“The real Africa has not been shown. For a long time, the world has only seen videos of little kids and their ribs, asking for donations,” Burna Boy says with a bitter laugh. The Nigerian superstar sits in a London studio, sporting a crisp marbled button-down and immaculately coiffed dreadlocks while serenely holding a cup of Hennessy and Coke, presenting a very different image indeed.
No one person can represent an entire continent. But sometimes it seems as though Burna Boy is expected to. At the 2020 Grammys, the Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo dedicated her trophy for Best World Music to her fellow nominee, saying he was “changing the way our continent is perceived.” And Damini Ogulu, known as Burna Boy, isn’t shying away from the responsibility. Since his career took off in 2012, he has released a string of hits that have earned him hundreds of millions of streams and a growing list of admirers, from Kidjo to Beyoncé to Barack Obama. Last year, he sold out London’s Wembley SSE Arena.
Following January’s Grammys, the 29-year-old began writing songs for Twice as Tall, his fifth studio album, released in August to critical acclaim. The work spearheads a conception of Africa far more expansive than the tired stereotypes of starving children and more complex than the utopian reveries of Beyoncé’s Black Is King or Marvel’s Black Panther; it teems with mercenaries and protectors, Nigerian Afro-beats and British grime, terror and grace. “If I don’t live in or love my home,” Burna Boy asks over Zoom, “then who will?”
Burna Boy’s story sprawls beyond the geographical and cultural confines of his continent. He grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and went to university in the U.K. He listened to his idol, the Nigerian pioneer Fela Kuti (his grandfather was Kuti’s manager), and American hip-hop acts like Naughty by Nature. By his early 20s, he was a robust freestyler and a genre-crossing songwriter when songs like his jubilant “Like to Party” started garnering attention, first in Lagos and then the world.
Given his success, perhaps it’s unsurprising that he carries himself with an unflappable confidence that some might perceive as hubris. Last year, he made headlines for chastising Coachella over his low billing on its lineup: “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means,” he wrote in an Instagram story. That larger-than-life personality was on show when he turned up on set in London for a shoot for TIME—but quickly disappears when Burna Boy sits down to discuss his commitment to his homeland.
When the pandemic hit, Burna Boy was deep in the creation of Twice as Tall, and decided to stay in Lagos rather than decamp to London or L.A., making music and learning about his ancestry. He emphasizes this choice on “Wonderful,” the lead single, singing “Anywhere I go, I’m going back home, because my mama’s home” in a pidgin of English and Yoruba. In the music video, dancers in traditional tribal garb circle Burna Boy as he sings in harmony reminiscent of Zulu choral music.
While Burna Boy unabashedly celebrates Africa, he is also aware of its many systemic failings. A recent report showed that 40% of Nigerians live below the poverty line; Burna says that living in Lagos during the pandemic was a “reality check.” “The majority of people in Nigeria operate on the idea of, ‘I sell this today, that’s what I have today,’” he explains. “So now you shut that down for everyone, it’s just mad hunger.”
He is especially vocal about the plight of the Niger Delta region, one of the most naturally oil-rich areas in the world. While Nigeria has produced something like $600 billion in profits over half a century, the people native to the area have barely seen any of it—the bulk instead gone into the pockets of Shell, Eni, Chevron and a select few Nigerians with command of the supply chain. Meanwhile, the environmental effects of drilling have been catastrophic for a region that previously relied on fishing for sustenance. “Oil is not something that our ancestors knew or passed down,” Burna says. “Now, they’ve come and discovered oil, polluted all the rivers, and left the people with nothing.”
So at the beginning of his song “The Monsters You Made” with Chris Martin, Burna Boy momentarily cedes the microphone to Ebikabowei “Boyloaf” Victor-Ben, a former commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, who warns the listener that violence and corruption will only beget more of the same. When the beat drops, Burna adopts a vicious snarl, singing:
Burna Boy performed the song at the 2020 Virtual March on Washington in August and has expressed solidarity with racial-justice protests around the world. But he has also pushed back on the U.S.-centric lens of the movement. “Now is the time to return and go back to the royalty that we were. In order for black lives to matter, Africa must matter,” he said while accepting a BET Award in June.
In October, Burna Boy helped call attention to a Nigerian crisis when he took part in a protest movement demanding the end of the country’s police unit SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad). Amnesty International has documented evidence accusing SARS of perpetrating “torture, ill treatment, and extra-judicial execution.” He put up billboards in Nigeria with the hashtag #EndSARS, created a fund for those harmed or arrested during the protests, and also announced a campaign aimed at combating misinformation. “IT SHOULD NOT BE A CRIME TO BE A YOUNG PERSON IN YOUR OWN COUNTRY,” he wrote on Instagram.
In the long run, Burna Boy believes that in order to better his country, it needs to be dissolved in favor of a Pan-African future. “Nigeria was basically supposed to be a business,” he says, laughing sourly. “How can a business—built on paying people that are not in the country—end up great for the people of the country? The only way for us to achieve anything of substance for our generation and generations to come is to unite.”
His music, which he calls Afro-fusion, acts as a vivid precursor to this dream. On Twice as Tall, he mixes influences from across the diaspora, from dancehall to roots reggae to South African kwaito to trap to autotuned R&B. And he and his Nigerian compadres—including Wizkid, Davido and Mr Eazi—have been working hard to raise their own profiles while forging connections to Black artists around the globe, from Skepta to Damian Marley. “It’s about building a bridge between all of us, to make sure we’re all accessible to each other and we all grow to love each other,” he says.
While Burna Boy espouses radical rhetoric, he demurs when asked about any political ambitions. A foreboding precedent looms: Kuti ran for President in 1979, only to be harassed and jailed by authorities. “I’m just here to sing according to what my eyes have seen and what my spirit is telling me,” he says. “But if the Most High decides that I must [lead], then so be it.”