African Giant: Coachella Font Sizes, Burna Boy and the ‘Wizkid’ Factor

Burna Boy (Instagram)

Cool! I said, as I saw the Coachella poster announcing Ariana Grande, Childish Gambino and Tame Impala as the festival’s 2019 headliners. Skimming through the unique, signature poster, I spot Burna Boy and Mr Eazi. Wait. This must be a good day for Nigerian music.

That was five hours before ‘African Giant’ began to trend on Twitter NG. Turned out Burna Boy was outraged over the font size his name was written in and wanted Coachella to “fix things please”. I doubt anyone missed his reaction but in case you did, he said, “@coachella I really appreciate you. But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small on your bill.

“I am an African Giant and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix things please.” This second part is the catalyst that really got people talking. What does ‘African Giant’ mean and how does one qualify to be one? While this remains a heavy debate, it holds less significant interest for me. Personally, I will love to examine the significance of Coachella poster font sizes, its implications and meanings for a Nigerian artist.

I had wanted to write something else when news of Burna Boy and Mr Eazi’s inclusion in Coachella’s lineup broke out. It was titled ‘Dear Burna Boy and Mr Eazi: Don’t pull a ‘Wizkid’ at Coachella’. We all remember how Wizkid missed his 2018 Coachella performance due to what he termed ‘Visa issues’. Till date, it is puzzling how visas for a show in April were not secured from the announcement in January. I digress.

Thanks to Burna Boy’s outburst, I had to do a quick research on Coachella and the significance of the font sizes. Of course, we must also examine ways it affects our African Giants. It is worthy to note that Coachella’s font size style has always caused media frenzy. Well, this is the first time it is doing so in Nigeria or Africa despite Wizkid’s inclusion in 2018.

You probably already guessed that the sizes have meanings and the lines where the names appear have even more impact. Although it is the norm, it still causes some confusion. Tom Breihan in his 2014 article for The Stereogum sums it up this way, “When the Coachella Festival, the first of America’s big summer festivals, announces its line-up every year, those of us who don’t go to the festival every year — and, presumably, some of those who do — like to play a little game called Font Size Confusion.

“Coachella has kept the same format for its posters — bigger bands up top in bigger fonts, going all the way down to tiny microscopic scribbles of bands you’ve never heard of. And because of the cold, merciless calculation that goes into its font size calculation, the people at Coachella always have to get a good idea of what’s a big draw and what’s not”, Breihan said.

It should be understood that for a big festival as Coachella (and other huge shows), artists are placed on the posters or bills based on individual revenue potential. It is common sense then that the big-earning artists are placed first and the trend goes on.

In Ray Waddell’s 2015 Billboard article, he said, “The typical festival ad matte has the headliners in large font at the top of each day, with the type getting smaller as it goes through the bill. Many variables are in play, but generally each act is weighted in direct proportion to its ticket-selling ability, which also essentially determines how much each act is paid. Headliners at major festivals can rake in as much as $1 million — and more.”

As this topic is not entirely new, we can find more industry expert opinions on the importance of Coachella’s font sizes but no one can explain it more than Paul Tollet, the man behind the festival. In a 2017 interview with the New Yorker, he mentioned that the third line is usually the hardest to fill as one had to place solid (fast-growing) artists on the line. Burna Boy and Mr Eazi are interestingly on this line and personally, I believe the category suits the growth of their careers in recent times.

But, at the same time, it is easy to understand Burna Boy’s outburst when you consider how important poster lines are for artist value. Tollet, in the same interview, said, “For artists, placement on the poster translates directly into booking fees. Agents will say, ‘They’re a second-line band at Coachella!’ ” Tollett.

It is understandable that placement on the poster can determine their future asking price internationally. Tollet noted that he and his team “have so many arguments over font sizes” and he “literally have gone to the mat over one point size.”

Phew! This is longer than I expected so we will try to draw the curtains quick — let’s bring in Wizkid. This isn’t about his absence in 2018 but the recent comparisons between Burna Boy’s outburst and Wizkid’s MTV (backstage award) saga. Recall that he refused to receive the ‘Best African Act’ award except it was on the main stage. He won the fight and in 2017, Davido picked up the award on the main stage.

Honestly, the comparison is the least clear point in this ‘African Giant’ debate. It is important to understand the reasons behind certain actions and not heap it all on racism. Show business is a BUSINESS and Coachella is a SHOW that has gauged the revenue of each artist, including our Giants and decided to place them where they fall. If Nigerians (or Africans) really want to prove the organisers wrong, we should buy tickets to attend the show. That way, they realise their error in ranking.

This has happened severally. In 2013, 2Chainz was barely visible on the poster and a small stage was set up for him. He ended up pulling a bigger crowd and earned more respect from the organisers. Burna Boy should take this example and count the career gains this inclusion in Coachella’s line-up will give him. My two cents.