On the opening track of Burna Boy’s fifth album, ‘Twice As Tall’, he addresses the biggest event of his career, his loss at the 62nd Grammy Awards to African legend and Burna Boy’s own musical mentor Angelique Kidjo. The singer has always incorporated moments of vulnerability into his brand, but he would usually refrain from addressing personal issues, often allowing years to go by and create sufficient distance before issues personal to him are tackled in his music. ‘Level Up’ deviated from this trend partly because of how little time had passed between the Grammy’s and his new album and how direct he was about his disappointment with the Nigerian music industry who expected him to be grateful that he was even nominated and branded his disappointment at losing at entitlement. It was also a promise of sorts, an unabashed declaration of his intention to earn his second nomination with this album.
The promotional run for the album that would eventually become his first Grammy nominated album ‘African Giant’ started all the way back in January 2018, when he released ‘Heaven’s Gate’, the debut single from his 2018 album Outside. The album marked a stylistic shift for Burna Boy who before then had focused his energies almost exclusively on cultivating a Nigerian fandom and indulging contemporary trends. More assured in his sound than he had ever been and choosing collaborators that projected the same kind of quirk he was known for, Burna Boy set out to rebrand himself as more than a Nigerian Nigerian popstar, he wanted everyone to know he was now an ambassador of African music. As an introduction, Outside did what it was supposed to, it helped the singer rebrand himself as a diaspora artist (thanks to a healthy dose of British PR) and create a soft landing for the overt pro-African imagery that would define the African Giant album. That grit and determination paid off.
African Giant was nominated for a Grammy in the controversial Best World Music category, fulfilling a promise that artists like 9ice and Skales had made years prior. By this point, Afrobeats had gone global and as a vocal, articulate spokesperson, Burna’s nomination offered representation for a genre that was growing in popularity and questioning what the global West termed as ‘African’ music. Burna’s loss to Angelique Kidjo’s ‘Celia’ was disheartening but not unexpected and Kidjo acknowledged as much by shouting out Burna Boy during her acceptance speech.
Twice As Tall builds on the imagery that was first introduced on African Giant, expanding the scope of the collaborations on the album (P.Diddy, Youssou N’dour and Coldplay were major coups for Burna Boy this album cycle), the visual imagery was also more overt and the promotional cycle for the album aggressive in a way that few Nigerian artists have managed in the last decade. With such heavyweights backing the album and featuring on its lead singles, it was pretty much a done deal that the African Giant would make history with back-to-back nominations.
Now that the nomination is in the bag, what are his chances of actually winning the category?
Of all the artists nominated this year for the Grammy’s, Antibalas is the closest in sound and inspiration to Burna Boy. Drawing direct inspiration from Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s musical oeuvre, AntiBalas performs an afrobeat derivative that incorporates latin-fusion music to African drums. The band has been active since 1998 and after 6 albums and twice as many EP’s, a direct endorsement from Fela himself and a continued relationship with his children, their homage to the musical great finally gets global recognition with a Grammy nomination.
To get a sense of how much competition Anoushka Shankar brings to the race this year, the least intimidating thing about her career as a performance artist is her legacy as the daughter of musical legend Ravi Shankar and sister to Norah Jones, both musical prodigies and Grammy winners. Anoushka herself is no family pushover, she has already garnered a staggering 6 Grammy nominations for her previous albums and this year’s Love Letters brings that tally up to 7, making her the most accomplished nominee this year. She poses the biggest threat to Burna Boy’s grammy aspirations and will be definitely the one to watch in this category.
Bebel Gilberto is another second generation artist nominated this year for the Best ‘Global’ album category. The daughter of João Gilberto and singer Miúcha, both musical legends in Latin America, Bebel has been performing for nearly 40 years and is a massive star in her home country of Brazil, Latin America’s most fanatic musical audience. Quite a number of Brazilian popstars have gained global recognition in the last 5 years including Anitta who has fully crossed over into Hollywood and Pablo Vittar who is Latin America’s most popular drag export. It only makes sense that the Grammy’s would look to Brazil this year for nominations.
Agora marks Bebel’s first Grammy nomination and a long overdue recognition for the singer on the global stage.
Of the 5 albums nominated in the Global Music category this year, Tinariwen’s Amadjar is the most indigenous album, with direct roots to the Tuaregs of Western Africa. Active for nearly 40 years and with a roster of collaborators that would intimidate even the most seasoned musicians, Tinariwen has helped preserve Tuareg music and introduced its culture to the world over the span of the group’s career.
Tinariwen is the only Grammy winner in the category this year, winning in 2012 in the now defunct World Music category for their album Tassili and they are looking to replicate this with Amdjar.
Of all the 5 acts nominated this year, Burna Boy’s biggest claim to the prize is the fact that he is the only nominated artist this year that truly represents the future of ‘world music’ and he is the only one who truly appeals to a contemporary youth audience. It would do him well to amplify this angle and the awards season swings to gear in the coming weeks.