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Burna Boy shines a light on pollution in his hometown in new documentary

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The artist Burna Boy fills up arenas around the world with fans who come to hear his music. And now, he's dipping a toe into a different medium with a documentary short about environmental destruction in the city where he grew up - Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BLACK RIVER: WHISKEY DOCUMENTARY")

BIEYE BRIGGS: Everybody is made a smoker because of the exposure to the black soot.

SHAPIRO: This is a city on Nigeria's southern coast. More than 3 million people live there.

BURNA BOY: That's the place that taught me about life, really.

SHAPIRO: The film shows images of black smoke in the air and floodwaters in the streets. Burna Boy told me, as bad as it is for everyone in Port Harcourt, those who have the least power feel it the most.

BURNA BOY: The people who have the worst end of the stick - you know, people who have basically been forgotten by everyone and by the government and by the powers that be and, you know, just forgotten - to me, that's the part that really breaks me the most - you know? - to see that there's actually people that have been forgotten.

SHAPIRO: And when you show up in your hometown and you meet these people, what do they say to you? You, this global superstar who's, you know, made it huge on the world stage?

BURNA BOY: I mean, obviously, it's a combination of people wanting to know how to just get out of the situation they're in. And after that, it's usually like - you know, they just want to hear stories, and, you know, they still keep smiles on their faces. It's still - I don't know, it's almost like my people are superhuman, man. Like, we don't - you know, like, no matter what happens, we still find a way to put smiles on our faces, man - it's - you know, even when we should be crying all day long...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BURNA BOY: ...You know?

SHAPIRO: There's a song called "Whiskey" on your latest album, which touches on some of the themes in the documentary. I want to listen to a little bit of it with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISKEY")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) Some people bind and cast. Some of them pray and fast. I see see pastor don dey fat. Shey na the thing God command. Because of oil and gas, my city so dark. Pollution make the air turn black. Every man have to stay on guard.

SHAPIRO: So Burna Boy, tell us about how you approach the task of interpreting these themes through music.

BURNA BOY: I mean, for me, that's the easiest part for me because I feel like that's - I don't know - something I've always done. I feel like, for me, that's the most special thing about music, you know? It's the fact that it can be a source of real-time newscasting in a way, even in the way that people who do not watch the news because all they hear is bad news and they feel like it's boring or whatever. Like, they can't escape this reality. This is - you know? Like, for me, putting it into music is the easiest part.

SHAPIRO: Is there any part of you that's afraid, when you go from singing about good times to instead singing about bad times, fans might say, that's not what we're here for?

BURNA BOY: Well, then, I have no problem losing fans because of that. That's not something that...

SHAPIRO: You've got enough fans by now.

BURNA BOY: ...Exactly. I have no problem. Anybody who's not comfortable with hearing the reality - my reality - has no business being my fan.

SHAPIRO: That was Burna Boy. His short film on Port Harcourt, Nigeria, is called "The Black River: Whiskey Documentary." Tomorrow we'll talk with him about his music career and his latest album, called "Love, Damini."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOAK AND DAGGER")

BURNA BOY: (Rapping) Dem dey pray make I fall and stagger, so I move in cloak and dagger. Might see me in a black bandana in a lambo with Jowi Zaza. Diamond teeth with a pocket full of rubber. No shirt n***a, looking like I'm a robber. Since I start, dem dey carry my matter. No be now we go scatter my dada. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Handel
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.