As Afrobeats continues to trickle into mainstream international music markets and gain a foothold, it has allowed for new, hybrid sounds, collaborations that have unravelled the versatility and adaptability of homegrown artists. Burna Boy has been edging towards this direction for some time, pre-Grammys, scoring features with Lily Allen, Jorja Smith, Ed Sheeran and have all come to define his body of work. Last night, English pop star Sam Smith teased a snippet of their new song on Instagram, titled My Oasis and out today, featuring Burna Boy in an announcement that worked up fans into a state of euphoria.
— samsmith (@samsmith) July 29, 2020
For Burna Boy fans, it was another social media moment to score points against rival fandoms, the endless feudal grandstanding that we have known to shape the local culture of music and the way it’s consumed. While this collaboration appears beneficial for both artists – Burna Boy’s crossover status crystallizing further and Sam Smith needing a potent jump start for their forthcoming album after suffering delay – there’s a question that has been on everyone’s mind, which is how did Burna Boy navigate gender politics and affirm Smith’s personhood while recording the song?
This question is propped on the assumption that Burna Boy is still homophobic, and it’s not irrational to assume so. Sam Smith has been gay for the longest, at least to those who gleaned their sexuality via their music, with their image in the industry undergoing radical shifts with their announcement that they are non-binary and asked to be addressed with the they/them pronouns.
Burna Boy, on the other hand, has a digital footprint that exercises in skeletal homophobia, nebulous but harmful nonetheless. Thanks to some investigative work on Twitter, his tweets have been exposed, dating back to 2011 where he admits that he has a ”guy crush” on Congolese artist Fally Ipupa but adds a ”no homo” disclaimer, and then in weird Jamaican patois: ”Not on no fagurt bizness. Gunshot yu get.”
There’s another tweet, dated 2014, where he says he has not used any homophobic lyrics in his song. A context for this statement is missing, but it could be that someone accused him of homophobia and he wanted to deny it, and it could also be about him protecting a facade to keep his proximity to brand endorsements intact.
As such, it’s easy to see how an artist like Burna Boy can continue to lodge himself in new configurations of international exposure, one that introduces him to new markets and fandoms. The details about how Smith and Burna Boy met are yet to be revealed, and with our feverishly, internet-struck climate, where communication can be as simple as sending a private message on Twitter, both artists must have interacted on some level.
Also, music production has received a jolt with the application of innovative softwares that doesn’t require collaborating artists to physically record together. We can acknowledge all these, and still maintain valid curiosity and cynicism that question this new collaboration, especially on the part of Burna Boy, and the optics of LGBTQ Nigerians who still face rampant homophobia and marginalization.
From the larger music community in Nigeria, the reception towards the forthcoming song has been huge. The consensus is almost like Sam Smith’s homosexuality doesn’t matter, as long as the song they have made with Burna Boy is good. But it does matter. Smith is able to make declarations that affirms their personhood because their native environment isn’t hyper-oppressive, and although their celebrity status grants them iron-clad autonomy, they are still able to openly thrive on the account of changing societal perceptions about sexuality and gender.
With how homophobia has made Nigeria existentially unbearable for queer folks to thrive and prosper, Burna Boy’s feature with Smith ordinarily should warrant backlash. So far, this is not the case. Nigerian music fandoms pledging unwavering support to artists, from Wizkid and Davido to Olamide and Zlatan, are all objectively homophobic and recycle toxic templates to maintain online relevance. Smith’s sexual orientation, and the way they choose to present, has been casually tucked into the blindspots of fans, flung into the periphery of their consciousness to accommodate the larger agendas that burnishes Burna Boy’s profile.
It’s hypocrisy, the same flavour that pervades corporate institutions when they fly in openly queer personalities and never once uplifting the existence of oppressed queer Nigerians. It’s the same kind that comes with fetishizing lesbian relationships while holding corrosive, bigoted views towards gay men. Or male comedians whose dominant materials are that of cross-dressing motifs and effeminacy. My Oasis will likely rake up some mileage on platforms, from the sheer power of fans of Smith and Burna Boy cross-pollinating to drive up streams. But it should be a moment to examine closely our interactions with those we continue to marginalize, in the favour of music stars.