It’s July 2019, Burna Boy flew into Lagos for a listening party. The subject was African Giant, his seventh studio project. He was all smiles, calm and collected. Whenever he smiled, it was full and with teeth.
The smiles were of contentment and genuine happiness. Dressed in all-black, he was even joined by his grandmother. Word was that a night before, he had just performed a stop on his African Giant Tour.
He was not only winning professionally, his personal life was popping - his girlfriend is British rapper, Stefflon Don. She wasn’t there on the night, but her spirit hovered above the room, whispering his lovely tunes. Her essence was felt on her man and his heart gushed with joy. A few months later, he held his birthday in Lagos.
On November 20, 2019, he got the biggest news yet. He was nominated for a Grammy Award. The category; Best World Music Album for the same album, African Giant. He represents the current focal point of afrobeats and the waves are with him.
This writer thinks he might win the award. The west needs an African act to truly cross-over. The branding has ensued and what better validation do you need for an ‘alien act’ on American soil than a Grammy? As his Coachella performance suggests, Burna Boy isn’t huge in America.
For these purely capitalist reasons, odds are Burna Boy will win it. If he does, we won’t care. All that matters is that he won it. Asides that, African Giant is a beautiful sonic experience and near-peerless music. Anywhere you walk in the world, the mention of Nigeria might get you asked a random ‘Burna Boy’ question.
But to every story, there is a start. While this article got inspired by PR Consultant, Ogaga Sakpaide, the story itself started in 2011.
2011 & 2012: Part 1
It’s 2011 and the west is deep into an obsession with flash mobs and yet another era of K-Pop obsession.
Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ is on its way to become a global phenomenon that inspired flash mobs and permeated dance floors with effortlessness. This also coincided with the dawn of the internet - the world’s primary tool for communication. Social media was bridging gaps and made it easier to track behavioural patterns and trends beyond borders.
On the flash mob trend, ‘Harlem Shake’ by Bauer was a Billboard No. 1 single and so was ‘Party Rock Anthem’ by LMFAO. Step Up: Revolution, the fifth movie in the franchise was also heavily influenced by flash mob. But there was a problem, flash mobs were only going to last for so long. Western labels and capitalists needed a new cross-over sound.
After 2006 Teriyaki Boys and their Pharell Williams-produced ‘Tokyo Drift,’ K-Pop and Psy didn't really crossed over at a second chance. Then, the west gave the chance to a genre that can be best described as ‘Easter European Dance Music.’ It came by way of huge success in France, the UK and across Europe.
It had also permeated parts of Netherlands. It is heavily influenced by Eurodance and EDM. Its poster children include Inna, Alexandra Stan, Vikay Jigulina and so forth. In fact, ‘Sun Is Up’ by Inna and ‘Mr. Saxobeat’ by Alexandra Stan became Top 40 Billboard hits. But sadly, it was hard to push them into acceptance.
What that sound birthed was a rebirth of American pop in a different sound. Producers like Redone became stars. Hits like ‘On The Floor’ by Jennifer Lopez, ‘Give Me Everything’ by Pitbull, ‘Tonight’ by Enrique Iglesias and so forth came off that sounds. Pitbull and Afrojack became stars.
By 2013, the wave had passed and western labels needed a new obsession. In the 80’s they pillaged Reggae, the 90’s and early 2000’s saw a rise to latin-pop. The same 2000’s also saw them pillage dancehall
By 2013, latin pop sounds and dancehall never really died, but they weren’t making loads of money either. Even Sean Paul had become a pop star. The only place left to pillage was Africa.
Around this time, another Nigerian superstar was popping and his name was Wizkid. He had just released on debut album, Superstar and he was flying high. Everyone knew he was destined for greatness, but nobody knew how much. He was also named Next Rated Act at the 2011 Headies.
2012: Part II
Before this time, Nigerians had been featuring American and British acts, but they never really got any attention - it wasn’t time. But then, 2012 saw the release of ‘Oliver Twist’ by D’Banj. The song soared to No. 7 on the UK Top 40 - it was a miracle. It also got remixed by then-rapper-turned-serial-hitmaker, Pitbull.
In D’Banj’s video, Kanye West appeared as a confirmation of the Nigerian superstar’s signing to G.O.O.D Music. The only problem was that D’Banj never really had the talent to truly make his mark - he was an entertainer who was aided by a super-producer, Don Jazzy.
He left Nigeria behind to chase his dreams. Who can blame him? He had conquered Africa. A while after that, he split from Jazzy and the show ended - he couldn’t crack it and he was in free fall. The chickens came back to roost and he lost on both fronts.
In fact, he couldn’t even impress Western observers enough to truly back him - well, except Akon and his ‘deals.’ But something good happened, African immigrants and their children in the UK showed passion and ‘afrobeats’ started getting mooted as a generic name for a diverse range of sounds with African dance percussion.
Caribbean counterparts of first generation UK citizens then found a way to milk the sound and it birthed a sound that would be called afro-swing. Then, afro-fusion and so on saw daylight.
Off the back of his first major hit, ‘Dami Duro,’ Davido released his debut album, Omo Baba Olowo. The same year, Davido was also named Next Rated Act at the Headies.
In 2013, Burna Boy released his debut album, L.I.F.E. It had hits like ‘Like To Party’ and ‘Tonight.’ It also followed his 2010 mixtape. In the same year, Davido came back with hits like, ‘Aye’ and major collaborations with Runtown, Uhuru and Mafikizolo.
After a stellar two-year run during which he was untouchable, Wizkid slightly took a backseat to Davido. However, he still managed to plant incredible seeds with 'Jaiye Jaiye' and 'On Top Of Your Matter.' For his part, Burna Boy wasn't even close to the level those two operated on at the time. He also lost Next Rated Act to Sean Tizzle at the Headies.
Wizkid had a relatively slower year. He was going to slow down at some point. But then, he released his sophomore album, Ayo. In 2019, many people think that album is a flop. However, it might just be his most impactful album.
That year and aged 21, Davido capped a stellar year with Artist of the Year at the 2014 MTV Africa Music Awards and Best International Act at the BET Awards.
It’s 2015. On Ayo, Wizkid's sophomore album is a song titled, ‘Ojuelegba.’ It was every bit an ‘afrobeat’ song as any. The guitars went with the lo-fi folk instrumentation and brilliant deliveries.
Alicia Keys was seen dancing to it. It also coincided with America’s Fela-obsession. Beyonce and Swizz Beatz had admitted to channeling him. Several broadway shows on abami eda’s life also got greenlit. With ‘Ojuelegba,’ white capitalists and label chiefs probably thought ‘Fela is back.’ They probably even saw dollar bills every time Wizkid sang.
Then Skepta, who is a first-generation British-Nigerian was an opening act for Drake on his Jungle Tour. Off the back of Nothing Was The Same, Drake had seemingly given up on trying to get accepted by American Hip-Hop heads. Instead, he chose to become a mega-star.
Skepta played ‘Ojuelegba’ for the Canadian rapper who was on a fast-lane to become the biggest artist in the world. He liked it and rapped on the song. From there, Wizkid went nuclear. Some of the songs that Nigerians didn’t like from the Ayo album were fan-favourites on Wizkid’s tours of the UK. Even Sone Aluko tweeted about ‘In My Bed.’
In 2015, Burna Boy released his sophomore album, On A Spaceship. It had bright spots, but it just couldn’t truly make a mark. Burna Boy’s talent was always recognized, but distractions and controversies were affecting his focus. He made the conversation about everything else, but the music.
That same year, Davido's foray into America started. He recorded 'Fans Mi,' a trap song with Meek Mill.
It’s May 2016. Wizkid is riding on a high. He had just scored a global chart-topper titled, ‘One Dance.’ It spent more than 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Ghanaians tried to tell us that his part was passive, but we didn’t care. Starboy had a feature on a record-breaking song - that’s what matters.
He released a song titled, ‘Shabba’ featuring Chris Brown, French Montana and Trey Songz. It was a trap song that tried to blend in the ‘Shabba Ranks’ narrative. Asides how Wizkid hadn’t sufficient range, dynamism or the genuine sonic pallete to truly mark a trap beat, it was a trap beat - corny. The moment reeked of desperation to truly make a mark.
Who can blame him? He really didn’t want the ‘One Dance’ moment to pass him by. However, The song felt like one that would be made by an Atlanta has-been who just needs a December cheque. But even a has-been who would get a cheque for that song must have had an established fan base. The song was never going anywhere and it was never going to make any impact.
He had the talent, but anybody with a brain knew that the functionality of his talent was never going to get him over the line - if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Whoever was going to steal that crown had to give the west something it’s never had with a heavy brand and an infectious personality. Wizkid had been ghosting standards for a few years before 2016, he just got exposed.
It was sad. At the time, I tweeted it, but I was dragged by Wizkid FC for days. The most reasonable of them thought he was laying the groundwork. They had a point, but groundwork can only be laid by someone with good work. For someone coming off the back of an 11-week global chart-topper in ‘One Dance,’ it was disappointing and slightly expected - for the sensible ones.
He kept working and might of western capitalism was with him. He went on media rounds and became a poster boy. Then, he released Sounds From The Other Side. The whole roll-out for the song reeked of fear - again, understandable. Now, it’s getting called ‘album,’ but back then, it was an “EP.”
Wizkid was too scared to call it an album and seemingly didn’t want to drain its seriousness by calling it a ‘mixtape.’ Some liked album - it transcended the Nigerian standard yet fell below it while also being destined to make no impact on the market he aimed at - America. It was too basic to truly make any impact.
It was like watching a washed American trapper try to make a comeback by trying to make music he deems appealing for a market.
More importantly, it wasn’t unique to that market. It charted in the Billboard 200 - obviously - but its impact was never going to do anything. Even his megastar Drake feature, ‘Come Closer’ couldn’t crack the Hot 100. It couldn’t even make the Bubbling Under or Heatseekers Charts. But then, it was also sad that he couldn't crack it because he wanted it, but it was not going to happen.
He had the desire and work ethic, but just not the talent or vision. Nonetheless, he became a forerunner. His role was important to set the groundwork for future afrobeats stars. He didn’t tank or fail. He just had a role to play, but not as poster boy for too long.
That same year, Burna Boy hit a major problem called, Mr. 2Kay. For his conduct, he got blackballed and had to claw his way back. His EP, Redemption was also poorly received.
For his part, Davido launched his Western onslaught. Being an Atlanta native, you would think he had it easier - he didn’t. To be honest, his EP, Son of Mercy wasn't bad. But around that time, he again tried to crack the American market with a collaboration with Tinashe . He couldn’t get a look-in.
He bought himself out of his record deal and came back home. Again, it was sad. Like Wizkid, he hadn’t the requisite sonic pallete or rounded talent level to truly impact that soundscape.
He also hadn’t the musical quality to truly give the niche American market an experience. Like Wizkid, he tried to break by doing what Americans were doing without marking himself out. The music suffered and so did he - it was a learning curve.
But also like Wizkid, he had a role to play. But amidst the turmoil, Burna Boy did something important. He marked a song titled, ‘Link Up’ by Phyno. It didn’t truly make a mark till May 2017, but it was a moment that gave everybody a reminder of the range, versatility, dynamism and expansive sonic pallete of Burna Boy - at a level Wizkid and Davido lack.
With that, he also displayed a unique dynamism of style and delivery at a level that most of his peers can't even dream of. At the time, it made little sense to a lot of people, but the song was an important moment.
Afrobeats obsession slightly went down with white capitalists and label heads. Two of its biggest stars had failed to deliver and latin pop music was on the horizon - it was also more profitable.
LatinX appeal spreads across the Americas and was slowly gaining ground in India - its biggest market by 2018. Focus shifted and LatinX obsession was back on the cards for its third wave in 15 years.
2017 saw Wizkid get some major features with Zara Larsson, and so forth. He was delivering, but that 'X Factor' was missing. 2018 was also a good year - Wiz was a known afrobeats star and people wanted to be associated with him as the ‘afrobeats fever’ deepened.
Nonetheless, he is not a loser in all these, he is a winner whose megastardom isn’t decreasing. The money is also coming in just as the sell-out shows.
Burna Boy was quiet. Wizkid was also relatively quiet till later in the year. But Davido went on his wildest run yet. Like he told Ebro Darden on Hot 97, New York, he left the US and came back to Nigeria. Tekno had owned 2016 in Nigerian music while everyone was away. According to Ebro Darden, ‘Pana’ was huge in New York, US.
After getting back, Davido’s first point of call was Tekno - a singer and producer. He produced ‘IF,’ the first of four Davido hits in 2017. The three other mega-hits were ‘FALL,’ ‘FIA’ and ‘Like Dat.’ Davido was flying, but the American market had a shifted focus to LatinX-Pop music. Although it dropped in January, ‘Despacito’ was a summer record-breaker and global chart-topper.
From then on, latin pop waxed stronger. The song was widely credited as instrumental to the rise of LatinX music in the mainstream market again. The global increase of latin-pop success from 2017 has been called 'the 'Despacito effect.' Afrobeats had no chance. Latin-pop markets had paid music streamers.
On the other hand, Africa is home to many poverty capitals - Nigeria is one where people live below $1-a-day. They cannot afford to pay for music. Thus, Latin-pop became more attractive to American capitalists and label heads. More latin acts began to cross-over and YouTube aided latin-pop just as Deezer.
Nonetheless, Wizkid still had some heavyweight features - afrobeats and African acts refused to go away. People still loved the sound and then, afro-swing gained immense ground in the UK. Burna Boy released three singles, but they basically refused to pop. Mr. 2Kay also had a major hit in the UK and 2018 said hello...
The role of a poster boy became vacant, but then, Burna Boy stole a march with news that he was the only feature on Fall Out Boy’s album, M A N I A. And boy, did he deliver. Seven days later, Burna Boy released his sixth studio project, Outside. It became an instant favourite.
With their crews, Starboy and DMW, Wizkid and Davido released hits like ‘Soco,’ ‘AJE,’ and others. While Burna hadn’t staked a claim, the international attention was coming back to afrobeats. This was in the thick of heavy latin-pop PR involved in the 2018 World Cup processes.
Latin-pop and even latin-rap gained more ground with hits by Cardi B, hits featuring Beyonce and two latin-pop songs on the official 2019 World Cup album. By the end of the year, more than five latin-pop music videos hit one billion views on YouTube. Afrobeats refused to die, and American capitalists probably understood that latin-pop comes and goes from the mainstream.
They probably needed to be ready for when latin-pop goes again. Wizkid seemingly had a more Africa-focused drive with hits like ‘Fake Love’ and ‘Fever.’ Davido was also on the same wavelength with hits like ‘AZA,’ and his new obsession with Speroach/Fresh VDM-produced collaborations with Peruzzi.
While ‘Fall’ did pop on American radio around this time with a nudge from Sony Music, both Wizkid and Davido seemed weary of America. Burna Boy then signed a deal with Atlantic Records. His mom also took over his management while his sister took over his styling. His brand changed to heavy pan-African talk.
He was visibly happier. He also seemed to have a natural synergy with the music as his life became drama-free. Then, ‘Ye’ became an African obsession which spilled into the UK and then the US. Burna Boy didn’t stop - he released two more hits in ‘Gbona’ and ‘On The Low’ before capping off the year with ‘Killin Dem’ featuring Zlatan.
For the first time in his career, he had the Nigerian mainstream behind him and his life changed. On year-end lists by OkayPlayer and Passion Weiss, ‘Ye’ was named one of the songs of the year. Burna Boy locked everywhere down and everything he did worked in his favour. Wizkid still had a great year with great features, but he basically became an elder statesman.
Burna Boy’s story truly began with Outside.
Before 2019: Let’s travel to 1984
African music and African acts have always been appealing to western observers and capitalists. But it seems every Nigerian generation that witnesses American obsession with its music generates an unlikely winner.
Burna Boy’s career feels like a crowning moment that reminisces King Sunny Ade’s. In the 70’s, the ripple effect of the civil war had drawn Eastern Nigerians into a music obsession. Rock n’ roll was its result and foreign record labels gave Nigerian rock bands major record deals and even foreign accommodation.
Around the same time, Fela was a global phenomenon as a musical genius and political activist. He had major record deals, but he was as huge a brand as he was a risky investment. Then in 1981, Bob Marley died. Fela’s rival, King Sunny Ade was earmarked as an heir to Bob Marley’s throne. The branding ensued.
That never quite happened, but King Sunny Ade had just about enough talent to retain that interest through the 80’s and the 90’s. In 1984, his album, Syncro System was nominated for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. Then in 1999, his album, Odu got another nomination. This time, for Best World Music Album.
He won neither, but it was an era. He was the pick from a packed generation and crowned it with Grammy moments - similar to Burna Boy.
2019: Burna Boy as the poster boy of afrobeats
2019 started in incredible fashion for Burna Boy and his Ls even became wins. ‘Killin Dem’ which features Zlatan ran Nigeria in the opening months of the year. Then, he released another relative hit in ‘Dangote.’
Around the close of first quarter 2019, old habits reared ugly heads. First, after he was named alongside Mr. Eazi as one of two Nigerian acts to perform at Coachella 2019, he went on a rant to combat the spelling of his name in small caps. He felt he deserved more - for whatever misguided reason.
Second, he laughed at Nigerians who were celebrating record deals with foreign record labels. Third, he mocked Nigerian artists for celebrating their streaming milestones. The third led to Burna losing control of his social media pages - now managed by his team.
While the scanty reception he got his Coachella performances made him realize why his name was spelt in small caps, the infamous “I’m an African Giant” birthed a successful tour and a critically-acclaimed, Grammy-nominated album. What ensued was aggressive marketing for Burna Boy who also worked harder. Even Joe Budden talked about Burna Boy on his viral podcast.
He made appearances on every major radio and internet show in American media. When his album was released, he even got a Burna Bank to commemorate the currency art for his album, African Giant. The push was as insane as Burna Boy’s quality music. This also led to some heavyweight features - mostly in the UK.
Even lately, Wretch 32 rapped Burna Boy’s name on a song titled, ‘10/10’ featuring Giggs. This level of push, brilliance and impact have culminated a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album and he might just win it. If he does, he will mark an era that truly signifies American capitalist dedication to afrobeats.
The major features are no longer going to Wizkid. Most of the major label placements now go to Burna Boy - especially in the UK. Recently, he also had the privilege of an NPR Tiny Desk appearance. Davido gets some high class features, but the Burna Boy push is immense. No afrobeats act has ever seen this level of push.
In 2019, he has also won BET Awards and MTV European Music Awards.
Is there just one poster boy?
Yes. There is only space for one. The west is too busy trying to find a worthy champion for its 'afrobeats quest.' That means it's a capitalist push. That also means that it has no time for second chances. If an artist doesn't work, he moves and another gets a shot.
Wizkid and Davido are both victims of time and the limitation of talent. However, their role as forerunners is as important as anybody's. But even with the perfect timing that Burna Boy rides on, his level of talent, dynamism and style just operate on a higher level than that of his peers - but only a few people will get this.
Are Wizkid and Davido still relevant? Yes. Does they still have fans? Of course. Many westerners knew them first. Will they still get called? Absolutely. Is Wizkid still the biggest of the top 5 current cross-over candidates from Nigeria? Totally.
Are Wizkid and Davido still poster boys? Yes. Are they the poster boy? Absolutely not. The wave is not with them anymore, they had their chance. It’s now on Burna Boy and soon, that might pass too - depending on how he utilizes it. But in 2019 and for a significant chunk of 2020, he has been the face of afrobeats/African music
The branding has already commenced to shed his vestiges of afrobeats. Things move like a science project over there. The major players endorse thing and it's the same in other industries; tech, fashion, sports and so forth.
As a community, they decide what's in vogue. Due to afrobeats and its limited acceptance in that space, there is only space for one poster boy at a time and now, it’s Burna Boy. Things might change and Wizkid and Davido might return, but for now, the role of poster boy belongs to Burna Boy.
The west is not into sentiment, record labels are running a business. If you work, you stay. If you don’t work, you get bounced and another person takes your place. However, this is only subject to western capitalist obsession with breaking afrobeats in the US. If they lose interest, anybody who has not crossed over returns to his country.
If their focus shifts, everybody gets discarded altogether. That’s why we need to fix our industry. 'Afrobeats to the world' is only a wave. Like all foreign waves in America, it shall pass.
However, the subtle yet aggressive positioning of Rema has commenced. He will crossover, but when he does, he won’t be making afrobeats. His range is greater than that of anybody before him.