Oliver Akinfeleye remembers Burna Boy’s first show in New York. The location was Palladium Times Square, the year was 2017.
Akinfeleye, an American Nigerian photographer known professionally as DrDrummerD, or Drummer, was close to the stage, ready to capture every moment of the Afrobeats star’s intimate show in front of around 2,000 fans. He had been booked by a local promoter and left with a clutch of images of one of Nigeria’s biggest recording artists. The next day he posted some on social media, which reappeared on Burna Boy’s accounts. The musician, or likely someone from his team, had screengrabbed Drummer’s work – not that he cared. The following week the two crossed paths again and the photographer let Burna Boy know the photos were his. “Oh, you’re bad,” the musician shot back, Akinfeleye remembers (“In Nigerian it means you’re super-dope,” he explained). “We laughed it off, shook hands, and from that point he trusted my vision,” he added. The two have been sharing stages ever since.
Born in Queens, New York, to Nigerian parents, Akinfeleye has had a closer than front row seat to Afrobeats’ ascendance in the US and other parts of the world, documenting gigs and behind-the-scenes moments as the genre has come to the fore internationally.
By 2022, Burna Boy was headlining Madison Square Garden (capacity: 20,000) and last July he became the first Nigerian to sell out a stadium show in the US when he performed at Citi Field, New York (capacity: 41,000). He went one step further on the other side of the Atlantic, selling out the 60,0000-capacity London Stadium this summer. He’s far from alone. This year his countryman Wizkid was a headliner at the UK’s biggest musical festival, Glastonbury, and sold out London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (capacity 45,000), following three sold-out shows at the O2 Arena in London in 2021.
If further evidence was needed that the genre has a seat at the table of popular music, the MTV Video Music Awards now has an Afrobeats category, and in 2024 the Grammy Awards will introduce a new category, Best African Music Performance, which is expected to feature Afrobeats artists. Burna Boy is already a Grammy winner, while in September, “Calm Down” by Nigerian rising star Rema and Selena Gomez became the first song led by an African artist to hit one billion streams on Spotify.
Yet a few years ago, not many US photographers were dedicating their time to documenting Afrobeats musicians, said Akinfeleye, and even fewer wanting to take an intimate view of their lives. “I think that’s what a lot of the artists found most interesting about my work and what I do,” he added. “It was something different. There was something fresh; it was something that they hadn’t seen before.”
Photographer Oliver D. Akinfeleye, aka DrDrummerD, has documented Afrobeats artists in the US and Europe since 2017. A La Aubrey