Here’s what Burna Boy is up against at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards

We're sizing up the competition, and weighing in on the African Giant's chances of bringing it home

Yesterday evening, the self-proclaimed African Giant, Burna Boy, earned his second Grammy nomination, mere months after he lost to Beninoise icon, Angelique Kidjo, who herself featured on Africa Giant. Realising Twice As Tall back in August, just a year after his critically acclaimed, commercially resounding middle finger to Coachella and the big font mockers, Burna Boy’s latest album was indubitably positioned for the Grammys’ consideration. Executively produced by Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, featuring hip-hop legends such as Timbaland and Naughty By Nature, it’s no surprise that Burna Boy, once again, caught the attention of the Recording Academy. But, it is still in the air as to whether or not he will emerge triumphant or if this year’s Grammy campaign will end in another disappointment for Burna Boy and the African listeners who are so fervently rooting for him to bring it home.

Up for the controversially-titled ‘Best Global Music Album’ alongside Burna Boy are: Antibalas, a Brooklyn tribute band also seeking to keep the spirit of Fela alive through their afrobeat music, and most recently the Grammy-nominated album, Fu Chronicles; Brazilian music royalty Bebel Gilberto, who released her first album in six years this august, Agora; British-Indian classical musician Anoushka Shankar’s Love Letter; and 2011 Best World Music Album winners, Tinariwen with their latest instalment, Amadjar.  All these albums are unique in their own merits, but Burna Boy does stand out amongst the rest for his album’s commerciality – which may or may not prove to be a drawback for Twice As Tall.

Heavily contended over the years, the Grammys recently made an attempt to appease audiences by changing the ‘Best World Music Album’ category to ‘Best Global Music Category’. Mentioning that they worked with linguists, amongst other experts, our hopes that this category would be expanded to reflect the multiplicity of music from non-American regions – as opposed to just cosmetically rebuffed – were completely dashed when these nominations came in. As usual, nothing aligns, however, its Burna Boy’s pop tendencies that particularly stick out like a sore thumb.

The fact that Twice As Tall isn’t as classical or traditional as the other albums in the category indicates that it doesn’t quite fit into the ideal specifications of the awarding body, especially when looking back at winners of the category over the years. In the past, wins from Yo-Yo Ma’s Sing Me Home in 2017, Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014 and 2018, Soweto Gospel Choir in 2019, and Angelique Kidjo in 2015, ’16 and ’20, suggest that the ‘Global’ or ‘World’ is emphasised not in the artists’ country of origin, but in the proximity to ‘foreignness’ of the music itself. In this light, Burna Boy’s commercial success might actually be a hindrance to him, which is utterly unfair, considering the strength of the body of work. It seems obvious that instead of Burna being nominated amongst composers and instrumentalist, perhaps another category should be made for contemporary productions, separate to the classical compositions that tend to succeed in ‘Best World/Global Music’ – after all, these distinctions do exist for American music in other areas of the award ceremony.

Nevertheless, Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall has been excellently received and is a legitimately solid album, that many have praised as worthy of the Grammy. Unfortunately, however, from looking at the other categories announced this year, a case for commercial success being a deciding factor looks thin. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” broke several Billboard records this year, but received not one nomination, nor did The Weekend himself or Lil Uzi Vert. These were amongst other snubs at popular Black music, such as Pop Smoke and Roddy Ricch nominations being omitted from album categories where they very clearly soared. Clearly, ubiquity isn’t a factor that matters much to the Grammys so we wouldn’t bet on charting success increasing Burna Boy’s chances. We will always be rooting for one of our own, and we do have faith that this Grammy is Burna’s, but one must err on the side of caution.

With that said, in a bid to avoid another shocking disappointment like January’s, the NATIVE team had a look at all the albums Twice As Tall is actually up against, and, below, weigh in on his chances of securing the win, for himself and our continent. We do hope the Recording Academy do the right thing for once, but if they don’t we’ll have a lot of fun calling curtains on the show. The evil they have done is truly enough.

Anoushka Shankar – ‘Love Letter’

British-Indian classical music artist, Anoushka Shankar is one of the strong contenders for the 2021 Grammy Award for Best Global Music Award. Her latest EP, ‘Love Letter’ met the category’s criteria for containing at least 51% playing time of new vocals or instrumental of global music as she personified the deeply complex and meditative intricacies of Indian classical music over the 6-track tape. The EP is her 11th project and just like Burna Boy, Anoushka Shankar is still waiting for her first Grammy win though she’s been nominated more than once. In fact, this is her 7th Grammy nomination since she debuted her self-titled album, ‘Anoushka’ in 1998.

Anoushka Shankar is a Sitarist like her father, the legendary Ravi Shankar who popularised classical Indian music among young westerners of the 60s and 70s with his catalogue of more than 75 albums and 15 film scores. She has continued to perform the Indian inspired music, offering a modern and more accessible progression of the sound. Considering how she’s a veteran of the Grammys’ Best World Music category that has now been renamed as Best Global Music, it’s my opinion that she’s the one who Burna Boy really has to beat to win the Grammy that slipped through his fingers last year.

However, unlike ‘Twice as Tall’ which saw Burna Boy touching on many different topics from growth and loss to our struggles as African, ‘Love Letters’ is deeply personal with Anoushka Shankar speaking on heartbreak, her health issues and domestic troubles. She also worked with a host of trailblazing women from around the world include the principal collaborator, Alev Lenz, twin sister duo, Ibeyi, singer and cellist, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, renowned Indian singer, Shilpa Rao, American mastering engineer, Heba Kadry and British audio engineer, Mandy Parnell.

Debola Abimbolu 

Antibalas – ‘Fu Chronicles’

The legendary afrobeat group, Antibalas isn’t like many other bands we hear today. The 17-person collective comprising of jazz players, singers, saxophonists, drummers, guitarists, and more, originates from Williamsburg, New York. For the past two decades, the group, through its propulsive music, has established New York as one of the centres of afrobeat in the world, with music heavily rooted in the rhythmic afrobeat sounds of late pan-African pioneer Fela Kuti. 

Having recently celebrated their 20 year anniversary as a group since 1998, the musical ensemble released their seventh studio album ‘Fu Chronicles’, a 6-track medley of afrobeat-inspired sounds and martial arts, a form of attack that originated from East Asia which was heavily influenced by the Antibalas British-Nigerian percussionist and lead singer, Duke Amayo, a Kung-Fu instructor. Given that the Grammys has now renamed its former category, Best World Music Album as Best Global Music album, it seems fitting that a collection of work that pays homage to two widely distinct cultures would be a shoo-in for the title. Seeing as the group offers a modern look at the way afrobeat intercepts with the meticulous art of kung-fu, it could very well be seen as offering a more rounded global view of culture and its interconnectedness today.

Last year’s winner, Angelique Kidjo’s album ‘Celia’ was a 10-song project dedicated to Celia Cruz, the singer widely regarded as the Queen of Salsa whom the Angelique shares many similarities with, including being exiled by their home countries as a result of political unrest. Notwithstanding, the fact that Kidjo had won the award three times before last year’s win, ‘Celia’ was a standout album and a fitting win for Kidjo owing to the project’s deeply honest exploration into the work of a Spanish singer from an African perspective while showing that Black people are interconnected through our struggles and our music. The Antibalas‘Fu Chronicles’ is similar in this regard, offering a multi-cultural perspective on music from both the East and West. China is one of the world’s biggest powers today with a large influence on many other nations including Africa, and by exploring this narrative, the Antibalas have contributed to a very pertinent and timely conversation about the nation’s relationship with Africa.

Tami Makinde

Bebel Gilberto – ‘Agora’

Bebel Gilberto is a Brazilian musical icon. Daughter of Samba singer, Miúcha and João Gilberto, who is the pioneer of the Brazilian bossa nova sound, 54-year-old Bebel Gilberto is also the niece of Chico Buarque, a master of the performing arts (vocalist, guitarist and composer, as well as a playwright, songwriter, writer, and poet). In short, Bebel Gilberto is musical royalty in her part of the world, a status that has earned her international acclaim, including regular attendance in Billboard 200’s top ten – where she earned a number one spot for her 2014 studio album, Tudo. Despite her global reach, her deep-rooted influence in Brazil,  and three previous Recording Academy nods (for Bebel Gilberto, Momento, and All In One), Bebel Gilberto has never won a Gramophone award. This year, she hopes to alter the trend, but first her lates album, Agora will have to boot our Twice As Tall, and the other projects that share chances under the Grammys’ ‘Best Global Music’ album.

Popping off right from the start, with effusive drums and theatrical string instrumentation, Agora is a pretty captivating body of work, that flaunts Gilberto’s unique grace – for which she is best known – as well as the alluring dynamism of the ‘bossa nova’ soundscape within which she composes her music.  Developed in Rio De Janeiro between the 1950s and ’60, bossa nova is a type of music stylistically evolved from Samba music. Carrying on the mantle from her legendary father, who pioneered the subgenre, with Agora the junior Gilberto continues to put her city’s indigenous music on the map; only this time she is infusing electronic production styles – thanks to her friend Thomas Bartlett, who produced the album with her in NY – into the, now classical, soundscape.

Of course, on this journey, Gilberto lulls us with her soulful vocals in her vernacular tongue exclusively. Where we think we might be getting an English tune, catering to her sprawling global audience, the introduction for “Cliché” turns out to be nothing more than an intro. When she opens with, “for those who do not know me well/for those who do not know/I’m singing for you,” Gilberto isn’t attempting to pander to non-natives, but simply expressing comfort in her bilingual skills, continuing on in Portuguese, as she does through the whole album. This is where Agora might have a leg up against Twice As Tall. Although Burna Boy does speak Yoruba and Pidgin English through the course of his project, given its pop proclivities, Twice As Tall doesn’t sound nearly as ‘indigenous’ as Agora – which has historically been what the Grammys favour.

When it comes to critical acclaim however, the African Giant scores leaps and bounds over Agora. Unlike Twice As Tall the Bebel Gilberto album failed to enter into the Billboard charts this year, and also received a less than favourable review from largely trusted music critics, Pitchfork. Of course, as Burna Boy is a pop artist, his name is more familiar to contemporary music audiences, but the same could be said of him last year, and he still lost to Kidjo, who took home her fourth Grammy award. In terms of quality, given the completely disparate notes of the album, it is impossible to compare the two albums, especially considering that Bebel Gilberto’s is a sound with which most of us listeners are not familiar. Of course, her soulful vocals (which actually remind me of Sade), her versatility with tempos and her theatrical, innovative compositions are all to be appreciated – Agora is certainly enjoyable. We might not be used to the sound, but within the album exists many commercially viable songs, that could fit within our typical listening tastes. “Na Cara” is an exciting tune whose deep string chords and speedy hand drums invite us into the playful duet between Bebel Gilberto and Mart’nália; “Deixa”’s upbeat tenets and jazzy horns explain the Apple Music star of general approval, whilst the powerful ballad “O Que Não For Dito” moves listeners, even if we are yet to learn that “What Wasn’t Said” was written for Bebel’s father, who passed away last year. Since she started recording in 2017, Gilberto has lost her mother, her best friend and her father, but has still managed to put out a peaceful body of work that rivals the triumphant strokes of Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall. As much as I’d love to see Burna bring it home, I won’t throw any hands if Bebel Gilberto finally secured her Gramophone.

Adewojumi Aderemi

Tinariwen – ‘Amadjar’

Comprising a group of Tuareg musicians, Tinariwen represents a lifestyle that is threatened is by extinction. The Tuareg people are descendants of nomads who lived and roamed around the Sahara desert, settling in varying regions of several countries that intersect the large expanse of land, without being physically tethered to those locations. Due to the geographical constraints of (imaginary) borders between nations, and the continued unrest that plagues the Northern Mali region from which the core band members of Tinariwen hail from, their music is largely one of longing, both for a time past when modern rules and conflicts didn’t impede on a idyll lifestyle, and a future where peace and unity coalesces into utopia.

This central mission might scan as corny, but in the context of their experiences, Tinariwen’s optimism is rebellious. Formed in 1979 while living in Algeria, during a period plagued by a civil war in their native Mali, Tinariwen was formed and has had majority of its story defined by strife. At age four, founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed the execution of his father; the band is consistently targeted by militant Islamic groups that have taken their home region hostage, with one of its members abducted for several weeks; and they’ve had to live in intermittent stints of exile from their own, despite being one of the biggest musical exports out of the country, and Africa in general.

‘Amadja’ is Tinariwen’s ninth studio album, and it continues to refine the band’s uniquely captivating brand desert blues, while also longing to carry on the legacy of the Tuareg people “who grew up in the meanderings of the desert”. According to the album liner note, ‘Amadjar’ was composed and rehearsed during a 12-day road trip from Morocco to Mauritania, via the Western Sahara and Atlantic coast. On every evening during the journey, band members would refine “guitar motifs, thoughts and long buried songs” into material for the album. Setting up a final camp in the desert around Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, the band recorded the songs live in a few takes, working with several collaborators, including famed Mauritanian griotte Noura Mint Seymali and her guitarist husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly.

Mainly sung in Tamashek, one of the local dialects of the Tuareg people, the album does have its language barrier, but as the band has proven adept at over the course of previous album, the mixture of emotions—desolation, anger, hope, cheerfulness—are palpable in the choice of instrumental arrangements and vocal delivery, which is alternately led by band members and always backed-up communally. Of all the nominees, Tinariwen is the only past winner of this category, picking up the award for their 2011 album, ‘Tasilli’. Similar to that album, ‘Amadjar’ makes use of acoustic guitar far more than their other LPs—they’re heavily reliant on electric guitar—but it’s clear the band is not pandering; Tinariwen has remained dedicated to evolving its sound and staying true to its message, even in two decades of being the fascination of western audiences. Their familiarity, coupled with the undeniable excellence of ‘Amadjar’ gives Tinariwen a strong chance for another triumph come late January, 2021.


Featured Image Credits: NATIVE