Burna’s Diatribe On Afrobeats and Substance: Success Requires Responsibility
One of my favourite anecdotes is of Oprah Winfrey and the American beef industry’s court case against her in 1998. Two years earlier, there had been an outbreak of mad cow disease in the US. As an expert explained on her show that it would likely spread across the country, Oprah declared that she never ate a burger again. Within two weeks of the show, beef prices across America fell to the lowest in ten years, leading executives from the beef industry to drag her to court, claiming that her statement cost them millions of dollars in revenue. The matter did get to court, but Oprah won. However, she was cautioned by the judge about the weight of her words: she was the biggest television host in the world at the time, and hundreds of millions of people were influenced by her likes and dislikes. With great power – which she had because of her powerful media platform – came great responsibility to ensure that her words did not hurt businesses.
That responsibility, which comes with success and greatness, clearly escaped Burna Boy as he promoted his newly released album I Told Them in an Apple Music interview with Zane Lowe. Among many other things he said was the claim that Afrobeat’s music and musicians lacked “substance”. As expected, it elicited a lot of reaction from fans and critics alike, chief of which was that it wasn’t the right thing to say and wasn’t correct. A large section believes this has become Burna’s stock-in-trade: that he says something outlandish days before he releases an album, thereby inserting himself into the news cycle. I don’t think that is the case; rather, it’s more of a case of Burna Boy saying what he truly believes, and as he does press close to the release date, those thoughts will be expressed. That said, beyond being an incorrect statement, it is an unkind sentiment – especially when you’re on the biggest stages in the world.
One of Burna’s attributes is his larger-than-life ego and self-belief. The title of this album says as much, and in fairness, one needs a superhero level of conviction to be able to make music at all, not to talk of the moves he has made over the past five years. He has been rewarded greatly for his dedication and ambition. On the flip side is the hubris that often plagues successful people: that belief that they have that achievement because they’re better than others. Furthermore, they convince themselves that any commentary less than adulation of their work is tantamount to detraction. As such, when asked about the rest of the field, they tend to dismiss them. It is why Burna Boy, without an ounce of irony considering his discography, can say boldly that “Afrobeats, as you people call it, is mostly about nothing, absolutely nothing.”
It is ironic because the album he promoted does not have the substance he was alluding to. The first track had lines like “I’m the highest, I’m the flyest with the drip.” Later on the album, when he collaborates with J. Cole – one of the most respected emcees of this era by his conscious lyrics, his only substance is a diatribe against jealous haters and how he gets no love from Naija. That’s hardly Pulitzer material.
Since the album was released, several outlets have had reviews. They’re all most in consensus that it is a sonically solid album. It’s well produced, the A&R and song selection are perfect, and they all tie into the album’s theme – a successful individual who wants to tout his greatness and rub it in. On that count, it succeeds. However, his album is severely deficient if you’re looking for what Burna Boy deems “substance,” such as socio-political commentary and anti-establishment anthems.
But who says that’s a bad thing? Not every musician or every piece of music has to carry incensed messaging. Sure, there’s room for that, but pop music – which Afrobeats and the Afrofusion Burna claim to have invented – is playful, cheerful, light and fun-driven. It doesn’t make it less important in the context of sociology and societal development. Even songs that are perceived to lack the so-called substance are often a pointer to where either the musician is at the point it was made or the state of society – which often is reflected in the music. Quincy Jones was already legendary when he met Michael Jackson, and they made Thriller. I dare anybody to describe this album or the artistry of MJ as lacking any substance.
Back to Burna’s recent American gaze. Listening to the album, one can tell it’s targeted to the US mainstream. That in itself is not a problem. The problem is the misrepresentation of Afrobeats he has embarked on as he transitions. The genre and its culture are only making a dent in the global scene. Much as he insists his success is his own doing, it’s actually because he has been able to build on the successes of his predecessors, from Fela to Daddy Showkey to 2face to Dbanj. Even I Told Them takes on many elements he doesn’t own, including Brandy’s, Jeremih’s, Seyi Vibez’ and many others. Music isn’t static. Right now, he’s at that pinnacle. One could compare his run to Lil Wayne’s towards 2010. A dozen years later, the scene is different. Wayne is iconic, but there are fresher stars and younger talent plotting their successes. It happens to the best of us. Part of being successful is understanding that certain moments are bigger than you, even when you’re the driver of that moment. For Burna to reach that iconic level, that’s something he needs to understand. And I’m rooting for him to do so.
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