Musical Evangelism & the Ghanaian Love of Westlife

I don’t understand people whose ‘tastes’ in music have to be spoon-fed to them.

‘Weird’ Music

Yesterday, I was sitting-in for Doreen Andoh, trying my best to stick to the name of her show – ‘ the Cosmopolitan Mix’  – by playing… well, a cosmopolitan mix of music. About an hour into the show, a colleague from Marketing walked into the studio. After giving me some helpful advice on my levels, she told me that I was playing very ‘weird’ music.

I went over my playlist…

  • Together Again – Janet Jackson
  • Emotions – Mariah Carey
  • I Wanna Dance with Somebody – Whitney Houston
  • Love Come Down – Evelyn Champagne King
  • Doo Wop – Lauryn Hill
  • If There’s Any Justice – Lemar
  • Unthinkable – Alicia Keys
  • Hey Ya – Outkast
  • Rapper’s Delight – The Sugarhill Gang
  • Get Up Offa That Thing – James Brown
  • Sixteen – Musical Youth
  • Tongue Tied – Sammi B

… and then I shrugged.

I get that a lot.

There’s No Business Like Show Business…

Especially here in Ghana, people have this strange notion that if an artist can’t even get onto the radio, then they can’t be that good.

Wrong.

There is a universe of artists out there making amazing music in their bedrooms or in small studios the world over. They would like people to hear their music, so they try to get signed to a record company with the money to promote their music on TV, radio, internet, etc, etc. Record companies are businesses first and foremost: they have to make a profit. So they prefer to invest in safe bets and ‘sure bankers’. As such, they often advise artists to change (dilute) their sound. Either that  or they offer the artists bad terms that will leave them in debt (even big acts like Toni Braxton or TLC).

This has been going on for such a  long time that many artists have had no choice but to operate outside of the industry altogether (going ‘underground’), which means having no access to the  promotion and distribution that record companies (who are often part of media groups that own radio stations, TV studios, music websites, etc) offer. That’s why you don’t hear them on your radio or see them dancing around half-naked on your TV. Occasionally, some of these artists do breakthrough into the mainstream and become household names (Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Cee-Lo…) but most don’t.

I am part of a collective known as Amplified. We promote good black music, whether it is well-known or not. After all, why should good music not be heard because some music executive who has more business sense than music taste doesn’t understand it?

So I embrace this ‘weird’ moniker that I keep coming across. I refuse to sound like any  (if not every) other DJ in Ghana who only plays safe music that they have been told is cool by Billboard, MTV, Viacom, etc.

Peddling Nostalgia

I work (at least for now) for a radio station which is also first and foremost a business. The aim of this station is not to promote good music, but to be the station of choice to as many listeners with the most disposable income as possible. That way, we can sell airtime (presenter mentions, announcement, adverts) to advertisers and make enough money to be Ghana’s 6th most respected company. I – and all the DJs here – are encouraged to peddle nostalgia. So when a DJ here plays more new music than old or more B-sides than hits, they can expect to hear from management. It’s something that has had to be drummed into my head because my instinct is to play something different from what everyone else is playing and to introduce listeners to artists they may otherwise not hear. I recently had an interesting conversation with the station’s founder in which he explained that the station appeals to ‘discerning listeners’. I countered that genuinely discerning listeners would be tired of hearing the same types of music day in and out.

What do I know though?

The Love of Westlife

My sister recently penned what I thought was a nice little entry on how Ghanaians don’t appreciate new musicians (especially from elsewhere in Africa) unless we are instructed that those musicians are cool. I guess it’s about familiarity: how many times have you heard something for the first time, been unimpressed, but later found yourself humming along and even liking the song? If you are bombarded with a song long enough, it just might stick. The problem with lesser known artists (even local ones like the FOKN Bois) is no one plays their songs enough for it to enter the popular consciousness. Neither are we encouraged to (just ask YFM’s fantastic Ms. Naa, whose Ryse & Shyne Morning Show sounds a little tame of late..)

Our music tastes cut across genres… but all those genres must be familiar. Highlife, Hiplife, Gospel, R&B, Old School… even Country and Middle-of-the-Road Pop. Moving here, there were some artists I was looking forward to never hearing again. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to find that grown Ghanaian men listen to Westlife without shame.

Yes: Westlife.

I have friends who still look at me incredulously when I tell them that the group was designed to part money from the pockets of prepubescent girls and pensioners and that men wanting to buy Westlife in London have to pretend they are buying it for their daughters or mothers.

If you want to make money, organize a Ghanaian concert headlined by Celine Dion with support by Westlife and you will retire pretty damn early: there will be more of us at the concert than in our homes.

Trust me.

2 thoughts on “Musical Evangelism & the Ghanaian Love of Westlife

  1. Maame

    Most Ghanaians are too ‘one way'(want to stick to one particular thing)and are not musically inclined…I personally enjoy some of the ‘weird music’ you play and i love them. I don’t think you have to play what everyone plays. You must be different and although you think people might tune off when you play the ‘weird music’,there will be some like us, still tuned in and it will just be a matter of time for the others to appreciate such music.

    I’ll urge you on to play ‘WEIRD MUSIC’.

    Reply
  2. pol159

    Ah my big bro you know my stance on this issue already. If Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Maria Carey and Lauryn can be named weird, I wonder what your marketing lady’s reaction would be to portishead, bonobo,lamb, Cunilinguists, leftfield and Tricky :-). I dont want to mention any dark metal acts; that would just give her a heart attack. The fact is some of the music these underground musicians make IS weird. Weird in the sense that it’s different from the norm but play it enough times, like you said, and you’ll never stop bobbing your head to Portishead’s ”biscuit” ;-)

    Reply

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