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The Burna Boy philosophy: 'Anybody not comfortable with my reality is not my fan'

Burna Boy performs in Philadelphia, having brought his signature sound to the world.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Roc Nation
Burna Boy performs in Philadelphia, having brought his signature sound to the world.

Just a few years ago, when Burna Boy would perform in D.C. he'd attract a solid crowd of about 2,000. Earlier this month when he came to town, it was for a sold out arena of more than 20,000 screaming fans.

At Capital One Arena, fans told NPR why seeing a Nigerian artist recognized on this global level was so important to them, and about how great of a performer he is.

"Whatever you hear tonight, you're going to be like, 'Damn. This guy — he's got it. He's him. He's that guy,'" said Dayo Ajanaku.

Burna Boy has broken records all over the world. He was the first Nigerian artist to sell out Wembley Arena in London and Madison Square Garden in New York. His latest album, "Love, Damini," named after his birth name, is the highest-charting Nigerian album in history.

He also recently produced The Black River: Whiskey Documentary, a short film about his hometown of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and the environmental issues there.

Burna Boy spoke with NPR about his connection to his fans, his home, and the ways he makes sense of who he is as a person and who he is as a performer.

This has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On his relationship between Burna Boy and Damini

I mean, for a long time, I thought they were different people, but I realized that they are the same person. Me realizing they're the same person, it helped me to be able to use it to its full potential, you know?

On what it's like to get personal and vulnerable with his music, and what he hopes his fans will take away from it

For me, it's very — how do you say? You know when you get weight off yourself, like the weight's taken off your shoulders? I don't know the word to describe it, but that's how I feel. It feels like I feel lighter every time I perform that to people ... I want them to know that, man, they're not perfect, and neither am I. And that's OK. And another thing I want them to take away is the sense of self, you understand? Like, a sense of pride of self.

On the pressures of representing something greater for his fans, as a Nigerian artist who has made it to this level, and whether this can feel like a burden

I mean, yes, sometimes it can feel like that. But when I think about it deeply, it's something I thank God for, you know? Something I'm happy about and I thank God for, because that's really the essence of who I am. That's who I started doing this for in the first place. So I feel a sense of the mission being accomplished. And I always wanted to be, like — everyone that heard my music or came to my shows or anything to resonate with what they see and hear, you know? I wanted to feel like they see and hear their own selves, their own souls. I just want them to see that it's not me doing it, you understand? It's them. It's something that belongs to them.

On whether there's a track on "Love, Damini" that speaks to his heart

If you ever heard my voice on it, then you're hearing my heart. I don't make that type of music that you can pick a favorite. You know, 'This is the one. Oh, this is the..." No, everything is a part of my soul and a part of my being and a part of my experiences in life.

On his documentary, and meeting the residents of Port Harcourt

The people who have the worst end of the stick — you know, people who have basically been forgotten by everyone and by the government and by the powers that be and, you know, just forgotten — to me, that's the part that really breaks me the most, to see that there's actually people that have been forgotten.

It's almost like my people are superhuman, man. Like, no matter what happens, we still find a way to put smiles on our faces, man, even when we should be crying all day long.

On whether he's afraid of losing fans when he writes about social or environmental issues, like the pollution in Port Harcourt

I have no problem losing fans because of that. Anybody who's not comfortable with hearing the reality — my reality — has no business being my fan.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 31, 2022 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the title of one of Burna Boy's songs as "Last Laugh." In fact, it is "Last Last."
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]