Like Genevieve Nnaji at the Oscars, Burna Boy didn’t deserve to win at the Grammys
Two recent developments fused in mortifying conspiracy to inspire this article, the purpose f which, is to inspire Africans to begin to tell their own stories in order to become culturally competitive in a world given to stereotypy.
The first was the 2019 disqualification of the very first movie done by a Nigeria for the Oscars, the second, Naomi Campbell’s reaction in the aftermath of the 2020 Grammy Awards where Nigeria’s Burna Boy lost to Angelie Kidjo in the World Music category of the “global.” Music honours event.
I know that in some of my Social Media commentaries in 2019, I did respond to the pity party organized by many angry Nigerians online and offline, to express their displeasure over the perceived nefarious short shrift towards the propagation of the African art by the Oscar’s. Recall that accomplished Nigerian actress, Genevieve Nnaji, had then made what was considered history by being the first Nigerian to send in an entry for the Academy Awards. But hopes that a Nigerian movie had finally made it to the world stage soon shriveled when the organisers of the award rejected Genevieve’s entry because the movie was done in the English Language.
In her reaction after what was obviously one of her frustrating moments, Genevieve had sent out a tweet, clearly designed to curry the emotions and pity of an apparently disinterested world saying:
“I am the director of Lionheart. This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria.”
While Genevieve wailed and many Nigerians joined in the mourning of what was thought to be the West’s hypocrisy towards Africa’s contributions to the world of arts, I was one of a few unpopular voices that was indignantly critical of those who thought there was an emotional magic wand capable of balancing the prevalent socio-political inequalities that separate races, peoples and territories in the world.
Maybe I will return to this later in this article, but fast-forward to 2020 and hopes again rose sky-high that Nigeria’s rave-making musical export, Burna Boy was in pole position to win us the Grammy awards having made the finals in the World Music category along with Benin Republic’s veteran, Angelie Kidjo.
Unfortunately, Burna Boy lost to Angelie Kidjo and Nigerians, ignorant of the metrics for the awards, began expressing very strong opinion about how the organizer shortchanged Nigerians. I am certain these angry Nigerians did not know why our “Boy” lost.
Like a number of other Nigerians that have been nominated for the awards before, Burna Boy may have lost because of the nebulous classification in the awards process. Femi Kuti (four nominations) was bundled into what they call the World Music category, same as his brother Seun, Sony Ade and Timaya.
The question one would ask is this; what is World Music? As far as I am concerned, World Music is the miscellaneous category of this awards, created chiefly to patronize artists making the type of music the western world does of understand. And in this, it does not matter if yours was Highlife, Fuji, Makossa, Afrobeat or Juju. Searches for the definition of this queer genre of music confirmed this. One source describes World Music as those “that combine Western popular music styles with one of many genres of non-Western music that are also described as folk music or ethnic music.” In order words, all the Nigerians who feel “funky” in classifying their music as “crossover” music fall in this category. Those guys at the Grammys regard your music as corrupted copies of their own music. Even when some of the genres are clearly not related to Western-style music, they are cynically and hastily classified in this category.
Why not? As far as the West is concerned, allowing you grace their event for this prestigious ceremony; even getting nominated; is huge bragging right.
It was perhaps in appreciation of the West’s ignorance or their deliberate cynicism that prompted African American model, Naomi Campbell to angrily write the organisers of the awards following the failure of Burna Boy to win. Maybe Naomi wanted to console Burna Boy, having been very close to a number of A-list Nigerians, including This Day newspapers publisher, Nduka Obaigbena and fugitive oil magnate, Kola Aluko; maybe she was genuinely trying to educate the organisers (I do not want to assume these people are that not that knowledgeable) on the injustice in lumping unrelated genres of music into one genre; but Naomi’s letter contained a strong message that should guide the organisers, if they want to improve, that is.
Portions of her seven or so paragraph letter reads:
“… it is only due to lack of education that you have not been honored with the accolades you so truly deserve. You are always a winner in our hearts. ALWAYS. And to The @RecordingAcademy, there is something that brings joy, strength and happiness to myself, and to so many people that hear it, and it is called Afrobeats. Afrobeats is a musical genre played on mainstream and primetime radio not only across the continent of Africa, but across the world… Recently, the genre was categorized into your ‘World Music’ category at the 2020 Grammys. This misrepresentation diminishes an entire genre in which such a high standard of talent has emerged; a genre that has been a force of hope and positivity for many, and a vehicle for artistry on the continent of Africa. Please take the next 363 days to reassess and reflect on your perspective of ‘World Music.’ Did the world get to vote for this award, or was it only the people in the United States a part of The Recording Academy? What will this neglectful categorization of music mean to individual cultures? Cultures who contribute their blood, sweat and tears, and every level of their creativity and work ethic into making music for YOU and for all of us. Please get up to speed on the state of all popular music today, and include Afrobeats Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year and all the subcategories that this genre so deserves – just as any other respected and recognized musical genre. This is bigger than you, so open your eyes, ears and minds and treat us right and with the respect we deserve.”
The hard truth many of us are reluctant to accept is that the West does not owe us any form of abiding commitment to support our art, same way we cannot commit then to support our economic development. I am one person that holds strongly to the Hobbesian maxim that “the condition of man is a condition of war, everyone against everyone.”
Raging across the word daily are wars for political, economic, territorial, cultural and social conquests. Let us forget about the gifts and grants from so-called big powers; they all have one goal other for the country of interest. Constabularies and garrisons may not be marching out in the familiar forms of battle-line warfare, but there is always that tension between nationalities, races, peoples and dominions.
“We cannot afford the sense of entitlement being mustered against the West for ignoring us in a number of platforms they created for their own advancement and domination of the world. The challenge is for us to create our own, grow them and draw the world to our doorsteps.”
The West does not owe Genevieve an Oscar. Her subtle allusion to colonialism as directly responsible for her movie to be made in English is no valid defense and actually helps strengthen the position of those in whose interest it is for her and her works to not see the limelight.
Naomi Campbell may have added the “activist dimension to Burna Boy’s and by extension, Africa’s case at the Grammys. But look, the World Music may remain that amorphous platform for patronage if African artists do not take it as a challenge to work harder and harder until it becomes impossible for the world to ignore them.
The exponents of Reggae music fought this hard and although this genre of music had been popular in the West as early as the 1960s and 1970s, the first award for Best Reggae act, which was won by Black Uhuru came as recently as 1985. Rap, on its part was first recognized at the Grammys in 1989, even though this genre has been popular across the West since the 50s and 60s.
We cannot afford the sense of entitlement being mustered against the West for ignoring us in a number of platforms they created for their own advancement and domination of the world. The challenge is for us to create our own, grow them and draw the world to our doorsteps.
And this gauntlet is not for our artists alone to pick. Our entire creative industries, including those in advertising, have their roles cut out for them. I have been around the Nigerian marketing industry long enough to learn that the biggest dream of the typical Nigerian advertiser is to win at the Cannes. In Nigeria, the Lagos Advertising and Ideas Festival (LAIF) Awards have been tottering for years, not growing, not dying, all because we have resolved to get all our validation from without.
But genuine and enduring validation must begin to come from within and then, together, we can either take it to the word or bring the world to us.