“Anywhere I go mo n’ lati pada si ile mi,” booms Burna Boy on the opening line of “Wonderful”, the lead single from his fifth studio album, Twice As Tall. It translates from pidgin English and Yoruba to “No matter where I go, I must return to my home.” It could be interpreted as the Nigerian artist committing to stay grounded in the wake of last year’s Grammy nominations, sold-out date at London’s Wembley SSE Arena and global recognition. But after speaking with him, it sounds much more like a rousing call to those with African heritage, both within and outside the continent, to remember and respect their roots. The way he sees it, Africa planted the seeds for modern society and, if we want to move it forward, then perhaps it’s time to go back to where it all began.
Burna Boy’s already there, of course, hunkered down in Lagos, Nigeria, where he’s seen out the pandemic while working from home on his album. “It’s been great for me, but I can’t say the same for everyone else,” he says of lockdown life. “I’ve spent it being creative, researching, finding out more about myself, learning more about ancestors, trying to exercise my mind and body.”
Released last Friday, Twice As Tall was crafted predominantly within his own home, a first for the 29-year-old, despite the fact that he’s almost a decade into his career. His particular brand of self-coined Afro-fusion, a sumptuous blend of global black sounds – Afrobeat, dancehall, reggae, rap and R&B – spearheaded a wave of mainstream Afro-influenced music that has crashed onto the shores of the UK with such force that we now have the recently launched Official Afrobeats Chart, giving the genre the same amount of recognition that rock, R&B and dance have enjoyed for decades. Burna Boy believes that it’s resonated with British audiences so strongly due to the fact that most black people in UK are more aware of their roots, whereas lineage was erased by slavery in the US, but his London collaborator, Jae5, also sees another cause.
“It’s because of uni culture,” he says. “Before people such as Burna Boy and J Hus blew up, about seven years ago, DJs such as Stamina and DJ P Montana were throwing raves for 4,000, 5,000 people and all they were playing was Nigerian and Ghanaian music – straight up Afrobeats. The underground scene just kept on getting bigger and bigger and evolved into what it is now. I think it started way earlier than what people seem to think.”
Now, everyone’s in on it and everyone wants to work with Burna Boy: most recently he’s collaborated with Sam Smith, but his catalogue also includes songs with Stormzy, Dave, J Hus, Jorja Smith and Damian Marley, to name a few. Last year, he featured on Beyoncé’s The Lion King soundtrack, The Gift (before we speak, I’m asked not to mention Black Is King, the visual album that was recently released to accompany it). For Twice As Tall, he called up Sean Combs (AKA Diddy) to ask if he would executive produce the album. Naturally, he obliged.
Despite the external input, his sound hasn’t changed since last year’s astronomically successful African Giant. More heavyweight features come in the form of Coldplay’s Chris Martin on the impassioned, reggae-influenced track “Monsters You Made”, but producers such as LeriQ, Telz, P2J and London’s own Jae5 have ensured the Afro-fusion flavour still runs through.
Jae5 worked on Twice As Tall’s “Bank On It”, after collaborating with Burna Boy on his third album, Outside, and his features with J Hus and Dave, and recalls working on the track with him and Randy Valentine. “The vibe was amazing. We got in the studio, they hotboxed the room – I don’t even smoke, but it gets me intoxicated,” he says, laughing. They were supposed to be working on another song, but Burna Boy and Valentine wanted to start fresh when things weren’t falling into place. “I was like, ‘It’s the drugs,’ but it turned out to be way better than what we were originally doing. It was natural. Randy was on the keyboard, I was playing the bass and he was just vibesing the melody for an hour. It was just us jamming.” It wasn’t long before Burna Boy was ready to get into the booth. “He kind of just freestyled the song within an hour.” So, as Burna Boy himself puts it, from Twice As Tall you can “Expect Burna Boy to be doing what Burna Boy does: educating and bringing the vibes at the same time.”
The vibes are important, but it’s the education of his listeners that Burna Boy is most passionate about – or the reeducation, the process of unlearning and rediscovering what truly matters, that he believes is the key to unlocking our full potential. Everything we think we know is wrong, he insists. “There’s no topic that you’ve actually been educated on. Not one. None of us were taught or ever given the knowledge that would actually help us. No one was taught any knowledge that actually teaches them about themselves. At the end of the day, everyone was taught someone else’s reality.”
The phrase “History is written by the victors” comes to mind, an adage that has been repeated and shared widely as Western society reckons with its pervasive problem with racism and reevaluates its past. As Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the world in response to police brutality in America, Burna Boy has watched from afar. “It is something that brings me so much joy to see, because this is something that couldn’t have been accomplished in 20 or 30 years,” he says of the movement and the increased solidarity it has created among black people globally. “It’s all fallen into place in this one year. It brings hope that we’re not hopeless people.” It all comes back to the idea of relearning and rebuilding. “Now is the time to rise up, teach and take our rightful place in the world.”
Even though Burna Boy has not been at the protests himself, his music has been, soundtracking resistance in places such as London, where a video of protesters dancing to his track “Ye” went viral. “That is one thing that really gives me a sense of happiness, pride and accomplishment. Seeing things like that motivates me to go on.” It’s no surprise that his music has found a home at demonstrations, himself previously calling it “protest music”. As much as his songs uplift and inspire its listeners to dance with their infectious beats, sun-soaked production and his powerful but comforting vocals, they are also deeply defiant, from their non-conformity to a single genre to his often political lyrics.
“I didn’t grow up the same way that 90 per cent of my peers did,” he says. “We’ve always been rebels, me and my whole family, so it’s just kind of who I am.” Burna Boy’s grandfather was Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s manager, with his mother later taking on the role, and the artist’s presence in his life has clearly influenced him, from his advocacy for black power to his music. “He’s the embodiment of protest music. I learned lessons from him, good and bad, from his experiences and music. There are so many songs [that influenced me]: ‘Army Arrangement’, ‘Coffin For Head Of State’, ‘Buy Africa’. I can’t name them in one go.”
At the end of the final track on African Giant, “Spiritual”, you hear a quote from the acceptance speech Burna Boy’s mother gave when she accepted his BET Best International Act award last year on his behalf. “The message from Burna, I believe, would be that every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.” He takes this idea a step further when we speak. “If I had my way, every black person that’s outside of Africa should be deported back to Africa.” Initially, I’m taken aback. It sounds too similar to the “go back home” rhetoric that black British people are too often subjected to from racists. But his point is less about belonging and more about pooling talents to create an Africa that is as powerful and respected as other continents.
“It’s just so that we can build Africa and get rid of all the animals and the vampires who refuse to die, who are so old, who are just running us into hell and have been for centuries,” he says, clarifying that “the vampires” are Africa’s leaders.
“The only way Africa can become the powerhouse that it should be is to get rid of all the African leaders that are here right now, because they have done us no good. The only way that can happen is if you all come back and do what you have to do.” I ask the first, perhaps naive, question that pops into my head: the African diaspora is so vast, how would everyone fit? “Where you are now, you think there’s room for you?” Literally and figuratively, maybe he has a point. “Your ancestors are calling you right now. This is the time.”
Burna Boy is a man of few words – “If I had my way, you wouldn’t even know what I sound like talking” – but when he speaks, he does so with an air of wisdom that’s beyond his years and, in the moment, can convince you that everything he’s saying must be true. If you do indeed believe that everything he says is true, then his wisdom can be explained by the fact that this is not his first shot at the game of life.
“The purpose of this world is the pursuit of your highest self. I believe that if you don’t reach the highest self and you leave this world, you end up coming back,” he says. “Right now, the system is not set up for people to find their higher selves, so what we’re going to see is just a bunch of recycled people that have been recycled and recycled and recycled into this world. It’s up to you to break all the norms and get rid of everything you think you know and get back to what they call the default setting. You have to empty your cup in order to be able to fill up with the divine.”
How many times has Burna Boy been recycled? “Oh, I think I’ve been here at least four times, because I just don’t see things the way other people see it and, most of the time, it just comes across as so stupid to me. I might come across as arrogant, or not wanting to be understanding, or whatever, but the thing is I am. I do understand and that is why I feel so angry about what I’m seeing. It’s the fact that I understand what I’m seeing, but the people who are going through it don’t even understand.”
Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, Burna Boy’s confident approach to life ultimately boils down to experience. The lens through which he sees the world is framed by his global appeal that has allowed him to travel the world. The awards and recognition are nice, sure, but this is what he seems to value about his position in the public eye more than anything else.
“It’s been great, man,” he says when asked how he’s adjusted to his increased visibility over the past few years. “It’s been overwhelming and it’s been emotional at the same time, because if I hadn’t become this global I wouldn’t have been able to see firsthand the marginalisation, injustice and reality outside of my constituency.” It probably won’t surprise many to learn that the place that shocked him the most was America. “I’ve done about four or five tours. I am someone who has seen more of America than even some Americans. It’s unbelievable. It’s almost unspeakable the things that go on and just go unnoticed, unpunished and unsaid.”
As an outsider looking in, Burna Boy’s rise up the global charts feels incredibly significant. Here is a Nigerian man, unapologetic about his heritage and beliefs, unwilling to bend to placate Western tastes, and he’s become one of the biggest artists in the world. As Jae5 notes, the African artists who he grew up watching crossover into the Western mainstream would always adopt American accents when doing interviews. Burna Boy does the opposite. Apparently, thanks to a few years spent in London for schooling during his teens, he often speaks with a British accent among friends. “Burna Boy is confident in being an African and it’s made people proud,” says Jae5. “Making people feel proud about who they are, I believe, is a huge part of his success.” I wonder if, as the insider looking out, Burna Boy can also sense that he is a symbol of something much greater than record sales and sold-out arenas.
“That’s the thing. We’re all part of something monumental,” Burna Boy says, matter-of-factly. “We’re all part of something larger than all of us. I just know that, unlike a lot of other people who don’t know that they are a part of this grand scheme. I was just fortunate enough to realise early that this is what I’m a part of. I’m just not going to fuck around and be gone.” His enlightenment only came three years ago, so don’t worry if you’re not on Burna Boy’s level yet. It will, hopefully, one day click into place. As he says, “Life just wasn’t making sense anymore, until it made sense.”