Burna Boy is on fire. In September, the Nigerian singer created a little slice of U.K. chart history as his seventh album, “I Told Them…,” went straight to No. 1 on the Official Albums Chart, making him the first international Afrobeats artist to top the ranking.
Atlantic Records U.K. executive VP and president of Black Music, Austin Daboh, describes the success as “the crescendo on the amazing five-year relationship we’ve had with him.” It follows Burna Boy’s sold-out, 60,000-capacity show at the London Stadium in June, which catapulted the star into the elite stadium-level bracket in Britain.
“I can’t say too much but it definitely won’t be the last time you see him in a large venue in the U.K.,” says Daboh. “This is somebody who is shifting the world’s axis when it comes to music.”
Daboh and Atlantic U.K. co-president Ed Howard credit the entire label team – including promo king/managing director Damian Christian; the marketing team of Leila Singh, Fay Hoyte and Thomas Barthen; and digital gurus Will Beardmore and Shaiyann Fairweather – with delivering the No. 1.
“Burna Boy is the man of the moment and rightfully so, because he is that talented and that significant,” Ed Howard tells Variety. “But there’s still work to do — he’s very much a frontrunner in terms of bringing African music to this country.”
Indeed, both Daboh and Howard believe the breakthrough could prove hugely significant for both the Afrobeats genre and African artists in general. Atlantic U.K. is already working with the likes of Fave and Major League DJz, and Howard says labels “would be crazy to ignore such an amazing and rich source of talent.”
“This is an indication of what’s to come,” says Daboh. “It’s not just a one-off quirk in music and media consumption — what we’re seeing is the starting pistol for African artists to be as big [internationally] as their Latin American, Asian and European counterparts.”
Burna Boy is actually signed out of the U.S. label Bad Habit/Atlantic, although his album has so far only peaked at No. 31 stateside. Under Howard and co-president Briony Turner, Atlantic U.K. has been on a domestic A&R hot streak, with the likes of Fred Again and Maisie Peters emerging alongside the label’s superstars like Ed Sheeran. But, says Howard, Burna Boy’s success in Britain and elsewhere shows that the traditional U.K./U.S. global pop music dominance can no longer be taken for granted.
“We need to appreciate that we have had this pre-eminent position for a long time, and that has changed,” says Howard. “Those artists that are excellent and want to put the work in will still find the huge success that they found in the past. But now they can do it alongside artists from Korea, Africa, Puerto Rico, India and other places, and that’s a pretty wonderful thing.”
Daboh, meanwhile, says Burna’s success can help show the way for British rap to break out internationally. Traditionally, U.K. hip-hop has struggled to travel much beyond the English Channel, although Daboh notes that the international success of Russ Millions and Tion Wayne’s “Body” and Central Cee and Dave’s “Sprinter” show that it can be done.
“Burna stuck to his culture and produced world-class music but, most importantly, he traveled,” he says. “If U.K. rappers want to make an impact, they’ve got to travel. But there’s no doubt it’s coming. U.S. rap has dominated and will continue to be at the top table, but we’re already seeing that there are going to be non-North American rappers that sit at that table in the years to come.”
Meanwhile, there was another historical moment at the Mercury Prize. Over its 31-year history, observers have often sniggered at the “token jazz album,” with records from the genre regularly shortlisted, but never coming close to winning.
Until now. In a surprise but popular result, London-based quintet Ezra Collective’s “Where I’m Meant to Be” (Partisan) picked up the award for best British and Irish album at the Sept. 7 ceremony, beating the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Fred Again and Raye.
“It felt so surreal,” laughs Ezra Collective’s manager, Amy Frenchum of Blue Raincoat Artists. “For 24 hours we were all like, ‘What is going on?’ And then I looked at my inbox and was like, ‘Shit, a lot is going on!’ There were loads of amazing new opportunities coming in.”
The album returned to the U.K. Top 40 post-ceremony, and Frenchum says she has been fielding festival offers for next summer, while the band’s search for a publishing deal has significantly intensified.
“We’d been speaking to people before, but more people now feel open to have that conversation,” she says. “[Our] bargaining power has improved slightly, I must say!”
The band, however, is no overnight sensation. “Where I’m Meant to Be” is their fourth album, and they’ve amassed years of live experience on the London jazz scene, which has been threatening to burst overground for some time.
“They’re now exposed to so many more people,” says Frenchum. “And the general awareness is great validation for the slog the boys have put in on this project. They’ve done it completely on their own terms. Maybe if they hadn’t done it on their own terms, this would have happened earlier, but it’s been what felt natural to them on their journey at the right time. Everything built around this band has got solid foundations.”
The band has forthcoming live dates in Australia, India and Nigeria (where they will play Felabration, a gig organized in honor of their musical hero, Fela Kuti), before taking a break and then thinking about the follow-up album. They have no current plans to return to America, where they toured in April, culminating with a “wild” three-night stand at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club. Although, Frenchum says, she will pursue U.S. festival and collaboration opportunities for 2024.
Frenchum — who joined the Blue Raincoat stable, also home to Phoebe Bridgers, Skunk Anansie and Arlo Parks, in July — expects the whole U.K. jazz scene to benefit from their win, but also hopes Ezra Collective can move beyond being classified as purely a jazz act, “token” or otherwise.
“[Ezra Collective] have turned an elitist form of music into something really accessible,” she says. “Why do we have to keep putting them in this box? They’re just a great band.”
For the last 30 years, anyone looking to break a new alternative artist in the U.K. has known exactly who they need to get on their side: BBC DJ Steve Lamacq.
But now they’ll need to look elsewhere — at least on most days of the week – as Lamacq has announced plans to step back from his popular daily 4-7 p.m. BBC Radio 6 Music show in October.
He’s not leaving completely. From January, Lamacq will present a new Monday afternoon show on 6, while the rest of the week will feature Huw Stephens in the afternoon slot for the influential modern rock station. But for many it still feels like the end of a radio era.
Lamacq — a former NME journalist – started his broadcast career at BBC Radio 1 in 1993 as co-host of the legendary Evening Session with Jo Whiley. He has been instrumental in the careers of everyone from Blur and Oasis to Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, Florence + The Machine and Wet Leg. Many in the U.K. music industry highlight his unrivaled track record when it comes to discovering and championing new music.
“Steve is one of the most important tastemakers we’ve had over the last 30 years, and he’ll be sorely missed,” Luke Gray, senior national radio plugger at Your Army, tells Variety. “Not only is he a key champion for all the bands he’s been responsible for breaking, but he’s an active connoisseur of all genres and a go-to presenter for new music.”
Gray’s colleague, Your Army director Christian Nockall, agrees, saying it will be a “big challenge” for anyone to match his decades-spanning influence in the future.
“The landscape has changed so much,” says Nockall. “It’s going to take a long time to fill Lammo’s Dr. Martens.”
Hayley Codd, head of national radio and television promo at Public City, echoes the sentiment.
“It’s no mean feat to stay on top of new music the way that Steve has done over his decades of dutiful service in this industry,” she says. “You don’t often find folk as committed to breaking new artists like you do Lamacq.”
Fortunately, Stephens has also built up his own tastemaking credentials over a long BBC career, and all the U.K. pluggers quizzed by Variety have high hopes that the new set-up can prove as successful as the old. Codd calls Stephens “a fantastic advocate for new music,” while Gray hails his appointment as “a great move.”
“It’s so great to know that Steve is still at 6 Music and I welcome Huw with open arms to the station,” says another top promotions exec, Dave Rajan, director of Never Say Die. “His spirit of discovery and warm on-air presence are a brilliant addition to the line-up. That slot is in safe hands with Steve and Huw and I can’t wait to tune in and hear my new fave artists.”
Lamacq’s final daily show is on Oct. 20, while the new 6 Music schedule will kick in on Jan. 8.
In live news, it’s been announced that London venue Brixton Academy will be allowed to re-open.
The storied 5,000-capacity hall has been shuttered since December of last year, following a fatal crush at a gig by Afrobeats star Asake. Two people died in the tragic incident.
A police investigation into what happened that night remains active, but a hearing before Lambeth Council’s licensing sub-committee decided the venue could return, if it meets 77 “extensive and robust new conditions,” including changing the security team, a new crowd management system and reinforced doors.
A statement from the O2 Academy Brixton owners, Academy Music Group, says: “We continue to be devastated by the events of last December. What happened was and is a tragedy and we are committed to ensuring that it can never be repeated. Over the past nine months, the venue’s importance to the local community and the live music scene in the U.K. has been made clear through first-hand professional testimony, campaigns and petitions as well as economic assessments demonstrating the financial impact to the surrounding area caused by the closure. Academy Music Group is determined to learn all appropriate lessons from the night of 15 December 2022.”
The Night Time Industries Association and Music Venue Trust were amongst those welcoming the decision, with Brixton Academy seen by many as essential to both the local economy and the music scene.
The venue will run a number of test events before fully re-opening. No timescale has yet been announced, but with no forthcoming events currently listed for the venue and a raft of measures needing to be implemented, it would seem unlikely that it will be fully operational before 2024.
All previously scheduled 2023 shows have been moved to alternative venues, including the Eventim Apollo, Alexandra Palace and OVO Wembley Arena.
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