Care is a New Cool: Arts, Politics & Empathy in an Another Accra

Non-Fiction by Kobina Ankomah-Graham

A Tale of a Few Cities

Visitors to Accra might think they are simply visiting Ghana’s capital city when, in fact, they are visiting several: myriad realities occupying a single space and time. Party Accra emerges from Holy Accra’s ranks the moment the latter is done praying for Hustler Accra to be blessed with prosperous opportunity. International NGO Accra claims it only has eyes for Poor Accra, but it spends its spare time wildly flirting with Expat Accra and Returnee Accra, the latter of which brings it into contact with Elite Accra: renowned (deservedly or not) throughout all the Accras for its exclusivity and alleged indifference towards all but itself.

Unknown to most exists yet another Accra: a reality in which a growing number of Ghanaian creatives under the age of forty connect and try to thrive in the face of parental disapproval, state lip service and corporations who would imagine it a place where failures die in search of the drug called Exposure. Just as Harlem had its renaissance, this Accra is in the process of intellectual, social and artistic upheaval and this movement has national implications.

While contemporary, this Accra is not popular. It is not the voice of Ghana’s youth, although it quietly influences that voice. It is not situated in any one place or set of institutions. Some of its participants are educated in buildings; others under trees, in the streets, or through whatever they scrap from books or the internet. Their creativity is forced to survive their education: not surprising in a place where parents feel obligated to send their young to study anything but what inspires them, unless what inspires them is the making of money. The patchwork of individuals and collectives who occupy this version of Accra exist in the in-between. They balance respectable day jobs with side hustles out of which they carve dreams into reality.

To label this Accra underground would be reductive: its participants embrace and partake in popular Ghanaian culture. They just want more than what it gives them. So, they push in all other directions: mining the past to resurrect discarded ideas and artists, while devouring global culture; high and low, popular or not; questioning and mangling it all to fit into their lives. The descendants of ancestors for whom art was too alive to just hang on walls, they use what they have and are as likely to exhibit their work in galleries as they are online or in unused buildings. Their interactions spill from the digital into actual events, friendships and community. They create language, music, film, theatre, fashion, photography, digital artwork and anything else that pushes the culture’s outer limits. And while in pursuit of it, they are not solely beholden to money. Within their reality, mutual respect and a desire to see each other succeed are currencies as important as anything printed at the national bank. They take Freedom – the first of three words adorning Ghana’s coat of arms – at face value.

This is my Accra and I am surprised by how hidden it remains to most Ghanaians. It is an Accra whose stories I started curating over a decade ago as the editor of the short-lived DUST magazine. It is the Accra in which I once balanced lecturing by day and being a DJ by night, amplifying its songs and stories over our airwaves. It is populated by Ghanaians who try to feed the national imagination; who genuinely believe that art can change society; that their creative work contributes to the articulation of what Ghana is and the creation of what it can yet be. Their work shows reflection on such social issues as mental health, poverty, gender equality, sexual violence, the environment, and body politics in a manner relatively rare within the mainstream. That these threads run through their output reflects the return of a kind of social empathy: a sense of care that pushes past class and familiar social circles.


Highlife to Low Lives

Such empathy was once the norm. Independence-era Ghana was a time and place where we all believed so unquestionably in our ability to take care of ourselves (and each other) that we agitated for, fought, and won the freedom to do so on our own terms. It is no coincidence that the music we made in that period was called Highlife. More than being just aspirational, it was the soundtrack to the ‘Can-Do’ Ghana of the late Fifties and Sixties: the Ghana in which our self-belief soared to Icarus-like heights.

But we soon fell to a decade of successive coups, food and fuel shortages, and a two-and-a-half-year curfew that decimated the arts, triggering an exodus of artists abroad, back to rural Ghana or into the church. Parents became horrified at the prospect of their children working in the arts. Those who could afford to leave – left, while everyone else did what they could to isolate themselves from the failure and rot around them. The empathy some once felt for people they did not personally know – the likes of “the youth, the farmers, the women…” that Nkrumah thanked in his Independence Day speech – was replaced by apathy. Unable to keep up with the high cost of caring, the fittest survived by shrinking their circles to include only family and friends: each man for himself and gods we no longer saw in the faces of strangers left to fend for everyone else.

Much has been written of those dark days; less of the traumatic toll its violence left on the soul of the people. Attempting to define Ghanaian-ness in a piece I wrote for DUST, I once asked a panel of non- Ghanaian Africans what they most associated with Ghanaians. Apart from azonto, football, cocoa and Kente cloth (each a product of Ghanaian art and culture) was the sentiment that “Ghanaians think they invented politics.” This stood in such contrast to the disdain for politics and politicians alike that I heard on so many radio shows; or to the two or so hands that would go up in my Social Theory class whenever I asked if any of my students were interested in politics. I recall the state of tension during our last few elections; all the people who suddenly flew their families abroad; the random text messages I received warning me that everything was about to burn; the terror that met my decision to attend the Occupy Flagstaff march in 2014 from friends too young to have experienced the military’s crackdowns on popular protest. Whatever lessons our parents and grandparents learned in the Seventies and Eighties about the consequences of caring too much, still linger in our collective memory.


Democracy’s Children

As we approach 2020, we are entering new territory: a global shift in which young people (with access to more information than anyone before them) are learning and questioning things their parents accepted as truth. A Ghanaian born in 1992 – the birth year of the nation’s Fourth Republic – is now in their mid-twenties; young enough to have only experienced five back-to-back democratic administrations, including three transfers of power between the nation’s two main political parties. They are members of one of the largest demographics of Ghanaians alive: its majority youth.

Entrenched democracy does not however mean that everything is golden. Hardly: political power remains the plaything of Ghana’s over-60s and much must still change in modern Ghana before any government can claim to have fulfilled the nation’s promise to its citizens of Freedom and Justice. Yet the combination of those continued problems with relative democratic stability appears to have been fertile ground, not just for a resurgence in Accra’s arts and nightlife but for a mushrooming creative counterculture, laden with so many events that they clash almost weekly where they used to struggle. While it coincides with flashes in the mainstream, it is within this countercultural space that the idea of community and caring about issues that affect broader society shines so bright that one could take almost any artist and follow a connecting thread to others whose art engages sociopolitics, challenging (or altogether bypassing) colonially-inherited structures and concerns.


A Counterculture Thread

This is, for example, visible in the work of the 2016 winner of the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Art, Bright Ackwerh, who uses digital art, painting, and illustration to cast a hyper-contextual satirical look at sociocultural and religious Ghana. Blurring the lines between high art and popular culture, the more one engages with the latter (and the social media platforms where Ackwerh’s work is promoted and its controversies dissected), the more likely one is to understand his art.

Ackwerh featured in the video for Wo Nim Mi: a 2019 song by the FOKN Bois, a duo also known for their satire and social commentary, consisting of the artists M3nsa and Wanlov the Kubolor. Back in 2000, the rapper A-Plus built a reputation as one of the sole voices of the youth on social and political issues. Fifteen years later, Wanlov curated a 23-track ‘Corruption-Dumsor Mixtape’ with over twenty different artists. That Wanlov was able to gather that much rebel music was in no small part due to the extent of his own commitment to community, going out of his way to regularly support upcoming artists by attending their shows, producing and featuring on their songs, and directing their videos.

In 2017, Wanlov acted in The Seamstress of St. Francis Street, a play around sexual assault by the activist troupe, Drama Queens, who “… tell the varying stories of… black women on the continent and in the diaspora through edgy, modern plays.” It took place at Terra Alta, the event space run by Elisabeth Sutherland of the Accra Theatre Workshop (atw), which provides opportunities for artists at different stages of their careers to train, experiment, perform and support each other. Sutherland has in turn worked with the musician/visual artist, Worlasi whose distinctive voice allows him to switch between some of the most meaningful raps in English and in his Ewe mother tongue to singing hooks for artists ranging from the popular m.anifest (another artist who somehow straddles both culture and counterculture) to the lesser-known but critically-acclaimed artist, Akan.

Worlasi in 2017, discouraged his fans from voting by SMS for him to win popular awards (as has become the profitable norm), suggesting that their money would be better spent attending his shows. He featured the writer, poet, visual artist and all-round supercreative, Poetra Asantewa, on his 2018 track, Chaskele. Asantewa cut her teeth as a young artist at the monthly Ehalakhasa spoken word poetry events hosted at the Nubuke Foundation: one of Accra’s most established (and yet somehow hidden) art and cultural centres. After attending Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s annual Farafina Writing Workshop(2016), she later started Black Girls Glow (bgg): an annual residency within which young women artists are mentored to create content not beholden to the boundaries imposed on them by Ghana’s male-dominated arts scene. With its focus on mentorship and community-building, bgg bridges gaps between upcoming performers, poets and producers, and relatively more established names like the singers Ria Boss, Cina Soul and Adomaa. In doing so, Black Girls Glow exemplifies the sense of care and community that increasingly defines the counterculture and gives it part of its cool.

Asantewa collaborated with the visual artist, Serge Attukwei Clottey, on Hey Woman: an installation exploring perceptions of feminism among Ghanaian men and women. Clottey (whose ‘Kusum Gboo Ga’ installation is housed in Facebook’s Los Angeles Headquarters) uses yellow water containers to explore material culture. In 2018, he paved an entire community with patches from 3000 such gallons to form a yellow plastic road, as commentary on property rights of the people of La who helped him put the tapestry together over a two-year period.

I could continue this game of one degree of separation until I exhaust all the talented individuals, collectives, events and spaces loosely gathered around this counterculture, as well as many more with whom they cross-pollinate both internationally and in the Ghanaian mainstream.


Digital Analogues

Employing the services of an impressive cross-Atlantic Ghanaian creative team, the electronics giant Apple commissioned a video documenting an Accra-based, hip-hop centred recreation of Art Kane’s classic 1958 photograph, A Great Day in Harlem. It featured three generations of Ghanaian musicians ranging from highlife legend, Gyedu Blay Ambolley to prominent counterculture artists like La Meme Gang and the earlier-mentioned Akan, being photographed in front of Accra’s iconic Independence Arch. The project’s talented curator, Prince Gyesi, pointed out that “In Ghana, most people don’t document the culture.” There is however a growing corps doing exactly that, including the likes of Harmattan Rain, Cul Art Blog, Dandano, New Dawn (the Nubuke website) and ANO. However, Ghana’s rising profile in a world in which Africa is now fashionable sometimes fails to result in bigger platforms and opportunities for these writers.

Owning no conventional mass media through which to promote themselves, Accra’s counterculturists are adept at harnessing the freedom of the worldwide web, establishing such a strong presence there that someone looking at Ghana through its online media might be mistaken for thinking that counterculture dominates Ghanaian popular culture. Where there were less than a handful of non- religious podcasts as recently as 2016 for example, one can now count almost thirty home-grown podcasts and counting, including two networks – Accra We Dey and The Gold Coast Report – under which several podcasts exist. Describing themselves with words like new generation, progressive, and opinionated, they reach hundreds of listeners (hundreds of thousands in the case of the networks), not just in Ghana but the world over.

Some argue that this does not affect the mass of Ghanaians, most of whom remain offline. But ours is a country where the lines between the analogue and digital regularly blur. I first saw this in 2011 when two politicians challenged Ghana’s President at the time – the late John Evans Atta Mills – for leadership of what is now our main opposition party. One of the two ticked all the boxes of classic campaigning: bringing busloads of supporters in T-shirts bearing her face to a much-publicized rally covered by all the media houses. The other did something strange. Capitalizing on the fact that everyone knew he wanted to run, he left a message on his Facebook page specifying the date and time that he would make an announcement. A journalist in Ghana’s most popular radio newsroom at the time, I will never forget how glued my colleagues were to Facebook that day, at that precise time. He made his digital announcement, which was promptly broadcasted through our station and its many satellite stations to tens of thousands of listeners up and down the country – on the hour, every hour – at significantly less than the cost of blocking off streets and filling up buses. Both candidates went on to lose the challenge, but that is beside the point. Accra blurs the lines between analogue and digital as much as its inhabitants’ ancestors blurred those between the physical and spiritual. What happens online rarely stays there but rather tends to reflect offline realities.


The New Wave

People always knock millennials and Gen Zs, accusing them of betraying Africa and moving too far from tradition. Yet this is the generation for whom the natural hair of their ancestors is the new norm; the ones who wear the beads and anklets that their parents were programmed to associate with particularly African evils and who question why their parents always question African culture; the generation under whom locally-inspired food and fashion has exploded; the ones most likely to choose African music and film over Western. There is power in such things beyond mere aesthetics. Something is happening here.

The last time I asked my students to raise their hands if they were interested in politics, almost half the class did so. Some even said they were looking forward to voting in the next general election having been too young to do so in the last one; an election that saw all the cool kids post pictures of their ink- smudged voting thumbs on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. Entrenched democracy does not mean that everything is golden. But – again – something is happening here. I recently showed a workshop of secondary school students a meme ridiculing the perennial African parental fear of their children choosing careers in the arts.

It made me smile when most of them could not relate.

Kobby Ankomah-Graham is an Accra-based academic, writer and DJ who is passionately curious about African counterculture, arts, and digital media.

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