On a quiet Wednesday evening in London at the O2 Academy Brixton, a band completes final sound checks, while the tech team queue the house lights sequence in preparation to create an experience for the culture. To continue the legacy that was established at Wembley Arena last year; the concert that was the definition of good vibes. Three months after the release of his fifth studio album, Twice As Tall; the self-proclaimed African Giant also known as Burna Boy had returned to deliver his very first virtual reality concert.
“Brixton is the place I found myself, it has sentimental value, it’s where Burna Boy came alive. Performing and feeling the vibrations of music helps me to escape from the world.”
The 29-year-old artist narrates in reflection of the years he resided in Brixton as the house lights are dimmed. The audio then cuts to the intro track ‘Level Up (Twice As Tall)’ as his silhouette emerges against a white backlight and stands in the centre of the isolated stage. A personal favourite of mine, it sets the tone of the performance. Paired with visuals across the wide screens of a 10 foot Burna Boy stomping through a town, his swift lyrics smoothly grace the continuous notes of the bass guitar and crescendo of the drums as he details his resilience and journey through the music industry. It is relatable and inspiring to viewers. Burna Boy is often noted for his impeccable fashion sense, but today much like his surroundings, he kept it simple. In a modest navy textured coat and trousers paired with a silver shirt, he arrived like he had a story to tell. A message to deliver, to get up close and personal through his music. He introduces himself to the listening audience as a saxophone solo amplifies the band’s transition to ‘African Giant’. The stage is engulfed in red and yellow hues as the visuals display an animated gorilla knuckle-walking through the jungle towards the artist as if to portray a reflection, letting you into the mind of the creative architect. ‘Tell ’em Africa we don tire, so here comes the African Giant’, two lines to clarify his position as his energy charges up.
The tempo picks up as ‘Wetin Dey Sup’ begins to play followed by ‘Secret’. Burna Boy lays on his famed ad-libs as the beat drops. His vigor can be felt through the screen as the electric guitar riffs and he pauses for a dance break. Ever the showman, he sings into the various camera angles that surround him, giving the full-on concert experience as if I were in the arena dancing too. It’s clear that he relishes the virtual crowd’s energy as he points the mic to the camera to ignite a singalong.
He performs an altered version of his hit ‘Pull Up’ with a saxophone carrying the track and his vocals paired with that of his backing singer. Stripped back, it is a beautiful addition to the simplicity of the concert. The drums intensify as he breaks off to dance and crescendos with a kick in the air. Burna Boy continues with his feel good tracks directed at his adoring female audience such as ‘Location’, ‘Odo’, ‘Comma’ and ‘Bebo’ under blue spotlights.
‘We are going to go to the underground spiritual realm!’, he proclaims to a concerned virtual crowd as the atmosphere switches to visuals of an outer space experience, complimented with yellow hues as ‘Spiritual’ begins to play. The arena goes dark with a sole spotlight on Burna Boy. He raises his fist in solidarity as his mother, Bose Ogulu is heard uttering the epic quote from the 2019 BET Awards‘Every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else’. Kel P Vibes produced the ultimate vibe and soundtrack in ‘Collateral Damage’to convey political and economic corruption in Nigeria. The classic combination of the guitar and piano create the pulsating platform for Burna to detail how Nigeria has been scammed of its nation’s wealth and resources by greed. ‘And Governor, go dey chop, And President go dey chop, When dem say make we jump, we go jump’. Just like his hero Fela Kuti, Burna uses his talent to become somewhat of a modern day activist for the youth, as he is passionate about Nigeria being restored to the haven he once knew. If the virtual crowd wasn’t already up and dancing along, they definitely were now!
The track ceases and a history lesson begins playing across the big screen of the British Government’s trade dealings with Nigeria, and the timeline of colonial oppression. ‘THE LOOTING MACHINE’ fades on the screen in red as a lasting effect; the narration announces that this tale is ‘Another Story’. A vintage microphone drops from the ceiling as Burna Boy stands under green and white house lights in tribute to his nation to the solemn drum beat. The visuals switch to a burning Nigeria to reveal today’s reality as he performs for the first time ‘Monsters You Made’ and ’20 10 20’. Inspired by the Lekki Toll Gate massacre where security forces shot and killed peaceful protesters demonstrating against police brutality. In the same way that the concept of reggae music exemplified Jamaican nationalism and way of life, Burna Boy’s sharp lyrics convey the rage of the youth to the condemnation of the overlooked black journey. Leaning into the camera and singing the lyrics, it is as if he is addressing the powers that be directly regarding the need for change in society. The track list is magnificent in telling a much-needed story. He harmonizes about becoming a product of his environment in a classist system on ‘Real Life’. The visuals of south London blocks across the screens really drives home the need for support as he has been fortunate to survive the concrete jungle.
In the last inning of the show, Burna Boy set out to sing fan favourites as a way of lightening up the mood following a weighty message. The trumpet intro of ‘Anybody’ begins and I almost drop my phone as I am compelled to dance. The pulsating melody and free-flow of Afrobeat into Dancehall is more commonly known as Afro-fusion; and bears the ‘Burna Boy’ trademark that we have come to love. The artist leaps from the speaker and begins showing off his legendary dance moves to the outro. I can envision that if the crowd were in physical attendance, the energy would be undeniable. Another first time performance from the concert was ‘Ginger’ a collaboration with global afrobeat star Wizkid off of his latest album Made In Lagos. It saddened me that lockdown had averted my plans of doing my best two step to this song at a live show. Nevertheless, there was a magic to enjoying the melody in my lounge as Burna sang and danced into the camera, surrounded by his band at a distance. The footwork and visual impact made me forget I was at home.
“Big up the crowd! *silence*, We are making the best of the situation so stay with me! *laughs*”
Reality hits that this is only virtual enjoyment. The talent and energy that I gaged from watching this experience is undisputable from Burna Boy. Pulsating musical vibes with intricate social messages. It’s clear that he is in tune with his fellow millennials expectation from their music and depiction of the cultural experience. As the show came to a close, I reflect on what Burna narrated as he opened the show: “This year has been a disaster, but it’s time to be taller than we were. No matter how many times we fall, I’m here for the betterment of my people through music, messages, vibes and blessings’
To perform in such a way to an empty arena during a pandemic speaks to his talent as a creative, a storyteller and an artist. The music is at his centre. Burna Boy’s secret weapon is the passion and the true spirit of the underdog to fulfill his purpose.