Burna Boy: Beyond borders

Nov 08, 2018

The music video for Burna Boy's breakout "Ye" combines a world of influences. The camera moves and spins in the low-angle style of ‘90s hip-hop, on a set illuminated by fluorescent lights that could have been designed by a postmodern visual artist. Burna Boy, switching between strutting and dancing, sings a reggae-inflected take on Afrobeats, while the legendary fellow Nigerian and multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti appears in a mural in the background.

All of this is by design — part of Burna Boy's plan is to make music that engages with the cultural geography of our planet, and his Nigerian roots, in a way never before possible. And the key to that plan is YouTube. "YouTube exposes different cultures to different cultures and different people to different things," he explains. "It's expanding people's knowledge of the world — and everything, really. You know how you needed to go to libraries and research stuff before? Now the most reliable thing to do is search on YouTube for whatever is you're looking for. It's amazing."

With this attitude, it’s no surprise that Burna Boy’s music is turning heads around the globe. "Ye," released on August 6, has topped 3.5 million views. "Rock Your Body," uploaded last September, has accumulated 5.4 million more. These are engaged fans, too: when he posts teasers or stills on the Community tab, his posts quickly score hundreds of likes. The success has led to a spot in YouTube's Artist on the Rise. "It’s one of the greatest honors," he explains of the selection.

Burna Boy, born Damini Ogulu, grew up in Nigeria's Port Harcourt. As a kid in the early internet era, he devoured as much music as he could find. He used the computer to discover artists like 50 Cent and DMX, and he loved the Clash. His dad, meanwhile, introduced him to reggae and dancehall — every Sunday, they'd pull old records from his collection, listening to classic artists like Super Cat and Ninja Man.

Yet throughout his life, Ogulu's most important influence has remained Fela Kuti. The connection goes back to Ogulu's grandfather, Benson Idonije, a Nigerian music critic who became Fela's first manager. "My relationship to that music is very personal because my family used to know Fela," the singer says. "That put me ahead. An average person who's my age wouldn't really have been interested in Fela."

Ogulu began making his own music when a friend at school gave him a copy of Fruity Loops. He scored his first hit in 2012, when his dreamy summer jam "Like to Party" became a favorite in his home country. The song's video, depicting a perfect, laid-back party, helped make it a hit. The video lived on YouTube, and increasingly, so did Ogulu. "You could see anything from anywhere, just by pressing a button,” he remembers, "and I used that to the fullest."

For an artist with his ambitions, YouTube was the perfect tool, allowing him to absorb sounds, looks and ideas from around the globe. Five years away from performing his first United States concert, Ogulu was already thinking beyond borders. "I wasn't just making music for my immediate environment," he says. "I always had the world in mind. I always knew that whatever I am and whatever I represent, there are very few people in the world that represent the same thing as me."

Ogulu describes his style as Afro-fusion: Afrobeats mixed with R&B, grime, reggae, dancehall, and anything else he might have picked up along the way. The combination has helped make him one of the most exciting artists in a wave of Nigerian stars who are reshaping pop music around the world. Across the board, videos have been crucial to their success. Yemi Alade's "Johnny," for instance, has topped 95 million views, in part due to its viral dance moves. If you combine statistics for the 25 most watched Sub-Saharan-Africa artists, more than 70 percent of their views come from outside Africa.

For Ogulu, this speaks to the beauty of the platform. "It's made the music one click away, really," he says of YouTube. "Now all people have to do is search one person or one song and a variety come up. It's almost divine."

The result is a process Ogulu described earlier: cultures colliding and, ultimately, coming together. It's this sort of possibility that his music embodies.

"I would think that what happens next is that everybody just becomes one," he explains. "We'll have a better understanding of each other and a better understanding of where we're all coming from. For me, that's amazing because at the end of the day, what do I do this for? I do this for everyone to be able to tap in, and the more people that tap in, the better."