Burna Boy has a complicated relationship with Africa


Nigerian Afro-fusion recording artist Burna Boy is celebrated in his home country and internationally — but he’s never been shy about criticizing Africa‘s leaders. In March last year, at an event center in Nigeria, Burna Boy stood on stage with a mic in hand, in front of a captivated audience. But the world-famous Afro-fusion recording artist wasn’t there to perform. Rather, he was addressing the crowd after receiving an official proclamation from the governor of his home state to honor his win at the 2021 Grammys for best global music album: “I thank the best governor I’ve ever experienced because you know say me na [you know I don’t] even like politics or politicians.”

That sort of love/hate sentiment often sums up how the self-proclaimed “African Giant” feels about his country and to a larger extent, his continent. Recently, CNN interviewed Burna Boy twice in a four-week period for an episode of African Voices Changemakers.

From the beginning, he makes it clear he doesn’t like doing much talking, at least in English. Most of his answers are short and sometimes evasive — but one of the areas he expands on is his dream that someday there would be one Africa.

“It’s just a wish, maybe a farfetched wish,” Burna Boy says as he sits with his arms crossed in a room adjacent to a soundstage in Los Angeles, where he and his band are rehearsing for a concert happening the following day. “I wish we had one passport,” he continues, which would make it easier for Africans to travel outside the continent. “I wish we could be considered like a United States, like the way America is … (Let’s say) me and you [referring to the American producer] want to go to Spain or wherever on a commercial flight — let’s see who gets in first. 

Anyone familiar with Burna Boy’s music (and can understand the mixture of Nigerian dialects he often uses in his lyrics) will know his standing on his continent. Many of his songs include Afro-centric messages, such as the song “Another Story,” which tells the story of Nigeria’s colonization by the British.

Other tracks criticize government leaders, like “Collateral Damage,” where he sings about how politicians get rich by watching others suffer. In “20:10:20”, he calls out government officials – including the Nigerian president – for the Lekki toll killings during the October 2020 protests.

“United Africa”

The 30-year-old believes that the only way for African countries to get the respect he seeks is to unite. According to him, “it can’t be achieved by the way it’s going…we’ve been falling for a long time so why not try something new?”

When asked lightheartedly who should be on the currency of this “united Africa”, Burna Boy gives a profound answer. “On the currency should be people who had these ideas for generations, who died with these ideas and were killed for these ideas,” he says. “People like Muammar Gaddafi [former leader of Libya who was overthrown and assassinated in 2011] whose whole thing was to unite Africa and have a single currency, backed by gold.”

It also names Burkina Faso’s first president, Thomas Sankara, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, two leaders who were also eventually overthrown and assassinated. When it is mentioned that Gaddafi has been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Burna Boy remains unwavering in his respect for leaders like him.

“Where do we get this information that these people are bullies or whatever?” he asks. “They may very well be. I do not know. I was not there. But what I do know is that these people had these ideas, these people tried to do something at least, which would benefit all of Africa, unlike all the leaders we have today.”

An unexpected invitation

Burna Boy has never shied away from criticizing along these lines. This is why he was caught off guard when he received an invitation from the Governor of Rivers State, Nigeria to be honored in Port Harcourt, his home town. “Of course I was surprised – most of my songs are against the government,” Burna Boy said during our second interview, sitting in a house in the hills of Los Angeles and looking a little more at comfortable. “Do you know how they say that a prophet is never celebrated in his own house? I kind of broke that curse right there, didn’t I? he adds, laughing.

It ended up being a huge homecoming. The streets of Port Harcourt were flooded with people as his motorcade made its way from the airport to a government building, where Burna Boy addressed the governor and other state officials.

Perhaps surprisingly for the artist, always outspoken and proudly anti-establishment, the official recognition marked a high point in his career.

“Actually, I’m not going to follow any of this,” Burna Boy said, setting aside a prepared statement given to him.

“It’s the first time I’ve been in a situation like this, or in a government house, so please excuse me for not understanding this,” he told them. “I really enjoy being here and it’s probably the greatest honor I’ve been given since I was born, because it’s one thing to win the Grammy and be applauded around the world, and then it’s another thing to be loved in your own home.”

Author: Ibukun Babatunde

Port Harcourt, Nigeria




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here