give up. I just face challenges head-on and learn from them.
What does music mean to you?
Music is a weapon for me. I think what a lot of people don’t realise is that people do music for different reasons. I am not a modern-day musician, I am a spiritual musician. That is why I can say my songs do not come from a place of strategy or gimmicks, it comes from spirits and I am just a vessel.
Would you believe it if I said I have never picked up a pen and paper and written down a song in my life? I have been blessed because, for me, it all just comes like someone is standing there and telling me what to say. It’s all according to the spirits. I strongly believe that some of us are put on this earth to do what we do.
Your songs often talk about racism, African culture and equality, why do you feel the need to concentrate on those aspects?
A true African story cannot be told without addressing these issues. I believe I am a citizen of the world and I have a responsibility. But at the same time in the world, it is my people who are really not getting what they deserve. It is just doing what I have to do when I have to do it. African culture and equality are very important. My hope is to spark something in someone that will cause them to look deeper into themselves and their surroundings.
Your genre of music is Afro-fusion, what differentiates it from Afrobeat?
I cannot tell you what differentiates them but I will tell you that Afro-fusion is a genre of music that has a Afrobeat base. Afro-fusion is a mix of different genres, such as reggae, rock and hip hop. Afro-fusion cannot be confused with Afrobeat, which is that complex funk the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti forged back in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, in recent times, Afrobeat has been attached to more electronics-driven ‘naija’ music.
Some people have opined that Nigerian artistes cannot sustain the international recognition their songs have earned them. What do you think about that?
I don’t know about all that. I feel everyone should be free to create what they want to create without the added pressure of trying to please the entire world. The people that think Nigerian artistes cannot sustain international recognition are wrong because only a few Nigerian artistes have even attained that recognition and most of them maintained it through their careers.
Many people criticise Nigerian artistes for using vulgar lyrics. How would you respond to that?
I don’t have any response to it.
Do you think Nigerian artistes are doing enough to drive attention to societal ills such as injustice and corruption?
A lot of Nigerian artistes address these issues through their music, but more can definitely be done to raise the awareness of the people.
Some people have also criticised music artistes for campaigning for politicians. What is your position on that?
It is up to an artiste to decide what to communicate with their music, but they shouldn’t communicate a message that is detrimental to the people.
The late Fela is regarded as one of the most influential and respected African artistes of all time, partly because his songs condemned bad governance. Do you think young artistes like you should toe that path?
No, I think Fela is Fela. He was a legend; I don’t think anyone should be compared to him at all. A lot of artistes (including me) are already following in his footsteps by using our music and platform to speak against bad governance. Whether we like it or not, our reality is bad governance, which reflects (badly) on the leaders we have. The reason we are where we are today is because of the leaders that we have and their greed. Who elected these leaders? Was it not the citizens? Is that not democracy?
How would you describe the influence of Fela’s music on your career?
Fela is my biggest musical inspiration. He created Afrobeat and he did it at a level of excellence that inspired my journey as a young artiste. I grew up listening to Fela’s music and it had a great impact on my career and message. I share my grandfather, Benson Idonije’s affection for Fela, who is an influence, not just musically, but also on my philosophy.
Fela always made the music he wanted and in defiance of Nigeria’s military dictatorship, which makes him my superhero.
Your music has earned you international appeal, nominations and awards, will you consider this moment the height of your career?
No, in space, there are no heights; it is just an upward trajectory and this is what I will maintain. There is still a long way to go before I feel like I have achieved my purpose. I guess success is subjective. When you achieve a goal, you set a higher goal.
Why did you choose to make your mum your manager?
My mother is probably the only person I can trust with my life. She is a phenomenal businesswoman and she has always been like that, so it made sense to make her my manager.
Artistes often have disagreements with their managers, how do you manage your relationship with your mum?
My mum and I have achieved the balance of separating the two branches of our relationship (work and family). It hasn’t always been easy but we have established the right balance now. I have known her my entire life and we understand each other a lot.
Do your mum’s managerial roles sometimes clash with her motherly roles?
No, my mum is a disciplined person and she knows how to separate both roles.
Your new album, ‘Twice as Tall’, was directed by P Diddy. What influenced the direction of the work?
The executive producer is American rapper, P Diddy (Sean Combs). I reached out to him and he came on board when the album was about 80 per cent done. He has a gift of sound and I felt the album needed some fresh ears and a fresh outlook. It was an honour to have him spend time on my project.
To create an African album of global resonance, I sought to make music as a citizen of the world, while addressing racism, exploitation and the general widespread misconceptions about Africa.
How long did it take you to make all the songs on the album?
I don’t write songs but it took me about six months to put the entire project together. I recorded most of the album (Twice as Tall) in Nigeria during the COVID- 19 lockdown where we all had to slow down and take stock of our surroundings. I decided to use that time to train my mind, body and spirit. I did a lot of researching into various historical topics. It was an enlightening time for me.
Since you don’t write songs, how do you get your inspiration?
I get into the booth and lay down the melody; the music just comes to me. Honestly, I can’t really explain it. The inspiration and ideas just flow through me spiritually when I’m in the studio. That is really all I can say.
Benson Idonije once managed Fela Kuti. What are some of the lessons you learnt from him that have aided your career growth?
The biggest lesson I have learnt from my granddad (Idonije) is that it is important to understand music. Don’t just enjoy the finished product; understand the science of the music. This makes a massive difference as a songwriter and performer.
How did you feel when you lost your first Grammy Awards nomination to Angélique Kidjo?
It was a strange feeling of disappointment, not because I needed the clout that came from the Grammys but I felt like I let a whole country/continent down as they had been rooting for me. But Angélique is like my music mother, she helped me realise that I needed to come back twice as tall.
You recently provoked controversy when you insinuated that Davido’s success could be credited to his father’s wealth. How would you describe your relationship with him?
It has been inferred that there is some sort of rivalry between you, Wizkid and Davido. Are your fans pitching you against one another or is that the state of things?
I am always proud to see other Nigerian/African artistes succeed and earn global recognition.
What are some of the humanitarian projects you’ve done as an influential artiste?
My passion project is in my home state – Rivers. I work with an incredible non-governmental organisation called The REACH Nigeria to feed about 300 families every week. We have plans to create a structure that helps people become self-sufficient but until then, we are making sure they get fed.
Some of your fans are waiting for wedding bells to ring as your relationship with British rapper, Stefflon Don, seems to get tighter. Are you planning to get married anytime soon?
I am working on my craft right now and trying to be the best version of myself.
You now work with international labels but some people feel that international record companies exploit Nigerian artistes. What do you think about that?
Have a good team and lawyer that will look out for you. Most Nigerian artistes don’t understand the deals they get into with international record labels. Without proper understanding of the dynamics – the pros and the cons, what your goals are and what and how you plan to achieve them. If your vision as an artiste is not aligned with what is being proposed to you, you’re bound to be exploited by the more knowledgeable party. It is important to remember that it is business first, sentiments later. It is just simple permutation.
Some people have said you are arrogant and snobbish. How would you describe your personality?
I am just a jolly good fellow.
How do you relax and unwind?
I hang out with my family and friends, watch documentaries, go to the gymnasium, pray, and swim. I either create music or play video games. These things are sacred to me.
How would you define your style?
My style is me; I like to try new things.
How long have you been with your dreadlocks?
I’ve been with dreadlocks for five years.
What sports do you like?
If I had not discovered and loved music deeply, I could have been a basketball player. That was my love all through primary and secondary schools. I really like basketball and I am quite good at it, no jokes. I am no Michael Jordan (American basketball player) though but I play good basketball.