by Eromo Egbejule
We take a one-week trip to Ghana to explore its music industry, the aspirations of its young people, and how it mirrors the successes of the more established industry in rival Nigeria
It begins at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. At the arrival lounge, a phone belonging to a young Ghanaian lady in her early twenties rings. The ringtone is Like to Party, the hit from Nigerian dancehall sensation, Burna Boy’s hit.
The story almost writes itself from that moment and onwards, the influence of Nigerian music on the former Gold Coast calling onto this reporter at every turn.
The Ghanaian music industry is burgeoning in reputation. There’s the stock of the popular Sarkodie and R2Bees rising and the simultaneous upsurge of the Azonto dance style that has got it loads of attention outside its shores, especially in the United Kingdom (and got the country’s music association so paranoid, they are petitioning Nigeria to stop claiming its origin).
Exports like the acts mentioned above, and others like Donaeo and Fuse ODG are part of the Afrobeats revolution sweeping over the UK and several parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But it finds Nigeria a hard nut to crack, even as its musicians appear to see it as gateway to the world.
The problem might be one of style.
At the core of commercial success in Nigeria is the how-low-can-you-go nature of the beat and the strength of the hook, but an average Ghanaian hit song is more deliberate – a delicious mix of GH pidgin and either of Twi, Ga or Ewe, the three most popular languages in the land.
Then there is the almost inevitable comedy.
No honour at home
Ghanaian acts are desperately proud of themselves for this, but – very interestingly – many are just as desperate about crossing over to Nigeria.
This, apart from the natural tendency for expansion, may be because of the larger-than-life image Goodluck Jonathan’s people have on these shores and the respect Nigerian entertainers find so easily in a country that doesn’t give same to its own.
“You should see the way Wizkid is treated whenever he comes to town to perform or something,” Rickie Davies, the workaholic young lady who is UK publicist for Nigeria’s Chocolate City and 2face Idibia, tells me. “He gets to be treated like a god, but Ghanaians hardly treat their own the same way.”
It is instructive that reviewers at Ghana Celebrities had only praise for performance by Nigerians at last year’s Ghana Music Awards. “By far the Chocolate City crew from Nigeria made up of M.I., Brymo, JesseJagz and Ice Prince were the best performers on the night,” the magazine said. “Their back to back performances will be on the mind of many for long. They didn’t really do any magic on stage, but they wowed the crowd with their hit tunes.”
Rap-dancehall duo, R2Bees recently pulled out of a concert a few days before it was to hold, a decision rumoured to be due to outsized preferential treatment organisers were given to the show’s headliners, Nigerian duo Psquare.
Dancing to their own tune
What road led Ghana here?
Well, for long, the predominant music genre in the former Gold Coast was highlife – from E.T. Mensah, Nana Ampadu, Samuel Owusu, Daddy Lumba and others. Then hip life with Reggie Rockstone, VIP, Bollie (of the Kiss Your Bride fame) and Obrafour at the helm.
In an industry where gospel albums were the best-selling, contemporary music had to double its pace, and, for many in Ghana’s media, this is how come Azonto gained its frenzy, unlike any other before it, and hence what many see as an over-milking of the genre.
Azonto, a Twi word used to describe a loose girl, one who of little or no value, has thus undergone a transformation in meaning; turned around by the new-age musicians to create a movement that portrays the creativity of Ghanaian music.
Even the hip hop heads have lost their purity, joining pop culture successes across the world from JayZ, Snoop Lion and Kanye West to MI Abaga, who have been accused of watering down their lyrics to sell records.
“It’s necessary,” Stargo, a budding rapper, tells me. “To succeed, one has to adjust.” Like another up and coming act, Gemini they say this is inevitable as contemporary trends show that most people just want to dance. The viral attention the latter got for his Don’t Do, I’ll Do song, where he lustily compromised his hard core hip hop stance for a more – make that very – commercial flow.
The present template has been borrowed wholesale – and no one is bothering to deny this – from Nigeria; rap over pop beats with catchy hooks, and when you are lucky, brilliant wordplay and simple punch lines like Naeto C and MI, foremost exponents of that style. Or massive collaborations with in-vogue and on-demand artistes on the continent, like the multiple award-winning Sarkodie, Ghana’s biggest crossover star yet.
“I got much love for Naija and I want to show people another side of me,” the Tema-born Sarkodie tells me about featurning Nigerian acts on his music. “So I worked with a lot of them, including Tiwa here.”
And yes, he means this literally, pointing at our own Ms. Savage, ensconced in the sofa at his posh clothing store, where a pair of bling-studded sneakers costs as much as GHC 350 ($175). The day before, they had shot a video together for a song on the much- anticipated Sarkology, his third studio album.
“Ghanaians too like dance!” shrieks Kwesi, a cab driver. “You see the radio stations just playing Nigerian songs a lot, sake of say we love to dance.” Which music seems better? “Oh no, no, yours is much better. We too like the music wey dey come from the Naija inside kraa”, he says, with a note of finality in his voice.
The pressure has become intense. Radio stations in Accra, especially the urban-themed Beat-FM styled Live FM and Y FM will only play music tailored towards young people in the 18-35 bracket. What they love to listen to is a no-brainer. So Ghanaian artistes have learnt they need to play ball.
Holla at your boys
And sometimes the ball is played so well you have to spot the difference.
E-fine, the Nigerian-born act whose songs have more autotune than oil in jollof rice is on a steady rise in Accra, and elsewhere – and it doesn’t matter to him or his fans that he is more or less a clone-in-progress of Wizkid. As long as the hooks remain catchy.
Then there is Raquel. The controversial and carefree young woman – think Eva Alordiah mixed up Tonto Dike – is supposed to be a singer, but the headlines she makes oscillate between dating her manager and the innovation she brings to her skimpy dresses when performing.