Finally: Burna Boy is in the building. A mere three hours late, he strides on to today’s Tottenham set trailed by an entourage of friends, sister, assistants, videographer, a barber who travels everywhere with him and… well, they are 15 in total, and we haven’t got all day.
Suffice to say, this is not a man who naturally goes unnoticed. As he settles topless into a director’s chair and that barber — now wearing a head torch — gets to work, he has a tightly rolled spliff in one hand, holding out his arm as assistants come running, draping him in one diamond watch after another. He says nothing: small gestures or glances being enough to communicate with all who surround him. Said surrounding entourage are equally at ease — hooking up their phones to the booming speakers and lighting up their own joints, dancing in the kitchen as they tuck into local favourite Chuku’s finest jollof rice.
It seems abundantly clear that wherever Burna Boy goes, the party is sure to follow. Bright patterned backdrops inspired by the 30-year-old’s native Nigeria hang around the studio, and looks ranging from wipe-clean silver Louis Vuitton coats to inflatable PVC gilets are ready to try on. ‘I feel like a rock star, I feel like Lenny Kravitz!’ he beams, donning a flame-decorated white denim two-piece, diamond grills blazing. ‘Let’s go!’
And go it does, long into the evening…
A few days later, long into another evening — Burna Boy, it transpires, is something of a night owl — the man I sit down with seems very different to the Grammy-winning, Afro-fusion trailblazer who was parading in front of the cameras. ‘I want to live with monks, far away in the mountains,’ he says, ‘for maybe a year or two. Obviously, I can’t do that right now, but that’s what I want.’ He issues a deep, hearty chuckle but the desire to escape the hectic confines of his life right now consistently pops up.
Long pauses precede many of his answers, which are eventually delivered with a swagger and peppered with sage-like idioms. For an artist so adept at marrying melody across languages and cultural lines, there’s a powerfully mystical — and mystifying — element to speaking with Burna Boy, compounded by the murmurs tailing off as he lies down, close to drifting off to sleep.
Diddy said to me: ‘This shit is deeper than rap, this is a true brotherhood’
It’s not hard to imagine why the threat of exhaustion looms large for one so in demand. Just days earlier, Burna Boy — born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu — was in attendance at Old Trafford as a guest of friend and Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. On hand to witness the return of Cristiano Ronaldo in a hard-fought victory, little more than an hour after the final whistle he took the stage at Parklife festival on the other side of the city — with Pogba in pursuit to the gig. ‘If they didn’t win, I’m not even sure that I would’ve performed. It would’ve ruined everything,’ he says. ‘We had to fly [through traffic], swerving lanes, but in the end, it was… magical.’
So, for a football-mad kid in the early Noughties, the allure Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United’s all-conquering heyday worked its charm. In September he partnered with his beloved side on the official launch of its third Adidas kit, a loud, black and white strip dubbed the ‘Zebra’ by fans.
Though based in Lagos, where the bulk of his recording happens, London is second home for Burna Boy, who relocated to the UK after school to study media technology at the University of Sussex. ‘There’s something about the energy there that reminds me of my hometown. I have pretty solid roots here [in London], friends who’ve become family and most importantly, my creative juices are always gingered here.’
Life for Burna Boy is constantly in motion. His recent tour of the UK, Europe and North America closed out a passage of life that began with the recording of his fifth studio album, Twice As Tall. In August, he played to a sold out O2 Arena — his largest UK show to date, centred around an elaborate spaceship prop he’d not had time to rehearse in. He often experiences post-show regrets, something which was particularly true for a night representing the apex of his grind in Britain. ‘That night [at the O2], the set list was only about half of the songs that I wanted to play,’ he says ruefully. ‘They were trying to cut me off at 10pm sharp. Trust me, I’m ready to go for three hours.’
Twice As Tall was recorded during lockdown and released in August 2020. It was executive produced by none other than P Diddy — who Burna Boy grew up listening to — though due to constraints, the pair didn’t get to formally meet until this summer. But across Zoom sessions Diddy’s efforts were crucial in securing producers, stateside features and offering supreme voice-overs that enhanced a message of building bridges across the black diaspora. ‘And it goes far beyond that,’ Burna Boy says. ‘Because — guess what — Diddy didn’t take no money from me! So he gets two points royalties, which he gives back to me, so I can take care of some other shit. It’s always been the work chemistry between Diddy and me. He is an amazing human being, with an impeccable ear for great music, who I now call my brother.’
When the pair did eventually meet, ‘we were goofy, loud, excited and throwing bangs back and forth from each other, the ambience was crazy!’ recalls Burna Boy. ‘I’ll quote what Diddy said: “This shit is deeper than rap, this is a true brotherhood, the two kings reunite! LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.”’
The collaboration was just another ingredient in a career that Burna Boy describes as ‘all shades of a mind-blowing adventure’. With each album since his debut in 2013, his reach has expanded exponentially. Only this month, a new single — and video — called ‘Want It All’ (featuring Polo G) dropped and is rising up playlists across the globe. Does it mean another new album will be coming shortly? ‘Nah, they need to miss me a bit,’ he declares. ‘I’ll keep it real with you, I did want to drop an album, was working, and as always the music was coming, but I just thought: “Why am I even doing this and what am I trying to prove?” So, I’m chilling.’
Burna Boy was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, to a middle-class family with a rich musical pedigree. His mother, a revered talent manager and music executive, carefully guided her son’s early steps in music, while his grandfather, Benson Idonije, was a manager for Afrobeat hero Fela Kuti. The legendary musician was a brave activist voice against post-colonial regimes in West and South Africa, and shook the consciousness of the nation with his music. It’s a path Burna Boy has also attempted to tread throughout his career. On Twice As Tall he collaborated with Coldplay’s Chris Martin for ‘Monsters You Made’, a searing rebuke of the government and injustice in Nigeria.
Earlier this year, the coveted Grammy — the first for a Nigerian solo artist — finally came his way for Best Global Music Album. ‘People think that’s changed me in some way and to that, I say, the only thing that’s changed is now everybody sees what’s been going on, I’ve always been this person.’ So much so that in May he boldly declared: ‘I have to think for a whole generation.’ But now he appears to have some reservations. ‘As far as my message, and what I stand for, I might need to rest with the fire for everything right now. It’s very exhausting, man.’
If you fight for someone, use only one hand. Use the other to defend yourself from the person you’re fighting for!
Last year lockdown-fuelled civil unrest caused an uptick of protest movements across the globe. In Nigeria protesters called for the disbandment of Sars, a notorious police unit that operates with impunity. The result was at least 56 people killed by excessive use of force by the army and police. Not for the first time, Burna Boy made use of his voice and profile. Within hours, the singer’s charity had hired billboards carrying the protest message and had set up a fund for victims, drawing donations from friends including P Diddy. But for pockets of the country’s disaffected youth, the Soro Soke (‘Speak up’ in Yoruba) generation, the damage had been done.
Apparently his response was not quick enough. Dissenters questioned where the country’s most famous musician was as the unrest unfolded, but behind closed doors, Burna Boy reveals that during those crucial days, his mother was battling ill health and awaiting surgery as the news came flooding in.
‘It was a very weird time,’ he says. ‘I started getting phone calls: “People wanna know why you’re not involved. Why are you not saying anything?” But, as soon as I heard something I jumped into action. That’s who I am. I’ve been through so much at the hands of people that none of this is a surprise to me. You have to understand this: I realised, very early on, that if you’re fighting for someone then use only one hand. One to fight and the other to defend yourself from the person you’re fighting for!’
Right now, Burna Boy finds his once-maniacal obsession to outshine the naysayers has abated perhaps a little too much after this strangeness of lockdown. ‘I feel like I need to have something to prove,’ he says. ‘But I’m at this point right now where it feels like I don’t anymore.’ When this fire was still underneath him last year, he spread his vocal on huge singles with Wizkid, Justin Bieber and tracked a smooth, Yoruba verse on South Africa house hit ‘Jerusalema’. ‘The lockdown was good for me to stay creative,’ he admits. ‘That was when I didn’t have the distractions of being everywhere — it was the first time I really got a chance to sit in my own house. But now, it’s like, what’s next?’
He recently opened the doors of his seven-bedroom Lagos pad to Architectural Digest. This gave design enthusiasts a chance to marvel at his uniquely eclectic surroundings, which were created by architect Akose Enebeli. His awards adorn the walls of the house along with bold artwork by family members, including younger sister Nissi who lives with him, and life-sized paintings of Burna Boy himself. His own colourful creations have been consigned to the past, however. ‘I was heavy into art when I was younger, I used to draw and paint,’ he says. ‘I’ve been in love with art for a very long time because I can find such similarities in all disciplines — it’s about leaving a piece of one’s soul on the canvas or the record.’
But even the lush trappings of a home cinema, recording studio, gym and a room for his famed vinyl collection (some gifted by his grandfather) aren’t quite up to the task of keeping him in one place for too long. It’s back to dreams of a silent retreat. ‘I’ll grow a big ass beard… and shave my head. I’ll get away from everything, and I’ll just be silent for a while. It goes a long way — like an iPhone charger for the spirit.’