Sajjad's artwork for "Pull Up" from Burna Boy's African Giant. Courtesy of the artist.

Meet Sajjad, the Artist Behind Burna Boy's 'African Giant' Album Art

We sit down with the artist to talk about the art behind African Giant and his use of currency to creates collages that tell ambitious stories.

"Currency is something that for the most part doesn't exist," Sajjad tells me over a crackling phone line. It would have been hard to hear him if he didn't speak firmly. "It's all about trust. We trust that a bill is worth a certain value. That's what makes it real. It's an interesting duality play on something that's real but at the same time isn't."

This philosophy is what informs Sajjad's art. Using currency, the artist creates collages that tell ambitious stories about unifying countries. In 2019, he created the artwork for one of the best and most important albums to come out of the modern Nigerian—and African—music scene, Burna Boy's Grammy-nominated African Giant.

Sajjad got the idea to start using currency as an artistic medium in 2016, when stopping at a New York City bodega—"these little convenience stores on every corner that sell everything!"—where he saw that they had put up dollar bills on the wall from the first few people who had bought things there. It was at that moment something in him clicked and he realized how many powerful stories physical bills could tell and represent. Inspired by this, Sajjad began a journey of using currency and other mundane everyday objects to create art that tells a bigger story.

We sat down with the artist to talk about designing the album art of Burna Boy's African Giant, the power of currency and what the future holds for him.

Sajjad. Photo: Dan Solomito

Tell us about your journey from making currency art to making the album art for African Giant.

I had been working with currency as a medium for art about three years prior to African Giant. I was making collages out of vintage African-American magazines and I started to use currency as a medium when making them. I independently funded a show called Break Bread—slang which basically means you have an exchange, it means to share assets. I used that as a metaphor and would invite other artists into the show. A patron that came by purchased one of the pieces and the director of marketing at Atlantic Records saw it. She asked who did that and then we connected. I said if he's going to call himself the African Giant, there's no better way than to have his own currency.

African Giant is such a significant body of work and has so many vibrant songs. Did you run into any challenges trying to interpret and bring them to life through art?

There's always going to be challenges and there were certain issues around but Burna Boy and myself speak a similar language on issues going on in the continent. A lot of issues in the African continent and in the African-American community have similar parallels. I was raised in a pan-African environment so I was able to tap into that when translating the songs into the art.

Sajjad's artwork for "African Giant." Courtesy of the artist.

What's your creative process like?

My creative process usually starts off with inspiration, whether it's from a conversation, debate or something I see on the street or the internet. I try to ask myself, how can I take this particular item or theme and add a twist to tell a particular story or viewpoint I want to get the appreciator to contemplate. I'm a multidisciplinary artist so I'm not into the idea of limiting myself to any one particular medium. I just utilize whatever resources I can to get the idea out of my head into real life.

Do you ever get approached by Burna Boy's fans about doing custom work?

A few people on social media ask but currency is only one aesthetic and medium. I'm not interested in doing another currency cover art for another. I'm not a one-trick pony and while I'm still interested in working with currency, I am not doing the exact same thing for other artists.

Photo: Dan Solomito

What's next for you as an artist? What do you have planned for 2020?

The next thing I'm working on is the fine art route. My own agenda is to use everyday objects to document our culture in the hood—which I think is so beautiful—and I want to put it in a gallery space. I've built up a cache of art throughout the years so my next move is to release some prints of my Distorted Americana collage series.

As far as 2020 I'm working on something with the UNDP, 1xRun and also planning a gallery exhibition around the Burna currency artwork. I'm also one half of an art duo called STOP1. We create fine art out of everyday objects you find typically in the street and refashion them into new items, sculptures, and experiences.

Follow Sajjad on Instagram and visit his website for more.

Photo: Dan Solomito


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox


How Nigerian Streetwear Brand, Daltimore, is Rising To Celebrity Status

We spoke with founder and creative director David Omigie about expression through clothing and that #BBNaija pic.