Power against Power in Ghana
Art – especially music – occupies a double-edged place in Ghanaian history in its relation to power.
Jesus is coming. Jesus is here. Jesus is killed by local preachers worried about the drastic downturn in business. His arrival portends for their collection of tithes and offerings. The music video from 2012 for the eponymous Ghanaian band, Fokn Bois, unlike much of their other work unwinds at a slow tempo.
Multiple narratives – the dialogue in the music, the dialogue of the character in the videos, a refrain of a woman praying and an overlay of biblical quotes – hold up the question of supernatural intervention and its opposing existential: how much are we humans down here responsible for? Such an inquiry is not alien in one of the world’s most religious countries. In 2017, the questioning of all modes of power through artistic work, is almost commonplace in Ghana. It coincides with a flourishing of unorthodox art and artists.
In her documentary, Accra Power, Austrian director Sandra Krampelhuber chooses the poet Poetra Asantewa, fashion DJ Steloo, gospel scientist Edward Ohemeng Oware, dancer Hadassah Asare, musician Wanlov (one half of Fokn Bois), visual and performance artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, storyteller Mary Yaa Konadu and boxer Abigail Quartey to be our guides around the greater Accra area. Performances on front porches, in boxing gyms, art studios, and on live stages are interspersed with one-on-one interviews with the artists, in which power is examined: Spiritual power, electric power, physical power, mental power and Vim.
What, then, is power? “Power is a rhetorical question, a thick deep line with no meaning,” the poet Poetra Asantewaa proffers, her yellow jumper declaring “prose before hoes.” Poetra’s meditations on power, in poetic verse, pokes in and out throughout like a soundtrack to the documentary. The word power itself she tells us “is a paradox because it can represent something very good and it can represent something very bad at the same time.”
Art too – especially music – occupies a double-edged place in Ghanaian history in its relation to power. In the 1930s the blending together of the colonial waltzes and polka sounds played by the military brass bands, the Caribbean take on this (introduced to Ghana by West Indian colonial troops) and indigenous sounds would birth Ghanaian Highlife. At that moment, however, the music was played in concert halls and ballrooms, to English lyrics, catering to the upper echelon of colonial society. As the struggle for self-rule gained momentum in the 1950s, musicians caught the national fever. Musician E.K. Nyame transformed his set by merging a guitar band to what was previously a vaudeville act, creating the Akan Trio that sang in Twi. Many would follow the lead. Out with the English; in with the local, promoting Gold Coast nationalism.
Bands like ET Mensah and the Tempos, and the Axim Trio performed at Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) rallies, performing songs like “Nkrumah Will Never Die” and “Nkrumah Is a Mighty Man.” In turn, Nkrumah would fund arts and culture on a massive scale, as a show of national pride. The Arts Council of Ghana, whose mandate was to “protect, simulate and improve the nation’s cultural expression and limit foreign influence on music,” was put in place. This investment included sending artists abroad to widen their breadth of musical theory. Ebo Taylor, the recipient of a government scholarship, recounted finding himself in the company of Teddy Osei and the other members of what would become Osibisa (Ghana’s most internationally renowned musical act) upon arrival at the Eric Gilder School of Music in London.
The honeymoon period between musicians and those in power would end in the late 1960s as musicians found themselves in opposition to the government and expressing frustration at the political situation in fables and parables. As an essay in AccraDotAlt records of the time, EK Nyame’s “Nsuo Bɛto a, Frama Dzi Kan” (before it rains, the wind blows) was interpreted as an end-time omen for the Nkrumah regime. In the next government, Nana Kwame Ampadu’s “Ebi Te Yie” (Some Are Sitting Comfortably), ostensibly a song about the animal kingdom, was banned from the radio and the musician hauled in front of a military tribunal.
Now, as then, government action and inaction is the target of the music and the art. But the protagonists in “Accra Power,” press the sharp edge of their respective artistic mediums against the accepted sequence of quotidian life, as if to cut it open and move around its contents. The sharpening of these very artistic talents have come, unlike in the Nkrumah era, in the absence of state support. They have had to survive, much like the average Ghanaian, without consistent electrical power.
Even if art hasn’t affected power, power has affected art making. Steloo the fashion DJ, explains that uncertainty about the availability of power has made him more efficient in his music production in the few hours the lights are on; Wanlov says it is cheaper to travel to Europe and work for stretches of time, rather than try to fuel a generator for 24 hours a day.
On the surface of things, Serge Attukwei Clottey’s public performances escape the constraints of unreliable electrical power. His choice to espouse traditional images in an actively Christian country is bold. Being powerful, he says, means “understanding your inner power… and how you try to shine your power for people to see who you are.”
A more surgical observer will notice that the challenge of these artists, unlike their independence-era colleagues, is to produce where the raw materials are precisely a lack of power and empowerment. It is reflective of the miracle that most Ghanaians are able to keep up our famous liveliness and hospitality despite the economic hardship of the last decade.
- Accra Power has been selected for screening at the prestigious FESPACO Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which will take at the end of this month.