This week, The Recording Academy announced its list of nominees for the 62nd Grammy Awards and right there was Burna Boy, in the “World Music” category. He is the first Nigerian artiste to be nominated for a BET Award, an MTV EMA and a Grammy in the same year.
Four albums, two mixtapes, one EP and several singles – that’s what has led Burna Boy to a Grammy nomination, 8 years after he dropped his first mixtape in 2011. Since the release of his third album in January 2018, Burna Boy’s bag, fame and influence has grown rapidly. This project, at the time, was Burna Boy’s most critically acclaimed project yet, opening the door to a soon-to-be enthralled international audience.
He has since gone on various US shows, signed new international distribution deals, racked up millions of streams and video plays, and won both an MTV EMA for ‘Best Africa Act’ and a BET Award for ‘Best International Act’. This week, The Recording Academy announced its list of nominees for the 62nd Grammy Awards and right there was Burna Boy, in the “World Music” category. He is the first Nigerian artiste to be nominated for a BET Award, an MTV EMA and a Grammy in the same year.
Throughout his career, Burna Boy’s imperious talent has been the driver for all his achievements. Looking back at his early ‘Burn Notice’ mixtapes, you’ll still hear all the current elements of his music; the unorthodox wordplay pinging off bouncy melodies, all helmed by sprinkles of patois. The blend of jazz, funk and pop sounds layered on an Afrobeats foundation, has been his formula for years, and even grown in form and recognition to earn a standalone classification as ‘Afro-Fusion’. The ‘African Giant’ album is the perfect rendition of that sound.
Burna’s music has gained traction, engineering access to prestigious global platforms, ultimately leading to his near-endless tour run in 2019. It’s a stretch of achievement that has seen him become the first African to sell out the 20K capacity Wembley SSE Arena. Simply put, Burna Boy stands above his peers as arguably the biggest African artiste in the past two years.
There are dissenting voices on social media about the category in which he has been recognized for. Burna Boy—for all his progress—was nominated for ‘World Music,’ rather than the more competitive “Pop”.
“If a Chris Brown, or Beyoncé, was in this same spot, would they be nominated in the world music category? Probably not,” argues a colleague who has A&R’d for some of Nigeria’s biggest artists. “No, they would not!” he adds. “That category is just to malign our talents and keep us relegated to the corner.”
The sentiment holds some merit. For so long, African creatives have strived to be included in global spaces as an equal, rather than an allocation to fulfil some ‘diversity’ requirement. Our best and brightest stars can, and possess the ability to compete with their peers from the West. Crossover to Nollywood, you‘ll find a similar thread where there have been calls from home and abroad for the Oscars to reinstate Genevieve Nnaji’s disqualified movie, “Lionheart” into the nomination process. I get it.
However, regardless of how we emotionally process this increasing recognition of African creatives by these platforms, we need to hold sight of the rules and stipulations guiding this engagement. We also have to consider the primary focus of these organizations. Lionheart, for all its goodwill, failed to make the nomination pool because it flouted a crucial language rule. The rule probably needs an update to better reflect global politics and artistic expression. But that’s a battle that can’t be fought and won by public outrage. It requires a high-level conversation, geared towards a positive amendment and resolution.
For Burna, the origins of The Recording Academy is instructive. The Grammys are an American award, servicing the American public and its local creatives. Years of refinement and inclusion has seen it extend its arms to celebrate foreign sounds and markets. But its core focus is its local viewership. It has done this consistently for over 62 years. Admittedly, its categorization of foreign sounds needs some updating, but whether they are willing to make those changes remain to be seen. Honestly, it’s their call. They don’t have to cater to you.
What I don’t fully understand is our bloated sense of entitlement. Are we expecting an American academy to prioritize African artists who are fringe additions to their main event? Do we believe that Burna Boy’s music had more impact globally, as compared to ANY of the nominees in the pop category? Is the Academy really amiss for nominating “African Giant” as one of the best projects/albums that do not fit into its core categories?
Our energies need a better use. The African music industry is ripe for open heart surgery. We need extensive work along structuring, publishing, royalty collection, rights enforcement, and licensing. If these are fixed, we will have the foundation to build and develop our local institutions, which will recognise our work in the way we feel like we deserve. We can build institutions that can compete with, or at the very least, near the level of the Grammys.
That’s the work that needs to be done. Our sentimental clamouring will get us nowhere. While we support Burna Boy (who absolutely deserves the honors) and bask in the accolades of Western glory, we can’t forget this sobering truth: Nobody owes us anything. Know this, and know peace.
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