As a first-generation Black American who was born in the US, and whose parents grew up in Ethiopia, Burna Boy’s latest album, African Giant, feels especially significant to me.
On one hand, as a young girl, I grew up with different kinds of traditional Ethiopian music being played in our house. This included music from the corresponding tribes of my parents, Tigraye y Amhara. I fondly remember my parents, sister and I would be at at family parties, and my parents would be shutting it down with their eskistas. They’d still be dancing at 4 am, with dollar bills stuck to their foreheads and necks— a customary practice— that family and friends laid there in reverence and affirmation that they were, in fact, doing the damn thing. In the house, it was these tribal rhythms that made my parents feel at home in a culture they were not raised in. It offered them footing, roots and resilience that supported them throughout their day-to-day experiences outside of the home.
On the other hand, when I was with my friends growing up, I had a different cultural experience with music. My friends would pick me up in their parents’ cars and we’d head out to get food or to go to a local party. We’d ride around blasting the latest Young Money record or a deep cut that one of us randomly found on online we eagerly wanted to share with each other.
We all had parents who identified as Black American or a nationality from the Continent. We couldn’t articulate it then, but there was something about each of our lived experiences that made us feel unsettled, and there was something about the music that, in turn, settled us. It was our footing, our roots. As Black listeners, we heard our anxieties, vulnerabilities and dreams unique to our cultural background spoken back to us.
Fundamentally, the experience of listening to Continental African music was always separate to my listening of Black American music. These worlds always seemed to exist in different spheres. One sphere being the family events where I didn’t have the same cultural relationship to the music that was being played, and the other was when my friends and I used our music as a sounding board to our lives. But despite their seemingly disparate existences in my life, there was a thread that connected the music.
This thread is that, ultimately, these are all variations of Black music. In the article ‘Why Is Everyone Stealing Black Music?” by Wesley Morris for The New York Times, Morris helps us understand how Black music is a part of a global Black story, and how Black American music, specifically, is a unique entity within that realm. Morris writes:
“Particular to black American music is the architecture to create a means by which singers and musicians can be completely free, free in the only way that would have been possible on a plantation: through art, through music — music no one ‘composed’ (because enslaved people were denied literacy), music born of feeling, of play, of exhaustion, of hope.
What you’re hearing in black music is a miracle of sound, an experience that can really happen only once — [it’s] not just…the rasp of a sax, breakbeats or sampling, but the mood or inspiration from which those moments arise … you’re not capturing the arrangement of notes, per se. You’re catching the spirit.”
What’s fascinating about the release of African Giant, is that Burna Boy and his team have been able to position the album as a significant addition to what we understand as Black music. With features by notable artists from the Diaspora and the Continent like YG, Angelique Kidjo, Serani and more, Burna Boy is connecting Continental African music to a broader, African Diasporic musical landscape that only those related to the Continent in some way, can truly get.
We get it because it is Black music, despite many of us of not belonging to the specific locale with which it was created. We still feel acknowledged and embraced by it. We know the riddims, and the riddims know us. It reflects a knowing that we hold in our bodies, in our psyche and in our memories.
What I find significant about the effect of African Giant on listeners is the sense of calm and groundedness my friends and I have noted while listening to it. This is appreciable because Black people, both Americans and immigrants, are ultimately never made to feel at home in the West. We are not welcome here. From everyday disrespect, to systemic misogynoir, to the day-to-day experience of being surveilled in stores, it all feels quite foreign and unsettling. What Burna Boy’s album does is not only champions and pioneers a significant cultural moment of rooting the African Diaspora back to the Continent, but the album is an invitation to feel a sense of peace, through the music. It offers footing and roots “that no one can rip all the way out,” as Morris describes in his Times article.
In the final song “Spiritual,” Burna Boy’s manager and mom closes out the album with a speech she gave at the 2019 BET Awards. In it, she says
“And the message, from Burna, I believe would be that every Black person should please remember that you were Africans, before you became anything else.”
African Giant offers a sense of belonging to all Black people of the Diaspora in a way I haven’t seen before. It offers us roots we can go back to, that transcend our space or place. These roots are familiar grounds I recognize in my body, in my psyche and in my memories, when I listen to the album. Considering this, African Giant is an undeniable feat in its seamless connecting of global Black narratives, rhythms and cultures.
African Giant is out now on all streaming platforms.