Burna Boy, Naira Marley & The Case For National Identity
“I do not identify with any country. I identify with the world in the universe"
“I do not identify with any country. I identify with the world in the universe"
In today’s multicultural society, identity can be a complicated one. For many young Africans, there can be a disparity between where one was raised and regards as their home country, and where once was born, leading to many awkward conversations tracing our lineage or backgrounds. It’s not hard to see why this happens as the world is becoming increasingly more connected with social media acting as a sort of 24/7 global news network.This is the plight of many first-generation Africans who have grown up as citizens of the world, at the intersection of different cultures, people and languages. This may lead to an individual adjusting their behaviour and living two opposing and conflicting lives in order to be accepted and respected in those communities simultaneously.
For artists especially, identity is complex. Many artists have been writing love letters to the cities that raised and made them from time immemorial. Throughout history, we’ve seen MC’s such as Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast share colourful puns about Atlanta, Drake spit rhymes about familiar streets in Toronto and even Afropop stars such as Wizkid and Olamide championing the voice of the streets where they were raised. A famous line from one of Wizkid’s trademark songs goes, “Ni Ojuelegba, they know my story,” a lyric that is interpreted as Wizkid giving the proverbial shoutout to the ‘hoods which raised him. However, as these global stars have now grown beyond their locales, their worldview and soundscape have inevitably expanded, rubbing shoulders with other cultures as they’ve made their way to the upper echelons of the global music scene.
The ability to adapt is integral to the brand of any great superstar and our Afropop frontrunners are able to mould themselves to fit any space they take up. As the impact of Nigerian music continues to grow beyond our shores, gaining reverence and legitimacy on a global scale, many stars are turning the globe into their full-time base of operations. Those sudden shifts in perspective can be difficult to express musically, but many artists are able to move with the aura of mythologised outsiders reflecting the idealised form of the world as a global village. When they sing about the pursuit of happiness from their digs in Surulere or Okokomaiko, they are no longer just singing for the inhabitants of those areas, but for an entire world watching and drawing parallels with their own personal life.
A great example is the Grammy-award winning artist Burna Boy, whose background has recently been a source of contention on social media timelines. In a now viral video from the Port Harcourt-born singer’s Chicken Shop date episode with host Amelia Dimoldenberg, Burna Boy can be heard speaking with a deep Cockney twang when he’s asked to speak in a “British accent” during a series of questions. His host is visibly impressed, cheering the singer on for nailing the accent spot-on. Early reactions to the tweet found users claiming the African Giant grew up in Brixton, a detail that has coloured his career for the past few years despite its fallacy.
Yet, many opponents in the diaspora debated the singer’s background back-and-forth with fans back home on the continent, reinforcing that the singer spent his formative years in London. They’re not entirely wrong—Burna Boy clearly places a significant importance on his time in London, even its brevity. It’s what emboldens the star to make claims like he’s from Brixton, as Burna Boy clearly views his time in the city as an important part of who he is, and his growth to becoming the bonafide superstar he is now. It’s an interesting conundrum, people can spend a few years of their lives in a new place and that experience can go on to impact or colour the way in which they view the world, how they react to things and what type of values they uphold. It’s not unfounded then that British Nigerians feel a sense of closeness to Burna Boy. During the London leg of his African Giant tour at SSE Arena, Wembley, the singer shared, in a moment of rare proximity, to the 10,000 capacity crowd who gathered to watch him perform: “If there is anything like a second home, it would have to be London.”
The musician’s connection to London can be traced back over a decade ago when the artist was only making a name for himself. As the story goes, after finishing school and college in Nigeria in 2008, Burna Boy moved to London for his university education. Here, it is said that he discovered Amy Winehouse and attended his first-ever reggae event, falling in love with the genre and the cadence of the artists he came across. Although his stint in London was brief, with the star making his return to Lagos in the early 2010s, the influences of that time stomping around Brixton and Romford, settled into his sound and affected his reception and public persona.
If you dig back far enough in his archives, early songs such as “Don’t Cross That Line” from his debut mixtape, ‘Burn Notice’, released in 2011, saw Burna draw on Bashment instrumentals with a distinct London drawl now baked into his inflection. Those of us geographically, and often linguistically, separated from our Nigerian or African roots, were able to use Burna Boy’s music to reconnect with our Nigerian heritage, and feel a sense of closeness. In doing so, Burna Boy’s music joined the long line of songs that draw inspiration from the bonds and communal ties that have long existed between Africa and the black diaspora in Britain. “I do not identify with any tribe,” he once told the New York Times. “I do not identify with any country. I do not identify with anything, really. I identify with the world in the universe — I believe I am a citizen of the world, and I have a responsibility to the world.”
Burna Boy’s transatlantic solidarity is in large part to his ascent in the Nigerian music scene. Unlike his peers who were instantly ushered into veteran-levels from the onset of their career, off the back of their stellar debut albums, Burna Boy’s rise to the upper echelons of Afropop has been a gruelling one. While his needle-moving debut album ‘L.I.F.E (Leaving An Impact For Eternity)’ was received with great acclaim, it didn’t quite have the smooth landing that his Afropop counterparts, Wizkid and Davido did, which meant that he spent years operating under the status of an underdog, looking to make a name for himself. That’s not all; alongside a reputation as a bit of a rebellious character and a voracious appetite for stepping on the toes of law enforcement and industry gatekeepers, Burna Boy was written off as an enfant terrible of sorts.
In his NATIVE 001 cover story, Burna Boy shared “E li to mo na,” a Yoruba saying which is roughly translated as “one who knows his own road.” At the time, these proclamations seemed grand coming from the artist who had spent the last few years attracting a deluge of bad press but they soon proved to ring true. For anyone who was paying close attention back then, Burna Boy was singing about his Nigerian identity with a sense of pride and celebration. ‘L.I.F.E’ is peppered with reflections of his life as a young boy from Port Harcourt while making grand assertions about where the rising star was able to go sonically and lyrically. Shouting out his hometown and Lagos, one of the cities which also raised him, was a strategic songwriting decision that set the scene of the place that shaped Damini Ogulu ever since he started singing. So where then did Burna Boy’s link with the UK emanate?
Many argue that Burna Boy’s second act came with his 2018 album ‘Outside’, which came with audible influence from the UK. On his searing third studio album, Burna Boy concocted a body of work that intimately laid bare his global ambitions, as he jam-packed features from JHus and Lily Allen, alongside its refined and contemporary sound which reveals something new each time it’s revisited. During an interview with Interview Magazine, Burna Boy described ‘Outside’ as “The first actual one”, referring to the project as his first truly curated album. Though Burna only means this in the context of his newfound mission to make an album capable of garnering him global appeal, it speaks volumes of the man, his craft and of the actualisation of Afropop.
It is clear that Burna Boy had become a student of the world—a title he still wears to this day, as his recent hit single “Last Last” dominates charts from the UK to Australia. The singer is, in real-time, consuming his influences and spitting them out in all directions. It is also pertinent to note that just two years before the release of ‘Outside’, Burna Boy made his famed return to stages across London, his first time since a five-year absence from the country. While this time away from the UK is marred with many rumours and incendiary tabloid headlines, Burna Boy has never directly spoken about his time away from the country—until now.
Last week, in a series of now-deleted tweets, the ‘Love, Damini’ singer shared that Nigerians back home did not know the real him. “If you knew just half the shit I used to do for money, risking my freedom daily, you would be way happier for me,” he shared to his 7.5 million followers on Twitter. “I came into the music industry straight from Chelmsford HMP,” the tweets had continued. While it is not exactly known what spurred these set of tweets, some threads on social media show this could have been fuelled by Stans of other Afropop artists on Twitter, Burna Boy is boldly assuaging any doubts we may have. He may be Nigerian by birth, but his ambition and his music has taken him farther than the coastal city of Port Harcourt.
Thus, it is on par that British-Africans would boldly claim the African Giant as they do. While Burna Boy may harbour some resentment towards the Nigerian music scene that failed to fully recognise and revere his star-power for years, till it became insurmountable to ignore, it is amiss for the star to wholly separate himself from the place and people who raised him. Over the years, as Afropop has come to dominate global conversations, Burna Boy has co-opted African aesthetics to push his music from this side to the world watching. On stages across the world, from his ‘African Giant’ world tour to his Coachella set, Burna Boy has audaciously wielded memorabilia referencing Nigeria and his African-ness. While he’s quick to state the impact London and the UK had on his globe-throttling career, there’s no denying that Nigeria and, by extension, Port Harcourt carries a special place in his heart.
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On that same ‘Outside’ album, while he set his sights on crossing over to other markets, he also offered an auto-biographical number titled “PH City Vibrations,” an ode to his hometown, Port Harcourt, in Nigeria’s River States, replete with references to roasted plantains and fish and the Yakubu Gowon Stadium. Burna Boy is a man surveying his hometown, while turning inward and assuring himself of his power, and outward, reminding the world of its failures in the southeastern state. Despite his homegrown pride, Burna Boy still feels a deep connection to the UK.
This goes to show the lengths that the UK has played in championing artists from Africa to the world. In Ayo Shonaiya’s Afrobeats: The Backstory Documentary on Netflix, we see first-hand the impact that the Afrobeats or hall party scene in the UK had on furthering the genre beyond our shores. In a 2018 interview, Burna Boy himself shared “I wanted it to appeal to a much wider audience. That was my focus on this one: to gain a wider audience without losing myself in the process.”
His relationship with the UK is similar to Davido’s link to the U.S. While we’re aware of Davido’s deep Nigerian roots, which he never fails to put on display on his social media and in his songs, there’s no denying that the Afropop singer has a deep love for Atlanta, which he sees as his home away from home. As many are aware, the Nigerian-by-way-of-Atlanta artist spent some time during his formative years, travelling between Atlanta and Lagos, before finally capturing the attention of more American listeners in early 2019, when his single “Fall” climbed its way up to No. 22 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. In an interview with NY Times, he once shared, “I wouldn’t say my time in the States affects my African music. But my style, the way I dress, my attitude, my charisma, the way I run my label — I think I get a lot of that from studying the American system and people like 50 Cent.”
This is also similar to Ghanaian singer and rapper, Amaarae’s connection with the U.S., where she was born and raised for a few years. In her music, particularly on her dazzling debut album ‘The Angel You Don’t Know,’ she endlessly showcases in her music and on her social media timelines. Although the singer never fails to reference her Ghanaian roots, she also makes omnivorous music that seems like it could be plucked straight from Western genres such as mall rock, Southern Rap and more. It’s endlessly fascinating how one’s time in a different place can have seismic and lasting effects on the way they relate with the world. While it seems that Africa is now setting the global tempo for pop music, some of our biggest stars are at the intersection of various cultures, and imbuing it with their own distinct backgrounds.
On the polar opposite of this end, there is UK-born, Lagos-based Nigerian artist Naira Marley who first experienced his big break in London before moving back to Lagos around 2019. The Lagos via Peckham artist started off his career by fusing his strong Nigerian accent with gleaming dancehall rhythms and palpable sonic influence from the UK. Released in 2014, “Marry Juana” boosted Naira Marley’s career to great heights and instantly became a street classic. Naira Marley himself speaks of this period with much pride: “No one was doing this before I started. There was no Kojo Funds, no J Hus, no Mostack. I kinda set the afro-whatever. Now everyone’s on it and it sounds proper.”
Soon after, Afro-Bashment grew into a sub-genre that would go on to dominate dance-floors all over the UK for years to come. Marley, Sneakbo and many of his peers were at the forefront of this emerging sound, at a time where, many young Africans in the UK were struggling with their identities and the true meaning of home. Marley’s music offered new avenues for dual-nationality kids to be themselves. Even with the acclaim of spearheading a new sound and a new movement, Naira was restless away from home, which lead him to drastically revamp his sonic approach yet again.
This time, his sights were set on Nigeria. Following the successful release of “Issa Goal” with Lil Kesh and Olamide, Naira Marley began soundtracking the pain and plight of the streets which served as his stomping ground earlier in his life. When asked what he believes propelled his music to greater heights, Naira famously replied: “I was already killing it in England before then, ‘Issa Goal’ just dropped at the right time,” he says, unwilling to let a single song define his ascent to the throne. “People say ‘Issa Goal’ blew me. People say ‘Marry Juana’ blew me. People say EFCC blew me. But it was me the entire time. I didn’t stop, I kept going. If I stopped after ‘Issa Goal’, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.” Now, he’s a bonafide street-pop artist bringing more artists like him into his fold, including Zinoleesky, Mohbad, Lyta and more.
Although a tenuous link continues to exist where identity is involved, this is not to say that we are losing touch with our identity in any way. As Africans, we’ve always been in this position where we have consumed and grown up on entertainment and pop culture from the West as well as many other countries around the world. For many of us, our formative years were literally melting pots for all these different cultures and backgrounds that we were internalising and imbuing with the Nigerian spirit. This goes to show that no matter where we are in the world, and how many cultures we rub shoulders with, it is difficult to forgo of our roots.
Back in 2021, a week to the release of his last EP ‘Everything You Heard Is True,’ Odunsi The Engine shared with the NATIVE in a tell-all interview that “I just feel like there is more and more of a universal language, and I feel like Nigerian kids are going to speak it best. We work very well with pain, and a lot of pessimism mixed with optimism and i think this is what makes us interesting, we see the best and worst in everything. We hope for the best even though we know things are really bad. An awareness that is poisonous but will definitely bring out some of the best work ever.”
[Featured image credits/NATIVE]