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Iya Burna, the real game changer

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Image Credits: Genevieve Magazine.

By Chiamaka Nsude

Behind every successful man there is a formidable support system and for Burna Boy, that support system is his mother Bose Ogulu A.K.A. ‘Mama Burna’. She had taken over the official management of her son’s musical career in 2017 when it became obvious that Burna needed an overhaul that would help project his talent on to the international scene.

Having a musical background as her Otuo-born father, Benson Idonijie, was the first manager of Afro-beat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Bose Ogulu had become versed with handling talents by grooming them and watching as they rose to full bloom. She therefore decided to deploy her arsenal to better promote her son’s artistry. 

Bose Ogulu and son, Burna Boy.

As Burna continues to curry global recognition, Iya Burna continues to enjoy a vital spot in the limelight as one of the biggest brains behind his success. It was not always so as the early years in Burna’s life were anything but routine.

Born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 1991, his musical sojourn began at age ten when he laid his hands on a version of FruityLoops software from a classmate which used to cook up his own beats. He played at amateur concerts while in secondary school after forming a singing group with his friends.

Damini Ogulu came into the spotlight a decade into the 2000s. With his rich taste of indigenous afrobeats and reggae fusion, he took up the centre stage in the Nigerian music industry to compete with rave of the moment acts like Wizkid, Olamide, Bigiano and a host of other artists.

He went on to pursue a college degree in London where he tried his hands on Media Technology at the University of Sussex between 2008 and 2009 and later, Media Communications and Culture at Oxford Brook’s University between 2009 and 2010. He soon dropped out and returned to Nigeria to do music with an old producer friend of his, Leriq. His time with Leriq helped him carve a niche for himself and discover the connections that would foster his pathway.

Burna’s rise to global stardom took flight in 2012, when he released his first hit single ‘Like to Party’ under Aristocrat records. Five singles from his L.I.F.E album which debuted in 2013 were later released in 2012 and this helped spread the goodness of Burna’s rich Fela-dancehall-reggae kind of music. L.I.F.E., his first album, sold 40,000 copies on the first day of its release and its marketing rights were later sold to Uba Pacific for 10 million Naira.

Burna went on to establish his record label, Spaceship Entertainment, in 2015, after leaving Aristokrat records a year earlier. Once his label was launched, he went on to put in a lot of effort to release his second album ‘On a Spaceship’ on 25th November 2015. In another three years from when his second album was released, a third album followed. This further proved that his early childhood passion for music could be matched with hard work and creativity. And so on 26th January 2018, his third studio album, Outside, was unveiled. While his first studio album, L.I.F.E., ranked number 7 on the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart in 2013, his second album, ‘On a Spaceship’, ranked number 3 on the same chart in February, 2018.

As is common with celebrities and popular figures, controversies surrounding their private lives and professional dealings arise and threaten to blow their career away. Between 2013 and 2017, Burna’s career had become controversy-ridden as he was either being called out for assault or being wanted by law enforcement agents for committing bigger crimes. Talented and extremely creative as Burna boy was, he could not be kept away from trouble.

Tales of fracas or fatal incidents trailed the artist along his musical career. He is rumoured to have stabbed someone to death in London, in December of 2013 and was subsequently sent to serve a jail term for the crime while a minor. Although there seems to be a connection in time with the report that he dropped out of school to pursue music in Nigeria as against the stab rumour which served him an 11months jail term and had him return to Nigeria while evading parole, Burna has come out to deny being incarcerated for stabbing anyone as a minor.

The year 2015 in Burna’s life could be noted as, perhaps, his most tumultuous as he was said to be involved in one mess or the other. It was either he was brandishing weapons on his social media handles or he was allegedly ordering his bodyguards to beat up errant people. Other accounts of disquiet linked to him include a squabble with Zimbabwean dancehall artiste, Buffalo Souljah, and a threat to bloggers perceived to have written negative things about him.

Burna had a major meltdown in 2017 and that required some face saving. He was alleged to be the mastermind behind the attack and robbery of Mr 2kay, which occurred in 2017 at the Eko Hotels and Suites. The two count charge and bail experience of 2017 proved to be a turnaround point for him because it was at this point that his mother took over his management and from then his career shot for the skies.

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Iya Burna’s active support of her son’s brand came to the public sphere when she danced up to the stage to receive an award on behalf of her son at the SoundCity MVP Awards Festival, in 2018. In her acceptance speech, she emphasized how Burna’s craft and style has been repeatedly termed madness and in response to that assertion, she said “They say he dey craze, he no normal. Thank you for 2018. 2019, expect more madness.” That was it! She became a rave and soon garnered a lot of social media attention, with younglings expressing their wish for a mom as cool as Iya Burna.

Subsequently, she had turned up to receive the BET Award for Best International Act on behalf of her son in 2019 and had eloquently told the audience that “The message from Burna would be that every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else”. Again this whipped up some media sensation as to how supportive an African parent can be to the career of her child.

For the older Ogulu, music did not begin with her son as she had lived in an environment that enjoyed and produced a wealth of musical artistry. Her father, Benson Idonijie was a grand maestro, Fela Kuti’s manager, and Ogulu had been around to savour pure Afrobeat content from Fela Kuti, and other music lords like Roy Ayers, Ginger Baker, Stevie Wonder and more at quite an early age. Her father himself is a renowned radio broadcaster and author who has given years of service to the creative media industry.

On the list of family members, who she has successfully managed over the years, are her octogenarian father who is an accomplished author and her daughter, Nissi, who is a visual artist. Apart from being a cool mom, a supportive wife and a fabulous manager to her children and father, Iya Burna is also an accomplished academic and professional. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in foreign languages and she speaks French, Italian, German, English, and Yoruba, fluently. She also holds a Masters of Arts degree in translation and has enjoyed a blossoming career as a translator. Ogulu had worked as a translator for the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce and taught French for 10 years at the Rivers State University of Education in Port Harcourt.

Her experience in fostering cultural values in youths and helping them develop their talents, is proof of her managerial skills which have been duly put to use under the Spaceship label since 2017. Her interests in youth capacity development had prompted her to facilitate the transfer of language knowledge and to this aim, she started Language Bridges, a language and music school, where she organized culture infused trips for over 1,800 youths. This she ran from 1997 to 2015

In 2020, Ogulu and her team, which includes daughter Ronami who doubles as Creative and Brand Executive of the business arm, announced the launch of Spaceship Collective which was fashioned to handle publishing matters and thus, expanded Burna Boy’s label capacity into a records and publishing business. In a discussion with Music Week, she revealed that “the reason for the record arm is simply to provide structure, the kind we couldn’t have. For the publishing, the motive is to ensure as much as possible that catalogue for African artists remain in Africa.”

Due to the covid-19 lockdown and the compulsory sit-at-home, artists found themselves confined to a space but Burna maximized that period to cook up yet another thriller, ‘Twice as Tall’. This would be his fifth album; after the fourth, African Giant was released in 2019, and nine of the 15 songs on the album list which got him his second consecutive Grammy nomination, were produced in-house at the Spaceship Collective.

She explained that Burna is the star act with whom she and the management hopes to continually make an international impact as he unequivocally continues to spread the message of pan-Africanism. For a mother who nurtured Burna as a friend and a parent, she knew when to allow him explore as an individual artist and when to step in as career support. Ogulu understands her son’s mission and has since been helping him project his culturally-laced passion to as many audiences as possible, all over the world.

The deep cultural sense into which Burna’s art is enmeshed has become a criterion for collaborations as Ogulu has said that, “To work with Burna or any of us, you need to have an understanding of who we are, where we’re coming from and how we want to carry ourselves.” There seems to be a distinct unpopular yet powerful message which Burna’s talent is poised to pass. With his rhythm and undiluted musical texture, the message has been shared far and wide.

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The decision to take up the managerial arm of Burna’s career stemmed from a feeling of inadequacy. For a career that kicked off in 2010 officially and had yet to attain a certain height of recognition in the global space, Ogulu began to consider an overhaul. She stated that she had clearly felt the need for her son’s music to do better on the global space as he had the talent, texture and creativity but simply lacked the structure. “We had the structure in Africa, but we needed a bridge to take us to where we were going”, she said.

She had gone on to engineer collaborative efforts which would provide the visibility and acceptance that his brand needed. She knew so much to help retain the texture of Burna’s craft as it was a special part of his talent. For her, it wasn’t about the money as she is established and Burna was into shows that guaranteed his earnings. There was simply a need to carry his music across the globe while it retained its originality and passed the intended message and that was where a global label was required. The first partnership was with Alex Boateng who was able to pull Ed Sheeran over for a collaboration and by 2017, the Bad Habit label got to partner with Burna’s brand and that was the major bang.

Ogulu appreciated the partnership intent that was achieved within her one year search in London as it was one that fulfilled the hope of Spaceship for international collaborations. “We weren’t looking to ride on anyone’s backs or have all the accolades given to that person and then strip ourselves and our continent of our achievements. A lot of the work I had to do was figuring out which machinery would be a good fit for Burna. It’s never perfect but I think, with Bad Habit, we managed to make it work,” she had said.

Mama Burna, as she is fondly referred to by internet enthusiasts, has always had high hopes for her son’s art. In a bid to ensure that the message and texture of Burna’s music is not tampered, final decisions rests on her consideration while a core PR team from Burna’s side checkmates every information on the artist before it goes out. The international partnership with Atlantic records has the business in great shape as goals are serially being smashed.

“The label is serving its purpose, we were clear and we are still clear on what we want to achieve with the label, we never saw it as a magical fix, we went into the agreement with our own team, with me still managing him and being the one who makes the final decisions, and we have our own PR”, Ogulu further explained. Asides being his manager, Ogulu is a gatekeeper of Burna’s artistic presence, steadily pulling down barriers in the way of his career and creating more visible frontiers.

Growing up with him and following up with his journey, Iya Burna has always been aware of the potential locked away in her son. For a child who was exposed to music early enough and had the privilege of growing up on different soils, it was easy for Burna to build a taste and differentiate it from the other genres which may hinder his expression of it. Having lived in the UK for a while and been a part of basic UK living and also having some French influence while growing up, there is so much to be expected of him.

Burna has been able to carefully fuse the elements of his childhood foreign influence to give birth to a culturally acceptable sound that transcends this age. For this, Ogulu is highly hopeful that her son’s music may not have a limited lifespan as has been the norm in the international scene, especially in America. His back to back releases can be seen as one of many of his strategies to stay relevant, as with the coming of newer albums is the birth of plus sized creativity.

Ogulu is passionate about her son’s crafts and she describes herself as his fan first, before being his manager. She has watched him painstakingly develop his talent and passionately pursue his dreams with great conviction and she thinks those are two admirable qualities that has kept him relevant in the scene for this long. Versatility is one of Burna’s key attributes and like the mom asserts, “there’s a lot in him that comes out from time to time, so that makes him feel comfortable with a lot of different types of music.” Burna may just be like the wine which gets sweeter with the breaking of each day with his tactics of routinely tweaking up his musical recipe to surpass fans’ expectations.

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She explained her belief in the African pride and its affinity with Burna’s craft. “I am unapologetically pan-Africanist. It’s talent, consistency, conviction and insistence on not watering down his message, his respect for cultures, no matter how different they are. These are the things that stand out, his music is going to resonate for the next century”, she said. “It is not just about the rich sound and inspirational lyrics, there is a journey, a movement to bring awareness to our collective true identity.”

Ogulu is not a typical African mother who moves with the stereotypical notions of choosing fabulous career paths for her children. She considers talent and the adequate nurturing of it and this has helped her arrive at being a proud mother to children who are blazing the trail in the creative industry. The journey to grooming talents extends beyond her filial generation as her aim to impact on members of Generation X has taken shape. Her response to how far her contributions have fostered growth, “I’m honored to have been part of the vessel that is helping them achieve their dreams and through them we’re doing it for many more young people,” is a confirmation that she is big on youth capacity development.

Her upbringing and childhood experiences have had a great impact on her career path and disposition to motherhood. Ogulu says that her upbringing is a major influence on her method of parenting as she grew up in a gender sensitive atmosphere, bringing a balance between her younger brother and her. Her early romance with Nigerian arts and its music industry at such a time that is regarded as its golden age afforded her the opportunity to be versatile and think creatively. She had stayed true to her commitment to master the art of communicating in different domains, art and music being her first stop while language became her second and most efficient stop.

For her kind who is firm and lovable, there seems to be a hard balance between both binaries when watered down to her relationship with her children. She has been able to adequately maintain a balance between the multiple roles she plays in the lives of her children as a mother and talent manager. She pointed out that her parents’ decision to be friends with her has taught her the importance of maintaining friendship with her children and all she did was replicate it in her home. “I am still friends with my parents. We were friends. So, I learned to be friends with my children. It’s a tough balance. Because, you have to whoop their backsides as well. And then, know when to sleep,” she had said.

There is a lot to admire about her in the way she relates with her family. On Burna’s 30th birthday which was on 2nd July, Ogulu had carried her hulk of a son on her back and did not spare herself from commenting that he had lost some weight. Who carries a 30 year old man on her back like a mother trying to rock a toddler to sleep? Ogulu does! Away from the home front and from domestic motherly duties, Ogulu is an example that a mother is a mother anywhere, bearing the capacity to nurture gifts to full bloom.

It has been rumoured widely that Ogulu was one of the Afrobeat Lord’s dancers. It got peddled so much so that Seun Kuti, one of Fela’s sons came out to debunk the claim, stating that her father did not know Bose Ogulu. This claim she has also come out to debunk, while stating emphatically that Fela was the closest thing she had to a godfather.

She is not one to be bought over by social media affection as all the frenzy which her acceptance speeches have sparked up did not make her show too much emotion. Simply put, she does not seek the validation of a complex audience; the one that can love up on a public figure today and be ready to stone the same figure to death by the next day. She once clearly stated that, “When the speech went viral and everyone supposedly loved me, or whatever, I remember telling one of my daughters that I don’t get excited about this love because they’re going to abuse me in a minute, because I’m going to keep saying and doing exactly what I think.”

One can only wonder what would have become of Burna’s career when the barrage of controversies threatened to consume his visibility, but for the timely intervention of his beloved street-smart mother, Bose Ogulu.

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