Why Burna Boy’s Grammy win is historic

Burna Boy

It’s 2019 and Burna Boy is billed to perform at the Coachella music festival, but he isn’t happy with his name in small fonts. In a line up headlined by Childish Gambino, Tame Impala and Ariana Grande, all international stars with names routinely bold, Burna Boy throws a tantrum about being an African Giant and tells Coachella to fix it. He’s the laughing stock on social media afterwards, fodder for the internet’s merciless meme industrial complex.

After his 2018 album Outside ushered in a revival – rave reviews, anthemic singles, touring American cities, collaborations – performing at Coachella was ostensibly the crown jewel, to bolster his presence on international shores. Burna Boy’s missteps were pardoned and Outside was revamping his problematic image into something undeniably ascendant, pushing a sound that fuses dancehall, highlife, reggae, afrobeats and pop, an evolution from his contagious hit single Like To Party released in 2012.

The Coachella fiasco had Burna Boy using gorilla emojis often. Whether or not this played into the pop cultural imagery of King Kong, he was nonetheless rewriting new codes of dominance. His next album African Giant would score a 2020 Grammy nomination in the Best Global Music Album category, but he eventually lost to Beninese veteran Angélique Kidjo.

Here’s the thing: Burna Boy’s nomination put him in the bracket of past Nigerian honourees, or those of Nigerian descent. King Sunny Ade has been nominated twice for albums Synchro System (1984) and Odu (1999), US-based drummer Babatunde Olatunji for Love Drum Talk in 1998, Femi Kuti has the most nominations for Fight to Win (2003), Day by Day (2010), Africa for Africa (2012), No Place for My Dream (2014), and Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80 for Black Times (2018).

Wizkid nominated in 2015 for Drake’s Views album holds a soft spot, as is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Beyonce’s self-titled album Beyonce. Only one Nigerian has won the Grammy with a (foreign) group: drummer Sikiru Adepoju with The Grateful Dead in 2007 for Global Drum Project. In 2017, Kevin Olusola‘s American acapella group Pentaonix won the Best County duo/group performance for their spin on the classic song Jolene. Kevin belongs to a slew of West-residing Nigerians who have scooped the award – Sade Adu, Seal, Cynthia Erivo – and thus difficult to claim them as homegrown.

READ MORE: Does Burna Boy’s Collaboration With Sam Smith Absolve Him of Homophobia?

UK-based Nigerian singer Kahlo was nominated for Best Dance Recording in 2017 with British DJ Riton. Burna Boy’s African Giant was significant for being a body of work from an individual artist, and despite losing, it was affirming new narratives around pan-Africanism that he started to embrace. From speaking on xenophobic hostility in South Africa and Black Lives Matter, Burna Boy was using his platform to awaken Black consciousness.

Even when people couldn’t see it, Burna Boy knew his future held great things. To get there, it would involve a massive press machine enough to extract talkability, landing him features on Condenast titles like Vogue and GQ. And, to look the part, a wardrobe transformation that had since begun with his stylist and sister Ronami Ogulu at the helm, wearing Nigerian brands like Kenneth Ize and Tokyo James.

Twice As Tall, his fifth album, is both a pan-African odyssey and an exercise in narcissism: the album cover art shows a looming size of him, against a backdrop of African monarchial head figures carved out of mountains. The album brought him a second consecutive Grammy nomination, deservedly so. And looking at the other nominees he was contending with – Antibalas (FU Chronicles), Bebel Gilberto (Agora), Anoushka Shankar (Love Letters), and Tinariwen (Amadjar) – the odds were in his favour.

This past Sunday, Burna Boy clinched his first Grammy for Twice As Tall, making him the first homegrown Nigerian artiste to win it. It’s a Grammy-winning work made by an individual artiste, a distinction that has set a new standard. In the past decade, artistes like Wizkid and Davido have grown to be avatars of crossover stardom, straddling both home and international fans. Burna Boy’s Grammy win isn’t just historic, but also a forerunner of what’s to come.

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