Image courtesy of Bose Ogulu
The Internet Doesn't Know Mama Burna At All
She might be your favorite internet auntie, but Bose Ogulu is a woman and a professional in full.
At the top of the year,Bose Ogulu—the mother and manager of one of Nigeria's biggest Afro-fusion stars—won the internet with three simple words: "Expect more madness."
She uttered those words into the mic at the 2018 Soundcity Music Awards (broadcast live on Jan. 5, 2019), where she accepted the biggest accolade of the night on behalf of her son, Burna Boy. The response on Twitter was swift; tweets praising the artist's badass mother for her youthful energy populated the social media platform immediately after she confidently strolled off the stage.
"Burna Boy's mom be shaking tables and chairs—in fact all furnitures [sic]," wrote one Twitter user. "Burna Boy's mom is the real MVP!!! Now we know where he got it from," wrote another. Her unapologetic delivery at the awards show, followed by another widely shared clip showing Ogulu warmly embracing her son (while he holds what appears to be a joint), quickly earned her the title of the "cool mom" amongst young Nigerian social media users. Fans had yet another reason to tweet out their admiration for a woman they dubbed Mama Burna. She's fun like a sister. She's familiar like anauntie. She loves fiercely like a mother. It seems, according to internet praise, we have her pegged. She's Burna Boy's mom, and many who have watched her boost her son's career have only seen her through this singular lens.
This characterization is not unfitting—she certainly doesn't come off as your archetypal Nigerian parent—but as Ogulu puts it, she's been called the "cool mom and the cool auntie" long before her internet fame and it's far from the most exciting title she holds. It's the disservice that's done to most women who are reduced to just their motherhood or their work title. But as Ogulu notes in our interview, she's much more than that.
In fact, despite being a topic of discussion on social media, Ogulu, like many mothers, is mostly unconcerned with what happens on the world wide web, "I forget that things like Instagram exist. And going viral and trending is all not, honestly, part of my reality," she says. And like most women, "cool" or otherwise, she wears various hats that directly inform the way she moves through her career. With a Bachelor of Arts in foreign languages (she speaks French, Italian, German, English, and Yoruba), and a Masters of Arts in translation, Ogulu has gone through many successful professional iterations, first as a translator for the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce, then as the CEO of Language Bridges (1997 to 2015), a language and music school, where she organized cultural immersion trips for over 1,800 young people. She also taught French for 10 years at the University of Education in Port Harcourt, retiring just last year.
These are the facts the internet forgets. Mama Burna isn't just a caricature of Nigerian motherhood. She's an academic, a professional, a wife of 29 years and a mother to three children, including her superstar son. All nuances that also inform how she moves through the world as a mother and a mentor to youth as well.
Her parenting style bears parallels to her own upbringing, which she says was marked by a unique sense of gender balance between her and her younger brother. "There was no importance placed on gender, it never came up," she says, adding a mention that she grew up with a distinctly close proximity to the Nigerian art world during what many consider to be its golden age. Her father, Benson Idonije a well-known radio host, was the legendary Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti's first band manager, exposing her to the inner-workings of the music industry from an early age (and to the possibility of following alternative career paths). It's why she felt confident committing fully to her love of language, despite pleas from educators to follow a more traditional route. "I studied languages. and went around the world doing it," she recalls with observable pride. "I remember in 'uni' they called me back three times. They said 'do you not want to change to the law department?' You are a very smart student.' I [simply] said, 'No, I want to study languages.'
The importance of allowing youth to realize their dreams is a point she emphasizes throughout our conversation, and because she holds this idea dear, her children were part of the small but fortunate group of Nigerian kids who weren't pressured into following one of the few careers considered lucrative enough for Nigerian parent's standards. They were given permission and support—which is key—to become something other than a doctor, lawyer or engineer—unless of course, that was where their talents and desires happened to be leading them. "I'm honored to have been part of the vessel that is helping them achieve their dreams and through them we're doing it for many more young people," she adds.
It's led to a comfort in her relationship with her children, but there remains a fine line to tow between being an authority figure and an approachable mentor, a battle Ogulu is quite familiar with considering her role as a "momager" who spends months traveling on packed tour buses with her son while taking "$12 showers" at rest stops. She makes it work, though. "I still am, friends with my parents. We were friends. So, I learned to be friends with my children. It's a tough balance. Because, you have to whoop their backsides as well. And then, know when to sleep."
These tougher, less glamorous parts are indeed part of what makes Ogulu a "cool" mother, but the internet has chosen to mostly focus on other facts—whether true or not. It's how a rumor of her being one of Fela Kuti's dancers became Nigerian blogosphere fodder, although Ogulu was practically in diapers when she first met him.
"How could I have danced for him? Chronologically, it doesn't add up...when did I dance for Fela?" she says laughing, adding that the musician was, instead, the closest thing she had to a godfather.
It shows how easily the internet can build false personas around people's lives and it's part of why she doesn't take it too seriously. "When the speech went viral and everyone supposedly loved me, or whatever, I remember telling one of my daughters that I don't get excited about this love because they're going to abuse me in a minute, because I'm going to keep saying and doing exactly what I think," she says plainly.
It's about knowing who you are—regardless of social media murmur—knowing what you want to do, and then giving yourself fully to that cause.
This is especially important for artists, says Ogulu, who should be willing to lead with "integrity" above anything, especially money. "I'm not saying get yourself locked up like Fela, but speak your truth. If it's a lie and you know it's a lie, don't say it. Don't get paid to say it."
Ogulu urges ambitious young women to not wait for others to give them recognition, but to instead continue to do the work that will make their presence impossible to ignore. In other words, if we waited on others to create room for us to thrive as individuals, we'd be waiting too long. "I've never gone through life looking for anyone to make space for me. I try to create my own space or fill the space that is available so that I am relevant."
"I am capable," she says with added emphasis.
And when it comes to expressing who she is as a mother, teacher, talent manager, leader, and so much more, for Ogulu, even a space as massive as the internet isn't quite big enough.