Meet the New School of Ghanaian Music
Kwesi Arthur, Kuvie and many young Ghanaian artists' constant hustle is turning them into stars.
The music industry in Ghana is currently experiencing a slow but steady shift. A sect of young, bold, talented, and unapologetically unique artists are rearing their heads up and making a name for themselves within the industry. They do it all—songs, EPs and mixtapes, concerts, media rounds and more, and all with so much gusto and enthusiasm you would've thought they've done it all before in a past life. Their work ethic is relentless, and they push the limit of what can be achieved with little or no funding, some talent, and lots of hard work.
How hard they work has enabled them stand shoulder height with some of the mainstream stars in the Ghana music industry. They're being played on the same radio shows, headlining the same concerts, and being mentioned in the same sentences as veterans and key industry figures who have years of experience and industry presence under their belts.
What sets these artists apart from their more seasoned counterparts is their hustle. Dropping song after song, project after project, organizing their own concerts and tours, releasing video after video, their unrelenting approach to the music grind is the reason why they stand out, proving for all to see that they deserve the success, and that they mean business.
There are a good number of artists and producers who fall into this category and are worthy of mention, such as Cina Soul, amaarae, B4Bonah, RJZ, Darkovibes, Nxwrth, and many more. We sat down with two key figures who are part of this movement, rapper Kwesi Arthur and producer Kuvie, to speak about their hustle, and the method behind the madness.
Kwesi Arthur is Ghana's most prominent 2017 breakout rap star. A young rapper from the region of Tema in Ghana, he released his first project, the Live from Nkrumah Krom EP, in early 2017. Some months later, a song from the EP titled "Grind Day" caught on to listener's ears, spread like wildfire and became a smash hit. It's the new anthem and go-to motivation joint for every young hustler. Since then, Kwesi has been steady grinding, doing show after show and releasing more songs as well as visuals to accompany them. More recently, he won the award for "Hip-Hop Song of the Year" at the just concluded 2018 Ghana Music Awards, for the remix of Grind Day. We spoke with him for more insight on his music and hustle.
How competitive is the Ghana music industry?
Kwesi Arthur: There are a lot of amazingly talented people in the music scene now, and every now and then someone new pops up on the internet with a new sound, new subject, new themes, so you're not promised the listeners' attention for long. So you always have to prove yourself with every new release. So it's very competitive.
Ever since you dropped your debut project you've been rising with meteoric speed. What are the things you can attribute to that rise?
KA: Since I dropped the Live From Nkrumah Krom EP in April 2017, the attention I've been gaining has been crazy. I get surprised when I perform when people just sing along and chant to my songs, it's crazy. I think the reason I'm here, what attributes to my rise is the work, the work we put in. I try to be in the studio every day, so I make new material for the people. I listen to the response that people who are close to me give me when I play my songs for them, and I listen to their advice. I have a group of "No men" around me, people who tell me the plain truth and nothing else. And I think the listeners played a major role in me coming this far as well.
Emerging artists are using their work ethic to put themselves at par with mainstream acts; that is working harder than the others so they're more visible, which has led to a good level of success. You're one of them. What do you guys intend to achieve by doing this?
KA: We're just putting all we have and all our effort into this music so we get African music to the level it deserves to be at. African music has to be on the same level with music from the other parts of the world, even bigger. And I think music is the only form of communication, the only art form that everyone around the world understands, because it's a universal language. So we're just trying to tell our story through the music and get it to the highest level it could be at. Also, I personally want to touch people's lives. I want to make people like me feel like they aren't the only ones in the world.
Kwesi Arthur. Photo courtesy of the artist.
What do you think you're doing different that the A-list or mainstream acts aren't?
KA: To be honest, I don't know what I'm doing different from them. I can only talk about what I am doing. For me, I stay true to myself and try to be as honest as I can be. I try to make people understand and make the music easy to understand and relate to, while being true to myself and getting my point across. I connect with the people too. I show people the real me. If you watch my "The Anthem" video, I was eating garri in the video. That's what we do on the regular. I give them the real me, and not show them another side.
Someone listening to your music can tell that you're all about your hustle. Is that the inspiration behind your biggest song to date "Grind Day"?
KA: We come from nothing, so we put in our all and work as hard as possible in order to fend for ourselves and our family to make sure that we're comfortable and living a comfortable life. So the song Grind Day is just about working each and every day, that's why I said "Monday yeah yeah, Tuesday yeah yeah, Sunday yeah yeah", and so on. So that basically tells you that we're putting in work each and every day, even on Sunday when we're supposed to be chilling or something, we still stay working we still stay up because that's the only way we know, that's the only way we can make it out of where we're from.
How important is commercial success to you?
KA: I just want to touch lives and make a positive impact in the lives of other people. I want someone to say like "Listening to Kwesi Arthur helped me, listening to Kwesi Arthur made me feel a sense of belonging". All the other stuff is just added onto it. I just want to change lives. The money is good though, selling out shows and stuff. I want that too, of course. But I want to touch people with the music.
So do you think your work ethic plays a part in how successful you are as an artist?
KA: Yeah, it definitely does. Being an artist and in this era we find ourselves in, you have to keep up. The only way to keep up in this industry is by working hard and putting in more effort and putting out more material. So you have to be in the studio constantly, you have to do things that will promote your craft. Because the internet has made the game so open that if you don't work, you'll just be where you are, you'll just be stagnant. So putting in work and working constantly just keeps you ahead of everyone else. So knowing that I try as much as possible to put in my best each and every day and go harder every time, trying to surpass what I did the previous day, that has played a major role in me getting the level I am today.
Kuvie is a young producer who is undoubtedly the leader of the new school when it comes to production. He is also a key member of Ghanaian music supergroup Le Meme Gang. His work ranges from popular hits by mainstream acts, to more recently being at the forefront of the new age of young Ghanaian musicians, laying down a significant number of instrumentals for a number of emerging artists.
He has built quite a resume, releasing a consistent stream of hits starting from 2015, such as mainstream chart toppers "Ay3 Late" and "Awo'a" by Pappy Kojo, "You & Me" by Joey B, and "Grind" by Vision DJ and A.I, to hip-hop album cuts like "Rich People Problems" by M.anifest. However, with time he began to carve a different path. He kept his ear to the ground and started to seek out talented but relatively unknown acts, and began to make magic with them, belting out song after song displaying a fresh sound with fresh voices. His willingness to work with upcoming and emerging acts have put him ahead of the pack, creating surprise hits that have wormed their way into many hearts, such as "Tomorrow" by Darkovibes. The following is what he had to say about his music and grind.
By your willingness to work with upcoming artists, you have managed to basically flood the Ghana music scene with your productions. Was that an intentional strategy, or did that come naturally to you?
I've always wanted to be able to do what I want to do creatively, and not be bound by what people expected of me in regards to my art and my music. The only people who are willing to do that are the people who are up and coming, who are hungry. They are the ones that married my music very well. That hunger complimented the music, because they're trying new stuff because they just want to find their sound. They end up fusing things they've seen all their lives and being able to represent that with their own style. It was a conscious effort, a conscious decision because I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and the upcoming acts could do that too. That was our meeting point.
Emerging artists are using their work ethic to put themselves at par with mainstream acts; that is working harder than the others so they're more visible, which has led to a good level of success. You and your productions have been a part of that, and you all (both artists and producers) seem to have the same mindset. What's the end game, what do you guys intend to achieve with this?
The reality of it is that we just wanna go where no one has gone with it. We've seen people who have come and studied our culture and imbibe it in what they do and their brands. So the first thing that is important to us is that we make it with the same sound that is being projected internationally by the people who have set the bar for us. I'm talking Mr Eazi, I'm talking Juls, I'm talking all the producers and musicians that fuse elements of afrobeats in whatever music they make, even Drake for example. We know that there's an international appeal for that sound, and we want to take it international. That's one main goal. Another one is that we want to be free and be known for being free to do what we want to do creatively, and be able to put pure art out. Those are the two vital things.
What are some of the things you and the artists you work with do, beyond the ordinary level of work. How do you guys go the extra mile to get things done?
A lot of the things I can't say [laughs]. First of all, our work ethic. Secondly, learning a lot. In order for us to get to where we want to get to, we have to study and understand the cultures that we want to break into and what appeals to them. Thirdly, making conscious fashion decisions that will pull your focus to us. RJZ for example, has dyed his hair, so has Darkovibes. The whole of Le Meme Gang has a unique sense of fashion, and it's not necessarily all the designer labels, but they know the designer labels and how to mix it with stuff we wear every day and still look unique. So basically the whole purpose of what we do is just to stand out and portray our uniqueness in a way that the masses can understand. And also, fusion. Being able to fuse different cultures and different elements in our art so that whatever they hear and whatever they see, they can see a bit of themselves in us.
Kuvie. Photo courtesy of the artist.
You and your artist peers spend days and nights in the studio, working while everyone else is sleeping. Why the sense of urgency, why work so hard?
This is our lives [laughs]! Simply put, this is the only thing that gives us purpose. Basically, this is what we do for a living. And not just financially, we do this because every day that we achieve something, it's an accomplishment that we know that we have to top the next day, but it feels good in that moment. For example, if the Le Meme Tape reaches number one on the charts, which it did, of course it's a glorious feeling. Competing with various mainstream acts that have albums and have spent a brick on the rollout and campaigns, and we're doing the same numbers as them. And also for the attention and the reactions. We want to see how people react to what we have to offer. And it's not because we're fabricating. It's real, and if you're around us, you can just tell we're different. It's fun to be unique, and that's what we stay up doing.
Do you feel like this amount of work is what needs to be put in, in order to be commercially successful?
Hell yeah [laughs]! Let's look at it this way. The most advisable way to go is to keep a 9 to 5, but pursue your dreams too. That's how hard you have to work because at the end of the day you need the money to fund your career. Nobody is giving us jack sh*t. The only person who gave us something is Benjamin Besegni Kumbour. He gave us our studio. We linked up in 2014/15 through one of the artists of Le Meme Gang, Kweku Bs, and he was looking for an engineer for the studio. He always had the urge to build a space where creatives could be free to make whatever. Someone would say that nobody would build a studio for artists to be shouting "pew" on a track (a reference to a Le Meme Gang song titled "Pew"), but he did. You get me? Even if you ask Ayat (a Ghanaian rapper), Ayat has a studio at home, and that takes funds to build. Where do you think he gets his funds from? He hustles. We can work a 9 to 5, but we want to make money on our terms. Everything that we do is a way and means to get to our goal. And the goal is to get to, and stay mainstream and be one of the names that they mention with them. It's much easier for them to do that because they have more resources than we do. So, in order to keep up we have to burn the midnight oil. Maybe we'll get to the point where we'll have a million dollars and we can shoot a $100,000 video, do a $200,000 rollout, tour the world and get 3 or 4 or 5 times the money back. But till then, all we have is our work. So until our work gives us the kind of money that we're looking for, we have to grind.
Also, building relationships is key. I can't even front and say we're doing it on our own. Radio stations like YFM, Live FM, Klass FM, and the blogs like NotJustOk, Ameyaw Debrah, Kwame Sarfo, DCLeakers. All these people, they make sure the music gets out there. And it takes good relationships to do that, because we don't even have the money to get them what they would want. I mean, they're not entitled to, but we also like to show appreciation. In our culture, appreciation is a key thing. But even without the appreciation that they deserve, they are putting in work. So it takes relationships to maintain that. So being able to have a good relationship with whoever is pioneering your craft is key. This is all work that we have to do.
Everyone who listens to Ghanaian music can attest to the fact that Kuvie's sound is different. You've always put your own twist to the genres that we're used to, and pushed the boundaries of what African music can sound like. Why, what's the idea behind that?
Well growing up, I used to listen to a lot of music. My dad listened to local and foreign artists, and he was someone who moved from the village to the city, so you can already tell that it takes a music fan to do that. Watching him enjoy the music like that and have a band of genres more or less groomed me and became a habit. I used to listen to Timbaland and Aaliyah's productions at an early age, like age 8-9, and that's something that intrigued me till I found out to make beats. So ever since then it's about balancing what I've heard and what I like with what people have heard and what they like. Because at the end of the day if I want the masses to listen, I don't have to just think about me. But I do have to have fun doing it, yeah it has to be on my terms. And you're going to enjoy it, because there's a balance. So balance is key. Balance is what keeps me original, because you'd have to know how to balance what you know and love with what other people know and love so that you can have a meeting point.
So it's safe to say, as an upcoming artist in the Ghanaian music industry, it's an absolute necessity to hustle hard?
Yes, and that applies to everything. So long as it's your purpose and your calling. Not every ones calling is music. People whose calling is not music, when they put in the work, they get in the returns that they're looking for. Talent is just 1% of the whole thing. The rest of the 99% is hard work. And with that hard work you have to know where you're channeling it at. You have to section most of the work for content creation, some of the work for promotion, some of the work for quality control, some of the work for relationship building. And lastly but not the least, some of the work to maintain your fans. Actually, the work you have to put in for content creation is the same work you have to put in to maintain your fans. Although one would think that that's covered in the other areas. It's like sending someone to get a girls number for you. 9 times out of 10 you won't get the number. But if you go yourself and you're able to communicate it the way you want to the girl, or in this case your fans, 6 times out of 10 you'll get it. So it's hard work, but you have to be focused and channel it in the right places, depending on where you're at in your career. So you have to hustle hard, but you also have to know how you're hustling.