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The Politics of Music In Ghana

Politics and music have been bedfellows for decades. From the late 50s when Ghana became an independent nation state to present, politicians have co-opted musicians or their songs to their advantage. Instances abound where artists go out of their way to compose songs for these politicians and political parties, sometimes at their own detriment. The case of the late highlife veteran, Jewel Ackah is a classic illustration.

In the 50s, when the political consciousness of Ghanaians was being sparked by pre-independence agitations, music- specifically highlife- became a vehicle for political agitation. Musicians crafted songs that reflected socio-political issues like newspapers do today. An example was E.T. Mensah and The Tempos Band’s ‘’Land of Freedom’’ that celebrated both the new dawn of independent Ghana and eulogized President Kwame Nkrumah.

From the post-colonial days of Ghana to this 4th Republican political dispensation, there has been a number of politically themed songs by artists who have either proclaimed support for a political party or felt the need to express their views. There have been instances where political parties have used popular songs for their campaigns. A case in point was in the year 2000 when the New Patriotic Party used Cindy Thompson’s ‘’Ewurade Kasa’’ as one of their rallying songs.

Aside from the co-opting of songs, there have been occasions when certain songs have been ascribed political meanings by the public when the real intentions of the artist were/are far off any political reason or purpose. In most instances, these songs coincided with certain political developments thus fueling these speculations.

Nana Ampadu, one of the many highlife musicians whose songs were banned because of its political message

This article is going to spotlight and explore some highlife (and hiplife) songs that assumed political connotations or captured some political developments in post-colonial Ghana.

Nana Ampadu – Ebi Te Yie

Nana Ampadu, regarded as the king of highlife is noted for his use of fables to speak on issues within the society. Like most highlife songs of the 60s, highlife was the vehicle used by artists to speak on issues of social, political and moral relevance. Nana Ampadu’s music embodied all these and more. A notable example was ‘’Ebi Tie Yie’’, released in 1967. The song was misconstrued as a chide to the military government that toppled Dr. Nkrumah in the 1966 coup.

‘’Ebi Te Yie’’ (Some Live Well) was a fable about a conference of animals on how to live in peace and harmony with one another. Even at the meeting, some of the weaker animals raised issues with how unfair they were treated. The meeting was subsequently called off.

Considering the political climate of the time and how members of the military junta were living, many construed the song as a criticism of the National Liberation Council (NLC). Nana Ampadu was invited before a military tribunal to explain the meaning behind the song. ”Ebi Te Yie” was banned on the radio but became part of Ghana’s phraseology, often used to describe the inequality between the rich and the poor in society.

Sir Victor Uwaifo – Guitar Boy

Sir Victor Uwaifo was a Nigerian highlife primus whose song ‘’Guitar Boy’’ gained traction in Ghana in 1967 when Lieutenant S.B. Arthur named his failed coup after the song. The narrative was that, the coup makers had arranged for the song to be played should the operation became successful.

However, that was not to be the case: the coup was aborted, the plotters arrested and summarily executed on the grounds of treason. The song was a call for people not to be afraid of Maami Water, the mythical sea goddess.

‘’Guitar Boy’’, the song was banned from the airways. Interestingly, a military band playing at an event (in) advertently played ‘’Uwaifo’s Guitar Boy’’ instead of the more popular, ‘apolitical’ ‘’Jorome’’. All the band members were arrested and threw into a guard room as a form of punishment.

Kofi Sammy – Tu Wo Bo Ase

Dr. Busia became prime minister of Ghana in 1969. But, his government would be overthrown by the General Kutu Acheampong led National Redemption Council (NRC) three years after assuming office. The NLC would go on to use Kofi Sammy’s (of Okukuseku Band II) ‘To Wo Bo Ase’’ which translate as ‘’Be Patience or Careful’’ to justify their actions.  The NLC junta used this song to slight Busia for what they considered as his arrogance and stubbornness.

Another song that incensed the Acheampong regime was ‘’Ye De Wo’’
(‘’You Are Born With It’’) by Alex Konadu, His song was interpreted as a dig at Acheampong’s corrupt regime. The lyrics of the song were considered as mocking General Acheampong’s poor English comprehension and political sophistication. The lyrics:

If you are speaking English/ Space your words properly

If you speak English/ Do not always talk about food/

If you are wise/ You are born with it/Wisdom cannot be bought.

The food reference was a shade to Lt. General Acheampong’s ‘’Operation Feed Yourself’’ programme which was aimed at increasing Ghana’s food stock. However, the programme failed in the 70s due to drought. Lt. Gen. Acheampong’s decision to ban this song could do little to ameliorate the sense of mockery the song had generated.

Another song that took a critical dig at the Acheampong regime was Nana Ampadu’s ‘’Aware Bo Ne’’. Similar to the (mis)interpretation the public gave to ‘’Ebi Te Yie’’ or ‘’Ye De Wo’’ by Alex Konadu, ‘’Aware Bo Ne’’ (which translated as bad marriage) pointed to the ‘’bad marriage’’ between the people of Ghana and the military junta. This critique was informed by the drought of 1970 which negatively impacted both his ‘’Operation Feed Yourself’’ initiative and on the overall economy.

E.K. Nyame – Nsuo Beto A Mframa Dzi Kan

There’s a storm before rainfall’. The translation of the song title from Twi. An innocuous song about the uncertainties of life, E.K Nyame’s song would be yanked from radio and seen within political lenses. The whole situation happened when Dr K.A. Busia, then Kwame Nkrumah’s political opponent requested the song on a Nigerian radio. ‘The song would become associated with Dr. Busia’s National Liberation Movement which would later contest Nkrumah in elections. The phrase was read by the public as a threat to Nkrumah’s regime.

Barima Sidney: Obia Nye Obia, Scent No, African Money and Sika Di Basabasa

No artist in the history of Ghanaian music at the turn of the millennium has been more political than arguably Barima Sidney. The rapper, who began his career as one-third of ‘Nananom’- with Omamhene Pozo (late) and Jyoti. The two male acts would go on to pursue successful solo careers. But, it was Barima Sidney who remained relevant, churning out hit songs that were both controversial and spoke truth to power.

From Sidney came songs like ‘’Obia Nye Obia’’, ‘’Scent No’’, ‘’Sika Di Basabasa’’ which caused a stir within the country. The controversy that Sidney caused with these songs were largely political as they were released at the height of political and economic hardships. It was regarded as songs composed to criticize, mostly the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which were the political power holders when these songs were released.

‘’Obia Nye Obia’’ (No One Is Untouchable) took aim at the political classism that was deepening between the ruling class and the proletariat at that time. The government of that era and its acolytes were regarded as ‘’disrespecting’’ the people who put them in power with their actions. Barima Sidney was therefore, reminding them that, they can say whatever they want but come Election Day, the voters would exhibit the power they hold.

A song like ‘’Scent No’’ (The Smell), ‘’African Money’’ and ‘’Sika Di” (Blowing Our Money) were his most political songs to date. Even though ‘’Scent No’’ (The Scent), his 2003 hit song bothered on personal hygiene, like many other songs that were released around an ‘eventful’ period came to denote corruption.

Unlike ‘’Scent No’’, his 2012 song, ‘’Sika Di ’’ was an open critique of the governing Mahama Administration whose tenure was accused of being corrupt. The critique was considered by some as a hatchet job for the then opposition NPP whom he had openly aligned himself with. Unlike ‘’Scent No’’ which became a viral hit, the latter’s reach paled in comparison with his previous release.

The relationship between politics and music has been as old as the founding of the country. Like all social activities in Ghana, music has become a rallying point and the politicians have been able to co-opt it to the advantage either through commissioning artists to make songs for their campaigns, or ambushing a hit song.

Unlike acts like the FOKN Bois who are known for their nuanced political songs, most artists try to ‘cash in’ when elections draw near. There are times when the intention of the artist is not to make a record with political undertones but coincidence between message and circumstances within the country make inferences quiet striking. The outcome is something no one has control over.

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