Today – at last – another Talk Party is upon us (sorry… only for my Accra-based crew). This month’s topic is Art & Politics. Slightly off-topic, but it got me thinking about the influence of corporations and businesses on the arts in Ghana. Which in turn got me thinking – weirdly – about the Pied Piper. Let me explain.
Before R. Kelly bizarrely adopted it as an alias, the Pied Piper was simply the legend of “… a rat catcher hired by the town [of Hamelin] to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the citizenry refused to pay for this service, he retaliated by turning his magic on their children, leading them away as he had the rats.“
According to Wikipedia, the story could reflect:
- The tale of a serial killer (oooo – CSI: Hamelin!)
- A historical plague or catastrophe in which Hamelin lost its children
- A children’s crusade gone wrong
- Germans leaving home to colonize Eastern Europe
- A story about paying those who are due
Personally, I look at it as a nice little morality tale for creatives and artists dealing with big business and corporations, especially here in Ghana. Obviously, the Pied Piper is a creative (a musician, in this case) and Hamelin’s town council rep big business. As the story shows, the latter did not have the former’s interests at heart. This pretty much holds up today.
Moving back to Ghana a couple of years back, I was a little shocked at how brazenly afropop group Praye associated themselves with the Nescafe brand. Of course, this was because they emerged from a talent show sponsored by the latter (in a rare example of corporate Ghana unearthing and aiding genuine talent).
Understand: growing up between Cape Coast and London meant that I was influenced by a Western culture in which even excessive product placement is legislated against by the EU, as well as a hiphop culture that villified MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice for putting money over art (although, as it turns out, they were visionaries… precursors of what was sadly to become the norm).
Over there, they call it ‘selling out’. That term doesn’t really exist in Ghana. Instead, we have ‘just the way it is.’
Over time I have seen people start out with good, creative ideas in Ghana, only to see them bend over (pun intended) backwards to meet corporate whims. Everything is money driven. Even youth radio is forced to churn out music that adults lost their virginity to because adults run the companies that advertise on their stations and are more likely to give money to stations that play music they like.
As a result, we have seen programming at youth stations like YFM & XFM become confused. On the one hand, they still chase the youth buck, playing Keri Hilson and such. On the other hand, they still play music for adults too and, even there, there is confusion: I used to hear Fela in the morning on my way to work. Now, it has been replaced by Fabolous.
Long story short, everyone starts sounding the same; there is no segmentation; no choice; there’s limited music (i.e. we keep playing the same music again and again over years) and as a result, the average Ghanaian’s musical palate does not grow.
E Be Art We Go Chop?
I am sure that most Ghanaians reading this are thinking “of course Ghanaian artists are money-driven. Will they eat art?” The assumption here is that real art and money are mutually-exclusive. Not true. I’ve already made this argument regarding the film industry.
Looking at music though, I’m pretty sure the most successful African musicians come from the Senegal-Mali area. People like Salif Keita, Yossou N’dour and Baaba Maal. They make music that actually sounds African but absorbs influences from elsewhere. Here in Ghana, we make music that aspires to be international but seems to have merely absorbed influences from Ghana (rather than sounding like its actually from here). Who is more successful, internationally speaking? Them or us? Why does this matter? Because if you want to talk sales, the Ghanaian market is too small. Aim global. Oh. But your music is not of a global standard.
People don’t take art seriously here. I’ll tell you why they should:
The ability of a people to dream is reflected in its art. So if our art is limited to aping Western art or regurgitating the art of our ancestors, then what does it say about our dreams as a people and more importantly, our future?
Executives don’t understand art. They understand numbers. They cannot make art: their money is merely supposed to assist the artistic process. Its quid pro quo though, so the artist is supposed to use their talent to drive business towards the corporate entity. This is a finely balanced arrangement though. Right now, we are getting that balance wrong. Money has too much control over art and this results in bad art, which in turn only lessens the bargaining power of the artist and results in more bad art.
I understand that everyone has to make a buck (preferably several) but a model in which the love of money dictates artistic direction offers little to no space for progress, artistic or otherwise.