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The Artist Is Present: Sarkodie's New Album, 'Highest,' Is A Ghanaian Rap Tour De Force

We talk to Ghanaian hip-hop star Sarkodie about his highly-anticipated fifth album, 'Highest.'

In our series, "The Artist is Present,” we get to know and revel in the minds behind Africa’s creative world in fashion, art, music, literature, politics and more. We dive below the surface with African artists to talk about their process and purpose.

In this edition, Sarkodie, one of Africa’s finest artists talks to us about his highly-anticipated fifth album, Highest.

“I rap a lot” said Sarkodie at the album listening session in London. What the winner of a BET Best International Act in 2012 didn’t say is that he also raps incredibly, if we take into account how consistently articulate and precise his verses are; and the near-flawless delivery of what could either be concise prose or voluble poetry, if one was not illiterate in Twi.

For this fifth album, his label Sarkcess Music has joined forces with the UK-based Dice Recordings. The guest features include Jesse Jagz, Moelogo, Flavour, Korede Bello, Victoria Kimani and label mate Big Narstie. His hit “Pain Killer” with Runtown, released back in February, is here as a bonus.

Highest is executive produced by Sarkodie and Jayso, who has also produced most of the album. Other contributors include Masterkraft, TSpize, Ced Solo, Nova and Guilty Beatz.

A post shared by TheHighest (@sarkodie) on

Why Highest? Tell us about your new album's title.

It's just my state of mind. It's literally how I feel. It's my current situation now, as I just had a daughter. As far as Ghana and my situation is concerned, it's my state of mind as of now. You need to get the album to know what I'm thinking.

At the listening session for Highest, “Your Waist” featuring Flavour got the most reaction from everyone in the room. Could it be a single?

Whatever you choose to live with [from the album]. I have people that wouldn't like the song with Flavour, they would rather want some real hip-hop thing. So when it comes out, whatever that you choose to rock to, it's up to whoever.

You're making 16 videos for the 16 songs on the album. Isn't this extravagant?

Mostly what we do, we put out the music and then we rush to shoot the video. That makes your be in a rush and your might lose the momentum of what the song can do. To be safe, I took two years to really prepare myself and get the visuals for it ready. So, as soon as the album is out, you're ready to put the music videos out.

"Your Waist" and “Come To Me,” featuring Bobii Lewis, are bang on trend with the pop sounds in Ghana, the U.K. and Nigeria. Do you intend for Highest to find new markets?

It's for different markets but I'm not pushing myself outside my comfort zone. It's just that I'm growing, the more I get used to a sound I'll try it, 'cause I can do it. It's not too far away from me. There's no record that isn't a Sarkodie record on here.

At the listening session you said that you “rap a lot”. Do you think you maybe rap too much in this age of anti-flow and emo-rap?

People love rap. It's just that it's hard to come across good rap these days. That's the only issue. If you really can rap, they'll listen to it. That's what I'm doing. I'm a rapper so I have to stand for it.

When we talk about African rappers, we most times exclude the Francophone and Portuguese markets. Is there a way to correct this?

We need to just change how we think. Just cause you understand a person, that's just a pass for the person to be number one and that's not cool. Take Khuli Chana from SA, that's one of my best MCs worldwide. I really don't understand what he's saying, it's just that he's so good. Your can't fight that, you know that this guy's good.

You use what i think of as 'hearing aids' in your bars in Twi that makes it easier for a non-speaker to quickly understand. How much of this is premeditated and how much is a natural approach to language?

My rap literally represents me and how I am. So even in Ghana, if I speak Twi you'll still find a little bit of English in there. I might not even know how to pronounce certain words in Twi. We did English in school. It's just that naturally, I'm not going to speak English 24/7. That's not gonna happen. I'm a Ghanaian guy. I want to speak my Ghanaian language. I combine them when I'm talking, so it's the same when it comes to rap. There's no difference.

Your deal with Dice is coming at a time when many artist are signing with major labels like Sony and Island Records. Why Dice and why now?

I think I'm way matured, so my state of mind is different from 5 or 6 years ago. I would have been more about the hype and not been realistic about who has your best interests at heart. With Dice I think it was the perfect situation because they genuinely love Sarkodie and they love the work. They want to do it. I want them to do it. That's the energy you need around.

Better than to get the hype and people bigging you up. People treating you like a visitor in the situation. People only talking to you because it's business as if to say “we don't really like the music. We just want to do it because you have the numbers.”

Why Dice specifically?

I know that my state of mind has played a role in my success. I've always been happy because my situation is: I have people that believe in me around me. Even without a dime that belief alone is priceless. And that's the same thing with Dice. They really really like that brand, so when I felt like that, I thought “this is the right thing to do and the right people to work with and they're well connected.” So you can have both things that you need in one. The love is there. The business side is also sorted.

A post shared by TheHighest (@sarkodie) on

You travel around the world for work, but can only write when in Ghana. Why so?

Music is about what you see and I'm a real artist. I'm doing music. I'm so into it. So I need to feel it. So, when I'm here [in London], with the things I see, it might change my message so… I don't understand it. I'm still trying to figure out how you guys live.

Unless I stay here for like a year or two, then maybe. To write something out of this is weird. But when I’m back home, just to see street people just walking and the stuff they talk about... it's like they have this raw thing. I'm inspired every second in Ghana. The fact that I know that I'm there, it's way easier to write.

Lastly, who are the MCs, currently active and from the continent, that you rate?

Nasty C, Cassper Nyovest, and Khuli Chana.

Stream and purchase Sarkodie's 'Highest' now.

This New Musical Explores the Life of 'Fela Kuti and the Kalakuta Queens'

"Nobody ever talks about the 27 wives."

A new musical by Nigerian arts mogul, Bolanle Austen-Peters dives into the life of Fela Kuti and his relationship with the Kalakuta Queens—the 27 women he married in a single ceremony in 1978.

In a new video from the BBC, Austen-Peters give us a look into the production process, and tells us more about why she wanted to focus on the story of the Kalakuta Queens, who also acted as dancers for the musician, in particular.

"It just occurred to me that nobody ever talked about the 27 wives that he had. And I wondered who they were? I wanted to understand what informed their decision to marry one man, and what drove them. You know, what was their passion?" Watch the full video below.

Fela Kuti and the Kalakuta Queens is currently showing at the renovated Terra Culture Arena in Lagos, which Austen-Peters founded back in 2003.

We spoke to Austen-Peters back in August about her mission to promote Nigeria's arts and culture scene and about producing the West End's first Nigerian musical, Wakaa!. Revisit our interview with her here.

Fela and the Kalakuta Queens deserve all the shine!

Maleek Berry's Bob Marley Cover on BBC Radio 1Xtra Is Everything

His rendition of "Turn Your Lights Down Low" will smooth out your day.

Maleek Berry's newest cover is surely going to help get you through hump day.

The crooner and producer performed a wavy rendition of Bob Marley's "Turn Your Lights Down Low" on BBC Radio 1Xtra, a solid week after he dropped his highly anticipated EP, First Daze Of Winter.

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Illustration by Nathi Ngubane.

The Humorous Politics of South African Funerals

South African funeral etiquette is uh—unique.

There is perhaps nothing more tragic than death as much as it is the one constant of life itself. Funerals are sombre events meant to mourn the passing of a loved one and understandably so. In spite of this, I have ironically experienced tremendous humour at black South African funerals especially and I know many black Africans will be able to relate. For those of you who are curious to know what happens exactly at these funerals, keep reading.

Can I also get some of that beef stew?

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

Black South Africans go to funerals for pretty much the same reason they go to weddings: for the food. If there is a long queue at a funeral (reminiscent to the one you'll find on election day), you can best believe it's for food. You will often hear: "That's not enough chicken, dear" and "I'm taking a plate for Albertina as well" (they're really not). Oh, and did I mention that people always make sure to bring their own lunch boxes to take away food when they go?

That Merc over there? Yeah, I just got it yesterday.

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

Black South Africans are particularly fond of ensuring that everyone at the funeral sees or at least hears about their latest material acquisitions, be it a new car, the R5000 wristwatch they're wearing or the house they just bought. It's terribly funny to hear how people will go from "You know he was such a great guy, what a loss" to "You know I remember how he helped me pick out my new Merc. It's parked over there." I suppose what better way to show off how well you're doing than at a funeral right?

The professional mourners and the art of being extra

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

At funerals, there are always those whose mourning fast becomes somewhat of a theatrical performance. 'Can you see me?' they seem to be asking as they roll wildly on the floor, tear at their clothes and fall over the feet of others. Ironically, it's almost always those who are the least related to the deceased. When this happens (and it almost always does), you're never quite sure whether to continue grieving the deceased or to attend to them instead.

I didn't see you at the last funeral though

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

Black South Africans go to many funerals. Be it a close relative or the friend of the mother of a cousin twice removed—black people are there. And so if you're met with a cold shoulder from relatives you haven't seen in a while, they're probably angry at you for not attending one of those funerals. What's worse, unless you yourself were close to death, no excuse is deemed valid. This is when you smile and politely excuse yourself to go and grab some food.

This is the sister to that other aunt from your father's side

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

Funerals are large events and so because you can't possibly know everyone, from those coming from the suburbs to those coming from the village, it's always safest to assume that everyone is a relative of some sort. You will meet an aunt you last saw when you were in diapers and be expected to not only remember who she is but where exactly she fits into the family tree. Again, this would be a great time to go and grab some more food.

Black people don't leave wills, they leave bills

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

Chris Rock was right on the money when he said the above. It is commonplace to see those whom the deceased owed money unashamedly attend the funeral. In fact, they are often the ones who demand to be served the most food (see how it's always about the food?) and pretty much anything else for that matter. I'm sure many would even repossess the deceased's casket if they could.

We had a great time at the funeral

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

"How did the funeral go?" South Africans will ask this question and unfailingly so. Amusingly, they will ask it in the way they would ask how a trip to the mall or a holiday to another country went. They want specific details. I'm never quite sure what to say. Do I comment on the style of the casket, whether the food was cooked well or if there was any drama? I mean we just buried a person so on a scale of one to ten, I'd say it wasn't too great hey – but that's just me.

Anytime is drinking time

Illustration by Nathi Ngubane

So what do South Africans do after the funeral is over and done with? They open up the bottles of alcohol of course. We've even come up with a legitimate term for it , the 'after tears'. After the last tear has fallen, the first sips of alcohol begin. And so when you see the once dignified uncle stumbling about, it's really not the grief overwhelming him; it's probably just the whiskey.

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