“It’s hot as fuck!”
Earlier this month, the Nigerian singer Burna Boy took the stage at Prospect Park in Brooklyn in front of roughly 9,000 people to celebrate the imminent release of his new album, African Giant. The show commenced in the middle of a heatwave, with weather apps saying it felt like 107 degrees. This gave Burna Boy an excuse to remove his shirt almost immediately, but did not otherwise affect his energy. He danced (kicking, grinding). He yelled (“Buuuuuurnaaaaaa!”). He joked (“Who is the real Lion King?”).
“It was fucking mayhem,” says Matthew Adesuyan, who has helped Burna Boy with A&R since 2016. “I was not expecting that at all. That many people in the park, and they knew every single word to these songs. People were With. This. Shit.”
Inciting “mayhem” for 9,000 people in Brooklyn is no small feat for an artist not born in the U.S., U.K., or Canada. But “Ye,” a simmering track originally released 18 months ago, has quietly become a stealth hit, with 11.2 million streams in the U.S. this year, according to the analytics company Alpha Data. “I was talking to DJ Norie [at the New York radio station Power 105.1] the other day, and he’s like, ‘that’s one of the biggest records in New York right now,'” says Willie Daniels, who worked in tandem with Atlantic Records to promote the single last summer.
Thanks in part to the ease and relative affordability of streaming platforms like YouTube, artists from outside of the country can now enjoy global careers without ever cracking the U.S. Burna Boy has been popular across the Atlantic for years. P2J, a producer who has collaborated frequently with the singer, credits his unmistakable vocal tone, rich and low at a time when most singers on the charts aim for light and high. “He can sit in a pop pocket, do the R&B-trap thing, obviously do the afro thing,” P2J adds. “He fits in a lot of realms.”
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Nigerian pop travels well in Western Europe: Earlier this year, Burna Boy was part of a Top 10 hit in the U.K., Dave’s “Location;” he’s slated to play London’s Wembley Arena, with a capacity of 12,500, in November. But the American music industry still tries strenuously to ignore artists who are from other countries and/or sing in other languages; unfortunately, it often succeeds, and premiere streaming and radio playlists remain U.S.-centric.
Some music — from Colombia, from South Korea — has broken the unofficial U.S. embargo. But Nigerian musicians are only just starting to see commercial success Stateside. Davido and Afro B recently managed to achieve modest radio play. There’s more label interest now as well: LVRN, for example, recently started working with the Nigerian artist Santi.
Burna Boy is already an international star, so he doesn’t need approval in the U.S. Speaking before his show after recording some video spots for Vevo, he says “all that is not my concern.” “At the end of the day, everything you chase will run,” he adds. (Burna Boy has a gift for speaking in aphorisms.) “One thing that’s constant [in my career] is growth. It’s not an up and down thing. I climbed every step. I don’t skip steps — I’m too heavy to skip steps.”
But since America remains the biggest music market, it “affects popular culture worldwide,” says Adesuyan. Three years ago, the A&R adds, “I told [Burna Boy], no matter what we do in Africa, no matter what we do in Europe, if you don’t pop in America, you haven’t done the full job. That became goal number one: to make Burna Boy a household name in America.”
To build his profile, Burna Boy has relied largely on live shows and collaborations. “Live is where he stands out,” Adesuyan says. “You don’t get that from a lot of artists, especially nowadays. You can be a 16-year-old, accidentally make a hit, and then you have to perform in front of 20,000 people for the first time. But Burna’s been doing this. Live performance is how people fell in love with him in Africa.”
Last year, Burna Boy also started building bridges with artists in England, eventually going on to record songs with J Hus, Lily Allen, Dave, and Mahalia. This was not an easy process at first. “To gain my trust is almost rocket science,” the singer says. “I never used to like all them deals. I used to be very like, if I don’t understand something too much, I don’t get involved. That’s how problems come.” He has worked closely with Sureeta Nayyar, who handles his publishing, to streamline the deal process. “She makes me have more trust,” Burna Boy says.
“Location,” with Dave, peaked at Number Six in the U.K. in March. In June, the BET Awards named Burna Boy Best International Act. (Last year, the honor went to Davido; his single “Fall” started climbing at American radio six months after.) It’s not a coincidence that around the same time as these wins, Burna Boy also unveiled a slate of collaborations with prominent American acts. African Giant features Jeremih, Future, and YG; Beyonce recruited Burna Boy to contribute to The Lion King: The Gift.
The Lion King is one of the topics that elicits the most interest from Burna Boy during a short conversation: “Funny enough, you know who I used to really like in Lion King?” he asks. “It was Scar. From early, it’s good for kids to start knowing something like that [exists]. If I had children, as soon as I have them, I’m teaching them everything I know. I don’t want to feed you fairytales. Fairytales are nice. But they come to an end, and then you have to face reality.”
Reality is rosy for Burna Boy right now: The African Giant tour is 75% sold out, according to Adesuyan. Big names like Mustard, DJ Snake, and Skrillex have been spotted playing “Ye.” “Random dance teachers in Ohio have a bunch of little white kids dancing to it [in videos],” Adesuyan adds. And Daniels, the radio promotion veteran, says the success of “Ye” has led DJs in cities like New York, D.C., and Houston to revisit some of Burna Boy’s older singles, like the still-indelible “Rock Your Body.” The singer allows that “it’s the biggest I’ve been while I’m touring” the U.S.
Adesuyan is more emphatic. “We were talking about this yesterday,” the A&R says. “Burna was like, ‘Everything we talked about three years ago is coming to life right now.'”