Burna Boy’s ‘Artivism’ The Political Kaleidoscope of Burna Boy’s Discography

Burna Boy’s discography paints a picture of corruption, control, and neo-colonialism in Nigeria. 

Like many Afrobeats artists today, much of Burna Boy’s discography celebrates partying, drinking, smoking, sex, and just ‘good vibes’ in general. However, the award-winning musician also intertwines politically relevant topics into some of his songs. Given this, it is not surprising to learn that Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, who we’ve come to know as Burna Boy, takes much of his musical influence from Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. Burna Boy grew up with an understanding of Fela’s influence; his grandfather was Fela’s manager at one point in Fela’s career. Fela was renowned for his ability to seamlessly weave social and political critique into his timeless, groovy rhythms.  

Unfortunately, however, Burna Boy has incited more controversy than the much loved and adored Fela. It would be remiss of me to continue praising his politically aware lyrics, whilst ignoring his own personal indiscretions, such as his boastful claim about being the “highest paid artist in the history of African music” in an Instagram live he recorded whilst sitting on his private jet. Being such a celebrated artist from Nigeria, a country where many are struggling to make ends meet, such braggadocio about how much money he has is tone-deaf. He also came under fire from Twitter users in 2020 for asserting that he was the best Afrobeats artist since Fela Kuti, a comment which angered many Nigerians, who accused him of being ‘arrogant’ and failing to acknowledge the artists who ‘paved the way for him’. Whilst it would be fair to argue that the African Giant crooner makes insensitive and unnecessarily pompous remarks from time to time, it would be unfair to let these taint the extremely valid political undertones of his music. 

Whilst Burna Boy is by no means perfect, if we distinguish the artist from his artistry, it is undeniable that he is one of the few Nigerian artists to use music to speak out on socio-political issues. Being heavily influenced by the great Fela Kuti, he has inherited Fela’s capacity to interweave political concerns into catchy music. He effortlessly echoes the anxieties and concerns that millions of Nigerians share about corruption, control, and neo-colonialism in their nation through hit songs such as ‘Collateral Damage’ (2019), ‘Another Story’ (2019), and ‘Monsters You Made’ (2020).  These songs stand apart from most Afrobeats songs being released today, in that they don’t shy away from confronting the grim political landscape in Nigeria. 

CORRUPTION IN NIGERIA

In ‘Collateral Damage’, the popular single from his 2019 album African Giant, Burna comments on the deep-rooted culture of political and economic corruption in Nigeria. In the hook he sings, ‘Ambassador go dey chop / And governor go dey chop / And president go dey chop’. Ironically set to an upbeat and rhythmic tempo, the song narrates the harsh reality of government officials scamming Nigerians out of their nation’s wealth and resources. According to Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Vice President for Africa of the World Bank, in 2012 Nigeria was estimated to have lost over $400 billion to corruption since gaining its independence in 1960. Despite this, as of 2023 Nigeria is the 26th richest country in the world in terms of its overall GDP, yet only ranks as 97th in terms of its GDP per capita (per person). From 2018 until 2022, when it was surpassed by India, Nigeria held the title of the poverty capital of the world since 2018.  This meant that it was previously the country with the highest population of people living in extreme poverty, with an estimated 87 million Nigerians, around half of the country’s population, thought to be living on less than $1.90 a day. As Burna sings in the second verse, ‘Money dey here / [but] The thiefi thiefi come major / Wey make the suffer come dey here’. Despite the resource wealth Nigeria possesses, the theft of government officials results in the impoverishment and suffering of the nation’s majority. This has notoriously been done through ‘budget padding,’ a process whereby government officials add false items to the nation’s annual budget allowing government officials to misappropriate funds in the national budget for their own personal gain. Thus, stealing from their citizens and removing transparency in the nation’s budget management.     

CONTROL: GODFATHERISM AND A CLIMATE OF FEAR

The various forms of control employed by the state have functioned as significant tools to preserve wealth inequality, corruption, and government power in Nigeria. Nigerian politicians have managed to pull the wool over the eyes of Nigerian citizens for decades by making false promises, which, in hindsight, become broken promises. The chorus of Burna’s 2019 ‘Another Story’ detail the historical trickery and deception of Nigerian politics: ‘They wanna tell you o, tell you o, tell you o / Another story o, story o, story o / Since 1960 them dey play us wayo / Shey we go dey cry forever more o!’  

As he notes in the first verse, these false promises and deceptions made by officials are a persistent reality: ‘They want make we all enter one corner, shebi o/ ‘Cause e be lie them dey tell me since I was a baby o / All the times them go promise and fail o / We don dey, we dey slim them dey shade o.’  The extreme economic disparities in Nigeria create leeway for the wealthy elite to manipulate electoral results by controlling political candidates. This type of political bargain is referred to as ‘godfatherism’.  

‘Godfathers’ can have a tremendous effect on the outcome of political elections. A BBC article reported, ‘there are political sponsors, who use money and influence to win support for their preferred candidates,’ their ‘godsons’, whom they can groom into implementing policies that preserve their wealth often at the expense of the majority of Nigerians.  

Godfatherism makes puppets of dishonest politicians. It tempts them into selling Nigerians dreams about how they will improve infrastructure, build roads, and increase job opportunities, whilst, in reality, they are merely in office to serve the interests of their rich godfathers and fill their own pockets. The sponsorship of false promises has allowed government officials to get away with doing the bare minimum to improve the lives of Nigerians, while pacifying them with false hope. 

However, when we talk of corruption it does not simply exist within the realm of politics. Rather, it is ingrained in all facets of that society, from the government to the criminal justice system. Police corruption and police brutality are not uncommon in Nigeria. According to the National Corruption Survey report of 2017, “police officers are the type of public officials to whom bribes are most commonly paid in Nigeria”. Nigerian Police Force is the most corrupt institution in the country. On top of this, many police officers live in the pockets of government officials and are paid to silence activists or dissidents who speak out against the illegitimacy of the government, either by beating them up, arresting them and, sometimes, even killing them – take the Lekki Tollgate Massacre, for instance.  

‘Collateral Damage’ examines the role that state violence plays in preserving the status quo.  Burna Boy illustrates this reality, singing ‘My people suffer well well/Police dey slap dem well well’. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 2019 Global Impunity Index, Nigeria ranked 12th out of the 13 countries with the worst records of unsolved murders of journalists. So far, the CPJ have recorded the deaths of 12 journalists who have been murdered for their profession in Nigeria, including that of Onifade Emmanuel Pelumi, who was killed in police custody in October 2020. Currently, at least one journalist is being detained in Nigeria, for a single ‘crime’: reporting the truth. Anietie Ewang, a Nigerian researcher at Human Rights Watch argues that ‘throwing reporters in jail for doing their job of informing the public sends a chilling message to journalists, activists, and citizens,’ instilling a ‘climate of fear’ across the entire nation. Of course, fear factor does play a role in all this. 

 ‘Collateral Damage’ recycles word for word one of Fela’s most popular lyrics – ‘My people sef dey fear too much/We fear the thing we no see’ – from the 1977 classic ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’. Burna Boy echoes Fela’s call for Nigerians to stop being so fearful and stand up to their leaders.  If only it was that easy. This lyric seems to ignore the fact that fear is part of human nature. After all, nobody wants to die, and quite frankly, nobody should have to play martyr because of a greedy government. There have been many instances where even peaceful protestors and activists have been executed in the name of ‘keeping the peace’ … in other words, preserving a corrupt system. One of the most famous examples is the execution of the ‘Ogoni Nine’ – nine environmental activists from Rivers State, who were hanged by the military after being falsely accused of assassinating some government officials. These activists were demanding a change to the destructive way oil was being extracted in their homelands by the British company, Royal Dutch Shell. However, as they were regarded as a threat to government income, they were framed and killed. No one should have to fight for freedom of speech; it should simply be a birth right. Unfortunately, however, in Nigeria, freedom of speech without fear of repression is a privilege reserved for the elite. 

NEO-COLONIALISM: A CYCLE PRODUCED BY COLONIALISM

It would be remiss of Nigerians to criticize the state corruption, manipulation and violence that is crippling the nation without acknowledging its colonial history, and the fact that current neo-colonial leaders are merely imitating the hostile treatment Nigeria experienced under the British Empire. Rightly so, ‘Another Story’ takes us through history to the birth of what we now know as ‘Nigeria’. The song is introduced with a minute-long sample from Jide Olanrewaju’s documentary, A History of Nigeria, which summarises early British colonial history in Nigeria.  

Olanrewaju states, ‘To understand Nigeria, you need to appreciate where it came from / In 1900, Britain officially assumed responsibility for the administration of the whole of what we now know as Nigeria from the Niger Company.’ He details how Nigerian regions became British ‘protectorates’ – territories which were placed under the control and protection of the British government. After specifying that the British Government paid £865,000 (now equivalent to £111,319,932) to take over the territories from the Niger Company, Olanrewaju ends his introduction with: ‘So let’s establish a simple truth, the British didn’t travel halfway across the world just to spread democracy / Nigeria started off as a business deal for them, between a company and a government.’  

Just as the British government exploited Nigeria under the guise of ‘protection’ and guardianship, the Nigerian government now does the same to its own citizens. Together, fraudulent public procurement and false ‘budget padding’ allow for the embezzlement of public funds by the government. According to the World Bank, in 2018 Nigeria spent just 5.9 per cent of its national budget on education and just 3.83 per cent on public health, whereas, its neighbour, Ghana, spent 18.6 per cent and 6.42 per cent on the two sectors. While other sectors in society go underfunded and ignored, government officials continue to line their pockets with the nation’s wealth.  

In the single ‘Monsters You Made’ (featuring Chris Martin) from his 2020 album, Twice As Tall, Burna Boy berates the influence Western imperialism has had on Nigeria. The title ‘Monsters You Made’ alludes not only to the antagonization of Nigerian citizens by a corrupt government, but it is also a dig at the British Empire, from whom Nigeria has inherited some of its ugliest traits.  There is much to be said about how much the callousness of Nigerian leaders towards the plight of their people is reminiscent of Western imperialists’ inhumanity towards formerly colonized nations. After all, African leaders have learned how to treat their people from their former colonial masters, and the effects of this are still in play to date, producing neo-colonialism. For instance, in 2020, Boris Johnson’s minister for Africa, James Duddridge, admitted that British officials had provided training and equipment to the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a policing unit that was guilty of committing acts of torture and extrajudicial killings against Nigerian citizens for decades, between 2016 and 2020.  

‘Monsters You Made’ also illustrates the role that miseducation plays in preserving colonial ways-of-thinking in the Nigerian psyche. The second verse contains the following lyrics: ‘Because the teacher dem teaching / What the white man dem teaching / Dem European teachings in my African school / So fuck the classes in school / Fuck Mungo Park and the fool / That said they found river Niger / They’ve been lying to you / Ain’t no denying the truth’.  

In a 2020 interview with the British culture magazine, NME, Burna Boy expressed his frustration at the school curriculum in Nigeria’s education system: ‘The schools in Nigeria would rather teach you another man’s history than your own […] Our subconscious, our inner man, was telling us: “Bro, you’re being brainwashed.’” He recalled how he learnt that the eighteenth-century Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, ‘discovered the River Niger’, listing this as an example of ‘one of the scams’ Nigerian kids are taught, a remnant from the days of the British Empire.  

In the interview, Burna Boy admitted he chose the Coldplay frontman, Chris Martin, to sing the hook, because he was the only white popstar that he could think of who could effectively complement the ruthless critique of white Western imperialism in the verses, especially since he is one of the biggest stars in mainstream Western pop music. ‘He’s one of the only people that could bring that balance and still relate,’ Burna Boy said. ‘He’s the only one that could have pulled that off.’ Note, the absence of pidgin English in this song.  

In both ‘Collateral Damage’ and ‘Another Story’, Burna Boy sings in pidgin English, contributing to the national conversation about corruption. However, in ‘Monsters You Made’, he sings in standard English, opening up the dialogue on colonialism to an international audience, to hold former colonial powers to account. The song ends with a sample from a 1987 interview with the Ghanaian poet Ama Ata Aidoo. ‘Since we met you people five hundred years ago / Look at us, we have given everything / You are still taking / In exchange for that, we have got nothing / Nothing / And you know it / ‘But don’t you think that this is over now?’ / Over where? / Is it over?’  

High levels of corruption are not exclusive to Nigeria. They also stifle the progression of other developing countries. Nigeria ranks 146th in a list of 180 countries ranging from the least corrupt to the most corrupt (Denmark and New Zealand being the least corrupt, and Somalia and Syria being the most corrupt), making Nigeria the 34th most corrupt country in the world. It is no surprise that the characteristic many of the most corrupt countries have in common is that they were once colonized. Much of the corruption that exists in these countries is a by-product of colonization, and the socioeconomic disruption and never-ending colonial debt that came with it.  Whilst Western nations are still able to enjoy the wealth built off of their colonization, many nations in the Global South remain stuck in limbo, between the past and the present. In his NME interview, Burna Boy reiterates Aidoo’s message about the long-lasting effects of colonialism in Nigeria today: ‘We’re still in the same position. We’re still on the losing side to this day. We’re still giving, and to this day we have nothing in return.’ 

In all, Burna Boy’s powerful lyrics force not just Nigerians, but citizens from countries with a past of colonial subjugation in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and South America) to reckon with, and confront the reality of the neo-colonialism in their countries. Undoubtedly, the problems that Nigeria is facing seem so historical and deep-rooted that they seem unconquerable. However, songs like ‘Collateral Damage’, ‘Another Story’ and ‘Monsters You Made’ remind us that, as long as there is consciousness, especially amongst young Nigerians, there is hope for change, no matter how unfeasible. Burna Boy states, ‘For me, I know what the truth is – and the truth can never be politically correct.’ This last line perfectly sums up why some of his songs are so politically powered. Although he may not be the perfect role model for young Nigerians, the message behind his music is potent: Nigerians, along with other African nations, need to consciously engage with the process of decolonization. We must actively unlearn, rethink, and redress our mentality as a people. We have to continue stripping ourselves of the divisive, colonial ways of thinking that the older generations inherited from the British Empire. The more we de-colonize ourselves, the more we resist becoming ‘collateral damage’ in the pursuit of greed and power

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]