“I’m like, ‘Okay, cool. Who's your boss?’ And she's like, ‘I can’t legally say her name.’”
Last August, Bubele Booi moved from South Africa “with a suitcase and a keyboard” to attend New York University. This July, a song he helped produce became part of Beyoncé’s latest album, The Lion King: The Gift.
The 25-year-old musician expressed gratitude for the opportunity in a tweet Friday, and by the time he spoke to EW on Monday, the post was full-blown viral — it had amassed more than 164,000 likes and 37,000 retweets in just a few days.
So how did Booi end up working with one of the biggest artists on the planet? The story involves good timing, mysterious phone calls, and the right people believing in his talent.
Booi says that although he had a publishing deal and was supposed to get a meeting with the company’s New York office, it didn’t happen for months. Finally Ari Gelaw, who left another label to join Universal Music Publishing Group as an A&R rep, met with him in October. Gelaw saw something in Booi’s abilities, and she set him up with Mariel Gomerez, an A&R rep at Parkwood. That Parkwood, as Booi would come to learn — Beyoncé’s label.
Booi sent some music to the Parkwood team but didn’t hear back as the weeks went by. He eventually returned to South Africa, assuming the opportunity was “dead in the water.” Then he received a phone call.
“She says to me, ‘Hey, I just wanted to tell you something. My boss likes your music,’” Booi recalls. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, cool. Who’s your boss?’ And she’s like, ‘I can’t legally say her name.’ So I’m like, ‘Oh, you mean the boss-boss.’ And now I’m freaking out on the inside.”
That’s pretty much how it was for the next few months. Long stretches of silence, punctuated by the occasional phone call. “Her team operates like the CIA, they are incredible at what they do,” Booi says. “They do not tell you even a little bit more than you need to know; they’ll tell you exactly how much you need to know, maybe a little bit less.”
Later, when Booi was visiting friends in Los Angeles and an hour away from boarding a plane, he got another call. “Don’t leave L.A.,” Parkwood told him. They invited him to a camp to focus solely on the project.
“That was an incredible moment for me. I can’t even express how ridiculous it was,” Booi says. “It’s a week of meeting and interacting with the coolest people. And during that you create a bunch of things and it gets passed around, and you never really know what’s happening.”
Booi produced and made a beat for the track “Find Your Way Back,” which touches on father figures and has been described as a riff on “Circle of Life” from the original Lion King film. He is credited (although incorrectly as “Bubele Boii”) as a producer alongside Robert Magwenzi and Beyoncé.
Interestingly enough, “Find Your Way Back” wasn’t created during the Los Angeles songwriting camp. He and Magwenzi were just hanging out in Booi’s mom’s house in Johannesburg last summer when they thought about making a tune. At the time, the duo knew they wanted to utilize the bass guitar in a cool way and make something that could “groove and vibe.” They had no inkling it would end up in the hands of Beyoncé.
“She happened to pick it up, and for some reason, really resonated with it, and then gave a random bunch of kids from Africa a chance,” Booi says. “I just can’t even believe someone of her caliber would do something like that. But I guess someone of her caliber can do something like that.”
To be part of a Beyoncé project is special enough, but Booi says there’s a unique significance in working on an album dedicated to The Lion King.
“The Lion King has massive significance in South Africa, being released in 1994,” he says. “And there’s also the freedom you also have in South Africa, where the apartheid regime officially came to an end. So being involved in a project like this, for me, is monumental.”
That the album assembled an array of African artists — including Wizkid, Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, and DJ Lag — is part of what separates Beyoncé from the pack, Booi says.
“They didn’t take shortcuts and appropriate or be like, ‘Oh, we like Afrobeat, let’s get a whole bunch of American people to make African-sounding things,’” he continues. “They’re like, ‘This Lion King means so much. And it’s based in Africa. And I think that we need to give people an opportunity from this geographical location to be part of it.’”
Although most people might say they’ve peaked at a collaboration with Beyoncé, Booi doesn’t want his career to stop there. First, he has to wrap up his master’s at NYU. But his ultimate goal is to be a behind-the-scenes producer and songwriter, and be backstage while audiences resonate with his music.
“The dream is to live a life and have your kids have a normal life. And once in a while though, Auntie Beyoncé comes in for a barbecue,” Booi says. “I said that completely jokingly many years ago. I wasn’t able to meet her on this project; I missed her by two hours when we were in the studio that one night. But now it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s a possibility.’”
Booi hasn’t yet adjusted to internet virality, but he says it’s been especially wonderful to see people back home celebrate his success. Twitter props during grad week is a communal event in South Africa, where “a win for one child is a win for the whole community.”
“A lot of people’s parents didn’t get the chance to go to university, so a lot of black children, when they graduate, they’re the first person in the family to graduate,” he says. “And everyone just retweets everyone because even if we don’t know you, you are a doctor now and we love you and we show love back to you.
“I just witnessed that in the biggest ways where I have, like, random mamas just hitting me up being like, ‘Yo, we are so proud, my son, we are so proud,’” he adds. “I do not know these people at all, but because I am someone from this country — and as a result, their son by extension — it’s like I’m representing all of them in this.”
Not bad for a kid with a suitcase and a keyboard.