When Burna Boy appears on Zoom, he’s in a fine mood. Dialling in from a sunny-looking, undisclosed location — “I’m in the jungle,” he says — the Afro-fusion megastar is all smiles. He asks me how to properly say my name (Jochan, pronounced “yoh-kun”) and replies with a laugh that it sounds like “one of them vikings” (it’s ok, I’ve been called worse).
He’s affably cheery now, but much like the rest of us, the last 12 months or so have been a rollercoaster of ups and downs for the 29-year-old. As an artist whose irresistible genre blend of Afrobeat, dancehall, reggae, hip-hop and more has turned him into a globetrotting behemoth, adapting to this new gig-free world has been tough. “It’s been hard, very hard... Devastating,” he says. “Especially because being on stage is the only time where I feel really like me. I haven’t really felt like me in a long time.”
That frustration of not being able to get on the road and sell out arenas as he usually would has only been compounded by the release of Twice As Tall, his fifth studio album, which dropped in August. It earned him his second Grammy nomination in as many years, and has racked up more than 80 million Spotify streams — but instead of playing it to crowds of devotees, or watching it tear up nightclub dance floors, he’s had to gauge all the reaction from afar.
“It’s bitter and it’s sweet,” he says. “Bitter, because I never got to perform the songs and see the reaction from my fans, live. But it was also a blessing, because I managed to work with [co-executive producer] Diddy and explore a whole different demographic. And, you know, the album did wonderfully, and is still doing wonderfully, so yeah, man… we can only look forward to the next one.”
As a Nigerian, the trauma of the past year has extended far beyond the pains of Covid. In October, protests swept the nation after footage emerged online of the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious arm of the Nigerian police, shooting a young civilian. A youth-led uprising, #EndSARS, spilled onto the streets and, as more damning videos appeared online, it spread around the world, with solidarity protests taking place in London, the US and beyond.
On October 20, things reached a hideous climax: soldiers opened fire on a group of peaceful protestors at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos State, with Amnesty International reporting that 12 people died.
Three days later, Burna tweeted: “I HAVE NOT SLEPT since 20/10/2020. I close my eyes and all I see is Lekki toll gate. I’ve seen a lot of Violence and death in my Life but this is the one that has Traumatized me.”
Speaking now, he says the massacre was “one of my lowest moments”. But from the tragedy of the situation, Burna managed to emerge with one of his most potent tracks yet, 20 10 20, released a mere nine days after the shooting. It mourned the loss of his compatriots, and took aim at the powerful elites who presided over it all.
“To this day, I’m intrigued how I managed to even bring myself to sing,” he says. “It’s something that we’re still living through today, and we’re still feeling the effects. And we’re still feeling brand new issues that have to do with the situation.”
He adds: “There have been a few difficult times in my life where music was the only thing I could do to make sense of what’s going on. This was definitely one of those times.”
The track had echoes of Fela Kuti, one of Burna’s oft-cited heroes — much of the late Afrobeat creator’s music was electrified by sharp societal and political criticisms, presented in a way that made its listeners come together and take action.
“That’s what makes music spiritual, man,” Burna says. “It gives you the strength to do what you don’t have the strength to do at the worst and weakest of times.”
But, like Kuti’s music, Burna’s creative output isn’t just about sending a message — it’s about making people dance, and bringing happiness “at a time when nothing else is really bringing hope and joy,” he says. “We all run to music — it’s a historical thing. Our ancestors did it, their ancestors did it — we’re just kind of following what we know.”
One city that Burna has brought a lot of joy to over the years — and which seems to reciprocate the feeling — is London. He has linked up with a selection of the capital’s finest artists to release music, from Dave and J Hus to Headie One and Lily Allen. In 2018, he sold out Brixton Academy, and a year later returned to go one better, playing in front of a capacity crowd at Wembley Arena. He did spend time in the UK as a university student, but these days, he calls London his “second home”.
“I remember walking past Hammersmith Apollo and Brixton Academy as a yute, and I never thought that I would be selling it out as an African artist,” he says. But it makes sense — as Burna took African music global, strands from the continent’s vast array of genres and styles began working their way into popular British music with greater prominence than ever before.
“The roots of British music are planted right here [in Africa],” he says. “Actually, the roots of British existence are planted in Africa.”
With all that’s gone down this past year, where does Burna go next? “The only thing I’m 100 per cent sure about is music,” he says. “The creation of music doesn’t stop.” His latest offering is Rotate, and infectiously lively collaboration with US artist Becky G, released as part of Pepsi MAX’s new football advertising campaign. But beyond that, for now he’s just focused on appreciating life.
“Being alive as a black man, or even worse as an African man, or maybe even worse as a Nigerian man, is something that’s difficult on its own,” he says, adding: “At this point, I’m just taking everything for what it is, and trying to make the best of it.”