Sarkodie and the politics for ‘freedom-making’

Hiplife artist Sarkodie has proposed that what Ghana needs is a dictatorship. This is not inconsistent with his politics, rooted in promoting male success and a patriarchal vision of liberation.

Image credit Nii Kotei Nikoi.

Sarkodie is arguably one of the most successful Ghanaian musicians of his generation. Employing braggadocio, Sarkodie displays his musical and economic success in his self-fashioning, songs and music videos. He has won numerous awards both locally, on the continent and internationally. In 2017, he was ranked number 9 in Forbes’ list of the top 10 most bankable African artists because of his brand value, endorsements, social media presence, earnings, bookings and popularity.  But it is how his astute entrepreneurial sense aligns with the state’s imperatives to produce entrepreneurial citizens, which makes him such an important cultural-political figure in Ghana and beyond.

Sarkodie has become a model, particularly for young men, for how to successfully navigate socio-economic terrains to attain economic well-being. He even proffers investment advice, cautioning them against frivolous lifestyles such as conspicuous consumption, as well as encouraging them to invest in their future financial security. (In this, he parrots his role model Jay Z.)

Image credit Nii Kotei Nikoi.

Recently—in a series of tweets in December, 2018—Sarkodie broadly touched on unequal global media exchangeblack inferiorityyouth agency and African liberation. He then appeared to offer one solution to all these ills: He tweeted, “What we need at this point might seem like dictatorship and will feel uncomfortable since we have enjoyed temporal freedom for a minute but we need drastic measures to survive.”

This may appear ironic coming from somebody whose profession is built on the freedom of speech that many Ghanaians risked their lives and safety to secure. Yet, this sentiment is not uncommon amongst various segments of Ghana’s population, especially among young folks. Just listen to the radio in Accra and you will hear people claiming Ghanaians are undisciplined, and that we need a “strongman” (it’s always gendered that way too) to discipline us. At times, some folks have suggested that Nkrumah rushed independence and perhaps under British colonialism we could have become a developed nation. Generally, these sentiments echo racist colonial ideas about how Africans are incapable of handling their own affairs. These ideas blame all the country’s problems on its internal happenings.

But these problematic ideas also express several complex sentiments among Ghanaians. Within these ideas are incomplete answers to why Ghana’s independence and democracy have not led to the promises of development. Since the return of democracy in 1992, the two major political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and New Patriotic Party (NPP), have simply captured the state. Ideologically, both parties uphold the neoliberal assumptions about private sector led development. The consequences of this captured duopolistic liberal democracy have been an ever-diminishing set of possibilities for many young people. And this has engendered a creeping fatalism, which appears to reinforce the idea that things will forever remain the same.

Image credit Nii Kotei Nikoi.

In 2016, according to the World Bank, youth (between 15-24) unemployment in Ghana stood at 48 per cent. For many young people, democracy under this two-party system has failed to improve their conditions. They are caught in what Alcinda Honwana calls “waithood,” which she describes as the “prolonged period of suspension between childhood and adulthood.” Increasingly, it has become difficult for young Ghanaians to acquire markers of adulthood. For instance, moving out of their parents’ home is an expensive endeavor as potential tenants are required to cough up 2 to 5 years rent advance. In addition, for many young people it feels like their voices do not matter. Recently, this was evident during the students protests in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Afiba Harrison, a student, offered the most insightful analysis on the matter: “We’ve shifted focus from that fact that in this country the system does not allow for discourse. What the system … listens to is violence … In the 21st century, if students had to resort to violence to actually get the authorities’ attention, the whole nation’s attention, the media, you and everybody else talking about this issue, then there is a problem. The problem is not about the students. The problem is the system.”

Strikingly, this latest youth uprising was not enough to push a national conversation on youth and gerontocracy. No national forum was organized to listen to the concerns of young people. After the protests were milked for their news value by the media, the unhearing returned.

Image credit Nii Kotei Nikoi.

As such, folks like Sarkodie, now empowered by turning their musical talent into economic success have become prominent voices in an urbanity that unhears its youth. The platform he commands allows him to echo the imperatives of the society while presumably challenging the status quo. In fact, by merely being a successful creative artist he has become a successful model to young folks. His commercialized aesthetic reveals aspirations to live the good life, like most economically oppressed young Ghanaians. Yet, Sarkodie offers liberation through a narrow notion of securing male economic well-being, mostly at the individual level. In his song “Black Excellence” he substitutes Steve Jobs and Warren buffet for Martin Luther King Jr., conflating the struggle to attain material wealth with the struggle to attain freedom and dignity against patriarchal capitalist exploitation. (Moshood had an excellent analysis of the anti-black ideas within the song, on Africa is a Country.)

Yet, like Sarkodie, hiplife has come to represent possibility, often for young men. It’s agentic affordances are gendered, women in this male dominated genre are often unable to thrive because hiplife refuses to recognize their talent and insists that their success is tied to their bodies and commodified performances of hypersexuality. Nonetheless, the possibilities reside in the relative creative freedom it offers young folks to explore their histories, lived experiences and bodies. It has made legible the strategies to recuperate/recreate narratives of freedom that place the ‘wretched of the Earth” at the center. It is here that young folks can produce vocabularies that imagine and construct worlds that enable all to thrive.

Image credit Nii Kotei Nikoi.


Further Reading