If you spend a few days in Ghana, you'll hear mostly upbeat dance music. On the radio, at bars or in clubs. It might lead you to believe that all popular music in Ghana is music to dance to. At least I thought so. But a couple of weeks ago I had a realization. Not one induced by the many churches sprouting on every corner here. This realization was purely musical—I went to a big show, featuring a dozen or so artists, many of the usual top dogs, but also, some rappers. Nothing that unusual so far, except the hundreds of kids around me went CRAZY when the rappers got on stage, rapping along to every single hook and verse. Hip hop is massive in Ghana, but it's still very much underground. Kids may know the words to the songs, but the songs still don't play on the radio.
So how do you get people to know your song without being played on the radio in Ghana? I'm not here to write a full analysis, so let's just say there is a lot of MP3 swapping over bluetooth phones, and there are a LOT of ciphers and battles among high school students.
Hip hop in English started in Ghana around 1990, until the mid 1990s when Reggie Rockstone started rapping in twi. Fast forward again to Wanlov and Lil Shaker, who pioneered Ghanaian pidgin rap in the mid 2000s. What I find exciting about pidgin rap is that it can be understood by a broad English speaking audience, but it retains a distinctly Ghanaian feel. Best of both worlds.
Enter Kay-Ara. He only graduated from high school two years ago, but he's been rhyming as far as he can remember. First listening to his older brother's Nas or Tupac tapes. then switching over to Reggie Rockstone and other twi rappers. Finally, inspired by pidgin rappers, he began laying down verses daily. Now he performs along with Wanlov and Shaker them. Tomorrow, he heads to Koforidua for a show with Yaa Pono and Wanlov. You won't hear Yaa Pono on the radio much, but his freestyle videos have been going around a lot.
Download: Kay-Ara f. Lil Shake and Yaa Pono, "Me Dough"
"Me Dough" is the first single off of Kay-Ara's upcoming debut album. The chorus goes me ko gye me dough, or I'm going to get my money in twi. Kay-Ara tells me: "When I heard the beat, with the Ambolley highlife sample and the big bassline, I thought, Ok, people will dance to this." Then he adds, "so let's add a message that everyone can relate to and remember." Kay says the song is not just about money but about respect, as much about collecting your money as it is collecting your dues. Kay-Ara also recently dropped a mixtape, featuring mostly original tracks. Download it here.
What do you think? If you like this stuff, I'm thinking of putting together a compilation of pidgin rap, and some pidgin rap EPs and full lengths after that. Got beats? Holler at me!