The Nigerian Afrobeats space is used to having fresh playboys at its forefront, singing with their seductive voices about light-hearted love and romance. Buju, born Daniel Benson, defies that standard. Though his soft vocals and his flashy Instagram could blend easily into that style, the singer is here to make something different, fusing Afrobeats with alternative R&B and adding meaning and purpose to his writings. “You know my sound is on fire, The melody is on fire, And I don’t stop, I don’t tire”, he sings on “Daniel Benson”, the introduction to his latest project Sorry I’m Late; indeed, Buju has a thing or two to brag about. Securing his first hit in 2019 alongside Zlatan on “Spiritual”, he cemented his spot in the industry with “Lenu”, remixed by his idol Burna Boy who signed him to his very own label. Firmly believing in his talent, Buju signed out of the imprint soon after, deciding to take full ownership of his art. 2021 saw him rise meteorically: he went number 1 in the country on Blaqbonez’ soft “Bling”, on LADIPOE’s monster hit “Feeling” and on his solo “Outside”. His new project, surprisingly, is an apology: an apology to his supporters for keeping them waiting longer than he intended throughout the 2020 madness, inspired by a heated voice note from a disheartened fan chasing new music. Throughout seven eclectic tracks, the EP showcases his versatility and his capacity to drop dancefloor bangers with meaningful lyrics. We spoke to Buju in his Lagos apartment, waiting for a flight to the UK that would lead him to join Wizkid at the O2 Arena for their hit “MOOD”.
When was the moment you started taking music seriously?
It all happened in 2017, the year I coined the acronym BUJU, which means Beauty Underneath Just Understood. At the time I was transitioning. I was still at school, studying computer science technology, and I was slowly realizing that singing was what I really wanted to do. I hadn’t recorded music before 2017. In high school, we liked to play around, and I know I hopped on one song, rapping. But nothing serious, it never came out professionally. Yet, I just knew it was a path I wanted to follow. I started working on my writing and yeah, in 2018 I started recording properly.
At the time, I used to listen to Burna Boy religiously. I thought “this guy is making music I enjoy. But there’s not a lot of other guys that make music like that!” So I just thought I could try. Soundcloud was popping, my agemates had music on there and they had a little cult following. I thought I could also try.
What does “Beauty Underneath Just Understood” mean?
I felt like beauty was the talent that was always inside me, and I didn’t necessarily grasp the full potential of it. I’ve been singing in a choir, in school, in church since the early age of 10 or 11. But I had never taken music seriously, I had never tapped into this beauty. I just felt like I had a little bit of talent and that was just it, I wasn’t going to do more than that, even though a lot of people used to tell me that I had an amazing voice. But then, the very moment I understood it and I knew how this was going to change my life, that’s when I understood that Buju made sense to me.
Yet, a nice voice is not enough and you put in a lot of effort to find your audience…
Quite early, I had gone viral on Twitter because I was singing one of my songs called “Commander” and I was having a little bit of a wave. One day I recorded a song with my producer called “Spiritual”. My friends were miming Zlatan’s adlibs. He’s always on some extra adlibs: “Ayiiii”! That type of stuff (laughs). I took a video of them and put it on Twitter. I wasn’t necessarily thinking it was going to go anywhere, but two weeks later Zlatan himself hit me up: “I love it, I love the ginger. I’m down to do it”. It was amazing. He paid for the video, recorded his verse, everything was so great. Zlatan is a real guy, the realest person. That’s how “Spiritual” kicked off. I was just playing in the room and my people liked Zanku.
I try to be different somehow. I put lyrics to it, I put a lot of wording and creativity to it. Talent isn’t enough, you have to put in the work.
Speaking about trying to be different, you have a very specific sound. How did you coin that?
I listen to a whole range of music. I’m not just the Afrobeats guy. I listen to Obongjayar, to Frank Ocean, to Khalid… People that have deeper lyrics. I find joy in the complication. Sometimes some people ask why I chose this pattern, because it’s not a road everybody is using. I could use easier lyrics but I’m more trying to make something recognizable and timeless. Like guys I look up to. I enjoy making music like this. I love when there’s a story behind it, or something other than just beats. That’s the only way I can actually push a different narrative.
This difference has been noted, and your rise has been quite quick. How do you stay grounded?
I wouldn’t say that it was super quick. The first year that people started wondering who Buju was, this guy singing, was 2019. I just had the Zanku verse, and I was everywhere, playing shows back to back to back. Then in 2020, the pandemic came and I signed a record deal with Burna. Yet, there weren’t shows, there weren’t places just to be at… it was looking very still. It was a very slow year for me, I didn’t even put out music for nine months. It was out of my control. I’m under a label, so I can’t promote everything by myself. Then 2021 came and I was like “okay, I have to get music out there”. I did features, I hopped on a couple of tracks. I did Blackbonez, “Bling”, and it went crazy, number 1 here. It put me back in that mental state that I needed, because at the time I wasn’t really happy. Then, “Feeling” with Ladipoe… It just turned everything crazy and I started understanding my potential better. Then I dropped “Outside”, my biggest single right now. I just needed to keep up with that momentum. I’m enjoying it but there’s still a lot of work.
Is that what you are trying to say with Sorry I’m Late?
With this project, I want to say that this is Buju to your ears and I’m a great writer. I’ve made you party, I’ve made you jiggy and have a great time; how about I tell you about me, so you understand me from a whole different perspective? That’s why “Daniel Benson” is there, “Never Stop” is there, “I Do” is there… These are very personal records, they show the kind of reflective person I am. I told people everything they need to know about my person. And it was also just my audio apology. For people that really stuck by me and held onto me those months I didn’t put out music. It’s crazy to be fast rising or on the come up, and then not drop any music for months! But the support was always still there. Sorry I’m Late is for them. And a lot of songs were also left on the EP, there’s still so many more that people need to hear. It’s just a teaser.
Did you expect the reception you had?
At first I wondered if Nigerians would really take this project. It’s not what they want, what they expect. Then I overshadowed that fear. When I dropped “Outside”, it took out that veil of “Nigerians don’t listen to lyrics, they don’t listen to lyrical songs”. It’s wrong. They actually take it very personally, especially when it relates to them. I knew songs like “Never Stop”, “I do”, “Something Sweet”, “Kilometer” would get to people. It was almost like giving different categories of people what they wanted. One song might not work for this person but work for that person. You’re trying to find your vibrations on the project. Almost three weeks now, and it’s still number 1 in Nigeria! It just shows that people are listening. Everybody is finding that vibration one way or the other. I knew the right people would take it the right way.
Sorry I’m Late by Buju, still available on all platforms.