his time last year, Burna Boy was headlining at Wembley Arena, a venue with a capacity of some 12,500. Current circumstances have shifted the Nigerian star to performing in a smaller venue, on a phone screen, in front of what is potentially a far bigger audience.
The virtual reality company MelodyVR has broadcast over 100 gigs during lockdown, and says that installations of its app have gone up by 1,000 percent this year. Big Brits such as Liam Gallagher, Kaiser Chiefs and Blossoms are getting involved soon. It does seem like the only way to go to a show for a good while yet.
This time, for £12.50, you could join the pioneer of the sound he calls Afro-fusion and his seven-piece band in an empty Brixton Academy. Six 360-degree cameras offered different views, from a widescreen placement resembling the front row of a normal concert, to one so close you could practically see up his nose. It was like having Google Street View as your plus one.
On an immersive Oculus Rift headset, no doubt it was thrilling. I hope other attendees’ technology was more reliable than mine, which left me watching the 90-minute set on the floor, inches from my router, on someone else’s newer phone.
Even so, it was a treat to get a virtual look at a man who, alongside Wizkid, Davido, Mr Eazi and Tiwa Savage, has thrust Nigerian music into the centre of the global pop scene. Burna Boy has released three albums in three years, while also guesting on records by Beyoncé, Stormzy, Dave, and Sam Smith, and is now a significant political voice too. Here he performed his latest song, 20 10 20, an anguished polemic about the Lekki massacre of less than a month ago, in which Nigerian Army personnel opened fire on peaceful #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos State. Monsters You Made, featuring a recording of Chris Martin, and Another Story, took aim at colonialism.
Browsing MelodyVR’s various pre-quarantine broadcasts, it’s clear that, even in Virtual Reality, a gig is more exciting when a live audience is involved. This event still felt muted, like being stuck in a holding pattern until the real thing returns, but as Burna Boy said in a rare moment of banter with the vacant room, “At least it’s better than nothing.”