When Burna Boy arrives three hours late to an east London studio on a balmy July evening, he is laid-back to the point of comatose — and monosyllabic. He asks that the photo shoot happen quickly, and when he sits down to be interviewed, the first thing he does is stand up again. “No,” he says, suddenly definitive. “Need a smoke. Come.”
The tall and imposing 28-year-old, born Damini Ogulu, leads the way into his black minivan, where a member of his entourage hands him his smoke. For the next 45 minutes, he gets lost in a dense, pungent cloud. But as he inhales, Burna Boy — arguably the most popular exponent of Afro-Fusion right now — begins to unwind. “Take as long as you like,” he says with a sparkling smile. “Got all the time in the world.”
During the past few years, the Nigeria native has been sampled by Drake (at the end of “Get It Together,” on the 2017 mixtape More Life) and featured on Lily Allen’s “Your Choice” and Fall Out Boy’s “Sunshine Riptide.” Most recently, he has a song on the new Beyoncé executive-produced album The Lion King: The Gift. Burna Boy’s 2013 debut album, L.I.F.E — Leaving an Impact for Eternity, which arrived on Lagos-based label Aristokrat Records, reached No. 7 on the Reggae Albums list. Last year’s Outside peaked at No. 3 on the same chart.
Outside also marked Burna Boy’s major-label debut; in 2017, he signed to Bad Habit/Atlantic in the United States and Warner Music International abroad, excluding Africa, where he releases music on his own Spaceship Entertainment label. After winning best international artist at the BET Awards (his mom and manager, Bose Ogulu, accepted the honor on his behalf) and being named an Apple Music Up Next artist for July, he will release his fourth album, African Giant, within two weeks of announcing it, on July 26. Who needs a lengthy rollout when, as Burna Boy says himself, “there are more eyes on me”?
Last fall, Burna Boy curated a playlist for Spotify’s new Afro Hub, part of its Global Cultures initiative. And Lyor Cohen, global head of music at YouTube, mentioned Burna Boy in a 2018 Billboard interview about the African music market. “We know the crossover potential is immense,” he said.
In the past year, Nigerian Afropop artist Wizkid has become a go-to collaborator for Metro Boomin, for whom he worked alongside Swae Lee, Offset and J Balvin. In April, mainstream star Davido landed two songs on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. Also this year, Warner Music Group partnered with influential Nigerian label Chocolate City, offering its artists support stateside through WMG’s independent label services division, Alternative Distribution Alliance.
African Giant is Afro-Fusion at its most late-night and atmospheric — Burna Boy also says it’s his most personal album yet. But even so, being from Nigeria, “things that have been going on there since the 1960s” — from political corruption to violence — “are still happening now, so I have to be cautious; I have to be careful how I say things.” He’s least careful on “Killin Dem,” which sounds like a polemic about Nigerian politics. But Burna Boy refuses to say for certain.
“It’s funny,” he says. “Most Americans don’t even understand what I’m saying in my records, but they pick up on the vibe, the vibration.” One reason he believes Afrobeats, the contemporary version of Afrobeat, is having a moment is because “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.”
Burna Boy grew up in southern Nigeria’s Port Harcourt, where his father ran a welding business and his mother was a lecturer and translator. It was his maternal grandfather who was the creative in the family, managing Nigerian legend Fela Kuti, who died in 1997, and whom Burna Boy idolizies to this day. In Nigeria, Burna Boy occupies a position not entirely dissimilar: Openly revered by his nation as a superstar, he’s frequently mobbed whenever he returns home.
“Nigerians love me a lot more now because they can see that the whole world likes me, too. They think I’m something special, but I’m not. I’m just a human whose skill is making music. Way I see it, everyone plays their own role in the world, and no role is more important than the other.” He has become one of the richest Nigerian artists, but says, “You are only as rich as where you come from, and Nigeria has a lot of poverty.”
Burna Boy splits his time among Nigeria, Los Angeles and London. Despite downplaying his success, he’s hugely ambitious. He says he wants to take his music worldwide and that his next goal is to play a stadium in China. But first, he’ll embark on a 17-date global tour of 1,000- to 3,000-capacity venues starting Aug. 9 in Toronto. “This has always been my vision,” he says. “Not like I planned it, just that I knew I should stick to doing what I’m doing. It’s almost like climbing steps — you keep going up.”
Nigeria’s Next Wave: Burna Boy’s Picks
After the 25-year-old rapper released “My Body” with hip-hop artist Olamide in 2017, a clip of Nigerian superstar Davido dancing to the debut single went viral. (He and Zlatan are now friends and collaborators.) But Zlatan, born Omoniyi Temidayo Raphael, didn’t break out until last year, when he released “Zanku (Leg Work),” along with a dance routine of the same name. The song started a craze in his hometown of Lagos before spawning countless “How to Zanku” tutorials on YouTube. Most recently, Zlatan guested on Burna Boy’s “Killin Dem.”
This year, Marley has had three songs hit the top 20 on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart, but controversy has clouded his rise. The Nigeria-born, U.K.-based rapper born Azeez Fashola was accused this spring of being an email scammer, or a “Yahoo boy.” He released “Am I a Yahoo Boy” in response to the allegations in May; the day after it dropped, he and four others, including Zlatan, were arrested for cyber crimes. After appearing in court, he put out another new song, “Why?,” and was granted bail ahead of his trial in October.
The 26-year-old singer-songwriter born Teniola Apata has quickly taken after her older sister, Nigerian singer Niniola. Teni gained traction in 2017 after releasing “Fargin” and broke out last year with a trio of hits: “Askamaya,” “Case” and “Uyo Meyo.” She capped the year by winning Most Promising Act to Watch at the 2018 Nigeria Entertainment Awards. So far in 2019, Teni has embarked on a 20-date world tour and released the airy single “Power Rangers”; the song’s music video has amassed over 1 million YouTube views.
This article originally appeared in the July 20 issue of Billboard.