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Burna Boy at Madison Square Garden: Concert Review

Burna Boy earned his metaphorical flowers — and his very literal bras — as he ripped through a majestic two-hour set at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the first Nigerian headliner to do so at the famed venue. The first fire-engine red bra was thrust onstage at the beloved Afro-fusionist early in his set as he performed “Rock Your Body,” from his breakthrough album, 2018’s Outside. By the end of the night, no less than six more had been flung at him — at one point, he hung several around his waistline like a utility belt. “Burna is so cool, yo!” shouted a male fan as Burna hulked down his lengthy runway, fenced by sharp strobes, to “Gbona” from his seminal title, African Giant.

The only moment of relative stillness from the audience came as they intently took in a new song sampling Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough for Me.” Burna performed the unreleased track after revealing that his next album would be called Love, Damini and drop on his 31st birthday, July 2. Beyond that, the crowd at the Garden was in constant motion, their rows of bodies like waves in a dark ocean of favorably Black diasporans. Burna Boy’s frequent employment of an a cappella or minimalist arrangement meant the eager attendees could often be heard singing clearly, their voices as sweet as Burna’s smile. While set-closer “Ye” elicited an undeniable response from the whole Garden, a careful look into the stands showed how different everyone’s favorite songs from Burna’s deep discography could be.

In the pit, three young men moshed to his remix of Ghanaian rapper Black Sherif’s “Second Sermon,” cautiously throwing their bodies into each other without disturbing the folks around them. Deeper in the seats, a young woman in a hot-pink bandage-wrapped top had a spiritual response to “Way Too Big,” from Burna’s most recent album, the pandemic-produced Twice as Tall. Over a railing, a young man dressed more for a day at the office than the hottest concert in the city rapped “Bank on It” into his girlfriend’s phone from the top of his lungs, her flashlight illuminating beads of sweat on his face. Burna’s mother and manager Bose Ogulu, endearingly known as “Mama Burna,” watched stoically from stage left until loosening up to the party-starter “Killin Dem.”

The show reimagined Burna’s lengthy catalog, elevating already excellent songs. A brass section torus down African Giant standout “On the Low.” Violins raised the stakes of “Location.” A saxophonist competed with Burna’s impassioned vocal runs as they wrapped up “Onyeka.” To “Ja Ara E,” a team of traditional African drummers surrounded by his trusted background vocalist of five years, Christina Matovu, and they danced in unison from left to right as they performed. Burna Boy’s live arrangements brought the funk and the drama.

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Dubbed “One Night in Space,” the show found Burna as urgent as ever, performing a barrage of songs while only stopping to drink water or address his fans a few times. “Feel free to throw some more,” he encouraged after the first bra toss, before listing the New York venues he had played earlier in his career while working up to the Garden. After he performed “Soke” a bit more than halfway through the night, he quickly admitted that the accomplishment was “some emotional shit for [him],” before setting MSG on fire with some of his most vivid hits, songs like “Jerusalema,” “Anybody,” and “Kilometer.”

Burna performed several collaborative songs solo — the remix of “Second Sermon,” the late Pop Smoke’s “Enjoy Yourself,” his newest record with Wizkid “Ballon D’or,” and his remix of Nigerian rapper Asake’s “Sungbe” (an early contender for Afropop song of the summer). In fact, other than a quick spoken introduction by Busta Rhymes, there was only one musical guest, one of his heroes, Senegalese legend Youssou N’Dour, who ushered in the show with his song “New Africa,” which was smartly translated onscreen . “Calling all Africans,” read the sprawling graphics. “Let’s come together and let nothing pull us apart.” His message was hopeful, but somber: “When I think of how our grandparents suffered, I cry,” read one lyric.

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A section of three of Burna’s most political songs gave the night even more gravity: “Collatoral Damage” spoke truth to greedy power; “Another Story” began with a visual lesson on the ravages of colonialism; and most excitingly, Burna performed an unreleased track, often called “Off Your Mic” online. In it, he sang passionately of a snake in human form that swallows money as a commentary of Nigerian politics — “Off your mic,” one of the lyrics, is likely a reference to an incident in the summer of 2020 when a Nigerian government official accused National Assembly members of corruptly pocketing profitable government development contracts for themselves.

Still, Burna Boy — whose team barred him from being asked political questions during the interview for his RollingStone UK cover story — is more rockstar than pundit. He smashed an acoustic guitar to bits, sprinted down his extensive runway, danced with bouncy knees and quick feet, and maintained absolutely pristine vocals throughout the entire performance. The energy, the joy, and the feeling of being seen was palpable in the Garden. “We made history tonight,” said the evening’s host, a young African man from the Bronx, after Burna exited under a storm of sparks from the ceiling. “We started everything,” he said of Africans. “We gon’ finish everything. Congratulations to the culture.”

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