Burna Boy has made it a habit to trigger his home audience by making supposedly outlandish statements that serve as commentary fodder. He did it famously last year with the Coachella debacle and he’s done it again in suggesting that he paved his current path to world domination himself.
I got thinking. Who are the people who have fronted the Afrobeats and ‘Nigeria to the World’ movement and how have they fared in paving the path for those coming next?
The likes of Fela Kuti, Majek Fashek and King Sunny Ade all had moments of affection from the West but D’Banj’s peak was the first instance in the contemporary Nigerian music industry. As D’Banj and his Mo’Hits crew had conquered the Nigerian industry, they started to turn their eyes elsewhere as a means of self-preservation. A chance meeting with Kanye West in Dubai led to an invitation to explore further collaborations. A deal was signed and D’Banj’s Oliver Twist was able to benefit from the institutional heft of a label based in the gateway city, London. D’Banj was everywhere at the time and rode the wave but the moment would prove fleeting. Don Jazzy had other plans and their professional relationship was brought to an end. In chasing the dollars, D’Banj ceded ground to a new generation of acts that would define the next decade. He’s yet to recover. In terms of paving a path, while D’Banj’s moment was solely fronted by him, his real legacy was priming the British audience for music of African origin. Fuse ODG’s Azonto came around a year later and the doors were truly open.
Wizkid’s reign was jump-started by Drake jumping on the remix to the transcendent Ojuelegba. That moment was put together by Skepta, the British rapper of Nigerian origin with an interest in bringing things back home. With the newfound attention, Wizkid pitched his tent with Tinie Tempah’s Disturbing London and his next project Sounds From The Other Side. When it eventually came, its impact was muted. For one, none of the songs on the album cut across like they should because they had been in the public domain in some form already rendering them dated. It also didn’t help that it was pitched as a mixtape of some sort suggesting it was a precursor to something else – which never came. There’s also something to be said about its originality. For an album packaged as an introductory paragraph to contemporary Africa, it came across as more of a love letter to the Caribbean. That raises a question as to how much of a path it could pave when it was void of originality. It also didn’t help that the biggest moment from this chapter was botched to a deficient structure. Per industry insiders, Wizkid’s production collaborators were left off the credits of Drake’s One Dance. In the midst of all this, the success of his headline concerts in London could be viewed as helping prove the bankability of Afrobeats in the West.
Davido’s sensibilities are typically American. Being born and educated in the States, it’s understandable that he grew up as a big rap fan. While he’d collaborated with Meek Mill on Fans Mi, his 2017 hits If and Fall were two of the highest points of the Africa to the World decade. Although, they came after a quiescent period of some sort. Following his success in Nigeria, and on the continental scene, he signed a deal with Sony that was supposed to kickstart his worldwide campaign; but that never came off. 2016’s Son of Mercy EP was not the fresh earth-shattering project it was supposed to be, Davido famously said it was “trash.” That said, he returned to Nigeria, teamed up with old pals, and went on his ‘Back to Basics’ run that was one of the most dominant of the 2010s. That year, with its headlines and lows, proved a key point for the increasingly popular ‘Nigeria to the World’ movement: that you could blow big in outside markets without stripping away the cultural elements of your home region, and from your country. Davido has also proven his trusty mantra, we rise by lifting others, time and time over. On his media tour last year, he kept giving shoutouts to artists from Nigeria, notably Zlatan.
In a nutshell, it’s hard to measure how much of an impact each of these players made in “paving the way” for each other in the manner in which Burna has suggested. It borders on the most extreme form of idealism to suggest that these moves were made out of a sense of community and responsibility for those who’d come after. They were ultimately borne of self-benefit and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In this very capitalist world, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in doing things designed to bolster one’s commercial value. Burna’s comments and manifesto of African Excellence is noble and well-received but have not really done anything to push the culture forward. African Giant features only one Nigerian artist. Self-interest is the primary motivator. Paving the way is merely an add on.