Akan is a brilliant rapper, songwriter and performer and this bold conclusion is unanimous and incontrovertible. Anyone who has listened to his album, ‘’Onipa Akoma’’ or seen him during his live performances would attest to his special talent.
The album continues to receive great reviews from listeners, six months after its release. This is largely based on the fact that, ‘’Onipa Akoma’’ is an excellent piece of art that highlights the conflict between the desires of a man’s heart and those of his mind. These divisive thoughts are what Akan battles with his 15 track album.
The conflicting ideas aside, the album also serves an educative purpose: it showcases the richness of the Twi language as well as the cultural traditions of the Akan people. Akan’s mastery of the Twi language would leave your septuagenarian relative grinning from ear to ear. His storytelling gift is of cashmere quality.
I revisited the album again as I prepped myself for an interview with him. (You can watch the four- part interview here). What struck me was how he tapped into a very important Akan musical tradition on ‘’Odaamani Abisade3’’, the first track on the album.
‘’Odaamani Abisade3’’ which translate as ‘’Mankind’s Request’’ is the perfect opener on the album, and could rank among the best intro songs on an album ever. On the song, Akan projects, in vivid terms, the conflicting thoughts of a Man: the desires of his heart versus the desires of his mind; evil versus purity; physical or earthly needs versus spiritual fulfilment.
These cravings of the heart and mind are amply demonstrated in the barrage of lyrics that follow. For every wish of long life, there’s the desire to use it to commit adultery and fornicate. When he asks for good health, it is to support his drinking habits (“I need a healthy liver to aid my drinking habits”, he rapped). And each prayer for knowledge is to exploit the weak in society; and for every power he aspires for, it isn’t to fight or change the circumstances of the people he loves, but to abuse them for his own selfish gains.
Death, he knows, would come knocking one day. For Akan, his show-off to death rests in the number of kids he has fathered in his lifetime and not necessarily the legacy he has to leave behind. Akan offers the listener, a snapshot of how power and riches can be abused.
A Man of Tradition and Culture
When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don’t just turn it off one day. –Chinua Achebe
‘’Odaamani Abisade3’’ showcases Akan’s deep knowledge of Akan traditions and culture. The song begins with a stream of conscious thoughts, where he questions humanity, man’s desires, God and what life essentially is. What becomes clear later on is that, each spoken sentence elicits a response from an assembly of women. Here, Akan assumes the role of a priest sharing a message with his subjects. And for 40 seconds, his voice takes centre stage, the female voices lending support, in a lead and response manner. (The words are translated for the benefit of none Twi speakers.)
We came to this world naked so if there’s anything to fight for, it should be a piece of cloth to cover our nakedness
Have you ever thought of feeding your soul after feeding your body?
If you criticise the beliefs of a person, they don’t accept but rather do counter criticism
The bible says that the wages of sin is death but if it is so, why does both the sinner and the saint die?
In sum, Akan is trying to say that, every material thing we hold on to dearly is vanity. This summation interestingly feeds into what he had intended naming the album: ‘’Vanity Slaves’’
This style-call and response- is called ‘’Abre’’ and “Nnwonkoro” respectively. “Abre” is signified by the single voiced chants or rants that Akan performs with no form of instrument accompanying it. The female responses that greet each sentence during the performance of the ‘’Abre’’ is referred to as ‘Nnwonkoro’.
In the Akan tradition, “Nnwonkoro” is performed exclusively by a female ensemble, amidst dancing, drumming, clapping. Those who witnessed the burial of the late Asantehemaa may have seen it being performed.
On ‘Odaamani Abisade3’, Akan breaks from the ‘rules’ of the performance. Instead of a female lead, Akan, the man, takes lead. This is not a rare occurrence as it’s very pervasive in roots rock reggae music (kochoko).
Spirituality Versus Earthly Desires
The bloodless conflict between the heart and mind-with a tacit spiritual influence- is evident throughout the song. Akan draws biblical inferences on human actions, as heard during the performance of “Abre” by making reference to a quote from 1 Corinthians. He again pivots the question: have you ever thought of feeding your soul after feeding your body?
Akan is a confessed spiritual being. In my recent interview with him, he explicitly said this: ‘I don’t know everything. The little I know is what I share on the songs. I believe there’s something bigger than all of us. I know there are good and bad spirits around’. This spiritual side is eloquently present in some of the lyrics masked with biblical quotes, starting first with the rendition of the creationist story as found in Genesis Chapter 1, where God made Man (Adam) and subsequently handed him dominion over everything He created.
Accompanied by a solemn flute tune heard mostly during funerals, Akan ends his commentary with a profound reminder from 1 Corinthians 10: 23: ‘’Everything is permissible, but not all things are beneficial or helpful”. He further asks the question, ‘man, what’s your heart desire?’. This question angles itself to have you ever thought of feeding your soul after feeding your body? as found in the book of Luke 12:19.
Over menacing trap drums and bouncing beat from Twisted Wavex, he proceeds to highlight the desires of the heart. But before that, we hear a voice urging him to ‘to tell the truth’. That voice is his conscience: the mind. His opening lyrics emphasizes his desires to live long since he has eaten enough salt.
The salt reference has two connotations. First, it’s for preservation. In the culinary world, salt is used to prolong the shelf life of food, especially fish or meat products. In the Akan language, salt is used as metaphor to describe one’s longevity (age wise) hence the proverb that ‘me di nkyin’ (I’ve eaten enough salt) or ‘nkyin y3 d3’ (salt is sweet). Salt is again used to cast away demons or evil spirits. In all these instances, salt is used figuratively or literally as insurance for long life on earth.
In the lyrics that followed, Akan confirms what the Bible says about the heart of man: it’s filled with folly. Like Kendrick Lamar’s song, ‘’Wesley’s Theory’’ off ‘’To Pimp A Butterfly’’ where he rapped, ‘’when I get signed hommie, I’ma act a fool’’ and went on to describe how he’d ‘take some M-16s to the hood’’, Akan’s desires include sleeping with multitudes of women and rejecting paternity of some of his kids, using his education and knowledge to rip people off; becoming rich and powerful and suppressing others with his power; grow eternally handsome. Even though he is aware of his own excesses and reckless lifestyle, Akan isn’t prepared to listen to advice.
The Evil verses Good Nexus
On the 3:04 second mark, a voice punctures through, screaming out the cautionary words found in 1 Corinthians 10:23. That voice-his ‘conscience’-urges Kwabena to be cautious in life; to consider his decisions and actions before taking a leap. This captures the concept of ‘’Onipa Akoma’’: a battle between the contradictions of the heart and the clarity of the mind. The mind wants him to live a simple life guided by wisdom and God.
The verse is however without controversy as Hamza Moshood indicated in his review of the album. Akan references his desire to have white skin rather than a black one so that ‘people would note his good mind and intentions’. This tone is, in Hamza’s view racist and fed into the stereotype of the black man being evil minded.
“Though he isn’t obliged to, Akan might want to do some explaining to some of us regarding his assertion on the opening track – Odaamanii Abisadeɛ – that black people’s skin and their heart’s have come to be one and the same and therefore…
Such things aren’t inconsequential as they may seem; especially in a society where anti-black sentiments – “black man, black sense” et cetera – are so pervasive. Assessed at face value, Akan’s remark seems to be in tow with that line of thought; and, should that actually be the case, it goes without saying that it’s a rather unsavory sentiment. Hamza Moshood (Yoyotinz)”
Perhaps, Akan used this popular saying to highlight how certain crop of people are often excused for their excesses when they should be held accountable. And if his heart desires are to be fulfilled, he needed not to be judged. He wished for that kind of free pass.
It becomes very clear in the end that, amidst the conflicting thoughts, Akan is a man begging for answers to the many questions floating in his mind. He is a man trapped in a vault, unsure of which part to go since the numerous worldly forces surrounding him keep pulling him towards different angles or pathways.
”Odaamani Abisade3” shows how steeped Akan is in the traditions he takes pride in as well as its cultural ethos. His ability to wax poetically about life, its conflicts and linking it to biblical verses is a mark of excellence. As he told me in the interview, changing his name from Kwabena Shy to Akan was to reset his own focus and ambitions as a rapper: staying true to his own calling.