If there is any Nigerian artist that accurately predicted their greatness, it has to be Burna Boy. The talented music star first styled himself the African Giant and declared himself Twice has Tall. Rapping to Level Up, he said, “I am a…legend, and I say it proudly, and today, he has the whole world listening as he wins his first-ever Grammy. During the 63rd Grammys Award Ceremony on March 14, 2021, he became the first Nigerian and first artist to win the Best Global Music Award for his fifth studio album, “Twice as Tall.” The Recording Academy described the album as “a masterclass in the vibe and hustle that have made Burna Boy an international musical force.”
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Unlike many artists, Burna Boy makes the rise to stardom, prominence and recognition look easy. The way he carries himself with confidence with a touch of arrogance and cockiness would have you thinking he got every recognition and award effortlessly. In less than 10 years of making music professionally, he is one of Africa’s biggest artists and has to his credit several prestigious awards. He has also performed at much-coveted events, including the Coachella, while boasting of collaborations with top African, British, and American artists including, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, Angelique Kidjo, Stormzy, Sauti Sol, to mention a few. He has now broken several records in history as he becomes the first Nigerian to win a grammy after a second nomination.
Interestingly, Burna Boy has confirmed that behind the stage are so many unpopular tales, sad struggles, and fights. He confirmed that he had to grind his way to the top, even harder than many Nigerian artists. So, what was his struggle for fame like? Was he financially limited or faced record label problems? Was it hard promoting his music? Did he have the support of Nigerians initially?
Although professionally known as Burna Boy, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu was born on July 2, 1991, in Mbiama, Port Harcourt in Southern Nigerian, Rivers state. Despite his place of birth, he was raised by his parents alongside his three sisters in the city of Lagos. His mother is a lecturer and translator, while his father managed a welding company. His grandfather, Benson Idonije is a celebrity and was the first manager of Afrobeats legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Burna Boy completed his secondary school education in the prestigious Corona Secondary School, Lagos, before moving to London for further studies. He now holds a degree in Media Technology from the University of Sussex and another in Media Communication and Culture from Oxford Brookes University.
Like you must have guessed, Burna Boy was born into a rich home with a silver spoon in his mouth. But certainly, this did not prepare him for the struggles he faced initially in the Nigerian music industry.
Career and Struggles for Fame
The ‘Killin Dem’ crooner launched his professional music career in 2011 under Aristokratic Records. Announcing his arrival, he released, Like To Party, the lead single of his debut album, L.I.F.E, in 2012, which instantly became a hit song in Nigeria. He later released his full album in 2013, which sold 40 thousand copies on the first day of its release and peaked Number 7 on Billboard Reggae Album Chart with hit songs like Yawa Dey, Run My Race, Tonight, Always Love You, and more.
In 2015, Oluwa Burna started having problems with his record label. He tweeted that they were working harder than the devil to sabotage his music content and were not promoting his work as they should. Contrary to the report that he was paid 10 million Naira upfront for his debut album, reports also reported that he didn’t get a kobo. He finally found the strength to leave the record label the same year with almost nothing and founded, Spaceship Entertainment which inspired his second studio album, ‘On a Spaceship’ which was released in November 2015.
Seeing how well his new album was doing, his former record label came after him. They spread malicious rumours about him, including one that says he was deported from the UK and banned from visiting for 15 years, all in a bid to sabotage his career. While facing these, he also had to deal with being snubbed by top awards organizers in Nigeria, including The Headies — which at the time was the biggest in Nigeria. After the MTV Africa Music Awards snubbed him again in 2015, he promised to keep making music for his real awards — his fans. But this time, he focused on promoting his music to the international audience.
They say a prophet is never accepted in his hometown, and it was the same for Burna Boy. At this initial stage of his career, he didn’t get the support of his people from PH and was the most underrated music artist in Nigeria for years. In 2016, he returned with a bang, his 7-track EP, Redemption, with the lead single, ‘Preeme” that debuted on Noisey. It was such a resounding success that it attracted an attractive deal with Bad Habit, Atlantic Records, and Warner Music Group. Apparently, he was underrated in Nigeria but highly-rated outside the country. But at this time, the pressure of the Nigerian music industry was getting to him, and so he recruited his mother, Bose Ogulu as his manager to smoothen loose ends for him, and that she did and still doing. His three critically-acclaimed album, Outside, African Giant, and Twice as Tall is the result.
And this is how Burna Boy came to stake his claim as a singer, songwriter, rapper, dancer, and one of the most successful African artists. Although his professional career is only 10 years, the 29 years old star confirmed he started making his own beats at a young age using Fruity Loops. During an interview with Guardian Nigeria, he said, “I don’t think there was ever a time I was not doing music.” He insists his music genre is Afrobeat with Afro-fusion of dancehall, reggae, rap, and RnB and major Nigerian languages including Yoruba and Igbo.
He doesn’t hide the fact that Fela is his idol and claims only the late afrobeat star paved the way for him in the industry. Nonetheless, the works of Tupac, Jimmy Hendricks, and Mark Morrison all continue to inspire his music content.
Unlike many artists in Nigeria, Burna Boy is the most original and talented to be revealed, and his music hits differently. He rages about colonialism, preaches unity, and promotes a pan-African message. He says that his whole existence is about changing the status quo, which he has been doing. Singles such as Heavens Gate, Ye, Killin Dem, Anybody, Dangote, On the Low, Way too Big, Destiny, Streets of Africa, and more prove it. His third studio album, ‘Outside, broke the billboard reggae albums chart, peaking number 1. He sold out O2 Academy Brixton and named YouTube Artist on the rise for three months in 2018. His awards and recognition include the BET Award, several Nigeria Entertainment Awards, SoundCity MVP awards, MTV awards, and more. His collaborations with Beyonce on Ja Ara, Sam Smith on Oasis, and feature on the remix of Jerusalema pushed him to the global audience. They made him even one of the richest in Nigeria. But Burna Boy insists that he is as rich as where he comes from, and “Nigeria has a lot of poverty.”
After many years of grinding, Burna Boy got his first Grammy nomination in 2020 for his album, African Giant, which he confirmed to be his most personal work. But he lost the award to Beninese singer, Angelique Kidjo who dedicated the award to him. His loss highlighted the problem with Grammy’s award, and they soon corrected this problem with the 2021 nomination category.
Nonetheless, Burna Boy was deeply pained about losing his first chance at winning a Grammy and went offline for a while. After coming back, he began working on an album that the Grammys cannot refuse an award, Twice as Tall. Despite many drawbacks, the constraints of a pandemic, and even his mother falling ill and recovering from surgery, he managed to put out the superior quality album. Now, he has the world listening. He broke the record as the first Nigerian and first artist to win the Best Global Music Award.
The Grammys acknowledged that Burna Boy “continues to torch limitations, seamlessly blending styles and genres and fearlessly fueling the fire heating the melting pot of pop, Afrobeat, dancehall, reggae and more.”
Reacting to his win, he said, “To every African out there, no matter where you are, no matter what you plan to do, you can achieve it; no matter where you’re from, you are a king. Look at me now — Grammy award-winning Burna Boy. Thank you to everyone.”
Indeed, behind the glitz and glamour of fame lies a sad struggle and years of grinding. But with a talented artist like Burna Boy, you may think it is easy.