Odogwu: How Burna Boy got Nigeria’s Only (True) Grammy

Burna Boy clutches his Grammy award…as seen on Instagram

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The Beginning

It seems about right to say that Burna Boy has written his name permanently in Nigeria’s history books. As Seun Kuti told us days back, Burna is one of only 4 Nigerians that have gotten the Grammy nod for their own work. The other three are Seun Kuti himself, King Sunny Ade, and Femi Kuti.

Of course, Burna went one further by actually winning the thing. About an hour ago, he shared a photo of himself with the trophy. It is a big deal. I say congratulations to the man.

It has been clear for years that Burna Boy was not just incredibly talented but also weirdly talented. He made his first hit song out of nonconventional parts: the production was out of step with what was in vogue, his voice was gravelly and recalled reggae acts in a time when reggae had become niche music. ‘Like to Party’ was a throwback to an earlier time and it became a hit. The one thing that was normal about that song was its theme: party and girls.

That unusual sound carried his first album, LIFE, which title spelled out his purpose: Leaving an Impact For Eternity. That was in 2013; in 2021, it’s clear that he has made that impact, doing what other acts haven’t managed. As he sang at the time:

I flipped the script and turned the page
If you don’t know my name, you better know now

Well, you do know his name now, don’t you?

On the same track with those lines, the intro to that album, his grandfather, the music writer and critic Benson Idonije, hinted at what made Burna special, focusing on his sound: “the good thing about his music is that it has leanings to jazz and other roots…”. That was as good an album review as any other. It gets extra marks for also being a sorta career review.

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The Fela Connection

A couple of singles followed that album, with Burna eager to associate with Fela, who, as it turned out, his granddad once managed. A couple of missteps also followed. Although his talent was not in doubt, the music industry wasn’t very eager to champion his genius. Award shows came and went; Burna Boy came and left emptyhanded. He probably felt better welcomed in South Africa, where his collaboration with Da L.E.S and AKA led to another hit. (Of course, his relationship with AKA fell apart years later.) Not long after he gave an interview in which he said Nigerians didn’t quite dig him until he started to pop overseas. He was right and he was wrong. Nobody could argue with his music; but he wasn’t a cuddly personality. This state of affairs hasn’t really changed.

His case wasn’t helped by his sophomore album, On A Spaceship, which was weak compared to his singles and his debut album. It was in 2018, with his third album, Outside, which had a clear UK influence, that things started to turn heavily in Burna’s favour. Buoyed by that success, he released his next album, African Giant, in 2019 and which consolidated his ascent. He was now firmly in the same discussion as the two men who had hogged the summit of Nigerian pop for years: Davido and Wizkid. When the first Grammy nomination came around, you could argue that he had surpassed them both — in the west at least.

This was a big deal because Nigerian pop music had started to try to move westward, having conquered the African continent. Others had gotten signed to big record labels overseas and gotten a couple of features by big stars over there. But nobody had received the stamp of artistic acclaim that the Grammy confers — except for the aforementioned KSA and Fela’s kids. He didn’t win it for African Giant, although I think that was a better album than Twice as Tall, which he finally did get the Grammy for.

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The Politics of Burna Marketing

It is important to note that, unlike his peers, Burna Boy always had an eye on the international market right from the start. Stream LIFE and listen to the song ‘Always Love You’ and you might wonder if any member of his team thought that song had any chance of finding an audience in Nigeria. This diversity of sounds has to be a consequence of his upbringing in different cultures — he had Lagos, Port Harcourt and the UK early in his bones — and the musical exposure provided by his relations, mainly, one imagines, his granddad. His best albums have come when he has allowed himself embrace all of these influences. His weakest album, On A Spaceship, may have suffered from what now looks like a crisis of confidence that saw him try to make a collection of more mainstream sounds.

The talent was there; the communications/PR/marketing followed. In international circles, it helped that Burna also provided a political front. To be fair, even on LIFE, Burna had touched on social issues — notably on the song ‘My Cry’ featuring MI Abaga — but over the past few years, his politics began to receive more attention both from his team and from the western media, who at last could find a popular African act that offered them inroad into discussing “African issues”. Wizkid’s and Davido’s music could never give them that, given that both acts were more concerned with wealth, women, and wine.

While Burna Boy has received criticism from me and others for his inability to follow through on his most political songs, the western media doesn’t have the Nigerian’s perspective. For them, he embodies the type of artist they haven’t seen from the continent since Fela and the rise of the so-called Afrobeats genre. If there was a strategy by Burna Boy’s team to lean into his politics in pitching to publications, it has worked. The popularity and pleasure of his music must have sealed the deal. Think about it this way: If his most political song on his debut album didn’t have a music video, that was surely corrected on African Giant and Twice as Tall. The latter went farther with a militant video and featured Chris Martin from Coldplay, one of the most successful pop rock bands ever. The lesson is an important one: Great Music and Strategic Marketing will work better than either one would. Hopefully, Burna Boy would be open to writing a book about his journey to the Grammy. (If Burna’s team is interested, DM me on Instagram; I’ve an idea.)

What happens Now?

As it stands, in less than a decade, Burna Boy has done everything one can ask of a Nigerian pop artist, short of getting a Grammy nomination in one of its main categories (Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist). He has made money, gotten lucrative endorsements, scored great collaborations, and won the award that has eluded Nigerian artists for decades. He can relax.

Years ago, someone in the music industry told me that although Burna Boy had issues with certain stakeholders, he was “the one holding Nigeria’s music industry together”. He may have been exaggerating but what he meant was that the man was more accessible than Wizkid or Davido and was talented enough to be featured on anybody’s song. He may no longer be as accessible these days — but the talent abides. And he may no longer be the person holding the industry together, but he certainly is the one a certain kind of ambitious artist coming into the industry should aspire to be.

In his Instagram post announcing the delivery of his award a couple of hours ago, Burna wrote that his parents prayed for excellent children. “They asked my sisters for stellar degrees; one got a first class in Finance, the other got a Distinction in Engineering.” After seeing that their son had other plans, they made a non-academic demand of him: “They asked me for a Grammy, and here we are. I am a product of sacrifice! Thank God and thank you all again.”

Timaya once said that he was focused on making money from his career as a musician but that Burna Boy had a different idea about what he wanted out of his career: Burna wanted to be great. It’s one thing to say it; it’s quite another to go after it. It is another thing to then attain it as Burna clearly has. He deserves congratulations. Burna Boy is the Odogwu with the Grammy. Let us now praise him. We can ask him what next another time.

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