A Twitter user joked that while many began the new year in church, their lips quivering with prayers of gratitude, some others started it on the receiving end of curses. This user had in mind the incident at Burna Boy’s Lagos Loves Damini concert, held January 1 at Eko Atlantic Energy City in Lagos and organized by Wonder X. Strangely, what Burna Boy said to the crowd of concert-goers, rather than the music, stood out the most in the music concert.
His leg perched on a stage prop, the Grammy-winning afro-fusion artist said in Nigerian pidgin English to no one in particular: “I dey here with una, after una don talk say I kill person for Cubana, after una don talk say my mama dance for Fela,” a charge alluding to two popular rumours, the first that Burna Boy’s bodyguards had shot some persons at a famous Lagos nightclub last year at the singer’s behest, the second that the singer’s mother, who is also his manager, was one of Fela Kuti’s backup dancers.
Understandably he found the first vexing given the allegation’s gravity. But one cannot be sure why he took umbrage at the latter, for many would consider it an honour to have performed alongside the late Afrobeat icon on stage. More importantly, one cannot be sure why he dredged up either of the two allegations unprovoked, or why he thought his concert would mostly comprise the kind of people who would peddle such ruinous gossip rather than his fans. It appears the singer simply was in a belligerent mood.
But then he has often betrayed a persecution complex, his songs often bearing a line or two revealing the chip on his shoulder. “Too much ice on my bomboclaat wrist / That’s why everybody hating on me like Chris,” he sings in the percussion-heavy Kilometre (2022).
Continuing his harangue on stage, Burna Boy said, “I still love you, na why I dey here. So if you like no love me. Na God go punish you.” A video of the incident online reveals two different reactions to the singer’s onslaught. On the one hand, many booed the insolence; but underneath that chorus of disapproval a voice can be heard shouting to Burna Boy, “we are sorry.” Aptly, some commenters online likened the second response—and the many others defending the musician’s deed—to the Stockholm syndrome many Nigerians have for the politicians who abuse their trust. But it also speaks to the halo effect which blinds many to the faults of their favourite celebrity, sparing said celebrity of any comeuppance even after he or she might have transgressed in a most grievous way.
And yet Burna Boy’s sins of the night went beyond poor word choice. He had also shown up late, bounding onto the stage at 3:30 A.M whereas the event began at 6 P.M, inspiring yet another joke about the crowd who stewed in despair as they awaited his entrance. Alluding to one popular song by the rapper Eminem, a Twitter user joked that even Stan waited only four hours in the “blistering cold.” The Outsiders, as Burna Boy’s fans are known, waited nearly eight hours.
Despite arriving late, Burna Boy did not apologise to the crowd as several eyewitnesses recount; instead he boasted that he only turned up because rising music star Seyi Vibez urged him to do so. As with stars like Mohammed Ali and Cristiano Ronaldo, Burna Boy’s public image has often leaned into arrogance as a mainstay, and people generally do not mind it because they understand it is only a performance, one that is mostly harmless, maybe even amusing, as like when he tongue-lashed Coachella for spelling his name in small font on its banner in 2019.
Perhaps Burna Boy was only joking when he thrashed his fans at his concert. But not understanding that said jokes will only rub off the wrong way in that context, where the general mood was impatience, frustration and physical fatigue from having waited hours for the main event, perhaps speaks to the singer’s level of empathy, which, as many have said, contradicts his public image as an everyman crusader, an image he has built over the years by aligning himself with Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s premier everyman crusader. If Burna Boy cannot read the room and know that a people kept waiting for hours can scarcely be in a mood ripe for banter, how then might one believe him capable of understanding the unique situation of the Nigerian poor as he so often claims in his music, like in the song Common Person (2022), ensconced as he is on the lofty eyrie of wealth and privilege?
But the more important question: why do people still patronise these musicians who so blithely disregard them? Burna Boy aside, many Nigerian artists behave unfairly in speech or deed towards the fans who sustain their stardom. Weeks ago, Wizkid ghosted a concert he was paid to headline in Ghana, and neither apology nor rationale was published immediately. Ditto Kizz Daniel months ago for a concert in Zanzibar. And the technical mishaps in Asake’s concerts have furnished newspapers with headlines in the past few days. But there’s an easy answer: these erring artists continue to enjoy mass support because the parasocial relationship people often have with celebrities are forged in the fire of irrational love and admiration, making it nearly impossible to dispassionately gauge such celebrities, musicians in this case, when they err.
But it is also because music, especially when it is as catchy as that which Burna Boy makes, inflames a primal instinct which hushes the voice of reason. To make people forgo a misdemeanour, all an erring musician needs to do is to release a hit song. It is why many of the voices which initially swelled in protest to Burna Boy’s behaviour at his concert later joined in singing along as he performed his songs.
When they do protest, fans often turn to jokes. One proved particularly hilarious during the post-concert discussions online. On top of his sins, Burna Boy kicked a fan who tried to mount the stage during his performance, spurring one Twitter user to joke that the album cover of Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall (2021) shows how that trampled fan must have experienced the blow. The cover art of said album comprises an image of an outsized Burna Boy, his left foot clamping down menacingly.
Truly humour can be a coping mechanism and even a tool of resistance, and Nigerians have used it not only to negotiate nonchalant musicians but also dire political situations. With the infamous Lekki Toll Gate shooting of 2020 evoking a general feeling of helplessness, many young Nigerians joked about relocating abroad by hook or by crook. “When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts,” an Ethiopian proverb says, suggesting clownery as a means by which one may register remonstrance to an authority figure and still keep one’s head.
But humour can only do so much. The research professor Gregor Benton finely describes its limitations, particularly that of political humour:
“But the political joke will change nothing. It is the relentless enemy of greed, injustice, cruelty and oppression—but it could never do without them. It is not a form of active resistance. It reflects no political programme. It will mobilise no one. Like the Jewish joke in its time, it is important for keeping society sane and stable. It cushions the blows of cruel governments and creates sweet illusions of revenge. It has the virtue of momentarily freeing the lives of millions from the tensions and frustrations to which even the best organised political opposition can promise only long-term solutions, but its impact is as fleeting as the laughter it produces.”
Humour may help spotlight an artist’s bad behaviour and even help fans cope with slights by affording them “sweet illusions of revenge.” But it will not compel Nigerian artists to treat their fans with more respect, nor will it improve stagecraft generally in the Nigerian music industry. The fear of online ridicule will not make an artist show up at his concerts as and when due, otherwise there would not be many such cases of tardiness given many erring artists have previously faced such ridicule.
Artists will likely only change for the better on pain of punishment, which is why institutions, perhaps which the government should control, ought to be created so they can act as an ombudsman between performers and those who pay for their presence and service.
But given normal rules do not often apply to the rich and famous, and given the Nigerian music scene’s amorphous shape, that future where superstar artists get punished for bad conduct and breach of contract may take time to arrive, if ever it does. This leaves many concert-goers with two options: boycott these erring artists or joke through the indignity. The latter, as it stands, proves the more popular option.