PORTRAIT: International artists are snapping up his collaborations and his concerts are sold out in Europe. But it was in Nigeria that Burna Boy first built his success. In line with Fela Kuti, the singer cultivates the tradition of Afrobeat. By adding R’n’B and hip-hop, he now conquers a global audience.
Everyone knows the lyrics to Anybody by heart. It doesn’t matter that they are in English and Yoruba, one of the three main languages of Nigeria. “Money soon expecting / Je kawon padi eh jen be” (“The money will soon come in / Let your loved ones benefit from it”), shout more than 20,000 fans, mostly young, trendy, black and white. A diverse audience.
In Paris, in the pit of the Accor Hotels Arena, full this evening, arms and smartphones are stretched out towards the stage: Louis Vuitton jacket, T-shirt adorned with the face of the Mona Lisa, Burna Boy jumps, microphone in hand. “Remember that you were African before anything else! “, proclaims the singer in front of a giant screen, where excerpts from clips and archive images intersect. They tell of the founding of Nigeria, a vast territory in West Africa purchased by the British Empire from the Royal Niger Company in 1899.
A staging supported by thirty musicians, choristers and confetti geysers. On the edge of the stage, the French rapper Orelsan films some images of these two hours and forty-five minutes of show. Also invited are footballers, such as German international Jérôme Boateng and former French striker Djibril Cissé, and artists, such as the famous Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo. Once the performance is over, this small world waits behind the scenes, massed in front of an elevator, to be able to go and greet the Nigerian artist in his dressing room.
« Even Michael Jackson wouldn’t have dared »
« I’m a rockstar, » said Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, aka Burna Boy, 30, in the ocher suite of a five-star hotel near the Champs-Elysées the day after the concert. It is 10 p.m., the artist, who has chosen as his pseudonym a name of « superhero » invented when he was a child, still has his sunglasses on his nose. A bodyguard, a member of his management team and a press officer will be present throughout the interview.
The rules were set a few minutes earlier: no umpteenth question about Beyoncé – with whom he collaborated on the soundtrack of the remake of the film The Lion King, by Jon Favreau, in 2019 – nor about politics and even less about « what he smokes ».
The Nigerian singer was able to take the measure of his celebrity in 2016, when he threw himself into the crowd in Surelere, in the south of his country, and was carried in triumph by several thousand fans.
« I don’t think even Michael Jackson would have dared to throw himself at the public in such a place, » he smiles, proud of his comparison, a Balenciaga boot on the coffee table. Since this leap into the void, he has released five records in three years. Outside (2018) and African Giant (2019) won multiple awards, and with Twice as Tall (2020), produced by acclaimed rapper Puff Daddy (who now calls himself LOVE), the singer won the Grammy Award for Best Album by world music in 2021.
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