What Does Burnaboy’s Grammy Nomination Mean for Afrobeats? – Dami Ajayi

This month has been special for Burna Boy and his team.

On November 18, NPR released the video recording of Burna Boy’s intimate (read self-absorbed) tiny desk concert performance. The liner notes hinted at some distaste for how Burna Boy shunned the participatory, lively, even comic vibe, these acoustic sessions expect from their performers. Burna was all business as usual, singing his lungs out and then he was out.

Tiny desk concert box. TICKED!

On November 23, his fourth studio album, African Giant, was nominated for a Grammy award but in that rather problematic category, World Music. This was, however, unsurprising for anyone who has been following Burna Boy’s career trajectory.

Besides being the grandson of Benson Idonije, Fela’s first manager and veteran music journalist, Burna’s fusion of Fela’s original Afrobeat, Hip-Hop ethos with a hint of Dancehall Reggae tendencies reflects a cocktail of influences spanning music genres from Bob Marley’s Roots Reggae to King Sunny Ade’s Juju and American Jazz.

Born in Port Harcourt, the city that was once home to Rex Lawson, his formative years comprised of summer holidays abroad, language immersion in faraway camps and culminated in completing his high school in the United Kingdom. In his High School days in Nigeria, however, he and his music group, Def Code, performed at the 50th Anniversary of Corona School at the National stadium. This foreshadowed his future stardom.

After signing his first record deal with Aristokrat in 2010, it took two years before his music gained traction on the Nigerian music treadmill. Following the release of “Like to Party” and an accompanying delectable video, Burna Boy dropped hot singles at frequent intervals. That year, he shared the Headies Award Rookie of the Year award with cross-over Fuji artiste, Dammy Krane.

His first LP album, L.I.F.E—acronym for Leaving an Impact For Eternity—was released the following year with stand out songs like ‘Run My Race’, ‘Yawa dey’ and ‘Tonight’ lighting up the fifteen tracker. His success was attributed to his ability to fuse, seamlessly, divergent sounds offering a breath of fresh air and a break from the monotony that was rife in the industry. The album was nominated for two Headies—Best Pop/R&B album and Album of the Year—in 2014.

His sophomore album, ‘On A Spaceship’, was a mismatch of discordant sounds that dwarfed the impact of his first. It would seem Burnaboy was courting his social influences in the industry for mainstream retainership. Add to this the conspicuous absence of LeriQ, his frequent collaborator, and you could envision a near aimless journey into space.

He retraced his steps on the iconic EP ‘Redemption’, which at just seven tracks and lasting a mere 20 minutes, reassured his teeming fans that Burna was still the synonym for magic. The tempo of the music is appropriately placed in the realms of Grime, with just enough energetic swing. Lyrically risqué and poised towards R & B, Burna was showing off some versatility.

Between his sophomore and third LP, Outside, there was a glut of exceptional singles that roused dancefloors. The paradox of this period is that Burna Boy began to sample Fela’s music more intentionally. Consider ‘Soke’ for instance, taken from Fela’s ‘Lady’ and ‘Army Arrangement’ simultaneously. What he achieves is an incredible groove that was Fela’s but updated with contemporary registers in ways Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, have not dared.

‘Outside’, released in 2018, was masterful in its own right but it shot Burna Boy to fame serendipituously. Fame came calling because his Phantom-produced hit song, Ye had the same title as Kanye West’s album Ye. What would seem like sheer luck or serendipity is what D’Banj courted blindly till he severed ties with Don Jazzy, his best partner. Burna Boy, instead, began his American invasion on his own terms with this leverage.

Unlike those who came before him, who took their music to laboratories and tweaked it to the counsel of foreign music executives, the global audience was Burna’s lab rats. He already understood how to make a song groove, all he did was to push the frontiers of this in whichever direction he was moved to.

In retrospect, 2018 was when Burnaboy began his dominance. The first half of the year saw the release of ‘Outside’, a powerful studio album in its own right. The second half saw him release a clutch of singles like “Gbona” and “On the Low”, just in time for the yuletide season and the endless parties.

He did not back down in 2019. He raised a social media furore over the print of his name on the Coachella poster but attended the concert any way and gave a good showing. He was the only musician to appear alone on a song on Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift. He released his fourth LP album within weeks and called it African Giant, his manifesto for what he is to become—and on the first song of that album he predicted that he will earn a Grammy!

Now, this is not the first time anyone in this current generation of musicians will advance such claims. 9ice wished himself a Grammy on Gongo Aso. Wizkid probably imagined his ‘Sounds from the Other Side’ would earn a nomination at least. King Sunny Ade in spite of being one of Africa’s biggest stars to break into the American market has got two nominations yet no wins. Ditto for Femi and Seun Anikulapo-Kuti with multiple nominations but no win.

Make no mistake, being nominated is a huge nod and triumph, especially for a musician of Burna Boy’s stature but the World Music category is supremely problematic. By being nominated in the ‘World Music Category’, Afrobeats has been placed in a catch-all category that reflects geography rather than genre. World Music is clearly a contraction of ‘Third World Music’ and in that characteristic American fashion of snobbery, it is a category where your work will not be reckoned with as being at par with America.

It is contradictory that the Grammy will  put Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift, a compilation album if you will, of some of  the finest contemporary sounds from Africa in the Best Pop Vocal Album category with songs featuring Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Salatiel and even Burna Boy and Burna Boy’s album, which carries that same sound, will be nominated in the World Music category with famed names like Angelique Kidjo, Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure, Papa Wemba and Mariam Makemba.

The Grammy needs to update and fix their respect and understanding for music coming out of Africa but till then, may ‘African Giant’ win!

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