We talk to M3nsa and Wanlov about being part of a documentary that shows the role musicians play in addressing some of Ghana's—and the world's—biggest issues.
As the Norient Film Festival kicks off this month, it signals a homecoming of sorts for M3nsa and Wanlov the Kubulor, also known as the FOKN Bois. The Ghanaian duo are part of a documentary called Contradict, which is featured on this year's virtual lineup of the Swiss event. It's at the festival, almost a decade ago, where FOKN Bois first showed their film, Coz Ov Moni, which gained acclaim as the "first pidgin musical" and showcased their outspoken views and immense creativity.
The film attracted the attention of festival founder Thomas Burkhalter, who together with co-director Peter Guyer would go on to enlist FOKN Bois to be a large part of their doc, Contradict. It's been screening at virtual festivals for the past year and won the Bernese Film Award last year.
"We just connected with Thomas and Peter and they said they were going to be coming to Ghana, to shoot a little short documentary," M3nsa tells OkayAfrica. Burkhalter and Guyer intended to include the artists in a multimedia documentary that dealt with music trends across the globe. But the filmmakers ended up deciding to hone in on Ghana and make a documentary that looks at today's world from both a Ghanaian, African, and a Swiss, European, perspective.
Burkhalter and Guyer asked seven Ghanaian musicians—FOKN Bois' M3NSA and Wanlov the Kubolor, along with Adomaa, Worlasi, Akan, Mutombo Da Poet and Poetra Asantewa—to write new songs especially for the documentary. The concept taps into their views on some of the biggest issues of our time, and how their visions could perhaps become new global realities.
"With Contradict, our aim was to create an artistic dialogue, a musical kaleidoscope," says Burkhalter. "Through small and big ideas, loud and quiet sounds, locally-produced video clips and our own observations, this film wants to reflect on our fast-changing world. A mirror of today. A call to contradict—globally and locally."
M3nsa and Wanlov are main characters in the documentary, providing a standout moment when M3nsa dons a Donald Trump mask and collects money for the former president in the streets of Accra. It was done as a music video for their track "Help America," which they made in 2012, before Trump was president of the USA. The two friends collecting funds for the so-called "suffering in America" was intended to provoke, and it still does—something funny to laugh at, but also perhaps a prophecy of the future Africans hope their continent one day provides.
The filmmakers feature public figures and ministers alongside the artists, in their effort to speak to some of Ghana's biggest issues—from corrupt religious institutions to feminism and climate change. Initially, Wanlov and M3nsa weren't sure quite what they were getting into. "It was like, 'Hey, man, can we ask you a few questions?' And, 'We want you to make a song about some of the things in your mind when you think about Ghana,'" says M3nsa.
"It was so broad, but for me, it was just a lot about my frustrations as a young person in Ghana," adds M3nsa. "Because of the time spent in the making the film, I was allowed to go through the phases of how I was dealing with my relationship with Ghana, and being a creative person and having to deal with politics, and even just the social commentary."
The documentary turned out to be a patchwork of thoughts and ideas, despair and hope. "They did an incredible job ending the film and making it cohesive," says M3nsa. "They touched on a lot of things, and allowed a lot of things to just happen."
Wanlov admits to being jealous when he first saw the documentary, particularly because of the access Burkhalter and Guyer were able to have. "We can only make half of this documentary," he says. "As a young African guy, there is no way I can go and interview a minister and have them talk about X and Y chromosomes. She wouldn't give me the time of day. Same with these preachers, which we are always kind of poking fun at," he says. "There is no way we would have gotten in their proximity to be able to film them in action."
He wants to also be able to paint a blatant reality of what is going on around them, the way the Swiss filmmakers were able to. "Peter and Thomas, being working class white guys, are the people in history that came to give us capitalism, give us government, give us religion, so no matter how sweaty their t-shirts were, they can enter these spaces like they own them. Because, psychologically, they do."
But Wanlov and M3nsa have gotten adept at making the best use of what they do have at their disposal. They met at school and started FOKN Bois as a way of dealing with everything, "sharing ridiculous ideas to make each other laugh and cope with what's happening," as Wanlov puts it. Depending on how they are feeling, FOKN Bois stands for both Friends of Kwame Nkrumah and Foes of Kwame Nkrumah, reflecting the fraught legacy of Ghana's first president turned authoritarian leader.
In Contradict, they both created individual songs for the film. For M3nsa, as the film shows, a lot of what he creates is concerned with the question of what kind of future is being created for the country's youth. "It's such a big thing for me, especially also being a dad now, it's like, it really is a pressing issue for me, because I felt like, growing up in Ghana, the same people who are in power are still the same people who are in power and nothing really has changed, fundamentally."
Lately they've been thinking a lot about what the role of a conscious artist is today. It's something they continue to explore, both in their individual projects and together.
Wanlov says they've created a system of working together without being aware of it. "I think whether we are creating something by ourselves or together, it's always in the back of our mind that we are creating something that has to excite at least one of us, or both of us," he says. The documentary, in the meantime, continues to travel around the world, virtually.