QUEENS, NY – Until recently, Burna Boy didn’t have a phone.
Possessing what is arguably the most important item in the internet age just didn’t interest him. His sister called it an act of self-preservation that lasted nearly three years and made it nearly impossible for him to reach out to people outside his closest circle.
“He only got a phone number last year,” says his sister Ronami Ogulu. “He didn’t even have WhatsApp.”
However, in early July, Burna Boy arrived with his very own iPhone at Sei Less, a chic Asian fusion eatery in Midtown Manhattan popular with rappers, athletes and even others Mayor of New York. On the walls of the ground floor “Emerald Room” hung at least 100 bottles of Don Julio 1942 – the same liquor that was in the glass in front of him, chilled by a giant ice cube.
It’s one of several birthday celebrations for native Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, who turned 32 less than a week before we spoke. Hidden in a couch was a gift bag from his label, Atlantic Records, containing an action figure of Wu Tang Clan pioneer RZA and another bottle of 1942. In the hours leading up to his arrival, his team struggled to whip up the celebrations, quick lobster spring rolls, lychee martinis, chicken dishes, and fried rice from the kitchen to the private room. “Tell them Obama’s in the house,” Ronami quipped to the waiter.
Frankly, the former President’s heart could have skipped a beat in the presence of Burna Boy. The self-proclaimed “African Giant” has landed on five of Barack Obama’s semi-annual playlists, including the three most recent issues – twice in 2022 for his breakup song slash party starter “last lastand this summer with Sittin’ on Top of the World, which takes the New York upswing of Brandy’s ’90s Top of the World and features 21 Savage.
Coming from all corners of the diaspora, Burna Boy’s music fuses Afrobeats with hip-hop, reggae and R&B while singing in a mix of languages to create a sound he calls Afrofusion. But the Nigerian superstar’s all-encompassing sound also aligns with his larger message: to amplify Pan-Africanism and unite black people around the world through the rhythms.
“They successfully separated us to the point that a lot of us don’t even want to identify with each other anymore,” he tells me on Sei Less. “The main goal of our people should be unity and building a bridge between us that can never be closed or broken. With the music I try to do my little part.”
The day before we met, he became the first African artist to lead a concert in a US stadium, turning New York’s Citi Field into a 41,000-seat birthday party. At the start of the show, he was surrounded by four white cakes as he rose into the night air on a platform and shouted the rousing “It’s plentiful‘ after telling the crowd it was time to celebrate.
When he wasn’t hovering over the stage, he was dancing above it like it was his living room, leaping into the air behind puffs of smoke, or performing stop-motion routines during a beat breakdown. Halfway through the two-hour performance, sweat had turned his shimmering white robe into a sopping gray robe, and he elicited deafening screams from the crowd when he finally removed his shirt to perform.sungba.”
A moment of this magnitude would not have been possible even ten years ago when African music in America was only a fraction of what it is today. But steadily, Burna Boy has taken Afrofusion from Nigeria to the UK and eventually across the world, fueled by a relentless touring schedule and hits like his 2018 anthem.Her.”
“The story of me in New York is basically the story of my entire career,” says Burna Boy. “There were no elevators. It was a straight staircase. I went from the PlayStation Theater to the Gramercy Theater to the Apollo to Madison Square Garden and finally to Citi Field.”
“There’s a new connection between the Motherland and us in America,” says RZA, who has become something of a Burna Boy collaborator and mentor. “Seeing Burna sell out the stadium is a perfect example of that.”
Never resting on his laurels, Burna Boy will release his seventh studio album, I Told Them… on August 24th. The title expresses his flippant reaction towards non-believers who tried to discredit him at the beginning of his career and now.
“To this day there are many Nigerians who can tell an American rapper that he has just started his career and they will say he is taller than Burna Boy,” he says. “You don’t understand. They’ll say, ‘There’s no way someone who talks like me can even be on the same level as an American artist.’”
Throughout the album, he tries to balance his efforts to promote Pan-Africanism with doubters who want to minimize his contributions. On the intro track “I Told Them” there’s a stubborn declaration of triumph after manifesting the proclamations he made years ago; Emotions are expressed in “Thank You” as he cries out to God even though jealousy and nagging have brought him to the brink of the abyss.
That doesn’t mean that his ears are closed to constructive criticism; The ultimate goal was to create a concise project after his recent albums had taken up to an hour to complete. The focused, militant energy is most evident on “On Form,” where a gripping baseline anchors his powerful vocals.
“If you listen to the album now, it just sounds like a fight,” says Matthew “Baus” Adesuyan, Burna Boy’s A&R manager and co-founder of Bad Habit Records. “Especially with all the Wu-Tang Clan and Shaolin kung fu samples, it sounds like we’re going to war. That is his energy now.”
As a child, Burna Boy idolized the Wu-Tang clan; His upcoming album takes cues from their shared love for all things Shaolin while also bringing in founding members GZA and RZA. RZA recites the 12 jewels of Islam on “Jewels” in which burna and listeners are taught the essential elements to strive for in order to attain a fulfilling life.
The jewel of justice proved to be the elusive jewel for Burna Boy – “We live in a world where there’s almost no such thing,” he says. “If I’m from where I’m from, our definition of justice has dropped to zero.”
Still, he believes that mastering the 12 Jewels is not only possible, but that it is his duty. Does this mean that the world must achieve harmony before he can find inner peace?
“I have many contradictory answers to this question,” he says after a pause. “On the one hand, the world has to heal before I can do that. But I also feel like we are gods and that we need to heal ourselves first. And then everything else will fall into place by itself. It’s almost like saying, ‘Let there be light’, but then the light comes and we don’t see it because we’ve been groping in the dark for so long.”
“I can understand what Burna means,” RZA adds, “when he says it’s difficult to see justice in this life, especially as a black man.” But it’s a self-balancing Libra. Politically, the world is responsible for freedom, justice and equality. But spiritually, every human being will either qualify or disqualify.”
Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Burna Boy spent a lot of time on the streets as a child. His mother ran a language school that ran immersion trips for the students, allowing her to travel with the family across West Africa, France and the UK.
When he was four years old, he felt like he was going to be famous and told his elementary school teacher that he wanted to be a rock star when he grew up.
“He just started dancing everywhere we went,” says Ronami.
Music has always run in the family – his grandfather is Benson Idonije, a respected Nigerian music critic and former manager of Fela Kuti. Growing up, Burna Boy didn’t resonate with his grandfather’s stories about the legendary Afrobeat pioneer, instead dedicating himself to hip-hop that had crossed the Atlantic like Naughty by Nature, DMX and the Wu-Tang Clan.
“For a long time, we Nigerians didn’t even hear African music on the radio,” says Burna Boy. “It really was all American music.”
After turning to music in his late teens, he dug into Idonije’s five-figure record collection and spent hours spinning highlife, afrobeat and jazz vinyls on the turntable in his garage. He fell in love with the saxophone largely because his grandfather loved it and helped him understand the expressive emotions a player can express on it.
When his family saw his commitment, they also went full throttle.
Burna’s mother, Bose Ogulu, became (and still is) his manager, focusing on brand deals, contracts and other business moves. Ronami took on the role of his stylist and currently oversees branding, media partnerships and strategy development. And more than a few times he turns to his grandfather with questions when putting together a new project.
“Only very few families have managed to do this in our industry,” says RZA. “The Marleys did it. But the majority of artists leave their families. It’s so nice to see that he’s bringing his family with him.”
Together they have brought the Port Harcourt surname to some of the biggest stages around the world, including a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2021 and a sold-out performance at the London Stadium in June, which drew over 60,000 people. Burna Boy won a Grammy for global music album for 2020’s “Twice as Tall” and has a good chance of winning in the newly created African Musical Performances category, although he remains concerned about the weight of the award .
“I feel responsible for that in a way [the new category], which is beautiful,” he says. “What is it at the same time really? Is it a consolation category? Will it have as much prestige? I’m waiting to see it.”
As he reaches new heights in his quest to be bigger than a genre, there’s a lot more he doesn’t have the answers to yet. When asked what he enjoys outside of music, he’s at a loss, nor does he know what he’s most proud of in his life or career.
An endless touring schedule and the abandonment of five projects in six years has left him little time to think, and he wearily admits a recalibration hiatus may be on the cards in the near future. The battery remains charged for the time being; After our chat, he runs up the stairs for a photoshoot, then jumps out the door for a gig he’s just booked at Coney Island.
“I honestly don’t know how to keep my feet on the ground,” he says. “I can’t really tell you everything that makes me happy. I only know what I’m sure about and I’m sure that music is life for me. I have to deliver.”