“My music is a middle finger to the Queen’s English”
Interview by Dshamilja Roshani | Amandla!Magazine Issue No. 55/56 | December 2017
He roams around barefoot, dresses in a wrap skirt and combines conscious lyrics with unique elements of Hiplife, Afrobeat, Rap and Romanian folk music. Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu, better known by his stage name Wanlov The Kubolor, is not only referred to as one of the most influential contemporary artist in Ghana, but mostly known for his social criticism and provocative statements.
Dshamilja Roshani: Wanlov, the all-knowing Wikipedia describes you as a “cultural icon”. But since you were born in Romania, raised in Ghana, lived for seven years in the US and travelled to places all over the world, shouldn’t people rather refer to you as a “transcultural icon”? What is your understanding of culture?
Wanlov: What is culture to me? I think cultures describe the rituals, behaviours and customs of a certain geographical size of people in a certain area for certain extended periods of time. Even though I know two different cultures quite well, the Romanian and Ghanaian, there are also other micro- and macro-cultures within Ghana – like the Ashanti culture, the Ga culture and many more. Cultures are not isolated. They are made up of other neighbouring cultures. They transform and develop. So, I guess describing me as a “cultural” person is fine because I think “transcultural” is a tautology.
DR: Do you think that physical manifestations of culture matters? You are conveying quite a lot of your cultural identity by the way you dress and appear in public – usually, you just wear a wrap skirt and roam around barefoot. What message are you expressing by doing that?
W: The way I dress just naturally happened. I began to wear a wrap cloth by chance on a laundry day, and because I felt more comfortable than wearing shorts and trousers and underwear, I just continued. Walking around barefooted started when I was staying for two years in Los Angeles where I was living by the ocean. But even earlier as a child, I didn’t have any affinity for shoes – when I was young, I used to hide my shoes and had to be forced to put on slippers. So, in a way it was just naturally more convenient to me.
I only found out later that some people in parts of West Africa traditionally dressed in a similar way back in the days. But I wasn’t influenced by these examples of cultural representation, and I don’t really expect to influence others. I rather hoped to influence others with my words than with my appearance, but I guess the image is mostly more powerful than words. Many people just know me for the way I dress, without knowing anything about me or my music.
So, I guess now being a popular person, it is the first visual statement I am making – wearing a wrap skirt instead of shorts or trousers, as expected of a male, or going barefoot instead of wearing shoes, as expected of an average person with “civilised ambitions”. But I never did it to become a cultural icon or whatever.
DR: How would you describe the relationship of many Ghanaians with their own local culture and tradition? The practice of Christianity for example, which was imposed on the Ghanaian society during colonialism, nowadays rejects any spiritual practices that were performed before. Yet, Christianity does have a huge impact not only in Ghana, but in many African countries. How do you explain that people deliberately worship a faith which demands the rejection of their own local culture and tradition?
W: Colonialism was a crazy programming of the mind. We were made to feel inferior because it would make us do everything to be seen in our coloniser’s lights. We were made to despise our own cultural wealth and aspire to be like them and their ideal version of a human being: white, western, male. Part of this oppressive system was also that lots of us were pretending to be Christians just to survive. And in fact, I don’t see it to be very different today: being Christian still gets us higher in those ranks that the Western world has created. The more you can pretend to be a Christian or Westerner, the greater your chance of being promoted in their constructs of wealth, class, democracy, Christian states and so on. I think it’s the same with Arab religions, by the way.
But at the same time, there is also a lot of hybridisation taking place. You can observe that many people in Ghana still consult traditional priests and are much more afraid of traditional curses than of the Christian thing – be it Voodoo or Juju or any other mystical spirits. This shows that at a subconscious level, it doesn’t compute with them that such an alien deity truly exists, even if they are consciously playing the role of the zealous Christian and might eventually start to believe it themselves. But there seem to be sort of prolonged instincts or memories making many people suspect that it is in fact an alien implantation which they worship and fear. A colonial continuation which was artificially imposed onto them and only performed automatically without truly believing in it.
Honestly, I don’t think that any African genuinely believes in a Western religion like Christianity. In my opinion, they’ve just transformed the traditional spiritual magic entity into another concept called Jesus. Though many people claim to worship a colonial Western deity, they unconsciously still believe in the traditional spiritual systems – even if they might not be aware of it. The belief in Western systems is and has always been superficial because it is just perpetuated for survival.
DR: You are raising many of those social issues in your music – criticising deep colonial structures, but also challenging people to be more critical about many daily-life issues. At the same time, you create counter-narratives and bring up alternative solutions. Can the impact of music and art, in your view, have an even greater and more profound influence than mere political statements? And what role do humour and parody play in those processes – is being provocative a productive contribution?
W: Music has always had that role, I think – to reach out to people, to spread a message. But I guess there are different ways of going about it. One possibility is to be very outspoken and influential, almost like making clear political statements. But to directly criticise and chastise systems like religion, politics or whatever else through music can become quite zealous and aggressive in tone. That’s why I feel that the other way, which is more satirical, is healthier for me and M3NSA (his partner with whom he forms the rap duo FOKN BOIS).
We don’t do our music because we are expecting or hoping for an immediate change. In fact, we are not even hoping for anything at all. Instead, the benefits of talking about and addressing issues are in the moments of release and dissemination of those energies welled up inside of us. Any other outcome is a bonus. And definitely, we see and meet people every day who have been influenced by our words and our lifestyle, so there seems to be some kind of change. But the change is not the focus. Our focus is the self-therapy, the immediate reaction to things, the release in the moment. Music is an exciting way to bring us relief.
DR: You are often referred to as the musician who established pidgin English in rap. How did that manifest itself – was it a development over the years or a constant decision at one point?
W: The first people I knew to use Pidgin in music were some guys called Native Funk Lords during the time Hiplife started to become popular in the 1990s. But they stopped making music, and nobody was really rapping in Pidgin till I started again in 2007. Since then, there has been a big wave.
But I initially entered the performance world of music from, let’s say, a commercial African-American angle. Being a fan of Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes, the first song I ever performed publicly in high school was “Murder was the Case” by Snoop Dogg. From there, I went on writing several rap verses and songs in what I believed to be an American accent. Trying to sound African-American for almost ten years. It took me that time to realise that the African-Americans just sounded like themselves, that the Jamaicans just sounded like themselves – so I finally also went back to what I actually sounded like, using Ghanaian pidgin with a mix of other local languages, and started to put it on the record. And I felt like I had found myself by doing that.
DR: Is this form of expression simply your personal preference, or is it something that has a broader significance for you?
W: Pidgin got created during colonialism by people who knew very little English because they did not have any or very limited formal miseducation. That’s how this form was originally developed. During my time in high school, it was more of a clique thing for us, it was our own language that the teacher couldn’t understand when we were speaking it amongst ourselves. An outcast language. That’s why rapping in pidgin is kind of a middle finger to the Queen’s English. I remember how an elderly man called during one of the first radio interviews I did in Ghana, and he was asking why we were speaking such a disgusting language which is tainting the Queen’s English. That was when I knew we were doing something right.
DR: So the establishment of pidgin can be regarded as a contribution to the process of musical decolonisation?
W: As I said, Pidgin is the language which is most natural to me when communicating with peers. But at the same time, pidgin has developed sort of a class aspect now, at least in my opinion. Our style of pidgin is quite different to the pidgin from someone who has not gone to high school. You need to have had a standard English education to speak the pidgin we speak – and in that way, it has also a certain alienating character.
Interestingly, as a result of that, the language which currently becomes more popular among the youth and the streets is a form of Jamaican Patois English. It has spread itself through music, film and videos, and as it is more relatable to the masses, the streets and the ghettos, it is now becoming more valid in Ghana to speak Patois than Pidgin. But in order to really, really decolonise, I actually believe it would be better to use more Twi or other local West African languages and less Pidgin, due to its classist feature – and also because it is still a hybrid of a colonial language.
DR: In your song “Never Go Change”, you are referring to corrupt governments that don’t care about the citizens’ problems because they doesn’t affect them personally. With a smooth voice, only accompanied by your guitar, you are singing about “killing them all”, “cut of demma head and spill demma blood on the walls”, “cause they never go change”. Though the irony here is obvious, do you regard revolutions as a likely and supportable method to change structural power relations?
W: Colonial structures were put in place with violence, so it’s the only language that colonial structures understand. Colonial structures advocate for peace, and they put up Gandhi and Mandela to keep us asleep, to keep us flaccid, placated.
Collectively, human beings seem to have a consciousness which appoints so-called breaking points. Last straws. And right now, the most powerful last straws to most African people are religions. They are keeping us asleep by constantly telling us to wait, to turn the other cheek, to wait, to wait, to wait… Without these religions, a lot of things would have burnt down here a long time ago.