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A sense of self: Burna Boy brings Nigerian sounds to a global audience

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On a Thursday night at the Capital One Arena here in Washington, D.C., fans were buying drinks, chatting with friends and getting excited about a sold-out show - Burna Boy.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Burna Boy.

SHAPIRO: Maryann Uzuokwu was there with a couple of friends. They wanted everyone to know that they are not bandwagoners. They've been with Burna Boy since Day 1.

MARYANN UZUOKWU: I've been a fan since he released - I can't remember the name, but it goes, (singing) you see my dark shades on like I can't see you. But you know say - I've been a fan since that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE TO PARTY")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) You see my dark shades on like I can't see you. But you know say me fancy you.

SHAPIRO: Burna Boy's hit "Like To Party" came out 10 years ago. Since then, he's broken records all over the world - first Nigerian artist to sell out Wembley Arena in London and Madison Square Garden in New York. His latest album, "Love, Damini," is the highest-charting Nigerian album in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOAK AND DAGGER")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) Them they pray make I fall and stagger, so I move in, cloak and dagger - might see me in a black bandana, in a Lambo with Jowi Zaza.

SHAPIRO: When he played D.C. right before the pandemic, it was a 2,000-seat venue. This time, 20,000 screaming voices were cheering him on, Dayo Ajanaku among them.

DAYO AJANAKU: Whatever you hear tonight, you going to be like, damn. This guy - he's got it. He's him. He's that guy.

BURNA BOY: (Singing) Shayo. OK. Shayo.

SHAPIRO: A few days after that show, I spoke to Burna Boy about the "Love, Damini" tour and album. Damini is his birth name. So I asked what the relationship is between Damini and Burna Boy.

BURNA BOY: I mean, for a long time, I thought they were different people, but I realized that they are the same person. Me realizing they're the same person - it helped me to be able to use it to its full potential, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I mean, the title track of this album is really introspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE, DAMINI")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) Yes, I agree I'ma (ph) start making changes, yeah, trying to be a better man. I been trying. I got it all, but I still got my anger - been working hard trying to get rid of my anger.

SHAPIRO: How does it feel to sing that to tens of thousands of people, that really personal stuff?

BURNA BOY: For me, it's very - how do you say? You know when you get weight off yourself, like the weight's taken off your shoulder? I don't know the word to describe it, but that's how I feel. It feels like I feel lighter every time I, you know, perform that to people.

SHAPIRO: What do you want your fans to take away from an experience of hearing you bare your soul like that?

BURNA BOY: Man, I want them to know that, man, they're not perfect, and neither am I. And that's OK. And another thing I want them to take away is the sense of self. You understand?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BURNA BOY: Like, a sense of pride of self.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMMON PERSON")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) I be common person, but my happiness, oh, still be my own. Everybody get role - no mean say your own role passing my own.

SHAPIRO: At the show that you did in Washington, D.C., recently, the people in the audience were not just fans of yours. They talked like they wanted to carry you on their shoulders, like you were holding a torch representing their identity, their sense of pride.

JAY AGBON: My name is Jay Agbon. I think of him as a us artist. Does that make sense? - us meaning people of African descent. I would imagine I look at Burna the same way Latin people look at Bad Bunny. Like, yes, is he technically a global artist? For sure. But it's for me. Like, he sings in the accent that my dad has.

SHAPIRO: Does that feel like an added burden? It's not just that these people love your music. It's like you represent something to them that they have not seen on a stage like this ever before.

BURNA BOY: I mean, yes, sometimes it can feel like that. But when I think about it deeply, it's something I thank God for, you know, something I'm happy about and I thank God for because that's really the essence of who I am. That's who I started doing this for in the first place. So I feel a sense of, you know, the mission being accomplished. And, you know, I always wanted to be, like - everyone that heard my music or came to my shows or anything to resonate with what they see and hear, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BURNA BOY: I wanted to feel like they see and hear their own selves, their own souls. Like, I just want them to see that. Like, it's not me doing it. You understand? Like, it's them.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, you're like a vehicle for something.

BURNA BOY: Exactly. Like, it's something that belongs to them, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S PLENTY")

BURNA BOY: (Singing in Yoruba) - make you (singing in Yoruba). I don't want nobody to give my matter K-leg. For this life I dey, I want to be celebrated - don't want to waste my days. I want to spend them on enjoyment. It's plenty.

SHAPIRO: You know, before this interview, I watched a bunch of interviews that you've done, and you always seem so kind of solid and low-key and chill. And then I see you on stage performing live, and you are just explosive. It is like yin-yang, black and white.

BURNA BOY: Everybody say Burna.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Burna.

BURNA BOY: Say Burna.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Burna.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about that - I don't know - those two faces.

BURNA BOY: It kind of goes back to what I'm saying. Like, Burna Boy and Damini are one person. And it's the same concept with everyone else. Every human being is made up of characteristics. And for me, it's like, you get to see all those characteristics. You get to see Damini being his chill self. You get to see Burna Boy going crazy. You get to see Damini with his mother and his family trying to make sense of life (laughter), you know? I mean...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BURNA BOY: I don't have it all figured out, man. I feel like the fact that they see that I try and do my best and everything - it kind of - they resonate with that. And it's something that they can identify with because everyone's going through the same [expletive], and everyone's doing the same [expletive].

SHAPIRO: All right. So give us one track from your latest album that you're like, this speaks to my heart. This is what I'm all about. This is...

BURNA BOY: Everything I'm - if you ever heard my voice on it, then you're hearing my heart. I don't make that type of music that you can pick a favorite. You know, this is the one. Oh, this is the - no. Everything is a part of my soul and a part of my being and a part of my experiences in life.

SHAPIRO: Well, if you're not going to pick a track, a lot of other people called "Last Last" the song of the summer. What do you think of that title?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LAST")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) E don cast, last last. Na everybody go chop breakfast. Shayo.

I mean, I definitely think it's the song of the summer.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You'll take that.

BURNA BOY: I definitely think that hundred percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LAST")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) I no holy, and I no denge pose like Baba Fryo. My eye o don cry o. I need Igbo and shayo, shayo.

SHAPIRO: Burna Boy. His latest album is "Love, Damini." Thank you so much for talking with us.

BURNA BOY: Thank you very much for having me. Hopefully I can do another Tiny Desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LAST")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) E don cast, last last. Na everybody go chop breakfast. Have to say bye-bye o, bye-bye o to the love of my life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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