Pae mu ka @ 20: A Sound of our time

In the early nineties, political liberalization and the gradual restoration of freedom in Ghana led to the revival of a dormant music landscape. Young artistes were drawing inspiration from American Hip Hop icons like Tupac, and Naughty by Nature. Mahoney P, arguably produced the first Twi rap record in his Gang Amsterdam in 1994. This was soon followed by Reggie Rockstone—who coined the term hip-life as a bridge between hip-hop and highlife. 

About half a decade in, hip-life lacked a distinct form and character. Fortunately, It was around this time that one of hiplife’s most astute progenitor, Obrafour (Michael Elliot Kwabena Okyere Darko) emerged with Pae Mu Ka in 1999. What Pae Mu Ka did was to provide a soul and give life to that genre in a more meaningful way. Few new artists hit the music scene with so much certainty of their place both in the immediate and long term. Yet this is the most striking thing about Obrafour’s emergence. Pae mu ka opens with the rapper coming through amidst royal appellations. With vocal grace and kingly authority, he announces his presence and assumes the mantle of kasahare (rap – or in literal terms, fast speech), prophetically saying so in Twi “Obrafour, ma som”.

Pae mu ka is Hip-life’s Illmatic

Obrafour’s entry into the music scene in 1999 bears very striking resemblances with the rapper Nas who had five years prior made a similar impression on the rap scene in America.

Like Illmatic and Nas in American HipHop, Pae Mu Ka and Obrafour occupy a similar spot as both the album and artist that changed the paradigm of rap music.

Incidentally, both artistes were about 20 years old when the albums came out and both albums, as their first albums, have endured as the best records of their careers. The two rappers also share a similar disposition—beyond waxing poetic—the rappers place authenticity over trendiness, reality over frivolity and are able to give potent voice to the social, economic and cultural issues of their day.

Professor Adilifu Nama of California State University Northridge writes that with Illmatic, hip-hop witnessed the birth of an urban griot telling hard-boiled tales of ghetto alienation and triumph like a spoken-word of a Chester Himes novel. Where Illmatic explored themes like Prison, crime and drugs in America, Pae Mu Ka explored the daily indignities of the downtrodden in Ghanaian society, the pangs of poverty, pain and gain, faith and loss and the gnawing dream of greener pastures beyond the shores of Ghana.

Pae mu ka was new music, but its setting —Chorkor to Odorkor, Mataheko to Dansoman all the way to Agege – gave it poignancy and together with its themes, it had a familiarity in 1999 that was simultaneously therapeutic and inspiring. In many ways, Pae mu ka is hip-life’s Illmatic.

The legacy of pae mu ka

Pae mu ka is a ten track (an intro and outro and eight tracks), 47 minutes album starring Obrafuor and five rappers Alhaji FleshAyewaCy LoverDoctor Poh, and Funky Functure with Ajoa singing choruses. In ‘Mamendwen meho’ all the rappers on the album revealed its cosmopolitan nature, from crisp English lines to authentic bars in Hausa, Ga and Twi. The statement here was possibly that rap does not have to be in American accents alone, but it does not have to be in Twi alone either.

It also had pacesetting sound engineering by Edward Osei (Hammer) and Yaw Anoff together known as Slim and Deep (The Last Two). The albums revolutionary sounds range from free flowing urban groove beats in Agro no Aso and in Konkonsa. Here, hip-life’s roots in highlife is on display helping to wrap into one album the past and future of Ghanaian popular music. As a time capsule, pae mu ka, relives 1999 with reminders such as the ‘Sika Card’ (Ghana’s first steps towards cashless transactions), Bill Clinton’s troubles over Monica Lewinsky, Bantama kakro, ‘Madam Catherine’—the 90s’ famous blood tonic sold on wheels and in particular, Cy Lover’s shout out to “Mr. JJ Rawlings in his residence” reminds us that there was a time not much was done in Ghana without the former strongman.

Obrafour’s usage of the story-telling style, common in the highlife genre and African folk music in general, in delivering many of his rap lines and choruses improved coherence and relatability in the genre. In so doing, Pae mu ka redefined hip-Life for good. Artistes like Okra Tom Dawid, Kwaw Kesse, Sarkodie, E.L and Pappy Kojo all drew inspiration from pae mu ka. Sarkodie in particular was emphatic in the song Saa Okodie no – featuring Obrafuor – on his Rapperholic album, that “pae mu ka be the best of all time”.

Obrafour’s Legacy

Obrafour also has a distinct traditional and linguistic legacy. Beginning with his stage name, Obrafour (the executioner), a borrowing of an imagery from the palace court in Akan tradition. The Obrafour protects the palace and also exterminates society’s bad elements. In the rap culture, Obrafour could also mean he would likely “murder” his opponents—thus his lyrical capability is unparalleled. Obrafour also sported, a short, scattered dread—a perfect portrayal of an Obrafour. The self-styled rap sofo (rap priest) is a unique artist. Where most rappers bask in braggadocio, exuberance and excess, Obrafour is remarkably austere yet shrewd in articulating the mores and sensibilities of Ghanaian society as a rapper, endearing him to multiple music constituencies, even those who questioned hip life’s bona fides as authentic Ghanaian music.

Obrafour was born in Kwahu to a chorister Mother who ensured his son read fluently the Asante-Twi bible and emphasized the need to be very articulate in the indigenous language. Michael Elliot Kwabena Okyere Darko (Obrafour) has noted that his mum often would listen to how he argued his way out on issues in school and correct him in his delivery and presentations. The aim was to be an eminent litigant in the law courts, but when fate landed him in the studio boot, his delivery on the bars and rhythms made him no less distinguished.

Obrafour poses as a towering linguistic giant and traditional sage—he would begin Pae Mu ka’s intro by clearing his throat, a signature that was too common with wise old men at the point of offering a critical advice or making a distinct contribution to a discourse. Obour does this a lot too. Obrafour sustains his linguistic capacity and traditional roots throughout the album, and in ‘Kwame Nkrumah’ he makes it perceptible in the chorus when he invokes the traditional religion style of prayer through libation  and calling on Tweaduapong Kwame (God), Asaase Yaa (mother earth) and the ancestors to come for drink. In effect, Obrafour shifts hip-life from the influence of the hip pop with regards to language and makes it Ghanaian. He makes it traditional and makes it relevant and relatable.

By: Kwaku Krobea Asante & Victor Azure

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