Lust, Roth In Burna Boy’s Room
One evening at the university, I experienced an intense feeling of peace and contentment of the sort that I had never had before. I was so satisfied that I had a thought: if my life is to be made up of moments like this, I would have no complaints. The moment consisted simply of me lying on the mattress I shared with D who was not around. I had a novel in my hands and some song was playing.
The moment, though, was doomed to ephemerality, as, inevitably, almost as soon as I thought I had achieved zen, I noticed a problem with the scene: something, someone, else had to be here to make the great moment perfect: a woman—preferably half-clothed—somewhere in the room, likely in bed. Mea culpa, I was young.
I had forgotten about that moment—perhaps because of the troubles of adulthood or maybe because I have had some of the desired elements in some combination since then—until I saw the video for Burna Boy’s 2018 hit ‘On the Low’. It begins with a television screen showing some stylised static. The camera withdraws, widens its gaze, and catches a sitting lady. She smiles, stands, and raises her hands in what is the beginning of an extremely watchable dance.
Her raised hands appear to signal to the camera to pan upwards. It’s Burna Boy up there. He sings, comes down, and joins in the dance. He soon stops and takes a place on the wall. He watches her move. At that moment, he is as much a viewer as the rest of us. Like us, he is aware the show isn’t his, not exclusively. And all of this is captured in one long apparently unedited take in which the camera proves to be very motile, about as motile as the dancing girl, if not quite as stimulating.
The complementary nature of the lady’s dance with director Meji Alabi’s camerawork becomes stark when you consider that the long take is unusual in Nigerian music videos. The favoured mode for Nigerian music video directors is frenetic: jump-cuts that imitate both the famed MTV aesthetic and the vigorous musical elements of most Nigerian pop music.
Even the excellent video for Kiss Daniel’s ‘Good Time’ with its three-minute one-take style works the single’s jumbled-drums vibrancy, as provided by DJ Coublon, into the picture: AJE Filmworks’ camera follows a lot of moving people in a dark near-claustrophobic setting, a recreation of a club scene. We see the singer arrive…a lady comes over…he walks past a group of persons who couldn’t get into the club…he gets them in…a waiter brings a drink to the VIP section…he walks to the bar. The star and his co-stars never really stand still and their restlessness, as soundtracked by the drums, is mirrored by the camera’s mobility.
Back when the video appeared on YouTube in December 2015, not a lot was made of its single-take similarity to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), an artificially single-take film that won the Oscar for Best Picture earlier in the year. In hindsight, maybe there was a connection. There is another similarity, however. Both projects fetishize drums. The song uses an identifiably Naija pop arrangement of percussive elements, while the film deploys drums almost throughout, ostensibly in keeping with the picture’s kinetic quality. As every filmmaker and most consumers of cinema know, a picture’s sound design has its own dialogue with the picture itself. In maybe the same way that the peace I felt that evening was conversing with the stillness of my environment.
Speaking about his work, Antonio Sanchez, the drummer responsible for Birdman’s sound, told Vanity Fair that he worked with several percussive elements. He made sounds with “the wood, on the rims, with my hands, with brushes, mallets, branches—anything to get a very wide range sonically.”
Close listeners would recognise this variety in the breadth of genres and sounds embedded in the super-genre that is Nigerian pop. But a different comment by Sanchez brings the connection with Burna Boy closer still: “The movie fed on the drums and the drums fed on the imagery.”
This relationship, between sound and cinematography, shows that Burna Boy’s mellow musical impulse must be considered as the stimulus for what takes place in the video for ‘On the Low’, for its mood. He has brooded over a beat before, as was the case in ‘Pree Me’ off his underappreciated EP Redemption; the video followed that mood. He was celebratory in ‘Don Gorgon’ and ‘Like to Party’ and their videos went along with that. Seeking for relief post-heartbreak as he was on Last, Last, the song’s video stayed home as one does in the throes of heartache.
The major difference here is that, unlike the other videos, On the Low’s true star is not Burna Boy. It is the dancing lady. And if all of the components of the video must be compared, it should be said that only the song itself—with its gorgeous percussion, echo effects, and cool-headedness—can compete for attention with the dancing lady.
This, of course, is the fate of whoever is around a dancing woman: if she is anything from decent to exceptional at dancing, she becomes the focus, the star. One has to admit that this fascination is typical of the male gaze—and back in 1975 when the phrase was coined by Laura Mulvey, the theorist advocated a “reacting against these obsessions” but perhaps the male human has refused to evolve, so that for better or worse, the attention given to a dancing woman, and the neglect suffered by anyone in its orbit, is tied to the sexual impulse, at least to the heterosexual male, a detail widely observed in literature and music and cinema.
Surely, academic theories aren’t rules for living. You might know a chunk of male gaze theory and yet a living female form presents its own challenge. You might stare until your home training or an inconvenience demands you look away. Watching the Burna Boy video on your phone screen, with nobody to enforce etiquette, its world is yours. Replay. Replay. Replay. Each time, you step into a private world you have been invited to publicly. You are a voyeur, but you are welcome.
In a passage from Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose, the author and his companion meet the celebrated photographer Malick Sidibe at his home. The Senegalese master decides to show his visitors one of his favourite works: a 1963 photo showing a young man and woman in the middle of a dance, the lady holding her dress down to preserve her modesty—“a dance of such zest threatened to reveal her underwear,” Iduma suggests.
The scene captured by the photo spurs a semi-remembrance for the writer. “It had to be about dancing, I think, remembering something about dance being the fulcrum of desire,” he writes, a sentiment that itself recalls the late John Updike’s response to that eternal question, “What do women want?” Women want to dance, he averred. It might have been a glib reply but—nightly, rightly—the club scene agrees with Updike.
But Updike wasn’t the person to give my younger self a lesson on the erotic potential of a dance invitation. That lesson was handed to me by an older lover many months after I left the university. She never explicitly made the connection but her withering in my arms told me as much.
She lived not very far from where I once lived: We had known each other on social media for some time when I realised just how close our houses were. She issued an invitation and on my inaugural visit, asked that I come into her studio, a tiny, tidy room about which some artworks were propped. The studio hosted a single table, which faced its only window, an aesthetic I now think of as typically European. This was the table she used for work. This was the table that held her laptop when, the next morning, she showed me some of her poems. One of these poems was accompanied by the photo of a bare breast. Whose is this? I asked. I was not referring to the poetry. Looking back, I see that the question was rather indelicate; the love-making that followed her claiming the image wasn’t.
Over the next few days, more indelicacies would follow but there was some resistance on occasion. I’m not sure what the resistance was about on this worldly woman’s part; on mine, it was connected to the novelty of a much older lover, her voluptuousness notwithstanding. To get around this resistance, to make love regularly, we took to transforming our space into a pre-coital dancefloor. The routine: On your feet…then closer…if permitted, hands may find waist…dance, dance, dance…then a lean-in with hopes that your lips are met halfway by another pair of lips. Bliss.
As all such romances are doomed to be, ours died not very long after in circumstances I remember were quite rancorous even as I forget their substance. I had not fully embarked on a career in film criticism at the time. If I had, I might have been more aware of the films featuring a situation like ours. I might even have had a wider database of films showing a man watch a woman dance in the manner of Burna Boy. (It is apt that Mulvey’s Male Gaze essay was primarily about cinema.)
My inattention led to my having just a single film come to mind when I saw On the Low for the first time. The film, The Human Stain, had Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in starring capacity. Released in 2003, it was based on a Philip Roth novel and wasn’t so popular at the US box office. I’ll bet that only a small percentage of Nigerians remember it.
In any case, my mind went to one scene. It had Wentworth Miller, playing a younger version of Hopkins’ Coleman Silk, watching Jacinda Barrett dance. Until I checked YouTube, it was the only scene I could remember from the film. I admit that the fact of this being the only scene I remember might be linked to a juvenile envy of the young man’s enjoyment of his lady’s movements.
Shortly after watching the video for On the Low, I went after the Roth source novel. I wanted to see how he captured the scene in words. As I may have guessed, Roth does what Roth does in scenes like this: he’s generous. He lavishes over two hundred words on the episode:
She astonished him—astonished herself—with the dance she did one Saturday night, standing at the foot of his foldout sofa bed in her half slip and nothing else. She was getting undressed, and the radio was on—Symphony Sid—and first, to get her moving and in the mood, there was Count Basic and a bunch of jazz musicians jamming on "Lady Be Good," a wild live recording…Coleman was lying semi-upright on the bed, doing what he most loved to do on a Saturday night after they'd returned from their five bucks' worth of Chianti and spaghetti and cannoli in their favorite Fourteenth Street basement restaurant: watch her take her clothes off. All at once, with no prompting from him…she began what Coleman liked to describe as the single most slithery dance ever performed by a Fergus Falls girl after little more than a year in New York City. She could have raised Gershwin himself from the grave with that dance, and with the way she sang the song…
[B]ut when the record was over, Steena put her hands up to hide her face, half meaning, half pretending to cover her shame. But the gesture protected her against nothing, least of all from his enravishment. The gesture merely transported him further. "Where did I find you, Voluptas?" he asked. "How did I find you? Who are you?”
A consummation is not far away from this “slithery dance”, but Coleman can’t quite believe it even as his love interest is right there. It is disbelief powering those words, “How did I find you? Who are you?” Coleman is willing his reality into illusion—the opposite of my attempts back at the university to conjure up an illusory woman to take up a part of my real bed.
Burna Boy’s own version of the illusory comes towards the end of the video. After taking us to other scenes, apparently within the same building and mostly darkly lit ones, we return to the first scene. The camera pans across the lady’s backside, where much of her dance-action has resided. As it moves upwards again into a medium shot of a profile of the would-be lovers’ faces, the scene lights up slowly. We watch as they stare into each other’s eyes in one of the most choreographed methods of conveying cinematic love, lust, or attraction. She is still dancing; he is still enraptured.
But as the camera spins slowly around the pair and then focuses on Burna Boy’s face, we see that, alas, the girl isn’t actually in the room. The artist has willed her into existence. He is instead staring at a wall. He looks downwards, inverting the camera’s preferred pan; he leaves the room; the video ends.
That disappointment is an experience approximated by many persons who have found their love lives fall short of what they have been promised by films, books, music, and their own imagination. (I think here about Carey Mulligan’s post-coital look in An Education after her character’s first sexual encounter: she has read books on the subject, listened to pop music on sex, she has seen the movies. Is this it, she asks.) The dance, the lust, and perhaps the lovemaking it gestures towards—all have taken place not in Burna Boy’s room but in his mind.
It is disappointing, but as most persons with some experience in these matters might tell you, the kind of romance in the video—every gesture being silent, pleasant, sensual, consensual—is often unreal. It is romance as it is dreamed, as it is filmed. It is one reason we take to our screens, to see a thing different from our lives. It is what we want but can’t have. The more illusory a thing is, the more intense its imagined gratification.
Burna Boy’s reverie might have begun more fortuitously than mine back at the university, what with his fetching dancing companion, but by the end, he and the young man I was are united in longing for what we desire but do not have: a woman—in my bed, in his room, in our lives.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is a writer and cultural critic based in Lagos