When Grammy award-winning Nigerian singer Burna Boy needed a manager after the release of his 2010 single ‘Freedom Freestyle,’ he asked his number one fan if he could hire her to oversee his music career—his mother.
“It was after that song that the labels came calling, and because he had asked me to manage him, he sent all of them to me,” says Bose Ogulu, mother and manager to Damini’ Burna Boy’ Ogulu.
After a stint studying communications media at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, he returned home to Nigeria and interned at Rhythm 93.7 FM in Port Harcourt. “He had told us he didn’t want to go to uni anymore. He wanted to be a musician,” she tells ESSENCE.
Two days after returning home, Burna was co-anchoring a morning drive show. He also recorded his music and played ‘Freedom Freestyle’ for the head of programs at the station. “The guy just released the song on the radio the following day,” Ogulu says.
It became the song of the week. Ogulu said people showed up at the station to meet her son and inquire about the occasional British intonations in his flow. “He doesn’t really sound Nigerian. It doesn’t really sound like he’s from Port Harcourt,” she recalls of their curiosity. “And at that time, he couldn’t speak (Nigerian) Pidgin, so they kept trying to wrap their heads around it.” ‘Where are you from, Brixton?’ ”
Burna’s Afrofusion sound was well received. It led Ogulu to oversee her son’s first recording deal with Aristokrat Records in 2012. As an entrepreneurial linguist and academic with a family background in the music industry, Ogulu had the prerequisites to manage her son’s career. “I saw that sometimes an artist can only be as good as who is managing them.”
Ogulu, a 55-year-old mother of three, grew up in a ‘household of words’ with a mother who speaks five different Nigerian languages, including Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo, and a wordsmith father who worked in the music industry. “You couldn’t make a sentence wrong and not be corrected by my father,” Ogulu shares.
Ogulu pursued and earned degrees in foreign language and translation. She graduated with fluency in Yoruba, English, French, German, and Italian a few years later. “Once you speak more than two languages, your ears are open to taking on more,” she explains.
As her range of languages increased, so did the stamps on her passport. Ogulu was a frequent flier to Togo, Ivory Coast, and Benin. She took on high-level translation jobs for the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the World Trade Center, and Michelin. “There aren’t many West African countries that I haven’t been to,” Ogulu says. She built trust between locals and colleagues by picking up bits of local languages during her travels and learning new cultures.
Ogulu wanted Burna and his younger sisters Ronami and Nissi to have a range of linguistic capabilities like her. She wanted to offer the same to children in their neighborhood, so she taught them French from a makeshift mobile school out of her car, equipped with a television and video cassette player in the trunk. “(I) kind of went from school to school doing free demonstrations for a term, just trying to show them that it could be done.”
Ogulu’s innovative language services paid off. By the late 90s, she created Language Bridges, an immersive foreign languages school that offered excursions through Europe and West Africa-often, traveling with her three children in tow. She served as CEO of Language Bridges and ran a music school out of her home for the next 12 years. “The idea was being able to be around my children, make money, do what I love, and make them part of it.”
By the time all of her children left home, Ogulu spent the next decade in academia as a professor in the French department at the University of Education in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. “Anything that had to do with the practical speaking of the language was mine. It was Madam Ogulu’s turf.”
Ogulu managed her son’s career and worked as an academic entrepreneur with some insider knowledge. She was exposed to the importance of the artist-manager relationship early in her life thanks to her veteran broadcaster father, Benson Idonije. He was the first manager of Pan-African Afrobeats pioneer Fela Kuti. “If you have a manager that you trust, you can focus on your music,” she says. “I also saw that it is not easy to find a manager you can trust and respect.”
It’s been 13 years since the ‘Last Last’ singer hired his linguist mother to be at the helm of the decision-making for his career. And, with six albums, a slew of nominations and awards, international collaborations spanning several genres of music, a historic Madison Square Garden show, and more to come, it’s proven to be a first-class choice.
In addition to managing Burna Boy, Ogulu is also the founder of the SpaceShip Collective-an entertainment and publishing company for African artists, including upcoming singer and daughter Nissi.
Burna lives with his sisters in Nigeria’s bustling capital of Lagos, but his mom isn’t far away. “It’s a case where you can see me in my house if you want to see me.”
After touring, she enjoys dancing, going to the movies, and indulging in her favorite glass of bubbly. “I drink my champagne every opportunity I get!” It’s a drink well deserved for the award-winning momager.
Ogulu says having confidence in her professional skills led to her and, subsequently, her son’s global stardom. “I think competence is an essential key to being successful.” She advises aspiring businesswomen to have an unwavering sense of self-awareness while aiming to be a boss. “Don’t let anyone tell you your limitations; you just know them,” she explained. “It’s also ok that if you are doing something that a million people are doing you and you decide to do it differently.”
Burna Boy’s ‘Love, Damini’ 2023 world tour is in full swing with an upcoming performance at Coachella. To fans worldwide, the crooner’s diverse dialects dazzle effortlessly in Yoruba, English, Pidgin, Patois, Zulu, and even talking in tiny bits of Twi. Perhaps his linguistic abilities are a generational gift from his globetrotting polyglot mother.
“To be honest, if you have a flair for languages, you have it,” says Ogulu.