Damini Ogulu, popularly called Burna Boy may be the self-appointed African Giant and may have created such a presence that obliterates the need to consider his past and history. It would, however, do him no justice to ignore everything that has led to this moment in history, where Burna Boy is poised to receive a Grammy for his recently released Twice As Tall album.
Every giant has a source, so we start from the beginning, with Damini Ogulu being only a dream of an idea, yet unformed in the loins of his parents. We trace his lineage and see whose progeny he is. We start with his maternal grandfather, Benson Idonije, and to understand the significance of that connection, I’ll tell you a little story.
Benson Idonije is a man of no mean reputation, and if you are a student of the history of music in Nigeria, that is a name you are most likely conversant with. A roll call of the pioneers of highlife and jazz music in Nigeria cannot be complete without the mention of Benson Idonije.
Heavily influenced by foreign jazz musicians like Wilis Conover, and enamored by the technical aspect of production and broadcasting, Benjay as he is fondly called, pursued a degree in Communications Engineering at Yaba College of Technology. Here, he also started experimenting with music, exploring his jazz interests, learning everything he could about the creation, composition and performance of music. He constantly listened to Music USA and The Voice of America Jazz Hour by Willis Conver.
Benjay started in the engineering and production division of broadcast. However, he wanted more, he wanted to create and produce his own jazz programme, like his mentor Willis Conver. He made the transition to radio in 1960, with his show NBC Jazz Nights on Radio Nigeria.
He ran the show so exceptionally, that he piqued the interest of a young yet-to-be radicalized jazz musician, Fela Ransome Kuti. Fela was curious as to who was the voice behind the show, that he paid Benjay a visit at Broadcasting House in Ikoyi, to make an introduction.
Fela had just recently returned from England at this time, and he and Benjay became fast friends, sharing a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s art and knowledge. The idea of a jazz band began taking form, and soon enough, the Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet was born.
Benjay assembled and managed the band. It had Bongo player Ayinde Folarin, bass player and pianist, Emmanuel Ngomalioh, T. Adekoya on the drums, guitarist, Medonal Amaechi and Fela Ransome Kuti on the trumpet. This was in 1963 when jazz and highlife were spreading through Nigeria like wildfire. The band performed at the iconic Cool Cats Inn at Ebute Meta, a watering hole for jazz enthusiasts.
Regulars and fellow artistes frequented the spot, Chris Ajilo, Steve Rhodes and Wole Buknor of The Jazz Preachers band. Zeal Onyia, Taiwo Kupe, Art Alade and several others.
The Quintet performed as the Highlife Rakers for a while and eventually became the Koola Lobitos in 1965. The band performed regularly and recorded several songs until 1969 when Fela would travel to America and return radicalized, playing a different kind of music, and becoming Fela Anikulapo Kuti – the one with death in his pouch.
Though Benjay no longer managed Fela, they remained good friends, even as Ben slowly shifted from radio programming, to become a music critic and writer, contributing for several years to The Guardian.
Let’s bring the story closer to home, Bose Ogulu, Burna Boy’s mother and manager was born to Benson Idonije. Bose didn’t immediately follow her father’s path. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in foreign languages, speaking French, Italian, German, English, and Yoruba fluently. She also pursued a Masters of Arts in translation.
Bose Ogulu made a success out of her long career as a translator and language expert. First as a translator for the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce, then as the CEO of Language Bridges (1997 to 2015), a language and music school she founded, where she organized cultural immersion trips for over 1, 800 young people. She also taught French for 10 years at the University of Education in Port Harcourt, recently retiring in 2018.
She is mother to three children, Nissi, Damini and Ronami Ogulu, two of whom she manages; and married to Samuel Ogulu, who manages a drilling company in Port Harcourt, Burna Boy’s birth city and hometown.
As Burna’s manager, Bose Ogulu navigates the thin line between a personal and professional relationship with her son. Though she is seen as a “cool mom”, seemingly unperturbed by the almost constant stick of joint between her son’s fingers, still it is clear that their relationship is one of mutual respect, which is not always easy to achieve.
In 2014, the same year that he split from his record label, Aristokrat Records, under which he had released two mixtapes, Burn Notice and Burn Identity, and debut album, L.I.F.E. (Leaving an Impact For Eternity), Burna fired his mom as his manager, and then rehired her in 2017. She has been his manager since. In a twist of fate similar to her father’s, Bose Ogulu became the manager to one of the biggest artistes in Nigeria and Africa, the same way her father was to Fela Ransome Kuti.
Mama Burna, as she is often called, is a very present and public figure in her son’s life. She has received several awards on her son’s behalf. In 2018, she represented Burna Boy at the Soundcity MVP Awards Festival, where he was the biggest winner of the night, leaving with four awards, including Song of the Year for Ye, and African Artiste of the Year. She concluded her acceptance speech by saying, “They say he dey craze, he no normal. Thank you for 2018. 2019, expect more madness.” She quickly won over the internet.
Burna is a combination of talent and hardwork, and though stardom was for a while elusive to the artiste, he was relentless. Before Burna Boy could stake a claim as an African Giant or even become Twice as Tall, he was still Outside, contemplating how to Leave an Impact For Eternity. He was lost On A Spaceship.
When the artiste was just 19, he returned to Port Harcourt, Nigeria from his studies abroad where he had bagged a degree in Media Technology at the University of Sussex. In Port Harcourt, he’ll make the auspicious with music producer Leriq, they’ll both be signed to Aristokrat records. Leriq will have his hands in a lot of the music that Burna will eventually make. Including the sole production of L.I.F.E, Burna’s breakout album, that has been described as a classic.
Burna’s unrestrained views about politics and life, his stubborn streak, are reminiscent of Afrobeat creator, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. However, this would make his music niche, and inaccessible to a larger audience.
He was unwilling to soften his tone or message and that would cost Burna Boy easy fame, the reach of his music was relegated to reggae and dancehall, it didn’t seem like Burna would ever be able to achieve the international fame that his peers had attained. He, however, did not stop making music, staunch in his self-belief.
In 2015, the artiste lost his long time friend, Gabriel Serenkuma, more popularly known as Gambo. The pair had been in London together and became very good friends. His death dealt a devastating blow to Burna Boy, who was back in Nigeria at the time, pursuing his music. He shared a touching tribute to Gambo in an Instagram post, “You were all I had at the lowest point of my life, you are part of every before success life story I have to tell. We survived so many wars and hardships on those Cold streets.”
After firing his mother as his manager in 2014, he rehired her in 2017 and they soon established their record label, Spaceship Entertainment. The same year, Burna secured a major label deal. He signed to Atlantic in the United States and Warner Music International abroad, but releases music in Africa under his own label, Spaceship Entertainment.
Cue 2018, Burna will release Outside. The journey to global fame for the artiste started with Ye, the biggest song off the Outside album. Coincidentally, American rapper, Kanye West had released an album titled Ye around the same time. Listeners stumbled on Burna’s Ye, leading to a spike in streaming numbers for Burna Boy.
Suddenly, everybody was listening to Burna. Ye was on everyone’s lips and blasting out of every car stereo, it became the street anthem, echoing the aspirations of many hustling Nigerians who just want to “enjoy, chop life, buy motor” etc. Outside peaked at No 3 on the Billboard Reggae album chart. Ye won Burna Boy several awards, including two Soundcity MVP Awards for Song of the Year and Listener’s Choice, and the 2019 Headies award for Song of the Year.
Burna is also known for his energetic performances that leave fans thrilled and screaming. In 2018, he performed before a sold out audience in London 02, to high praise from fans and colleagues alike. The performance of his hit single Ye, being the highlight of the night.
The singer however, did not end 2018 with Outside. The Zanku wave, led by Zlatan, a dancer, singer and songwriter, was surging through the Nigerian music industry. Everyone was on the Zanku hype, including Burna Boy, who would collaborate with Zlatan on Killin’ Dem, a move that will seal the fate of the reawakening of his career. Burna had outdone himself.
When the video for Killin’ Dem dropped early in 2019, the beat, rhythm and dance were the perfect set up for a monster hit that the track would become. Zlatan’s presence on the song would open Burna up to an even larger audience, and soon the African Giant was born.
He picked up the BET Best International Act award in 2019 for his efforts on Outside. He says to Billboard about the rise in global appreciation for afropop, “everything started from Africa, and so music started from Africa. It’s all going to come back to its roots eventually. When you hear our music, it resonates in the soul.”
He was also announced to perform at the 2019 international music festival Coachella, being one of two artistes representing Nigeria and Africa on the international stage; the other being Mr Eazi. This would be the first time Africa would have a representation at Coachella, since its inception 20 years ago. He tells GQ in an interview earlier in the year, “The reason for everything I do and how I do it is for one goal and one goal only, and that’s the eventual unity of Africa.”
Burna’s third studio album, African Giant, the album that will have international eyeballs on the artiste was released in July 2019. African Giant will be released to unprecedented local and international acclaim, including winning the Album of the Year award at the 2019 All Africa Music Awards. 2019 was a year of touring and he performed everywhere from Toronto to Amsterdam, spreading the reach of his music and influence across continents, building on his growing momentum. Reaching heights within such a short time that took him years of hard work to attain.
In 2019, he told Rolling Stone in an interview, “One thing that’s constant [in my career] is growth. It’s not an up and down thing. I climbed every step. I don’t skip steps — I’m too heavy to skip steps.”
The album also got a Grammy nod in the Best World Music Album category, but the award was taken home by multiple Grammy Award winner, Beninese singer song writer, Angelique Kidjo, who dedicated the award to Burna. She said, “This is for Burna Boy” who she praised for “changing the way our continent is perceived and the way African music has been the bedrock of every [type] of music.” The recognition and nomination will stamp Burna with a seal of greatness, for all his hard work, consistency and talent.
In 2019, a reboot of the Disney classic animation Lion King, was announced. Beyonce was cast in the role of lead actress, Nala, and for her involvement in the project, Beyonce created an accompanying album titled, Lion King: The Gift.
African artistes were invited to send in their verses to be featured on the album. Out of several submissions made, only nine African artises from Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana, were featured on the album.
Burna Boy was featured on the album in a solo capacity on Jara E as opposed to the collaborative efforts of the other featured artistes.
In 2020, his fifth studio album, Twice as Tall, executive produced by American rapper Diddy, will seem to be Burna’s crowning glory. Twice as Tall reeks of the focus and determination of an artiste with a Grammy award on his mind. Almost as if to say if you thought he was big on African Giant, you should see him now, he’s Twice as Tall.
The art direction for the album was done by advertising industry executive Chuka Obi, the rollout of the album included a comic book, The Secret Flame, narrated by Burna’s grandfather, Benson Idonije. The animated comic follows Burna Boy through a spiritual journey of discovering oneself while highlighting the very moments that brought him to where he’s standing tall today.
The album features Chris Martin, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Naughty by Nature, Kenyan band, Sauti Sol and Stormzy. The artiste’s long time producer and friend, Leriq also makes an appearance on the album, alongside Timbaland, Anderson. Paak and several others.
Twice as Tall is the 29-year-old at his most conscious. On Monsters You Made, Burna with Chris Martin’s assistance, lends his voice to the suffering of Africans and African Americans from colonialism and racism to corruption and police brutality, in an emotional battle cry.
In Level Up, he reveals how he was gut wrenched by his Grammy loss, sick to his stomach. No Fit Vex produced by Leriq sees Burna, who is now on a global scale and must put his best foot forward, turning away from his spotted past and becoming a more mature and evolved person. On Comma, Bebo and Onyeka, Burna expresses a more playful and fun side, a break away from the heavy theme of the album.
The album did such impressive numbers in the week of its release. According to Rolling Stone, Twice as Tall debuted at Number 54 on the Top 200 Albums Chart, amassing 11.4 million audio streams in the United States.
Whether or not Burna Boy will go on to win a Grammy award next year, it is without a doubt that he “finished work”, to use the popular Nigerian parlance, on the Twice as Tall album.
Today, Burna Boy is on a trajectory that is taking Nigeria, Africa and the world by storm. But what he is, is a culmination of the efforts of everyone that got him here.