We spoke earlier about Beyoncé’s project The Gift and how that record acted as a megaphone for both prominent and up and coming African Artists. One of those artists is Bruna Boy, a Nigerian hip hop / singer songwriter, who featured on JA ARA E on that record. He had four records before The Gift, which were not well known in America; however, after The Gift he released African Giant. This record put Burna Boy on the American music scene’s map and showcased his ability to collaborate with talented artists. For example, the stand out track to me, Different featured both Angelique Kidjo and Damian Marley flawlessly. He has wasted no time and has released Twice as Tall, which is lyrically sophisticated, while also showcasing the beats and delivery that made African Giant so well received.
The track Monsters You Made is musically engaging, personal, expertly constructed and a lyrical triumph. First of all, Burna Boy decides to bookend the track with spoken word pieces from two iconic African artist activists; Fela Kuti and Ama Ata Aidoo. The song begins with Fela Kuti speaking about marginalization and injustice. Using audio from Fela Kuti is no mistake. Fela put out the record Zombie, which compared the Nigerian government and army to zombies. Riots followed this record’s release and the Nigerian army severely beat Fela in response and threw his mother out a window to her death. With that context, using Fela at the beginning of the track lays the foundation for the lyrical power to come.
After we hear from Fela Kuti we are greeted by Chris Martin, from Coldplay, singing about “Calling us monsters” referring to Africans being labeled as monsters by white Europeans in power. This verse by Martin plays throughout the record and acts as the chorus. As the song progresses, Martin exclaims “We are the monsters you made” in reference to Africans experiencing intergenerational trauma due to racist and violent segregationists systems. In truth, the “monsters” white colonizers called Africans was a reflection of the pain and dehumanisation they perpetrated on the community. In that sense, being called a monster is a lie and the true monster was the white power structure itself.
Working with Chris Martin on this track is an interesting choice musically and thematically. Musically, Martin has a fantastic voice and his smooth delivery acts as a perfect foil for Burna Boy’s raw emotion and power. For me, the contrast in style gives Burna Boy’s verses an added urgency and really brings his voice into the front of the track. Thematically, the song is about the impact of colonization on Nigeria, which was an English colony until independence in 1960. Therefore, using the lead singer from one of England’s most popular pop bands sends a strong message. In a sense, the songs acts as a reckoning between Burna Boy and white England. The track puts Martin’s chorus as the truth that England, and white power more generally, needs to be held accountable for. In the end, white power needs to take responsibility for the monsters they made. Not only do Chris Martin and Burna Boy work well together musically, but the dialogue between two gives the track added thematic depth.
Let’s talk about Burna’s verses, which is some of his best lyrical work in his last two records. Much like Run the Jewels, The Chicks, Taylor Swift and Anderson Paak; Burna Boy is able to skilfully take a large social issue and house it in a personal and intimate story. The previous artists addressed police brutality, domestic violence, gender and abuse, while Burna Boy focuses on the community trauma caused by white colonization. His ability to communicate the personal impact of colonization brings the listener into an emotional space, which inspires empathy and understanding. He sings “You know we come from a place / Where people smile, but it’s fake” and “Put them in shackles and chains / Because of what they became / We are the monsters you made.” This is a song about how trauma and pain breaks people down and how the oppressor uses that pain against them to justify their racism. Burna Boy is clearly laying out the human, emotional and societal cost of racism. He takes the academic concept of “structural racism” and “colonization” and puts a human face to it, which the listener must come to grips with.
Moreover, Burna concisely conveys how white power and racism is constructed on lies perpetrated against Africans. He explains:
” Becasue the teacher dem teaching / What the white man dem teaching / Dem European teachings in my African school / So fuck the classes in school / Fuck Mungo Park and the fool / That said they found the river Niger / They’ve been lying to you.”
Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer in the late 1700s who wrote about the Niger River and how he “discovered” it while exploring Africa. This then led to future colonization by the English in the 1800s. This verse documents how the white power system uses education to re-write history and puts itself at the centre of power. The lie of white men discovering the Niger River discounts and devalues the Africans who lived along the Niger River for centuries prior to white European exploration. The underlining message for Burna Boy is that in education white history and white men are deemed important and any history before that is considered inconsequential. Co-opting history is similar with Native Americans in the United States, Aboriginal communities in Australia and also used by the Daughters of the Confederacy who sought to whitewash the history of slavery in the U.S. Burna Boy is pointing out that this is all power built on lies and it is time to reject this false history.
Musically, Burna Boy’s delivery is fantastic. His verses have a raw power that reinforces his thematic message. In other tracks his uses an auto – tune effect that is popular in hip hop and pop internationally. However, on this track there is very little post – production work on his vocal, which I prefer. There are some auto – tune flourishes on his vocal, but you really need to strain to hear it and most of the time is blends into the background. Most importantly, what little effect he puts on his vocal does not distract from his lyrics. This less produced style makes for a more personal vibe, which gives the lyrics added depth. You cannot hide behind slick production and need to listen to his message.
Finally, he ends the track with a spoken word section from Ama Ata Aidoo, a female Ghanian author who fights for women’s rights and exposes the violence perpetrated against Africans by white Europeans. She says, “Since we met your people five hundred years ago / Look at us, we have given everything / You are still taking.” Ending the track with this section highlights how the pain Burna Boy documents in his song is not a historical artefact, but an ongoing trauma white society needs to acknowledge and be held accountable for. All and all, Monsters You Made is a lyrically challenging, artistically innovative and musically skilful piece of social activism.
Listen to Monsters You Made