A Nascent Music Industry Promises to Reshape Social Norms in Northern Ghana
When a Tamale-based artiste won the popular song of the year category at the 2017 Ghana Music Awards, many Ghanaians were surprised. Their astonishment follows the fact that for the better part of two decades, Accra-based artistes have dominated mainstream Ghanaian music, with some contributions from Kumasi and Takoradi, but mainly music in the Akan dialects. Although Fancy Gadam, maker of the award-winning song ‘total cheat’, broke new ground, it is easy to dismiss him as an outlier. Some have even deemed his award as a pretentious attempt at promoting cultural diversity in Ghana’s music industry.
A better view however is to see Fancy Gadam as the leader of a pack of young acts together building a buzzing music industry across the Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions. This budding music industry has already churned out its own celebrities; Fancy Gadam is not alone. GunMog, Soorebia, Walaaga, Lil John and Mr Kurt and the Rock City Boys among others are household names in the northern parts of Ghana. These acts are rapping about the triumphs and tragedies of everyday life in their societies and their people are identifying with and relating to their music and their themes. These young rappers have proven to be adept speakers of their languages and are increasingly driving important social discourses through the songs they make.
An exemplar of this new wave of music is ‘Beer’ by Rock City, which has dominated airplay in Bolgatanga and other areas in the Upper East Region for months now. The four minutes and thirty-three seconds song, off Rock City’s album ‘Sagl’ – which means ‘put it on’ in the Gurune language – features Lil John and is produced by Bestbeatz. As its title suggests, the song is about beer and having a good time somewhere in Bongo. Of course, a Frafra song about beer is not new, Atongo Zimba is particularly famous for his hit song, ‘no beer in heaven’ made about two decades ago. In many ways, the people’s love of beer made Atongo’s enchanting song, a cherished background song or even sing-along tune in the pubs. Today, that same potent mix is being tapped into by a new generation of artistes who sing about beer, but to alert their audience to its dangers when consumed without measure.
Perhaps the strong reception of this new wave of artistes lies in their ability to creatively articulate everyday issues in a non-traditional musical form. Their youthful audience love rap and dance music, so Rock City and others are serving them just that plus didactic messages. If the temptation to dismiss a song about beer as hedonistic is reasonably curtailed, it is not difficult to realize that an important message underlies Rock City’s ‘beer’ song and it serves as a good invitation to assess the role of music in our society, especially in peripheral or non-mainstream areas on the Ghanaian music map.
The song begins with the artistes highlighting the fact that they are Bongo boys, “typical Bongo boys”. The emphasis on their Bongo roots is a matter of pride, and an attempt to showcase something else from Bongo beyond documentaries on poverty alleviation. The first verse in the song, given by Teers of Rock City talks about the effects of downing a whole bottle of beer “non-stop” and its attendant repercussions like hitting and wrestling with walls. This dreary picture is put in proper perspective by Mr Kurt’s verses. The first verse emphasized the fact that having fun is a good thing and people should be eager to have fun whether they be a “teacher, doctor or cobbler”.
The second verse, which Mr Kurt renders in Pidgin English, deserves some highlighting:
“This is Rock City Kurt, if you work hard you for get
Time to dey pop, but put for budget
This life is just too short to regret
Now thank God first, don’t forget
E be grace way e make you connect
If you hit aa, save on the cheque
But after the popping back to the work”
Kurt uses a riveting blend of Gurune and Pidgin English rap to drive home the place of hard work in becoming successful, and the need for a balance between having fun and being prudent at the same time. He stresses the need to chill on a budget, making savings on a pay cheque and being humble and thankful for success but more importantly, getting back to work after the fun.
The main market of these new acts are the Northern, Upper West and Upper East regions of Ghana. The Upper East Region in particular by some calculation, has the highest alcoholic consumption per capita in Ghana. That statistic is in line with a recent United Nations report that says the three regions are the poorest in Ghana. Although this article is not asserting a causal linkage between the two statistics, it generally accepts the view that high alcoholism especially among young people puts a dent on productivity, and could have adverse implications for parental responsibility. Spending meager incomes recklessly on alcohol and the associated dissipation of youthful energy due to alcoholism reinforce poverty by perpetuating illiteracy, ignorance, and disease.
Addressing these challenges, especially among young people of the Upper East Region, has been the focus of many religious, government and non-governmental efforts yet not much success has been recorded. Music like Rock City’s speak directly and artistically to these problems and have the potential to reshape social discourse and ultimately attitudes that possibly inhibit individual and social development. Rock City’s ‘beer’ is freshly packaged in frenzied lyricism and a grabbing chorus, and as part of a new wave of music holds a new potential. Given its acceptance rate, it could be the key to reaching several thousands of hearts and minds in a way policymakers, religious leaders and NGOs might not be able to.