The Gospel of Pablo

There’s a scene in the biopic Ray where an irate group storm one of Ray Charles’ shows to (basically) insist that he stop taking gospel songs and ‘secularizing’ them.  I think of this scene every time I hear Christians who complain about ‘secular’ music.

Why do we always have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the zeitgeist?

Modern gospel music is a strange thing. From a musical standpoint, it’s not actually a genre per se. Instead, it borrows the sounds of other genres (including those its listeners sometimes criticize) and slaps God-related lyrics over them; both reversing and copying what Ray Charles did.

I remember all the shade Kirk Franklin caught (back when I was in secondary school) for his ‘gospelization’ of ‘secular’ hip-hop and R&B. His critics could have looked at it as some kind of reclaiming for gospel of what Charles adapted. After all, R&B is the musical descendant of the soul music that Charles co-invented through secularizing gospel music in the first place.

But no.

Thankfully (and regardless of such creative conservatism), Franklin’s kind of gospel is now very much the norm in Christian circles, at least out here in Ghana. Yet some who have no problem listening to Kirk are still at great pains to draw distinctions between the sacred and the secular; criticizing artists like Adomaa (a preacher’s daughter catching flack for singing outside the church although all her lyrics are in line with her Christian principles), Paapa (who has also shared labels/stages/songs with non-gospel artists) and (still!) Kirk Franklin for anything from not limiting themselves to gospel to associating themselves with sinners. They must be doing something right: Jesus was accused of the very same in his lifetime.

… aaaaand in walks Kanye West.

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Say what you want about his out-of-studio shenanigans: seven critically-acclaimed albums deep, the man has had one of the longest runs in music history. Ever. Kanye’s politics may bore me to tears, but the man is talented. That said, no one in my musical circles had particularly high hopes for his new album (it’s a long story: we’ll tell you about it in a podcast someday).

What rekindled my interest in (‘SWISH‘… sorry, I meant ‘Waves‘… Oh: slight correction…) ‘The Life of Pablo‘ was this headline from Relevant Magazine:

Kanye West’s New Album May Be a Gospel Album Actually

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the word ‘gospel’ that gave me hope here.

Same as it was before I became Christian, gospel is rarely a particularly interesting or innovative genre to me. I hold gospel to a higher standard. It’s not enough to simply praise God with your lyrics. The way I see it, if you’re dedicating your music to a being you worship, then it should blow minds, stretch paradigms and birth new forms. I’m a DJ and when I’m mixing songs together, I may string together songs with similar themes but I’m mostly focused on beats, melodies and such. If your music is a reflection of a God-given gift, then your instrumentation and arrangements and concepts and production, mixing and mastering should all push the envelope. You should never be accused of sounding stagnant. Why? Because creativity is the closest thing (besides reproduction) that humans have to creation. It is a chance to emulate the being you claim created you.

Show it.

The gospel music I usually hear often presents watered down (or watered-up, depending on how you choose to look at it) versions of other genres, without adding anything creative. There are exceptions. Sadly, they aren’t that popular. In contrast, hip-hop (especially Kanye West’s style of it) is often based on samples, opening it up to accusations of being derivative, and yet it still does something creatively interesting to those original sounds.

So, it was obviously the combination of the words ‘Kanye West’ and ‘Gospel’ that caught my attention. Kanye’s public persona is that of a man unhinged and listening to ‘The Life of Pablo‘ (apparently a reference to Paul) confirmed my suspicions, while also shattering any of my doubts in Kanye’s ability to produce yet another creative, interesting and at times awesome album (‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘FML’ are on loop right now). I have a bunch of problems with the album and I’m not sure I’d call the final cut gospel (whatever that really means), but it’s a deeply human one, and somewhere in there is one of the most earnest cries to God – both in praise and in need – that I’ve ever heard.

There is not much I can say from a critical perspective about ‘Pablo’ that has not already been written elsewhere. I had wanted to write a post looking at it as a gospel album. Then I listened to the Forth District podcast dedicated to dissecting the album track-by-track, and it says everything I was going to say and then some.

So I highly recommend you listen to it too. Especially if you’re not interested in gospel.

A (Mad Late) Review of Lady Jay’s ‘Venus’

I don’t remember who preceded Lady Jay the first time I saw her perform at an AccraDotAlt Talk Party a few years back. I vaguely remember that there were two or three other acts, but specifics evaporated the moment Lady breathed into the mic. She tore two ballads so beautifully apart that my eyes argued with my ears over how a voice rich with that much pain could emerge from such an obviously teenage frame.

After that, I would regularly bump into her at Panji Anoff’s Pidgen Music home studio (alongside the likes of the FOKN Bois and Yaa Pono). I watched while she tried various genres on for size – under the patient mentorship of African Relaxation Techniques’ Sewor Okudzeto (*salute*) – in search of a musical persona balancing the fun and rebellion of her youth with the maturity of her pain. For a while, the latter came more easily to her than the former (except on loose tracks like ‘Turn the Bass Up’ or DJ Juls’ remix of ‘Chillin’’ ).

With ‘Venus’ however, Lady cracked the formula, finding a sound that perfectly captures her fun, but even more so her quirkiness and rebellion. I was once worried about how she would differentiate her style from her friend, Efya’s. On ‘Venus’ however, she did so with confidence, setting herself very clearly apart from the ever-expanding roster of Ghanaian R&B singers.

‘Venus’ is NOT for everyone: it’s poppy, it’s abrasive and – with the exception perhaps of ItzTiffany – I doubt any singer out here would be brave enough to try out something this different. But somehow (as the song progresses) it works.

I’m going to honest here. Ghanaian songwriting in English can be quite um… basic. Okay, I’ll be Poetra Asantewaa-honest: it’s ***t. On ‘Venus’ however, Lady mixes it all up with her Pidgen Music influences and it works for what it is, creating the kind of singalong that has powered many a recent pop hit. I doubt she is actually “badder than Erykah Badu…” but the fact that Erykah is Lady’s standard for badness says a lot about Lady. Like Badu, she is not afraid to chart her own creative style. With an impossibly bigger budget, Venus would actually work well with a Missy Elliot-style video. Missy made an entire career out of converting quirkiness into commercial success: Lady could aim to do the same.

A major part of what makes Venus work is its production.

Continuing what he started with E.L’s (much slept on) ‘Agbadza’, Kuvie may have created an entirely new highlife/hiplife sub-genre while no one was watching. I remember listening to the BBC World Service’ documentary, A Short History of Five Notes, and hearing (the great) Professor John Collins tell (the brilliant) DJ Rita Ray how the ‘clap-clap-clap… clap-clap’ beat that underlies most Ghanaian music is a simplified version of a more complex beat from way back.

Kuvie’s genius has been to go back to that original beat and juxtapose it against the speaker-destroying 808 basslines that characterize today’s trap music. It’s a brave move, as it does not automatically lend itself to Ghanaian dancefloors. It will – however – bump the absolute heck out of your car’s trunk.

The weakest thing about Venus is Sarkodie’s rhyme. As he himself might say, ‘HUH?!’

I am as big a Sarkodie fan as the next Ghanaian (he’s such a force out here that it will soon probably be a citizenship requirement to like his music), but I have to admit to face-palming almost every time he deviates from delivering Twi/pidgin rap masterpieces and tries rhyming in English. He showed promise on ‘New Guy‘, but his rhyme on ‘Venus’ sets the movement back – waaaay back – both in terms of style and (bizarrely American-aping) content. Obidi is capable of so much more than this.

Either way, I look forward to more GH genre-bending from Lady Jay and other local artists. And I look forward to the challenge of dropping Venus the next time I DJ at the Phreak Out Live Music Festival After Party this Saturday (Feb. 20th).

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The Stubbornness of Sugar

Once upon a time, there was a cake baked over centuries; its ingredients fusing in the heat to form a moist, rich, lush vanilla cake. It wasn’t perfect, but it tasted delicious to anyone with a taste for vanilla. To anyone with taste, really.

One day however, some people without a taste for vanilla came along and decided that the cake did not taste right. A somewhat privileged bunch, they demanded that all the cake’s brown sugar be extracted and replaced with white sugar.

Those who originally baked the cake were confused. The brown sugar had been mixed in with all the other ingredients a very long time ago. It formed part of the cake, and was infused throughout it. There was no real way to extract it.

The people without a taste for vanilla would not listen though. The cake obviously had something wrong with it, they figured. Otherwise it would taste like chocolate cake.

Obviously.

Eventually, they cut out a slice of the cake – somehow convincing themselves that this slice contained all (or enough of) the brown sugar – and they replaced it with a big wedge of chocolate cake.

At first, the chocolate wedge looked a little awkward. It was somewhat shorter than the rest of the cake and – although it slotted relatively neatly into the cake – its diameter was a little too wide.

Neither did it address the continued existence of brown sugar in the cake.

Nevertheless, the people without a taste for vanilla were happy. They were convinced that – while it was certainly not as good as a complete chocolate cake – the vanilla cake was now better than whatever it had been before.

After awhile, the people without a taste for vanilla left. And over time, the people with a taste for vanilla acquired a taste for chocolate. They tried to cut the wedge’s diameter a little and raise it (with additional chocolate slices) to the same height as the rest of the vanilla cake, so that it was all at least well-shaped.

As more time passed, they developed a distaste for the vanilla part of the cake, consuming more and more of the chocolate part, importing more and more replacement chocolate wedges. Some said that the vanilla cake with the chocolate wedge tasted more chocolate than chocolate cake and tried exporting it to the people without a taste for vanilla. They convinced themselves that they had made marble cake. Others described it as vanilla cake with chocolate layers.

While such cakes certainly (can) exist, these suggestions are sadly laughable to anyone with eyes to see.

Because – deny it though we might – the people do not have marble cake. Or vanilla cake with chocolate layers.

We have a vanilla cake with a (somewhat random) chocolate wedge in it
And the brown sugar is still very much in the cake
Affecting its taste far more than we care to admit.

Whether we like it or not.

Trips to Thug-O

I was going to write a long rant about this, but there’s no point. So I’ll just say this.

1. It makes no difference whether you enter Togo through the official border or the illegal one. Tried both. Your choice is simply whether you wish to be screwed by people in uniform or people without. Choose wisely. Choose unwisely. Makes no difference.

2. If you ever want a reason to feel like Ghana is progressing, visit Togo by land.

I’m sure my Togolese brethren are wonderful people.

But by the time you go through Togolese customs, you’ll miss Ghana Police.

Fin.

A (Dope) Cartoon Made by Ghanaians for Ghanaians

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Been awhile, hasn’t it? Let’s not let such little details stop me from sharing my excitement with you though. About what, you may ask?

A new cartoon. Made in Ghana, no less.

*crickets*

Okay, before I lose your attention, allow me to rattle off a few of the names involved in the project:

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It’ll feature original music from artists including Wanlov the Kubolor, M3nsa, and Sena Dagadu (yes… you read that right: F.O.K.N and the Dagadu. What?)

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The characters were designed by the creative beast that is Hanson Akatti.

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The script involved Elisabeth Sutherland of the Accra Theatre Workshop, who also worked on the voice talent.

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Plus Jarreth Merz (who directed the brilliant, award-winning documentary, ‘An African Election’) also did a lot of behind the scenes work to make this a Ghanaian cartoon, aimed at educating and entertaining Ghanaian children, using as much Ghanaian talent as possible.

All that and it combines animation with live action.

Cha. Le.

I love it when Ghanaian creatives from different crafts get together to do dope things. Plus the stories center on food, so my inner Fanti is salivating: sold.

Three episodes of the series – called Foodies – will air on TV3 tomorrow morning at 10 am. All that, and no TV license is necessary for viewing.

*cough*

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For Mom

Mom

To be great means to put our love to work for all of God.
This means Everything. And so you are defined.
The tiny portal of human life itself
must feel our care;
the blameless vulva
through which nations
pass must know our praise
and gratitude.
It must not be harmed.

Thank you, Efua,
sister at the barricades;
we will stand side by side here,
forever. Protecting the people
from themselves;
bearing the dubious gift
of being, for so long, and so
deliberately,
misunderstood. But knowing
in our own bodies
what it means to hurt.

Torture is not culture.

May the light of self love
and understanding
dawn, as tribute
to your Goddess witness
and watchfulness
over all of Life,
divine.

Efua Dorkenoo, presente.

*****

Ser grande significa poner nuestro amor a trabajar por lo que es de Dios.

Esto significa todo. Y se te define.
El minúsculo portal de la vida humana en sí
debe sentir nuestro cuidado;
la inocente vulva
por la cual las naciones
pasan debe saber nuestro aprecio
y gratitud.
No debe ser dañada.

Gracias, Efua,
hermana de las barricadas;
estaremos codo con codo aquí,
para siempre. Protegiendo a la gente
de ellos mismos;
soportando el dudoso don
de ser, por tanto tiempo, y tan
deliberadamente,
mal entendido. Pero sabiendo
en nuestros propios cuerpos
lo que significa herir.

Torturar no es cultura.

Que la luz del amor propio
y el comprensión
alboreen, como tributo a
al testimonio y vigilancia
de tu Diosa
sobre toda la vida,
divina.

Efua Dorkenoo, presente.

Alice Walker

Originally posted on www.alicewalkersgarden.com in December, 2014

Cutting the Rose, by Efua Dorkenoo 1996
Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker
Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, book and film, by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar