In january 2019, when coachella announced the lineup for its annual music festival in California, the Nigerian-born singer Burna Boy one of only two African artists set to perform quickly reacted to the placement of his name on the promotional materials. “I really appreciate you,” he wrote in an Instagram Story after the poster reveal. “But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small in your bill. I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix tings quick please.”
At the time, the Afro-fusion singer’s dramatic response to the perceived slight earned him some light criticism from those (fans included) who thought the Instagram post betrayed an outsized ego, even for a musician. But when Coachella didn’t amend the flyers, Burna Boy doubled down: His label sent press a reimagined festival poster—one that listed his name in place of all the other performers. Soon afterward, he announced the “African Giant” tour and the title of his forthcoming album—you guessed it—African Giant. (Onstage at Coachella in April, he eschewed the ire in favor of crowd-centric ebullience, especially when performing alongside his fellow Nigerian artist Mr Eazi.)
In person, a week before African Giant’s release, Burna Boy carried himself with all the casual bravado his self-appointed nickname suggests. The singer, born Damini Ogulu, leaned back in his seat as we spoke, pausing often to smoke or flash a diamond-encrusted smile. When I asked about the choice to lean in to the grandiose moniker, he was adamant that the name points to something bigger than his own ego: “It’s just something that I consider a fact, [being] No. 1,” the singer said of his musical standing on the continent as we talked in Brooklyn. “An American artist can come to Africa and rap his English rap with his slangs that we don’t even get, but we say it.”
Why didn’t he change his language to make us understand him better?” Burna asked me, then returned my response—Because Americans aren’t expected to adapt to different audiences—with a reply that I took to be more self-evident than arrogant: “So why do I have to?”
For all of the jokes about Burna’s braggadocio, the Coachella dustup does point to a larger issue: African artists, even those with followings the size of Burna’s and Eazi’s, are continually underestimated and mischaracterized by American music-industry gatekeepers. Coachella, long considered a launching pad for indie artists’ careers, boasts a remarkably diverse array of musicians each year. Even so, Burna and Eazi were among its first two Africa-based performers, 20 years into the festival’s existence. (The Nigerian singer Wizkid, for one, was slated to appear in 2018, but visa issues kept him from attending.) That delay echoes an industry-wide concern based chiefly on misconceptions about African music.
Burna’s music, for example, is most intuitively categorized as “Afro-fusion,” which encompasses a melange of influences including pop, R&B, dancehall, reggae, and Afrobeat, the latter genre pioneered by the late Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. The 28-year-old Burna often sings in Yoruba and welcomes comparisons to Kuti, whom he cites as an inspiration. (Sometimes he does this quite cheekily: On “Streets of Africa,” a stellar track from his 2018 mixtape, Outside, Burna calls himself “Fela Kuti with the hoes,” a reference to Kuti’s notorious womanizing.) The link between the two isn’t incidental: Burna’s grandfather managed the late singer, whose music—alongside American artists such as DMX, Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan, and Jamaican artists such as Vybz Kartel and Buju Banton—soundtracked Burna’s early years in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
But in the West, Kuti’s Afrobeat has taken on a more nebulous afterlife. American and British music arbiters tend to lazily label much of the modern music emerging from Africa, and especially West Africa, “Afrobeats.” Though the umbrella term has made for easy categorization, it strips African artists of their musical distinctions. “When people say ‘Afrobeats,’ they’re talking about Nigerian pop music. It’s a name that was basically created just to take all of this different Nigerian music and package it together so that it could be digestible and distributable,” Tunde Ogundipe, Spotify’s global lead of African music and culture, told me earlier this week. “Those that coined the term, they don’t really care for accuracy or historical context.”
African Giant implicitly challenges the limits imposed on artists from the continent. Burna’s most cohesive and expansive record to date, African Giant is musically diverse and narratively challenging. It includes features from frequent collaborators such as the 24-year-old Nigerian rapper Zlatan, while placing Burna solidly within a long African musical legacy. The album’s most notable feature, for instance, is from Angélique Kidjo, the 59-year-old Beninese American singer who’s been called “Africa’s premier diva.”
“Different,” the African Giant track on which Kidjo sings, also includes a verse from the reggae exemplar Damian Marley. Still, it was the Kidjo feature that exhilarated Burna. “That’s really the one person where it’s like I personally sought [her] out to make that happen. I looked. I’ve actually looked for her for years,” he said. “When I say years, I mean like 2011. Years.” When an A&R representative at Universal Music Group helped connect the two, the characteristically nonchalant Burna was beside himself: “She’s the first person I’ve spoken to on the phone and I was almost shaking … It’s a big honor to me.”