Going with the flow with Nigeria’s afro fusion super star as he fires up New York

Burna Boy is ravenous. We’re in a smart Manhattan hotel, ostensibly to talk, but he’s more occupied with the menu than my interview questions. “Boss man, hello,” he calls to the barman. “Can you get someone to take my order please?” Said waiter duly arrives and a sizeable request is placed for pork chops, macaroni cheese, a side of bacon and a chocolate brownie. It’s little wonder Burna Boy has worked up an appetite after the past 24 hours he’s had in New York at the start of this, his first ever trip the US. Soon after touching down in the city, he was welcomed onto the stage at the Sony PlayStation Theatre by none other than Swizz Beatz. The super producer hyped up over 2,000 fans who had came to enjoy this kick off to the stateside leg of Burna Boy's Outside Tour and they were also treated to a surprise mid-set guest slot by Jidenna.

“It was crazy. It was sick. It was everything I wanted it to be,” says the Nigerian singer. “Swizz Beatz is a legend, so I appreciate that. It was magical.” It’s on stage that Burna Boy is most comfortable, so he took this mind-blowing gig in his stride. “I feel you know me better, not just as an artist but as a person, when you see my live,” he continues. “You get my music. There’s no other way to explain it. It’s spiritual, man. You see the music, and you’re giving and taking energy with the audience.”

While his NYC audience was relatively well behaved, the same can’t always be said elsewhere. “Sometimes it gets too mad and you lose control. You stage dive and it’s too much for them and that's dangerous. You get suffocated or scratched, or your balls get grabbed up,” he says with a throaty laugh, exposing gold teeth. “But 90 per cent of the time is blessed. You have to connect with your people, and girls are 80 per cent of my people.”

Burna’s latest song, Rock Your Body, is aimed squarely at this more demure segment of his audience. Exemplifying his self styled afro fusion sound - a mix of dancehall, afrobeat, R&B and hip hop - and cool flow that glides between dialects like ice through Hennessy, this track caters for all those dark and smoky club corners. “I recorded it in London with Juls. It’s a happy mode, something for the girls and the men that like the girls. All of that.” Conversely his other new track, Hallelujah, takes a more reverential tone and shows the breadth of his music by steering us into brighter waters. “Hallelujah was the first song I made at the beginning of this year. I was feeling thankful to be seeing 2017 after the madness of the end of 2016. I’m not church going but I do believe that God watches over us and loves us, you get me.”

Born Damini Ogulu in Rivers State in 1991, he grew up being given a “normal Port Harcourt life” and listening to the likes of Fela Kuti (his grandfather was Kuti’s manager), Tupac Shakur and Buju Banton. He started out by experimenting with FruityLoops and moved to London for university, but it wasn’t until he dropped out, returned to Nigeria and started working with Leriq in 2010, that he began to put music first. “With Leriq, I didn’t even have to say shit, he just made what was on my mind. I’d go and he had some beat that was what I wanted. That allowed me to focus on making the music and my sound came together.”

Burna Boy's 2012 single, Like To Party, got him noticed and the hits haven’t stopped since, including Yawa Dey, Follow Me and Soke, as well as the albums L.I.F.E (Leaving An Impact For Eternity) and On A Spaceship, and most recent EP Redemption. All the while he’s been touring relentlessly across Africa, picking up impressive awards, collaborating with heavyweights such as Wizkid and AKA, and has established his own Spaceship Entertainment imprint.

“You have to connect with your people, and girls are 80 per cent of my people”

Next comes his third album, Outside, and as the name suggests it’s global recognition on his agenda now. Well, if he believed in agendas, that is. Burna Boy puts more faith in serendipity and higher powers than to-do lists. “All I can say is, wait and see because that’s how my life works. I just keep doing what I do best and everything just falls into place. If everyone does what they feel like doing, and is supposed to do, it's cool. Right now it’s just a process of picking out the tunes. I’m recording every day and working with a bunch of people from all over the world.” So no master plan, then? “Hell no! Burna Boy is just going to be Burna Boy until Burna Boy dies. That’s the only thing I’m 100 per cent sure about.”

After this leg of the US tour, which also sees him perform in Washington DC, Dallas and Chicago, it’s back to Lagos, then South Africa and the UK before a return to the US in August. So how does he stay strong on the road? “Funnily enough I take my mum with me most of the time, so she can cook and do all that.” Does it keep him on the straight and narrow? “No, she just keeps me healthy,” he says, chuckling again. “Man, you’re making me talk so much!” And with that, his food is served. Conversation closed. Bon appetite.

Burna Boy wears an Orange Culture jacket and shirt, available from Oxosi

Photography Davey James Clarke
Words Helen Jennings

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Published on 21/05/2017