How African Giant Burna Boy misunderstands Fela and Nigerian politics
At some point on his new album African Giant, Burna Boy shouts, “My people sef dey fear too much. We fear the thing we no see”.
It is a line from the song ‘Collateral Damage’ and borrowed from Fela, the man whose wardrobe is regularly ransacked by today’s artists. Falz did a full album garbed in Fela. Wizkid took his costumes for the women on the cover of his sophomore album. Fela’s words and sound are regularly fitted into the fabric of other people’s songs.
Because Nigeria’s problems don’t really change, artists can take any number of lines from Fela and it’ll be fine. And on the African Giant song above, Burna Boy has taken a line from ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’, a Fela song from 1977.
As with many young Nigerians, I know the song because older family members played it in my childhood. It’s been a few decades since and I am now old enough to recognise that the sentiment is true today as it certainly was back in Fela’s day. So why then did I think there was something not quite right about Burna Boy saying those particular words?
One answer is that, well, it’s derivative. But you don’t have to be a music critic or culture journalist to know that pop music thrives on a level of familiarity. The real answer is Burna Boy hasn’t earned that line. I’ll explain.
Clearly, it is indeed fact that there is a lot of Nigerian fright in the presence of power. And if Nigerians organised protests at a rate proportional to the spread of corruption or injustice as reported in the media, there might be some change — or at the very least, the resulting economic paralysis might force the powerful into seeking a solution. So how come Nigerians, an otherwise restless group, become passive in the face of power and its injustices?
The answer to this question and the complex factors that feed it are what separates the activism of Fela from the version of activism generated by today’s stars.
To put it simply, the trouble with protests in Nigeria is what happens after. At the end of the day, the powerful and the poor mostly go to the same marketplace. Now, unless a large-scale violence is perpetuated, it is clear that the powerful have much larger resources and can wait until such a time that things return to an iteration of the normal. Given the same time frame, the poor would die off. So the issue is less a question of economics than it is one of biology: Survival of the fittest shall always favour the powerful — especially because if the wait takes too long, state-approved force can be deployed.
Now, when Burna Boy thunders mockingly about the fears in the heart of his fellow citizens, he is certainly not thinking of himself at the head or even middle of a protest. (It is much too soon to forget the story of an older artist who tried to rally his compatriots and then was cowed into resignation after he amplified the reach of a planned protest.) Burna Boy, it stands to reason, will likely watch such a protest from a large screen where protesters can be viewed as not much different from a set of hyper-realised characters produced from a console.
To appreciate the material difference between the man christened Damini Ogulu and the citizens he’s referring to, it is worth noting that a western publication recently put his wealth at around 22 million dollars. That is a figure more than enough to ship his family to some haven while the country and less fortunate Nigerians burn.
No one is asking that Burna Boy lays down his life but it seems particularly self-righteous to point the finger at other citizens without the same opportunities as you. Falz, of course, did the same thing repeatedly on Moral Instruction, a title that served his didactic purpose. Burna Boy has carried on the blame game from his colleague.
They have taken Fela’s words without considering his life, so much so that the sum of what Burna Boy’s generation of musicians is missing can be conveyed in two words: thoughtful empathy. And in the race to be the conscious offspring of Fela, they have forgotten that the persons listening to the political rhetoric in their music are living real lives far removed from concerts, clubs, and piles of cash. These people deserve more than blame.
That ‘Collateral Damage’ names the symptoms of Nigeria’s dysfunction — the embezzlement by the political class and the violence of the police — and yet can’t see how these contribute to the passivity of Nigerians suggests a lack of depth to Burna Boy’s politics. He is not making the connection he once made on 2015’s ‘Soke’, a song that was thoughtful and empathetic in the way that ‘Collateral Damage’, one of only two completely political songs on African Giant, isn’t. (The other is ‘Another Story’, which makes gestures towards colonialism and African leaders.)
On ‘Soke’, he mentions and complains about the lack of water and the non-existent power supply in Nigeria. He then gets to the real reason nothing changes and nothing has changed with regards to the culture of protesting:
“If e vex you, dem go call MOPOL/dem go come o/Carry you go.”
In the video for the song, those lines are accompanied by the image of a police officer holding onto a man’s trousers.
But even as the ideas on ‘Soke’ are scattershot, because Burna Boy praises himself for his uniqueness and asks the listener to dance, it shows an understanding of the powerlessness of the average Nigerian. The question is what has changed in four years to make Burna Boy lose this perspective?
A theory with merit is that as Burna moves away from the masses of his country, his stance might be changing. His situation might prove to be a milder version of the Timaya Curse — that affliction that sweeps an artist who once carried the hopes of the masses and then abandons them when fame and money come to his doorsteps.
In fact, to appreciate the distance between ‘Soke’ and ‘Collateral Damage’ is to grasp the gift and the curse of Burna Boy’s growth as a pop artist. ‘Soke’ happened years before Burna’s rapid transformation from talented music industry outsider to the closest chance the same music industry has to global recognition. Publicity for African Giant has gotten him space in Rolling Stones and The Atlantic, two major media organs in the US. It has been reviewed by Spin, NME and Pitchfork. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel. Apple and YouTube have heralded the man. He is signed to Warner Music’s Atlantic Records.
In other words, Burna Boy is a product getting noticed in the UK and the US, the world’s greatest market. How can he identify with the insecurities of a man, a woman, a family wrestling with the basics of survival in Nigeria? Of course, he wants them to fight their circumstances as most people with privilege want the underprivileged to do. If you work hard, you can be like me, forgetting that the hard work that is air-conditioned isn’t the same as the hard work without respite. To paraphrase a line from my mother’s people, “Hunger when get hope no be real hunger”.
This means that it is possible to see Burna’s politics as the foundation for the economic philosophy he espouses on ‘Dangote’, a song that in its way equates hustle to success. Of course, this is an idea that Nigerians of all classes want to believe. The trouble is the titular billionaire who “still dey find money” isn’t your average Nigerian and never was. He got the initial funding for his business from a rich uncle and he has since cultivated powerful friends with whom he can never fail. It’s fair to hail Dangote’s acumen but watch the background.
Burna himself probably thinks he’s a prototype of success through elemental hustle, a story presumably reproducible by other Nigerians, meanwhile only a fraction of Nigerians can afford a flight ticket, talk more of being the teenage recipient of UK-living, a very important part of the Burna Boy success story.
‘Soke’ eventually found its way to his last album, Outside, as a bonus track. That same album contained ‘PH City Vibration’, a tribute to his Port Harcourt roots, a place that appears to have been replaced with “Africa” on the new album.
Burna Boy has grown bigger than his town; he not only belongs to Lagos city on the new album, he belongs to the continent. But while celebrating the Burna Expansion and what it could do for Nigerian music, it should be acknowledged that Burna Boy’s scaling appears to have led to his disconnection from the kiosk owner around the corner. That woman might have accepted her station in life so much that she is stationary, and this possibly doesn’t seem nice to a man with Grammy aspirations.
But besides being Nigerian and in the music business what exactly has given today’s young musicians — Burna Boy and Falz, in particular — the authority to accuse Nigerians in the way Fela did on ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’, a song that grew from Fela’s personal encounter with power?
The answer is fame and material success because, ultimately, Nigerian society links financial success with virtue and authority.
But by going along with this idea, both Falz and Burna Boy fail Fela. They fall short of Fela musically because neither can claim genius instrumentation or songwriting. They fail Fela politically because they are yet to master conscious talk and are yet far from taking the walk.
I have argued before that the trouble with Falz on Moral Instruction is the absence of self-criticism, of introspection until the album’s spoken-word last track. I wrote that Fela didn’t have to present his foibles and failures in his music because the media did that for him. So even as Fela escapes accusations of hypocrisy, Falz can’t.
Similarly, on African Giant, Burna Boy has forgotten the empathy lessons he demonstrated so well back in 2015. Meanwhile, Fela didn’t have to make a showing of his empathy because he lived it, given that he gave several homeless and underprivileged persons shelter at his Kalakuta Republic residence. For all of the genius of Fela’s music, it never would have packed as much power without the example of his actions. This distinction is important.
Fela was the rich kid from an elite family. And if he was at first oblivious, he came to understand just how much he had and how that made him different from those he was speaking to and for. He demonstrated this understanding with his actions — despite his problematic personal life — so much so that when he spoke about the docility of his compatriots, it was understood that this man knows what he is speaking about. Falz rapped about moral instruction; what is his moral authority?
“We always get reason to fear,” Burna Boys on ‘Collateral Damage’. “ Fight for your right you go dey fear. Police go slap you, you go dey fear.”
Let’s be practical: the only Nigerians who can get away with returning a police officer’s slap without potentially deadly reprisals are the powerful, the rich, or the famous — all things that the average Nigerian isn’t. Is that average Nigerian really going to risk responding to a slap from a police officer?
While we wait for an answer, Burna appears quite happy to be the poster boy of conscious music even as his current lyrics don’t add up for anyone willing to go past the incredible power of his song’s vocals and its masterful production.
An unflattering evidence of his happiness to play this role can be found in a recent feature story in Billboard. A western journalist, probably based on the suggestion of a PR team, projects politics to the song ‘Killin Dem’. The song, says the journalist, “sounds like a polemic about Nigerian politics”. He asks Burna Boy about his true intentions. Burna mischievously refuses to explain, thereby causing the journalist to leave his hypothesis in the published draft.
Of course, no Nigerian with even a passing knowledge of the song sees it as a polemic but such an interpretation is catnip for the US audience. Maybe it’s a harmless kind of deception but it doesn’t make for a comfortable read for someone apparently concerned with Nigerian corruption.
In any case, part of the reason it is tricky to probe the lyrics of Burna Boy is attributable to his vocal turn. His patois, his deep tone, his phrasing — all come together to give his songs a melodious gravitas that few of his peers can reproduce. But gravitas is not the same thing as political consistency. You can trace the other part of the problem to Fela, whose music was potent for three reasons:
- The Afrobeat sound: You had to dance
- Lyrics: Fela was a master songwriter and he knew his politics
- Fela’s life: He was generous and brave
Today’s pop artists have since taken the first. They are yet to reach second. And they don’t understand how the third lent the second its effect. With Fela, you dance but you think. With a lot of today’s artists, you dance and you go home. There is too little to think about but if you did think it through, the gaps in their lyrics, in their politics are hard to ignore. The current crop of Nigerian artists misunderstand the Nigerian condition. Sadly, this misunderstanding only grows as they get more successful.
What to do? Well, we can celebrate African Giant’s release. It is a very good album with some questionable politics on one song.
We can also dance to the lovely ‘On the Low’ and contemplate his violent advice on ‘Anybody’. The first is a sex song. The latter song takes elements from Fela’s Afrobeat but is about Burna Boy’s long-term obsession with respect from the music industry.
“I been dey answer dem ‘yes sir’/Now na dem dey answer me ‘yes sir’,” he sings. “Respect is reciprocal/even though una know say I special.”
It is so groovy a tune that you can’t really have complaints when he urges you to confront anyone who isn’t quite on your side. “Nack am something,” he admonishes.
The listener, who could be an average Nigerian, is asked to see Burna Boy’s problem as her headache. That is no big deal — but the average Nigerian could also ask a favour in return: Is it possible for Burna Boy to quit with blaming her and then see her real problems as his headache?