BOSE OGULU: Is Much More Than Just ‘Mama Burna’

Spending an afternoon with Bose Ogulu will probably go down as one of my best days in 2021 simply because I’ve always been fascinated by the sheer strength she exudes. Whether she’s creating a viral moment on social media from a profound speech given or receiving an award on behalf of her son and client, Burnaboy, there’s just something about this woman that begs for deep, insightful questions but beware…she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and isn’t afraid to let you know it!

She is currently the CEO of The Spaceship Collective that houses a record label and publishing business and also employs her first daughter, Ronami, as overall Creative Director. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Languages and speaks French, Italian, German and Yoruba fluently. She also has a Masters degree in Translation, enabling her pursue a career as a translator for the Federation of West African Chamber of Commerce. From 1997- 2015 she ran Language Bridges- a music and language school, where she organized cultural immersion trips to non-Anglophone countries for thousands of young people. Add to that a ten year stint as a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt. These experiences would unwittingly prepare her for the journey she is on now as manager and chief strategist of her son- Burnaboy as well as several other promising acts and creatives.

Of course, one cannot at all discount the fact that her father- Benson Idonije who was Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s first manager- was a huge source of inspiration in her formative years. His passion for his work, love for music and adept skills were passed on without a doubt and though she picked up the mantle a little later than her father, she has proven that she is more than capable of producing and managing an A-list star and leading said star {fully Nigerian, no foreign passport} to win big at the BETs, BRITS, Coachella, Grammys and so much more.

As we speak, she draws me into her world of family, language, legacy, education and the early music scene years. The photoshoot is over so quickly because being in front of the camera is not Mrs Ogulu’s idea of fun but the chat that ensues is my forte and as she quickly senses that my energy is one of warmth and near adoration, she relaxes. We talk for over two hours- something that from the reaction of her executive assistant and daughter is a bit of a phenomenon- I guess I did something right and in this case, it is to me, an endorsement from the Momager of the Year! Enjoy excerpts of our conversation.

Interview By DOWNTOWN Editor, Latasha Ngwube, Assisted by Kazeem Tilewa, Photography by Tosin Akinyemiju, Styled by Ronami Ogulu, Makeup by Olamide Omoyele

Bose Ogulu 'Mama Burna'

I’ve read so much about you and your dad. You talk about him being the best parent but not a lot about your mum. Why is that? Where is she? Are your parents together?

Yes my parents are still together. She is very much here. If you saw her you’d forget about the rest of us and remember just her as she is very boisterous and she’s going to kill me for mentioning her. I’m named after her, my mum’s name is Abosede Habibatu Benson.
Both my parents were here for a very long weekend. We were together for the Grammys and she’s in some of the pictures. I think I look like her. She has shorter hair so you’d be able to pick her out. So, yes she’s there she has always been there but I was a daddy’s girl. My mum at the time was a business person and she travelled a lot. She was doing jewelry, laces and she owned restaurants but without her I’d probably be a brat to be honest. She was the one who made sure I learned to clean a home, wash plates and other chores because if it was up to my father…I hated washing plates and I still do.

What other ways did your mum influence your life growing up?

The languages. The soft ear comes from my mother. She is a Yoruba woman but she speaks four or five Nigerian languages and she speaks each of them well. We became close when I started having boyfriends because that was the part my father didn’t want to deal with. If there was any person you liked the bottom line was nobody was good enough and so I needed an ally and my mum became one.
We used to gist about boyfriend stuff and sex education and because of her I didn’t make a lot of the mistakes my mates made. She had me when she was seventeen and she’s blessed to still be married to the same man for over fifty years. At the end of the day she made the right choice for herself but always let me know that this is not going to happen to you and this is how to make sure it doesn’t happen to you. So she’s responsible for that part of me. We are close but she’s closer to her grandchildren than she ever was to me and that makes me feel happy.

How did you meet Burna’s dad, Mr Ogulu and (how) did you even know he was the one?

I went to Port Harcourt for youth service and I got a job working for the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce. They had like a duplex for corpers and one day he pulled up with a friend. I can’t remember if they were coming to see me or another corper but that’s how we met and no I never thought he could be the one however, I did think he was interesting for two reasons. The first was, he had a terrible sense of dressing but he was very confident about it. This guy was sitting in a room full of people, his legs crossed and he had on the most awful footwear clearly not giving a crap. He obviously had no clue they didn’t look nice. I found his confidence and just the fact that he didn’t care interesting. The second thing was that he made me laugh and we just laughed a lot about all kinds of things. So, yeah we were friends for months and then he would ask me out and I’d say no thank you because I’m not going to stay in this system with you. I’m going back home. Home for me was Lagos and there was no point in having a boyfriend here and so he would give it a rest and ask again the following month. Then towards the end of my youth service, one day he said “Ok, at this point if you are not going to marry me there is no point even starting to date.” I looked at him and replied “Are you desperate? Who looks at a girl and starts saying if you are not going to marry me…?” So we had a laugh. I finally went to visit him at home and discovered there were two girlfriends looking for this man who had spent most of his nights hanging out in front of my place. I said, “If have all these girls killing themselves for you, why are you looking for me night after night? Then he looks to me and says “Well then, I guess you aren’t that desperate after all!”.. We have banter and we’ve developed our own language even from way back then. He wasn’t a case of chemistry- I see you, you see me…we are shaking. Maybe that’s what it was for him that was not what it was for me. So, yeah I think that was how it evolved and here we are.

I, like many other people, didn’t really know much about your marital status until an Instagram post where you refer to him as “your forever boyfriend” and that was when I knew you guys were a happily married couple… Has it been a conscious effort on to keep that part of your life in the background?

Well, the thing is I’m on the front burner because of my job but he doesn’t work for our son so there was no point in telling his story. Our daughter Ronami, just a few years ago started to work on the team but until then she probably wasn’t in front either. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by unnecessary exposure.
One thing I know for a fact is Port Harcourt people don’t like to leave just like FESTAC people, they love their soil! So

Is he more in Lagos or Port Harcourt?

It is true, they don’t like moving! Laughs. In the last year he’s been more here in Lagos because we’ve been more here in Nigeria. I’m usually with the team for everything which means tours, performances and I’ve been fully hands on it since 2017. Whether he’s in Lagos or Port Harcourt he is not going to be with me, he is not going to be with his son, he is not going to be with his daughters and so it didn’t matter whether he was although Port Harcourt is where he feels most comfortable, in our home there. We were together in Lagos when the lockdown started. I remember putting five items of clothing into a suit case and I said to him “I’m not going to be locked down here with you for three months. It will be too dry. What are we going to gist about? I’m going to where the action is, I’m going to meet my children” and he responded, “Oh, you think I want to be here?” So we moved and spent the entire lock down at Burna’s until there was some type of movement.

You grew up with a lot of big musical personalities coming in and out of your household like Stevie Wonder. Who were some of your favorites from back in the day?

Peter King and not necessarily because of his music as I only remember him releasing one album on his own. He was with Bonny M for a long time and he ended up setting up a music school. I think Asa went to his music school as well as a few others. He was one of the people that made me set up a music school just because he was so musically sound. I knew he was never going to be a great musical artist so when he did the album even at my young age I knew it wasn’t going to sell but just the musicality of him was so pure. I remember him with either a saxophone or a trumpet almost all the time as he practiced his craft.

I learned that the late Brenda Fassie was a very good friend of yours. How did that come about, what was it about her?

I took the children on a language immersion excursion trip to Cote d’Ivoire and stayed at hotel Ivoire in Abidjan. Apparently Brenda was also staying at the same hotel but I didn’t know this. I left the kids with some of my staff and I went out but by the time I came back I couldn’t find my youngest daughter, Nissi, I asked where she was and my son (Burna) came to me and said someone has been kidnapped her and the kidnapper said to tell you her that her name is Brenda Fassie and that Nissi is an African princess. Of course it wasn’t a kidnapping, I found Nissi with her, enjoying herself and she said to me she had needed to meet the mother of this child because Nissi used to have a full head of very long natural hair. Brenda didn’t have a daughter, she had two sons and she said this is what she would have wanted her daughter to look like. From then we struck up a friendship and she literally made herself Nissi’s “fairy” godmother, showering her with gifts and candy. For the rest of our stay in Abidjan at the time I literally saw her every day. She was crazy but then I’m probably not hundred percent normal either but it was fun. She has always been an over-the-top person but she told me her story and she was a survivor. She had two boys early and she brought them up on her own. She loved life, relationships and herself.
I hadn’t seen in a long time a woman that felt so confident about herself, her looks and her sexuality. We bonded on some things on somethings we begged to differ. She was that type of person if she struggled with something she said it. I think that’s what I remember the most apart from the fact that she brightened up a room. She walk in her and she becomes the life of the party.

 

Bose Ogulu 'Mama Burna'

Why do people think you danced for Fela?

(She bursts into laughter) That’s your world. That’s the world that you people have created and some people find it hurtful. Burna is probably the only one who has the originality, authenticity, rawness and clarity of vision that Fela had and is not related by blood to him.
So, to explain it to themselves, they needed to make up a story that kind of explains him and from the Fela dancer story came the rumor that I probably had him for Fela but didn’t say or it was covered up. When you think about it how old was Fela, how old am I and how old is Burna? For my dad he finds it very spiteful because it’s almost incestuous in his eyes because Fela was the closest thing I had to a godfather, so to come up with that story is just… even the Fela will turn in his grave like Ahan! She’s like a daughter to me. Infact, the last time he saw me in Port Harcourt at one of his very last shows he called me by my mum’s name right till the very end because he says I look exactly like her while my mum – she finds it hurtful that they continue to say it. I think it’s out of some derogatory intent but if woman danced for Fela then she danced for Fela, all the respect in the world to them, that’s what they did. They were part of a movement and culture but that was their reality not mine. Why would people keep making it my story? In their heads there’s a looseness that is associated with dancing for Fela at the time that they needed to bring upon me to defile the role that I play in my son’s life. The best thing that could come out of what I am doing and is coming out thankfully is that you can be different and you can embrace being different and if he is my child and I’m not complaining who are you again? Basically, that’s what it is. A mother who has a child who wants to pursue a career in music and he wants to do it to the extreme with no safety net whatsoever. I saw that and I stood by him not without fights but I stood by him and helped him build it while bringing the knowledge that I have to the table and then, I’ve made it a job and one is making it a legacy and then people think the only thing they can do is to keep bringing back this story that is not true. Right when mothers are waking up and beginning to pay attention to their children who are different. Truthfully I don’t care because the only thing that matters is my immediate reality. I’ve always known who I am.

What do you think prepared you for the role that you play now as a Momager and wife?

Being a wife, I think that’s just God helping you find your mate and having similar values is what keeps you in it not the public displays of affection
because after all the lights are gone there has to be some values that hold you both down and those values cannot be from only one person. Moving on to the mother question I think my easiest answer is that my parents made me feel like their primary job on earth was to be my parents. So as they have told me multiple times I have no moral justification to not be a good mum. I think my parenting has been intentional. My children helped because each of them in their own way was a bit self-centered and I’ll explain. They didn’t give room for the fact that you are everybody’s mum. Each of them expected me to be first their mum. So you’d hear Ronami talking to her brother and she’d say, “Damini my mommy is calling you” and he would say the same. Everyone said “my mummy” not “our” and that was it. As they’ve grown, it’s gotten better but my excuse couldn’t be “I was busy with your brother”. They didn’t force me to have three children so I had to treat each child as an individual first and foremost before anything else. That covers the mother bit. On to the manager role – I got into talent management in the first place because my son asked me to and then I realized having anyone else would destroy him. So for me it was more of a labor of sacrifice than ambition. I manage Nissi as well as other people that are not my children today because I’ve made it a job. I think wanting to see my son succeeded is why I became a talent manager.

I read somewhere that after two years studying in the UK Burna said he wasn’t doing it any more and your response was ‘that’s fine, come home and we’ll figure it out from there’. That is not the typical mom response. Not in Nigeria, not in West Africa and many Western mothers too would lose it. Did you kind of lose your mind?

Absolutely! It wasn’t even that simple on the outside. It wasn’t a calm “ok, that’s fine, come home let’s figure it out”, but the difference with him was that I knew he was going to do something with music. Right from secondary school I’d known but like most parents I wanted him to get his degree and then go and do whatever. That was the path that I wanted for him because we had been paying for studio time since secondary school and trading studio time for grades so I knew where that was going and I had seen the talent. The ED of Corona School’s Trust Council called me and told me this child is going to be a star and it is from his music and I was like “call me when he has gotten prizes of prize giving day for the academics I’m paying your school or.” She told me not to deride it. She said “the money of the rapper is different, the fame of the rapper is different, the surgeon is a different breed but mark my words this boy is a star and he’s going to be so rich.”

But you weren’t happy…

No I wasn’t but I was relieved because he is a very kind child and his reason was “I know you guys are suffering and grinding to get money to pay for me to be here and so I don’t want to do what other people do. They don’t go to school and it’s on my graduation day you’ll know that I did not finish”. So he said to me ”I can’t do that to you, I can’t watch you suffer and pay for something I’m not gaining from so this is me telling you my truth. I don’t want to do this.”

That’s your first child, how do you react to something like that?

You decide what’s more important for you. Your child or what society is going to say and come to think of it who is society anyway? So I told him, “Listen, the only reason I wanted you to do it this way is for you own good because I think you should have a safety net and he said “ Well, so I go through life without a safety net” in his words he said “If I don’t make it then I’m going straight to hell no problem” and I said “Well, you are not going to hell so let’s figure it out!”. Now he didn’t actually say “I’m coming back home”, we still had to cajole and everything because the underground music scene in the UK had a lot of turbulence and its own issues that I didn’t want him to be part of. When you are a black teenager there is a tendency for you to be targeted or get caught up because you are reactive and I’m talking about a boy that was a black belt in Taekwondo at age eleven. He’s not going to walk away if you come at him and they had a lot of gangs that I didn’t want him associating himself with seeing as he wasn’t going to attend classes. I said to his father “Go and bring our son. Whatever you need to tell him to bring him back home, tell him but just bring him home”. For me, it’s one of the biggest things he achieved and one of the perks of staying married particularly to the father of your children because when a child has a problem, you have someone to share the weight with and tag in when you need to catch your breath. Anyways, he returned with his father which he didn’t have to because he could have disappeared. By the time he got home and said it again to our faces I said ok but secretly I kept registering in school to retain his credits. I did that for two or three years just in case to keep his name in the books as a safety net.

There was some sort of turbulence when the first wave of fame hit. Alleged cases of violence spread like wildfire and the name on everyone’s lips was Burna boy. As a mum at that time how did you feel?

I didn’t feel anyhow because again these were the very same reports that claimed I was one of Fela’s dancers. They are even say they can place the date and time of me being a Fela dancer. So the truth is how many of those reports of violence were true? That’s the big question. I wasn’t worried but
the one thing those reports did that was negative was that they made him rebellious. It had him wondering why they would think and say these things about him and so if this is what’s out there, then there is no point and it was beginning to stick. I was a case of lets vilify this guy, lets demonize him and till today he doesn’t understand why he was chosen for that role.

You talked about the relationship between an artist and his manager or her manager and the kind of dynamic there has to be in other for it to be successful. People have said that Burna is uncontrollable. I feel like it’s a word that has been banded around quite a bit and even his mum can’t control him. Do you feel like there’s a lot pressure on you to sort of tell him what to do in that Nigerian parent-child dynamic?

How many parents can tell their children what to do? I see people’s children, I did excursions trips for young people for fifteen years which means I dealt with over five thousand children and at least ten thousand parents and I know things about their children that they don’t know. So how many people really tell their children what to do? Pressure? I feel no pressure.

How does it feel to be mother and manager of a Grammy winner?

Has it sunk it yet? Yes and no because it’s more than that for me. As the mother of a Grammy award winner it makes me proud. Proud because … the long and short of it is that I very into education and skills. I think the most important thing you can give your child is that. Not a house, not money but that and because he decided to stop I always thought to myself is he prepared for life? Of course I stopped worrying about that a long time ago but the set of feelings I have are because I’m a part of that journey. I co-executive produced that album so whether I’m related to him or not that’s an accolade in itself. His performance at the BRITs was a moment of goosebumps for me to actually see a black African that doesn’t own a British passport perform at the BRITs with his own name above his head and bringing Yoruba and Pidgin to that stage…maybe if I had been at the Grammy’s the surrealism might have been on hyper drive for me but that was…a moment.

I’m told that you don’t like the moniker ‘ Mama Burna’ is that true?

Being a mum is my highest degree. I don’t hate being called Mama Burna I just have a problem with people limiting me or choosing to limit me to just that.

Do you have anything close to a successor in terms of managing him?

I don’t know that I have a successor but I do know he is turning 30 in July which is refreshing because there’s maturity, there’s respect from me to him, for him to me from everybody on the team to each other. I’ve realize that it’s not about one person, it’s about the whole team and that is what we are blessed with. When you have people who believe in the product who are committed to it and who make it their priority. I try not to make it about myself because it’s not about me. It about each and every one in the team that makes all that we do possible.

How would you like to be remembered?

Abosede Ogulu. Period.

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