5 Reasons Burna Boy didn’t Win the Grammy

Few things have caused as much excitement across Nigeria as the announcement of the 2020 Grammy nominees. Even on Twitter, that cesspit of controversy and cancel culture, the announcement brought happiness to Nigerians.

But, of course, that was glee at receiving an invitation to the world’s biggest music ball.

In reality, a Grammy, like most things worth having, is a tricky acquisition. Heavy sales figures are not a guarantee. Or Katy Perry and Justin Beiber would have the Album of the Year trophies.

No Grammys for Burna this time

Pure talent won’t get you there either. Or Nas would have won one by now. Bluster won’t cut it either. Or a young Kanye West would have gotten a Record of the Year award.

Beauty and demonstrable hardwork, too, fail. Or Beyonce would have more than one of the big Grammys at this stage of her career.

Winning a Grammy is the result of some strange alchemy going your way. And the alchemy is stranger when it’s the non-American categories. Burna Boy and his team have done the hard part of creating enough buzz to get a nomination. The rest is up to the Recording Academy.

We can hope, but here are 4 reasons why that Grammy might not be coming home in February next year.

4. Breakout Blues: It’s Burna Boy’s first time at this level and he’ll need for Lady Luck to swing his way heavily.

For now not many Grammy voters are aware of Burna Boy, and because his genre — the entirety of it at least — hasn’t quite broken into the US, the RA is unlikely to know how to assess the quality of what they are required to listen to.

3. The Politics of Genre: In 2017, DJ Black Coffee from South Africa said a collaboration with Usher failed because the American thought that Black Coffee’s song was “too modern”. There might be a lot to unpack in that quote but it’s a notion that hasn’t disappeared entirely from the US. A similar issue could come up with Burna Boy.

He might be unfamiliar but he is also familiar: reggae, one of Burna’s primary genres, has conquered the US so much it has its own category at the Grammys; there is the US R&B influence in his music; on the album, there are Jorja Smith and Future and YG and Jeremih, all of whom are known to the American audience.

Some members of the Recording Academy are likely to consider Burna’s Boy music as not quite fully belonging to the World Music category enough to be named winner.

Previous winners have been unmistakably non-American. Listen to Angelique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Tinariwen, all African winners of World Music Grammys, and you can see how an American music professional would think Burna Boy an outlier in that category.

2. The Unoriginality of Sampling: In several of the singles from African Giant, Burna Boy samples Angelique Kidjo and Fela. Sampling makes for great pop music because the genre thrives on familiarity. But at major awards considering artistic and technical achievement, originality might be prized above popularity.

The situation is even more complicated because Burna Boy’s main single from African Giant, ‘Anybody’, takes some ideas from Kidjo’s 1992 single ‘We We’. As Kidjo is also nominated in the World Music category, his winning might strike some voters as not quite right.

1. Angelique Kidjo: It is not in the Grammys’ nature to ignore an album by Angelique Kidjo. Since releasing her first album with Island Records in 1994, she has received 9 nominations, one coming outside of the World Music categories. She has won thrice and managed consecutive wins in 2014 (for Eve) and 2015 (for Sings).

Her latest album, Celia, pays tribute to the influential Cuban artist Celia Cruz, which means there are two cultures outside of the US being celebrated: Beninese and Cuban. Back in 2008, Herbie Hancock won the Best Album category for his tribute album to Joni Mitchell. That felt like a way of honouring both Mitchell and Hancock.

A similar sentiment could lead to a Kidjo win. So that if the competition is Burna’s African Giant, it is hard to bet against Celia, a multi-cultural work in a category aimed at recognising music talent from non-American cultures. (The other albums in the category, especially What Heat from Bokanté, Jules Buckley, and Metropole Orkest, also feature influences from more than a single culture but this analysis focuses on the African nominees.)

Bonus:

The Grammys love the Grammys: By that I mean members of the RA frequently reward people they have rewarded before…sometimes for the same album. The most recent example of this came in 2018 when South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo won the Best World Music category for Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration.

This seems normal enough until you look again at that anniversary and realise the album was basically a re-recording of the band’s 1987 album Shaka Zulu. Well, that album had already won a Grammy back in 1988. The Grammy was honouring a great music band but also patting itself on the back for recognising the album’s quality decades back.

The point here is that between Angelique Kidjo and Celia Cruz, there are 10 Grammys (including Cruz’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2016). What are the odds that the Grammys won’t reward Celia, an album with the vocals and music of two of its favourite non-American acts?

Note: This was first published on the Opera News platform as 4 Reasons Burna Boy Can’t Win the Grammy on 4/12/2019

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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