Let’s start off with a fundamental question. What exactly is Burna Boy?
“Everyone you think is the best knows I’m the best since Fela Kuti”Burna Boy (Twitter 2020)
The primary job of any musician is to be an entertainer. The artist does not owe his fans or the public a duty of activism or even a social conscience. That is not his job. His job is to entertain. But some musicians are more than “just entertainers”. They are “artists” They cast themselves as an aspirational figure and a voice of the people. This brings us to Burna Boy.
The temptation for Burna Boy to ascribe himself as one of those “artists” is obvious. Nigeria has a rich history of musician activists who through their art attempted to create meaningful social change or at the very least give a voice to the voiceless. Their significance surpasses the music. The music may fade away but what they represented never will. Burna Boy has positioned himself as the heir apparent to this legacy. As “the best since Fela Kuti”
But this conversation is not about whether Burna is an heir apparent to Fela’s musical legacy or even if he is/has earned the right to position himself as a pseudo-political figure. When we describe him (or he describes himself) as the best thing since Fela, we don’t simply mean “he has a similar sound” or even that “he makes socially conscious music” I believe we are reaching for something more ineffable. We are discussing what he represents. Because Fela wasn’t just a musician or a cultural icon; he is an ethos.
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind would compare me to Fela”— Burna Boy (2020 GQ profile)
But the idea that Burna is the closest thing we have to Fela in our era or that he embodies what Fela represents is intrinsically flawed.
Burna is inarguably a critically acclaimed global cultural phenomenon much like Fela and his contemporaries were in the past. But does that cement his place in the pantheon of great African musical activists? I don’t think so. Because all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs. Just because he may one day win multiple Grammys and perhaps solidify a musical legacy as one of the greatest voices of his generation doesn’t make him Fela. You can be a revered musician but a couple of songs about oppression does not make you a musical activist.
Yes, the equivalence to Fela may be unfair because he was a product of a darker portion of Nigerian history but our time is imperfect too. Nigeria hasn’t shed the vestiges of authoritarianism so comprehensively that art is immune. Today in Nigeria journalists still disappear without a trace and songs criticizing the government are still banned and Burna isn’t close to the same level of civil disobedience in his music.
“So here comes the African Giant”Burna Boy (African Giant 2019)
So if Burna Boy is not our generation’s answer to Fela, we go back to our initial question–What exactly is Burna Boy?
The best starting point would be to look at Burna Boy as Burna Boy rather than a parody or facsimile of someone else’s greatness. To focus on what Burna Boy is and can become rather than what he isn’t. And nothing is more illustrative of the Burna Boy experience than the 2018 megahit “Ye”.
“But my people dem go say. I no want kpai, I no want die. I no want kpeme, I want enjoy. I want chop life, I want buy motor. I want build house, I still want turn up … I no fit, die for nothing”Burna Boy (Ye 2018)
The best version of Burna Boy is not the Fela-Lite version we receive in Collateral Damage or Another Story but the Burna we see in Ye, Anybody and Dangote. Fela protested a corrupt and authoritarian government in his music but at his best Burna Boy articulates the collective Nigerian desire to achieve freedom from the Nigerian condition the only way we know how: through Money.
“Ye” can legitimately be characterized as the unofficial anthem for the Nigerian millennial (personally I think that title should go to the Brymo song “Mama” but that’s a conversation for another day). The song showed the scope of the full 360°Burna Boy experience. It has a little bit of everything; there is the obvious depth and yet by his own admission the song is also about “the haters”. It was a dirge and a celebration, an ode to the resilience of the Nigerian spirit and a defeated sigh, the chorus was a joyous primal chant and a literal yell of pain, it offers both escapism and a harsh reality check, the lyrics are solemn and it’s a club banger!
The remarkable dichotomy in Ye isn’t a flaw though. It is representative of the Burna Boy generation. We wish to be aspirational, successful, positive beings and at the same time, we are petty and reactionary. We project arrogance yet we are uncertain, afraid and insecure. We are often cruel and shockingly out of touch but yet we are champions of empathy.
He’s the best and the worst of us. But what is not in doubt is that he is undeniably us.
In truth, I suspect the biggest parallel to Fela’s legacy might be the one right underneath our noses this whole time but never acknowledged. Fela’s legacy is a complicated one. It was a perfect blend of the aspirational (Fela the civil rights legend) and the excess (the drugs, the sex and the women) of his own generation.
Burna Boy isn’t our generation’s Fela because he is inspiring. He’s our voice because he’s the right kind of problematic, the perfect mix of substance and vanity. Whether we like it or not.
By the time I’m done writing this article the odds are that Burna Boy may have probably done something problematic. Perhaps he started beefing the whole of South Africa (again). Or maybe he recorded a video mocking poor people for being too complacent to the rich political elite in his garage surrounded by luxury cars (again). Or maybe he has fulfilled his threat to throw MI out of a window (I just really want a Defenestration of Jude diss track). You will feel a lot of emotions during the Burna Boy experience the one thing you will never experience is boredom.
His dissonance is borderline impressive. His capacity to court drama while simultaneously appearing like a chill dude you would like to smoke with should be a professional “gaslighting 101” course studied by Nigerian men. His political activism is barely discernible and hotep adjacent. His arrogance is literally world bending and has already propelled him to remarkable heights.
We are the self-obsessed social media generation with the capacity for the occasional profound. He is our self-obsessed pop star with the capacity for the occasional profound. In the social-media obsessed world we live in, he satisfies our basest need. He gives us content. He gives us something to talk about. We want him to grow up and do better but at the same time, we enjoy the chaos. Burna Boy might not be the voice we want but he is the voice we certainly deserve.
He may not be our generation’s answer to Fela. But that’s a good thing because when it’s all said and done, he will go down as our generations Burna Boy.
All hail Burna Boy. Our problematic king.