A few days before the release of his 7th album, Burna Boy made a statement that did not sit well with many Africans. He talked about Afrobeats lacking substance. As one would expect, he was heavily criticized for ‘shitting’ on the culture and the people that raised him up. I understand why many of us like to hold this idea of the culture lifting artist up. I’m rather one to see it from the perspective of Jay-Z who said “I heard motherfuckers sayin’ they made Hov. Made Hov say, “Okay, so? Make another Hov!” (Song Title: ‘Lost Ones’)
As a culture, we are always quick to claim people after their success even when we do nothing to really put them up there. Burna Boy did not become a global superstar because Africans helped him. The truth is that he helped Africa gain a bigger space in the global music conversation. He worked for it and made good music that we all played because we enjoyed and not because we wanted to support an African. He is definitely not one of the fan favorites, neither does he display the kind of meekness that would bring him street love but he is doing the most numbers right now.
When I first saw the backlash, I guessed he was definitely taken out of context because that is what the internet and social media is good for. I eventually watched the full interview with Zane Lowe. After saying that Afrobeats lacked substance, he acknowledged the fact that it is mostly just feel good music; just music for a good time. Burna Boy did not introduce this stance. I have seen many debates where other people actually defend the need for African music to be just feel good music. The argument is usually that there is so much suffering in Africa that the music must serve as an escape and not as a reminder of the daily struggles. In my opinion, what Burna Boy was advocating is, for artist to tell more of their own stories rather than just trying to communicate a general feeling.
I have written in the past that we lack honest music in Africa. I believe that is the same sentiment that he was trying to communicate. Most of the songs coming out of the urban music scene in Africa can be sung by any artist and it will make sense; the stories are quite generic. There are definitely many songs out of Nigeria and Africa that are not all feel good but the question is how many in the bunch? Many do not tell a story that can only the performing artist can tell. How many really have a “I never thought of it that way moment.” How many leave you with a life quote?
Most popular songs that you would consider as ‘deep’ are delivered in a played down format. Someone can sing about having suicidal thoughts but will deliver it in a way that leaves a listener without the emotion. Libianca’s ‘People’ is one song with a very deep meaning that gets you going in the club but still brings up the emotion of ‘did you check on me?’
When Burna Boy said on ‘It’s Plenty’ – “If I do 99 good, e go remain one” – I was blown off by the depth of that statement. The depth of his music actually flies over many heads because we are poor listeners. Lyrically Burna boy is diverse and does music from a more personal experience standpoint which is what authenticity should mean. When you find a deep song in Africa, it usually lacks commercial value; partly because of the way in which we consume music in Africa. Most people first encounter a song at a party or a club. Danceability is their idea of good music. We do not have an environment of long commutes in personal vehicles which I believe is one of the best times to delve into a piece of musical artwork.
Another thing which I believe he was trying to communicate but did not do so explicitly is the tendency of milking the sound. Whenever a new sound comes around, everyone seems to gravitate towards it. All the songs start to sound like a remix or remake of one song until another wave comes through. Burna Boy throughout his career has always sought to move the needle with every project. He is always experimenting; trying to bring something fresh.
The issue of depth does not end on the songs. It has to do with the artist and their mindset. There are many artist that only a Stan will sit through their interviews. Only someone who is equally shallow with find them inspirational. Philosophically, they lack depth. It can been send in their lifestyle, the kinds of things they promote, and the general message they carry. That doesn’t mean they don’t make good music but I believe the philosophy is what separates artists from entertainers. I have very many entertainers wearing the artist cape.
I saw many people rush to underrate Burna Boy’s album. Their disapproval for his comments was definitely clouding their judgment. Like that moment when some award organizers dropped Magasco from the list after he criticized them. When Kanye pissed on a Grammy and won a Grammy after that, it was sign of self respect on the part of the Grammy’s and that is why it remains the most coveted music award. It still has the brand of objectivity. Imagine doing that on any African award; you will never get a nomination after that.
One entertainment journalist in Cameroon even said the album is worse than all the albums out of Nigeria this year. I bet you, if you ask him to list ten albums that came out Nigeria, he won’t make it to five. He did not even specify A-List artists. I also won’t assume that is what he meant. If you hold the title of journalist and you went to journalism school, we expect you to do better. Personally, I find it to be a really good album. I loved the production. It was fresh and far removed from the trendy sound; definitely not one of his top two albums. The album definitely sounds rushed. To his credit, he has been out there and on tour all the while he was working on it.
The track with J.Cole seemed to explain why he decided to ‘shit’ on African music. After hearing it, many again misinterpreted the feeling he was trying to express. If you listened to his entire interview with Zane Lowe, you would know what he was saying. It is the feeling I get when we are nominated alongside what I call mud blogs. I have always maintained that we are not a blog to avoid it. It will never make sense for us to lose to any digital media platform in Cameroon. Better not nominate us.
The award organizers might feel like they are giving us our flowers but it is rather insulting. There are few award shows in Cameroon that I will accept anything from. You have to have done something great yourself before you can give us an award. I have turned down many nominations because the people behind do not know what they are awarding. They cannot explain the criteria they use or make someone a follower of what we do. They don’t understand the impact of our work beyond the popularity. Most don’t understand the industry enough to know the appropriate value of things.
Burna Boy gets the appreciation, but not from the places that matter and not from the people that matter. It is one thing for some random blogger in Cameroon is to say your music is good. When you hear it from Richard Bona, that is the ‘THANKS’ you want to get. He feels exactly how Elon felt about his work on space travel. When the same astronauts that inspired him said his vision was not worth the investment of the U.S Government.
Author: Norbert Foy