YOU NEED A BOSE OGULU IN YOUR LIFE
With the release of her son’s latest album, Twice as Tall, as well as the marketing roll out put together by one of the most dedicated teams in Nigerian music, BOSE OGULU aka Mama Burna, continues to cement her name as one of the most effective, most efficient, most loved and perhaps most widely celebrated Managers, CEOs and legacy builders in Nigeria’s entertainment industry; rivalled in lasting influence, perhaps only by a handful of people – her own father included.
Words: IG – @Sonia_Irabor
Images: IG – @BuchwithLenses
THE LEGACY BUILDER
LEGACY is a dramatic word. It begs to be viewed through an archaic lens in which only property, money or traditional beliefs are bequeathed to family members, by a late relative. But in these more modern times, we have begun to view mortality, relevance and generational ideals through a less homogenous lens.
For Bose Ogulu, her views on legacy deal less with a material bequeathing of goods and services, and more with the concept of long lasting impact. For her, the idea of a legacy is more interested in building alongside her team – her family. The daughter of veteran broadcaster, Benson Idonije, Ogulu grew up in Surulere, experiencing a less than conventional childhood. With her father, a highly celebrated journalist as well as the first manager of a man whose family makes the case for the legacy of impact, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Ogulu was able to learn, appreciate and ultimately continue to build upon the foundation that her family had already begun to lay.
One of the most enjoyable parts of researching Bose Ogulu, is how parallel our upbringings ran in relation to our fathers. For one, we are one of two siblings, the others being boys, both with a six-year age difference between us. There’s also the small matter of our fathers’ occupations: both veteran broadcasters. How about the very specific fact that we were both chauffeured to parties by our fathers, who also came to pick us up at curfew. The last fact being my absolute favourite similarity. Adding to these, the fact that for both of us, growing up such as we did, we were educated on Nigerian and African histories, which included our first and perhaps only thorough education on apartheid, colonialism and much more. I know the influence that this relationship with my father – who ensured that I grew up knowing and abiding by my own individuality – did to influence the person I am today. It felt only right to see if our similarities ran any deeper. “If you have a good relationship with your father, it [tends] to make you more comfortable in your own skin, as a human being. It makes you feel like you deserve a lot – not in terms of being a brat – but in terms of your relationships. It just gives you a healthy, comfortable balance.”
Growing up in a setting as unconventional as hers – “All the people you’d hear on the radio or read about in the newspapers were my uncles and I didn’t think there was anything special about them” – Ogulu didn’t immediately see her upbringing as anything other than normal. As expected within the somewhat heavy-handed morality of Nigerian society, not many people saw the Idonije household and the colourful characters that passed through as the best place for their children to visit. But none of that external snobbishness impacted the family, least of all Bose, who carried on living her truth as she does today.
It’s no surprise then, that the two themes that keep coming back throughout our conversation are intentionality and individuality. It is reflected as much in who she is as it is in her three children, Damini, Ronami and Nissi. For Ogulu, fashion was the first outlet through which she was able to really express both of those things fully, citing the punk era as a huge influence. This was an era marked by daring fashion choices, amongst other elements, and for the first time since WWII, fashion wasn’t tidy or predictable; it was, for lack of a better word, chaotic. It was a subculture very much leaned into by white British youths, so to have a young girl all the way in Nigeria, expressing herself so freely and in a similar fashion, speaks further about how much the Idonije parents supported their children’s freedom to express and just how diverse her inspirations were. But it wasn’t just punk culture that influenced Ogulu. Her interest in languages also informed a lot of her self-expression through fashion, with her interest in the culture of other African countries – especially francophone countries such as Mali. It’s a rare condition, for that day and age, to hear about Nigerian parents who were so willing to allow their children to form their own identities through fashion in such a way, but Mr and Mrs Idonije merely advised their child of the world that awaited her. “[My father said,] “If you want to look like this, you have to work twice as hard to convince people that you’re serious and you’re smart.” It was from then I thought, this is what I like, this is what I don’t like and this is what I want to do with my life. This is who I am.”
From form 4 (Year 4/SS1) Bose knew what direction she wanted to go in – languages. Not a particularly common career choice even today, but certainly not at that point in her life.
Unsurprisingly, university leaders aimed to deter her from her chosen career path and instead get her to do – you guessed it… probably – Law! “They kept saying, ‘You’re too smart to be studying languages, change to Law.’ But I knew exactly what I wanted to do; [as far back as] secondary school.”
Bose Ogulu speaks four international languages, but don’t ask her how many African languages she speaks, she’s lost count. It made sense then that, following university, she dove into a job as an interpreter, which ensured that “I lived with my passport in my bag”. But soon came the desire to have a more grounded life, especially after she got married and had her children. “Like my parents said, I had no moral justification not to be a hands-on parent.” Living in Port Harcourt, which at the time had no embassies to enable her get translating jobs, and after a stint as an interpreter for Michelin, which still took her away from her family. “I looked at what was important to me [and] it was raising my kids in an environment that was healthy [and] allowed them to express themselves. The only way to do that [for me] was for them to understand that people are different and are [from] different cultures. And [my kids] are also allowed to be different.” Ogulu felt inspired to build and run her own Language and Music School to enable her to do just that.
Bose’s father, Benson Idonije, was the first manager of Fela Anikulapo -Kuti, as well as a highly celebrated music critic. He told Bose many times, if you can’t read and write music, then you are an illiterate. She laughs about this, but she took to his warning, becoming literate in both the reading and the writing of music. For her children, she wanted them to have access to these same values. It, however, became clear that it was of no use if Damini, Ronami and Nissi were multilingual and music literate, if the children they interacted with had no idea how to communicate with them. And so, Bose set out to include the children in her community. This was the birth of Language Bridges in 1997. But it didn’t stop there for her. As important as classroom learning, for her, was the physical immersion in the cultures. “[With the excursions] you would go into the natural medium where the language is spoken. I particularly enjoyed the African francophone countries, because my children and other children [were able to see] children who looked just like them who couldn’t speak English. Their first reaction to this was, why don’t you speak English, but then I would ask them, why don’t you speak French? It’s the exact same thing.” This offered her a chance to not only teach languages in a surface way but to provide the actual history behind these differences in culture, understanding and more. “They learnt that [even though] we look alike, we can’t communicate because some people came, divided our land, taught us English and taught you French, and it’s responsible for a lot of distrust and issues we have amongst ourselves”. The taking in of different cultures outside of that which the children identified as ‘normal’, was a compulsory part of the Language Bridges’ curriculum.
Bose Ogulu speaks of her determination to ensure that her children enjoyed the same level of self-expression and unfiltered individuality that she and her brother did as children. The language school opened up doors of direct learning experiences and influences, similar to opportunities she enjoyed in her youth and in her time as a travelling interpreter.
Understanding the importance of balancing the need to support their children’s individualities and identities while also maintaining theirs, seems to be the key to the Ogulus’ parenting style. However, even the most well intentioned parents run the risk of being overzealous in their approach to guiding their kids towards their truths. For Bose and her husband, this was something that they didn’t allow to shadow them from early on. “We just made it up as we went along, there was no clear blueprint. I just picked a lot of what worked for [me, as a child]. I also think it’s very important to be their friend, so that if they’re confused about something [they can] come to me. It was just about opening the communication lines, [letting them know] that you’re a safe haven.
The story of Burna Boy’s rise to the top is well known by now. Returning from England having decided not to carry on with University, and following conversations with his mother about next steps – music – Mama Burna secured him an internship with Rhythm FM in Port Harcourt. She was told that while he did have the job, she would probably never hear him on radio. That was on a Friday. The following Tuesday, she heard her son’s voice on the radio. In the midst of his stint at Rhythm FM, and of course after, he made it clear that music was a passion he wanted to pursue and so Ogulu ensured that he was able to do so; providing him with the necessary resources to record at studios (with his own generator, mind you), and keeping up to date on how he was getting on. Then one day, Burna Boy submitted his recording to the people at Rhythm FM and asked them to play it. The song, Freedom Freestyle, kickstarted the wild and unpredictable journey that Burna Boy – and the Spaceship Collective – have been on since.
It was still a surprise when her son came up to her one day and asked her to be his manager. Initially, when she asked him why he wanted her, he simply said, I trust you. I trust your business acumen. In her own words, it wasn’t something she aspired to or had shown any interest in. “It wasn’t my dream, it was at his request. Sometimes, God just uses the things you love to take you into areas where you’ll flourish. Now, I love what I do”.
A smart move, because given her experiences, her upbringing and her close network of family and friends (the late, great Brenda Fassie was one of her close friends), she was more than capable. “I’ve been around music more than I’m letting on. [So stepping into the role] wasn’t strange to me at all. I had seen what my dad did with Fela and other musicians who came by seeking advice. I know the things that, according to my dad, [Fela] could have done differently, or what would have made him more money… and so I had many of those things in my head.”
And with that, Mama Burna, The Manager, was born. But to whittle her role down to just Manager, is to do a great disservice to her impact within the ecosystem of one of the most successful artists out of Nigeria. To the outside world, at least in the beginning, she was simply the Momager, but within the machine she was the cog that kept things turning. “I thought to myself, You’re not an artist. I’ve never had any desire to share the spotlight, so I quickly assessed what I could bring to the table. I started out focusing on the contracts: How do you protect yourself in these deals? Those were the things I was looking out for. Then I started handling his bookings, pitching endorsements…” Ogulu wanted to ensure that the business side of the music industry did not break her son down the way it has done and continues to do to many passionate but not necessarily savvy Nigerian artists. This conversation is one that she has now become really passionate about. “[Burna Boy] is one artist that can say he’s never been ripped off or underpaid. He’s always been properly paid because he’s always had good management. A lot of it is him as well; he can say no. Even if he doesn’t have something better [lined up] he believes in himself enough not to underprice himself.”
“If it’s ambition, it’s not for me. I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to excel in a lot of things that I have done. It’s more about legacy now. Whatever I do, I want to do in a way that [leaves] something solid behind. That’s what it’s about now for me.”
Through the years, Bose Ogulu has continued to grow, expand and solidify this ideology, ensuring that all facets of the business behind the Spaceship Collective and the Burna Boy brand, evolve in such a way that is not only consistent but an improvement on the last. And most importantly for her, she is not alone in the building process. Ronami Ogulu, her first daughter (and middle child), who studied Finance and worked as a Contract Finance Analyst for Africa Development Bank, started out as Burna Boy’s stylist – a job through which she created some of his standout looks for his big international tour from his Coachella set to his BET and Grammy award looks; his numerous music videos and his many US TV debut appearances including the Daily Show, Kimmel and Fallon. The truth is, Ronami – as well as her mother – knew she was capable of balancing more than the styling. It’s no surprise then that, with time, she became the Creative and Branding Strategist of the Spaceship Collective. She is the brain behind the roll outs for both African Giant and Twice as Tall. Ogulu’s last born, Nissi, is an engineer, artist and musician whose debut EP, Ignite, came out this year. She is also managed by Ogulu and is already garnering a lot of industry buzz, thanks to her refreshing AfroPop sound.
In front of and behind the scenes, the Ogulus are building and evolving in a way that many other industry collectives are not able to do as cohesively. “I think we have more to offer collectively. Everybody cannot have what Burna has, in terms of the people around him; the level of education, exposure, confidence…” And as the Collective expands and grows, especially in more global terms, it is not lost on Ogulu that the allure of the attention from international brands and labels, coupled with the (often empty… or at least not properly explored) promises from said labels to young, hungry and often naive artists, can destroy a career before it ever takes off. “The labels are not coming because they want to develop you, they’re coming because they want to make money [off] you. You need to see it for what it is and make up your mind about what you need from them; because they’re not a one-tablet-fits-all cure. They will waste your time, push you when you’re not ready and you will crash.”
In creating the Spaceship Collective, run by herself and Burna, with creative and brand strategy provided by Ronami, and with artists and producers such as Nissi, Buju and Leriq already signed on, Ogulu is keen to build a structure that really sees and represents each artist’s truth. She believes that Publishing is one key way to do this. “The point for me about publishing, which I’m more passionate about, is that we own our own catalogues. You need to deal with someone who will create that window [of owning your own catalogue] in the contract for you. Someone who will manage your catalogue and will place you in sessions that enhance you, your essence and the essence of your music”. She understands the importance of being fully educated on the industry before diving into bed with any labels, brands or companies. The Spaceship team is so well formed that it will not hesitate to demand partnerships that provide them with the level of comfort and freedom that many artists with longstanding careers are only just beginning to enjoy. “If, as an artist, you can’t afford to own your catalogue at the beginning of your career, it’s best you have an African own it, so that your narrative doesn’t have to change. You can’t have someone who doesn’t know anything about your story be in charge of your catalogue. It’s just going to be business and the art part of it will be lost.”
This leads us nicely into the conversation about the ideas and intentions behind the world’s growing interest in African pop culture and art. Where African Giant formally introduced Burna Boy to the world, creating a portal into the highly coveted US international music scene, Twice as Tall was proof – for the doubters that remained – that this was a career that was going to keep evolving and expanding. And in its release – Executive Produced by hip hop mogul, Diddy – and off the back of many other collaborations with African artists and Black American artists, the debate about the relationship between the continent and the diaspora came up once again. These days, the diaspora seems to view the continent through a different lens; one that challenges the monolithic beliefs that seemed so difficult to refute for decades. There is now more of an appreciation for the versatility, richness and immense talent that is grown here, but many on the continent are still not convinced by the sudden attention. I pose the question to our subject: Should we proceed with caution?
“It’s a good thing. It’s about time. But is there a danger? 100%. The danger is multifaceted: First, we deserve the attention, yes. [But] why are they coming to us? They’re not coming because you deserve it, they’re coming because you’re an emerging market. You are a part of the world that no one has staked a claim on yet, musically. Everyone wants a piece of it.”
So then how do we protect our talents and our interests in this Truman Show-like attention that we are suddenly experiencing? How do we distinguish between the purely capitalist driven interests and the more collaborative intentions that, no doubt, exist? “We need to make up our minds: What do we need them for? Do we need them to make music; to create; to market; to plug; to invest… When we [answer] that, we make sure that as they are coming to use us to fill up their plates and their purses – as an emerging market – [we] are also going there to use them to fill a void or get something that you can’t get on your own.”
The contentious conversation surrounding African art, music, film and fashion, and the seat that these aspects of culture now have at the table, has never been a tidy one, with very many sides to consider and debate. But one thing that is perhaps clearer in the argument is that, within our own space, we may need to re-evaluate our relationship with our art, and our artists. The way in which music is consumed here tends to play out far more differently than most other places. The concept of blowing, creates a sense of immediacy and urgency that does not give an artist the time to really grow in their craft. There is no time to waste when one must blow. “In Nigeria, we are known for enthroning people [too early]… We need to build before we showcase. A lot of us just want to showcase, plug, package, brand, push it… And yes, it may make some noise but for how long?”
Legacy requires sustenance. It demands that the artist and the collective minds supporting said artist, evolve and re-invent together. “I want to deal with artists that are performing and recording music when they’re 70 years old… A Barbra Streisand concert will sell out in two hours. So will an Anita Baker concert… Youssou N’Dour will sell out in Senegal. That’s my idea of success.”
When we think of African legacy artists, we’re dealing with a small pool of names. The aforementioned, and a few others who exist in specific genres. But when we view the artists of the past 20-or-so- years, we’re perhaps not able to really, honestly, identify a great number of artists who have been able to sustain any kind of legacy. It is hardly their fault, our infrastructure is perhaps designed to do the opposite of preserve culture. We much prefer things to appease us in the now. This affects any artist who wishes to take their time to work on their craft and come out at a time that they believe positions them for that legacy better. But Bose insists that for any true artist who is interested in a career that is long and fruitful, that work simply must be done. “Find your own sound. Create something; bring something new to the table. I can’t ask for you if you sound like 10 other people.”
At the end of our near two-hour conversation, I ask her about what lasts within the sphere of an artist and their catalogue. “Reinventing yourself. Bringing value every time. That is what lasts. You can get help to package or brand but you can’t get help for talent and for your own doggedness and hard work. If you’re a musician, make music.”
My final question is more existential.
What guides you?
She ponders on this for a few seconds. “God… honesty… individuality, intentionality… I don’t talk about what I don’t know about. I listen a lot, but my voice is very loud when you’re talking about something I know about. [I am also driven by my] passion for this land and who we are.
I’ve been black all my life, I will be till I die. I’ve been a woman all my life, I will be till I die and I don’t see a need to apologise for any of the facts.”