Bearing zoot in one hand and a microphone in the other, Fela would gyrate about the stage, performing lengthy songs in those peculiar sounds that have come to define Afrobeat. Appalled by the stinking rot of Western imperialism and oppressive Nigerian military regimes, the firebrand singer created music that struck a chord with the disadvantaged and the oppressed in African societies. Years afterwards, that gangling, often shirtless figure continues to serve as inspiration for modern Nigerian artists. Burna Boy is, of course, a prime example.
By all accounts, Burna strikes the pose as a latter-day Fela, sampling the late legend in his music and even adopting his caustic style of music. Across Burna’s discography, Fela maintains heavy influence. On the international stage, Burna strikes the pose as a politically conscious artiste representing the voice of the youth and using his music as an instrument of advocacy. And since 2017, at least, the singer has built an immensely profitable brand off singing about inequalities and making a case for decolonisation. Where he isn’t basking in a bubble of vainglory, the self-styled African Giant is, at least, throwing shades at his countrymen for their perceived cowardice in the face of injustice. On Collateral Damage, for instance, he decries Nigerians’ general fright, recycling Fela’s lyrics from the classic Sorrow, Tears and Blood:
“My people sef dey fear too much/ We fear the thing we no see.
Fight for your right o/ You go dey fear
Police go slap you/ You go dey fear”
Judging by the foregoing, one would naturally expect to see Burna’s passionate concern in the polls, especially seeing the determination of the youths to boot out the old guard with their sheer numbers. But our self-styled African Giant kept mum over the whole affair until he was dragged on social media over his deafening silence. In a fatuous response on Instagram, Burna argues instead about having made less money from his political songs and has ‘positively contributed’ to Nigeria.
In matters of national significance, Burna Boy has continually shirked from commitment, much to our chagrin. For all his political leanings, Burna continues to detach himself from Nigeria’s reality, which makes you wonder what form of activism Burna represents. In truth, the superstar’s lifestyle is hardly representative of his music. In his New Year’s Day concert at the Eko Energy City, after a blatant disregard for people’s time, the singer thought it fitting to hurl a slew of invectives at a frustrated crowd of fun-seekers, who’d waited 8 hours for the show to begin. Following reactions on social media over news of his alleged shooting at a Lagos nightclub, the singer thought there was no better time to settle scores than then.
And, of course, there’s the #EndSARS movement, where many celebrities, including international stars, drummed support for the movement but our very own Odogwu remained largely quiet. Only weeks into the protests would he donate billboards to the cause, in a grudging response to the mounting pressure from social media.
After forming the Movement of the People in 1979, Fela would run—although unsuccessfully—for Nigeria’s presidency under the aegis of his own party. Built on the ideals of pan-Africanism, the MOP was designed to “clean up society like a mop”. After turning away from active politics, Fela would not refrain from hauling the military with politically charged songs.
In truth, there’s much to be said about how Burna’s real-life actions are akin to the spiteful insensitivity of the colonial lords and African politicians he criticises in Collateral Damage, Another Story, Monsters We Made; fill in the gap. As is apparent, the African Giant dons the garb of activism only at his convenience, unlike the Abami Eda he models himself after. While riding roughshod over his home-based fans (footage from the Lagos concert showed the singer kicking a fan in the face), Burna Boy adopts the stance of a political activist in a desperate bid for global attention and validation. Like a consummate hustler, Burna measured the trend and road on Fela’s coattails to launch a remarkable music career. He samples Fela arbitrarily in his music to take a swipe at corrupt leadership, builds a false sense of identity and worms his way into the good graces of international audiences. To earn the eminent badge of international artiste. But with a litany of uncivil actions, Burna continues to prove that he’s anything but the firebrand activist concerned about the freedom of his countrymen or the wellbeing of his country. Put simply, his actions do not match the facade that his music so powerfully projects.
Perhaps Odogwu might take a cue from his very own message to Africans at the 2019 BET awards—that every black person [Nigerian artiste] should please remember that you were African [Nigerian] before you became anything else.
Kingsley Charles is a freelance journalist and armchair culture enthusiast living in Nigeria