It all started with a verse in a song, a question to which the questioner provides his own answer: “In Ghana, who’s the best now? Of course it’s me, goddamnit!”
Hip Life has been defined as the genre Reggie Rockstone created. With these words, however, Sarkodie declared himself the lion of his jungle on a scene that has been playing since Gyedu-Blay Ambolley. Like a bird, the Fante legend Gyedu-Blay Ambolley wove his nest around Simi, selling to the world a brand of music that was indigenously Ghanaian. Then came Reggie Rockstone with his Hip Hop experiences to rally the youth with Choo Boi; the telling of it, in the event that Choo Boi is a battle cry of one come to stay, draws parallels with the cuckoo bird. In the wild, the bird doesn’t raise its own young. It lets others take that burden by sneaking its egg into their nests. Doing such, it achieves two things: a foster parent for its young, and a firm grip on the competition.
For lovers of competition, and chaos, as Hip Hop lovers all are, this battle had been a long time coming. Sarkodie is the undisputed king of the Ghana music industry. He is the most celebrated and arguably the most popular. Since bursting onto the scene with Baby, his trajectory has been like a rocket with fire on its behind. Aside winning Album of the Year and Artist of the Year in Ghana, he won the Best International Act for Africa at the 2012 BET Awards. He made azonto an international dance the world over. He has achieved fame while rapping in Twi. Not English. Not French or Patois, but certainly with a healthy dose of Ghanaian Pidgin. Where he sits now, there are only stars around him.
“I’m stressed out,” he complains on the Bossy track, claiming his power over rhyme and the throne that comes with it. But there are people who would point to songs older than this, and then to the time when rapper-turned-pastor, Lord Kenya, sounded a word of advice to Sarkodie for bragging on his songs. In his defence, Lord Kenya’s days were spiced with rap on Hiplife rhythms. In Enyom No, the bald rapper is seen lying on his back with candles burning around him as if he is in some ungodly ritual. Cowries gleam from his neck as he tells us he is a boss with no flaws, and that “…what I do in a day will take you a month,” all the while his voice tuned up like a V8 engine revving up the highway. With him were other rappers in a genre of music that was romantic at its heart; you would hear Prodigal screaming on set in Nima that “The thing you no dey like, na ihn I dey like”; Buk Bak returned to sing of their love for women of all sizes. You would see Kwame Nkrumah sipping libation between the lines of the Rap Pastor though, and in Abrewa Nana, there was one of the first non-conformists who veered into a genre dominated by men.
Those years could be seen as the period of incubating the egg that the Hip Life genre was. Reggie’s rap was different from Ambolley’s, and rightly so; it was coated with hot sauce. Strangely enough, the common cuckoo spends summer in America and Europe before flying off to Africa for the cold wintery months. Having lived in the USA and the UK, Reggie might have been influenced by Rakim, and Grandfather Caz, and NWA. His influences had the distinct voice of Shakur and the heavy bars of his bigger adversary. No wonder his album was titled, Makaa Maka; like “Yeah, I said it, and what you gonna do about it?” Though not obvious in his songs, that brand of fire tells of a pauper’s rise to fame, of his defeat of poverty and the constricting arms of authority. People who had harsh words for the police wouldn’t blink a moment in saying, “Broke n****s wey dey perch we on credit.” A rapper is a braggart. He is an expert at verbal acrobatics, and Sarkodie performs his at the speed of a striking falcon. The words are filled with pride because he sees himself as the phoenix that has risen from the fire of destruction, of the projects, of the Nimas and Ashaiman, of Zongo and Kant!
Sarkodie represents the ordeal of the masses. His growth and successes are the dreams of majority of Ghanaians living in poverty. Seeing him perform on stages is, for them, a truth that hardwork will pay off. They can hear the screams of his struggles in the flow of his music. If rap is emotions, Sarkodie is rap; there is no truth verier than he.
The Fast Rapper saying he is the best is just a living testimony of the evolution of the Ghanaian rapper, and the reply he has received is merely consequential, as a man who draws his sword on a battlefield is bound to see another sword ripple across his face, silvery and bloody.
But like they say, rap is all about the lyrics. A musician’s respect in the genre is as much a function of the words as it is of the way they are placed across trebles and clefs. It is why people like Okyeame Kwame and Obrafour have been revered all this while for their maturity with words. And it is exactly why many believe M.anifest is right in claiming godship in that department with his godMC track. If Sark is the rampaging lion, Mani is the tiger, shy, lurking in the shadows of a wet jungle, with eyes wicked and stern; never turn your back on a tiger, they caution.
Son to a celebrated lawyer-politician and grandson to an Ethnomusicologist, the Madina-based rapper has been described as deep and philosophical. Those who admire his style point to his pride for the African identity; he is America-educated and wears African beads at his neck in place of gold chains. His very name has a deeper meaning: Music Always Needing Illumination For Every Soul Today. Similar themes could be sampled from The top ten songs by M.anifest. He has fused Africa into his Hip Hop in ways that should remind one of the birth of Hip Life two decades ago when the Grand Papa tampered a wild beat and created soft, body-gyrating sounds. His colours are diverse; his lingo is “Pidgin and bastardized,” he screams, “Makaa Maka, Pae Mu Ka,” and speaks of Hip Hop ethos and his origins in Ghana.
He is the sort of rapper who would say his song was “inspired and provoked by Ghana,” rather than, “you know, it is things we see around us,” or “I’m talking real sh*t, you feel me?” His lyrics put him across as an intellectual; the very process of creating song inspires him. “Art may not feed us but to be young, restless and creative is still a joy,” he declares on a piece published on Guardian, a very English news outlet. If rap is lyrics, M.anifest is rap; there is no truth verier than he.
It is for the same reason that he draws fans that he loses others. As Gabriel Myers puts it, “… he’s the kind of rapper who will use such verbs as “juxtapose” and adjectives like “atrocious” in a simple song.” Since the release of Manifestations in 2007, the son of Tsatsu Tsikata has grown feather after bright feather. The Ghanaian rapper has been awarded best rapper in Ghana, best songwriter by City Pages, and been declared “the foremost on the continent” by Guardian in 2015.
In the parable of the cuckoo, it is eerily classic that Manifest would win Hip Hop song of the year with Makaa Makaa, the title to the album that birthed Hip Life. When the cuckoo chick hatches, it sets out immediately to maintain its dominance by getting rid of the competition. The sheer determination the minutes-old chick exudes when it stands on feeble legs to shoulder out the remaining eggs is spine-tickling. Even if they have hatched, the cuckoo has no love for its foster brothers. It carries them on its pink back and shoves them out of their home, toppling them many feet down to their death, like a mafia boss with no chill! By killing off its competition, the cuckoo secures all the food from the brooding mother and grows from strength to strength, much like Hip Life eclipsed High Life as Ghana’s number one music genre.
By its very nature, rap is confrontational. “Respect is built on battle,” Ice-T confesses in the Art of Rap. It is like having the ball at your feet; by that very fact rather than any acrimony or ill intentions, it invites accosting. And if you have the habit of dancing around your opponent like Sark weaves his lyrics, on the fast lane, you are bound to be tackled, hard.
Picture taken from George Britton
Note: This was first published on my old blog, Ghana Motifs.