Sunday, October 17

‘It has our energy, our story’: asakaa, the vibrant rap scene in Ghana | Rap

TOHead of a music video shoot on a tree-lined street in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city, Yaw Tog and his friends rest on a sidewalk. Passersby approach the teenage star to take pictures. “Fame is crazy, it came almost overnight,” he says. “I am proud because I had a vision of what I wanted to do and I did it. Now we are here.”

A year ago, the 18-year-old could move between classes relatively unnoticed on his high school campus, but his slim, unassuming figure is now impossible to hide. Yaw Tog, who is currently finishing his exams, is one of the most popular MCs to emerge from the city’s burgeoning asakaa scene – a Ghanaian take on the rap subgenre that has won the city’s young artists thousands of fans on all the world.

Drill, a style that combines massive bass notes with agile percussion, topped off with combative flows, evolved from rap scenes in the US and grime in London. It has exploded in Ghana for the past 18 months, an underground sound now installed alongside mainstream Afrobeats and pop on the country’s music charts, and attracting guest verses from UK stars like Stormzy. The hit songs adhere closely to the now mainstream UK sound, but bear the imprint of the Chicago and New York drill, throbbing with dark and brooding stories of a bleak reality in the poorer Kumasi communities.

In person, Yaw is cuddly and tame, but on a video set, and on the mic in his tracks, he seems to be slipping into an alter-ego. With confidence and controlled aggression, he shapes his hand into the shape of a pistol and takes aim at the camera, delivering lyrics about street life in Kumasi.

In August 2020, Yaw released his single Sore, which means “to get up” in Twi, the most common indigenous language. Most popularized by a remix with Stormzy (“Like a Big Brother,” says Yaw) Sore is an arrogant statement track with an organic, spontaneous feel, and abrasive lyrics that switch between Twi and English, delivered by Yaw and an artist arrangement. asakaa. It went viral in Ghana and is now the ringtone on his mother’s phone. “She doesn’t let me play with the school, so I make music mostly on the weekends,” he says. But she is definitely proud of me. She shows her friends my songs, my videos. It’s a nice feeling to make her happy. “

Other asakaa tracks, such as Jay Bahd’s Condemn, Kofi Jamar’s Ekorso (featuring Yaw Tog), and Smallgod’s Sinner, featuring British-Ghanaian rapper Headie One, have had millions of YouTube views and significant radio play in Ghana, whose music industry it was slow. to embrace the genre, but now he has embraced it cautiously.

Yaw Tog.
‘Asakaa is from Kumasi – he has our energy, our history’ … Yaw Tog. Photography: Kwame Afrika

Many of the videos offer a lens to a powerful American-inspired subculture that has come to life in Kumasi in recent years, further amplified by the Asakaa movement, which reinvents the city with American culture and gang life. Yaw and many in the video brandish red scarves, partly inspired by the Bloods gang of Los Angeles, and Kumasi is hailed as “Kumerika,” with other districts renamed to reflect American cities. Its Kumasi flag incorporates the stars and stripes of the United States flag. The lasting influence of Pop Smoke, the Brooklyn rapper and face of the American drill who was killed last year, runs through asakaa. His grunts are inserted into the adlibs, artists like Jay Bahd sometimes channeling his cadence, while others perform the “woo walk” dance that he popularized.

Yaw recognizes the influence of the United States, “but at the same time it is ours,” he says. “The music is from Kumasi, it has our energy, our history.” Another artist, Don Elvi, intervenes: “It is our hallmark in culture.” The parallel world of Kumerika uses the US as an imaginative prop, but feels rooted in Kumasi, serving as a signature of its sonic and cultural identity, and as a fun escape from its own reality.

TOAt the other end of a road that winds up along the red soil, past several open and unfinished concrete houses, shanty tents, and crop plots, 22-year-old rapper O’Kenneth and a large A group of artists and producers get to work on their music in a large hilltop venue overlooking the sprawling Kumasi landscape. This is the “trap house,” another slang in American culture, which means a place used to prepare and sell drugs. “This is where we do everything, everything is internal,” says O’Kenneth, smiling.

Since then, drilling artists have sprung up in Ghana’s capital, Accra, although those from Kumasi seem a bit dismissive of them. “As an artist, you used to have to go to Accra to do it,” says O’Kenneth. “But we are showing that you can do it from here and bring us the rumor.”

Accra’s pace of development has enabled the government to project Ghana’s desired image to the world: a rising nation and a magnet for foreign investment and tourism. Officially called the “year of return,” 2019 marked 400 years since the first African slaves arrived in the US with cultural events that encouraged Ghanaians around the world to forge strong ties to their homeland. The country has positioned itself as an attractive landing place for African Americans and the black middle classes in the West looking to relocate to the continent.

However, much of Ghana’s second city, located in the heart of the ancient Ashanti kingdom, feels noticeably less developed. A blend of Kumasi’s identity as a proud city with a rich cultural and musical history, the prevalence of poverty, and a pervasive sense of anger towards the country’s ruling elite make Kumasi the perfect place for Drill’s discontent. “In fact, we have fallen behind,” says O’Kenneth. “People feel that negligence on the part of the government. But still, that’s why people really screw us, ”in other words, why young people love their music and show them respect. “They want to put us on the map.”

The drill boom has brought criticism that mirrors those directed at the genre in the UK, that the lyrics are a particularly vivid portrayal of violence, to the point of glorifying and inciting it. “It’s ignorance,” O’Kenneth says of such reactions. “There has been crime here long before, all we are doing is showing our reality and experience.”

While the exercise has matured in the UK, with the genre’s first number one single and Headie One topping the album charts and performing at the Brit Awards, in Kumasi it’s still taking off. An asakaa tour of Europe is planned, starting in Amsterdam, and new collaborations are also in the works.

Instagram videos posted from Stormzy’s birthday party in late July showed guests excited as they rapped Condemn’s lyrics, featuring O’Kenneth. Yaw, on his first trip to London, was present alongside Stormzy, marking Ghanaian drilling tracks. “Much [UK] artists have shown love. Pa Salieu, BackRoad Gee, many artists. There is sure to be a lot to come, ”says Yaw.

Time, his follow-up to Sore, did well on the Ghanaian streaming charts and is working on a new album. Dealing with fame has been a process for this self-proclaimed introvert who can no longer blend into the background.

“Everything has happened very fast,” he says. “I have had to adapt, change some things in my life, I can no longer go to the same places, because they surround me, even if everything is love. But I’m really blessed, I think it’s just the beginning. “

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