Burna Boy Is The Perfect Ambassador For Afrobeats

Written by on November 6, 2023

Over the past few years, as Nigerian pop music — also known as Afrobeats, perhaps a bit reductively — has grown more popular stateside, the artist who has emerged as the central focus for the movement is Burna Boy. Amid a constellation of rising stars such as Asake, Davido, Rema, and Wizkid, his has been the one that burns the brightest. From a semi-coincidental US breakout to becoming the first Nigerian musician to headline an American stadium tour (more on that later), Burna has become the most recognizable face of the genre and its unofficial ambassador from his homeland to the “land of opportunity.”

Of course, I knew all this going into the Los Angeles stop of his I Told Them… Tour Friday at BMO Stadium (home of the Los Angeles FC and Angel City FC soccer teams). But I was still unprepared for the show of sheer enthusiasm from the massive crowd at the recently renamed stadium. While the crowd itself was visibly smaller than the venue’s capacity of 22,000 seats, its energy filled the space, making the misty late-night show feel like the crowded arena show it probably should have been (for the record, the nearby Crypto.com Arena seats 20,000).

While I was perfectly prepared to jibe at the African Giant’s self-aggrandizing decision to pursue the eyebrow-raising “first artist” headlines over the more pragmatic decision to sell out an ostensibly smaller venue (not to mention, the seating shell game used to achieve those headlines), by the time Burna was three songs into his setlist, I was not only converted but I also fully believed that Burna is the perfect ambassador for Afrobeats in the US.

Some of this is down to background info. Having written about the artist for the past five years, I’ve gleaned some insights into his politics, including a belief in the small-but-growing “One Africa” movement, and his insistence on fighting to clarify the Afrobeats moniker. Burna staunchly rejects the classification, preferring the term “Afro-fusion,” which he believes is both more accurate and less confusing, considering his countryman Fela Kuti pioneered a genre called Afrobeat (no “S”) over 40 years ago.

And while he believes that Africa, the continent, should be united under one banner — sort of the way the EU is made up of several different countries using similar trade and financial laws — he is careful to note that “Afrobeats” paints with a broad brush that doesn’t accurately distinguish between contemporary African music such as Amapiano, Coupé-Décalé, Ethio-jazz, Gqom, Makossa, Sungura, and more. There are so many different sub-genres, instruments, languages, and cultures, that the term Afrobeats can truly be seen as reductive (and often is, outside of Nigeria).

But the main aspect of Burna’s performance that makes him such a perfect ambassador for Afro-fusion is, naturally, the music, and the ease and confidence with which he performs it. While the music itself often expresses a joy that can’t be easily put into words (and certainly not in less than these 800 characters), what I can say is I’ve never seen any artist appear to enjoy themselves onstage as much as Burna. Longtime readers will know: that’s a LOT of artists.

Both his ear-to-ear grin and his lighthearted, sometimes goofy dancing are infectious. Security gave up trying to keep concertgoers out of the aisles almost immediately on Friday, recognizing quickly that maintaining neat little lines would not only be impossible but ill-advised. You’ve probably seen how energetic some African dances can get; folks all around dipped and swayed and dropped down with the sort of urgency and stamina that would even make Megan Thee Stallion’s adamantium knees cry out for assistance.

Meanwhile, despite Burna’s lyrics mostly being in the pidgin Yoruba spoken among natives of the region, the crowd seemed to know every word, singing along like they were his real background vocalists (both sounded spectacular). He exhibited immaculate crowd control with call-and-response segments that brought the spirits of the ancestors out of the audience — even those without African ancestry (a group of SWANA guys behind me were having so much fun dancing in the aisle, it seemed like Burna’s dream of a united Africa was much closer than it might be in reality).

And even after the set lulled an hour in when Burna played most of his slow songs back-to-back (this after starting after 10 pm), he snatched the crowd back to wakefulness with joyous anthems like “It’s Plenty” and his breakout hit “Ye” before closing with his biggest hit to date, “Last Last.” That’s a guy who knows how to finish a show (confetti rain, band vamps, the whole shebang). With Burna Boy introducing more and more of the population to the music of his homeland, it makes perfect sense why Afrobeats is taking over the world.

Burna Boy is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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