After building an underground career in the States the Ghana-born rapper is catching a new wave of African music back home
Having returned to his native Ghana after ten years on the immigrant grind and the rap grind in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ghanaian indie rapper M.anifest is now working hard and making things happen in Accra. As his country celebrates 55 years of independence from British rule, the 30 year-old artist is promoting his third and strongest album, 2011′s Immigrant Chronicles, and pursuing his craft on higher level than ever before.
We caught up with him by telephone at his home in Madina. Dropping a few pearly proverbs along the way, he told us Africa is a great place to be an artist right now, why it’s actually easier to sell the truth than a lie, and how he’s applying DIY ethics to a whole new field of play.
Can you tell me a little bit about Madina, your neighborhood in Accra?
Madina is big. There’s different parts of Madina. They call it a suburb of Accra. It’s hard to know exactly what that means in African terms, but it really means it’s populated on its own. It’s not in the city center. There’s a good number of Muslims in this neighborhood. So, when I wake up in the morning I definitely hear the imam over the megaphone doing the morning prayers.
It’s one of those places that’s very alive. You can be walking around at 2 a.m. on a weekday and there’s still quite a lot of activity. You can buy everything, mundane stuff, phone credits. The bars are open. It’s a very urban African environment with tons of things going on. The churches having all-nights and making lots of noise. It’s very colorful, in short.
What contributed to your decision to move back after ten years in Minneapolis?
It was never the plan to leave home for good. A piece of me has always been here, both figuratively and, later on, trying to be more literally. I think what happened after ten years was that need to reconnect even though I never lost the connection, so the need to re-center yourself in the place where you have family, in the place where you are most comfortable. I have a son now, so I’m also somebody who is in a different place in life.
There’s never a good time to go back home. When you are an immigrant, there are these situations of doing this, achieving this, making money before going back home. It’s a great illusion or delusion. So, you just have to take a leap of faith, the same way someone exits this country. It’s a leap of faith to leave and it’s a leap of faith to come back home.
How is being home affecting you creatively?
It definitely centers me creatively. This is the place where people can understand the language of what I do almost completely, and I mean that literally and figuratively, my source material, linguistically how I decide to approach music, the things I talk about. This is where I don’t have to dumb myself down or translate as much.
And also this is a good time to be at home. There’s a new wave of current musicians and current forms in Ghana that it definitely feels important to lead or be a part of. I have friends here who I knew from a long time ago who are dong really interesting music.
And really for me, creatively, not having the same things that you have in the US in terms of infrastructure, having to be innovative and to push forward. One big thing I always say I learned from Minneapolis is that DIY mentality. Being here, I do not wait for any external entity to push me. You have to make rules on your own, but you have to make them on such a big level. In the US you can exist in the middle. Here, you either sink or swim.
How did you absorb what you did about being an independent musician from the indie scene in Minneapolis?
I started really putting music out publicly as a solo artist around ’05, ’06, those were the days of Myspace, imagine. I was able to connect with relatively successful indie artists like Brother Ali and Atmosphere based on the strength of our music and having one or two degrees of separation. And even before that just being able to see other people put their music out and get the same reviews in the Star Tribune the same way the majors did. They just operated the same way with smaller resources. And I asked myself, “how can I get my music reviewed in the CityPages or the Star Tribune?” And most of these people are very generous with information.
I learned you have to decide what you are more interested in, either seeing your face on TV or being more successful with a fanbase, the people who are interested in your music who are going to fill out different venues and buy your music and be supportive.
How are you going to apply that to the musical landscape in Ghana?
We’re already doing that with the shows. We don’t wait to be plugged in with the big shows. We started doing our own shows, even before, when I would come to visit. And now it’s growing. It’s getting bigger. Now we are in the stage where we get sponsorship for shows.
So, you realize you can start from somewhere and then you can start to do things like get media partnerships and things that others with more resources can do. It’s almost second nature now. You don’t wait. You keep moving. And when you do you see that success has many relatives. When you succeed, everybody wants to be a part of you.
To some, it might seem counter-intuitive to move to Ghana to pursue your career, but there are quite a few artists from Africa who have made the same or a similar decision. What’s going on?
The thing you have here is that fierce loyalty, if you do great music, of your people. It’s not the same when you are somewhere else. So, what you have now is a lot of people who are homegrown and a lot of people who have traveled. You have Nneka, you have Aşa, you have D’banj. In Ghana you have Sarkodie. You have people who have had varying experiences all being in the same musical terrain but then doing different things while staying connected.
So, people are getting excited that we are making this great music that can finally compete. There’s been so much importation of music. We’ve done that for too long. People are beginning to feel like we have finally so many credible and incredible artists that can help us export what we do in the same way Jamaica is a small country, an island, but Jamaican music is in everybody’s consciousness in the world.
Plus, there’s different crazes and movements that help to shine the spotlight as well. We have azonto, which is a dance, but around that dance is a lot of music that is being created. You have one of one of the biggest people who is the star of that scene Sarkodie and he’s really a rapper, he’s a proper emcee. He’s like a Nas mixed with a Twista in essence, but he’s doing it in a Ghanaian way.
You have a new breed of artist who extends our influence and we’re able to impose our will on the beat like never before. And how I fit in is by also bringing a different perspective to it. I was a nominated for two Ghana music awards this year. I’m doing what I do without much compromise, without a traditional radio song. My songs get played on the radio here, I exist in the mainstream, but playing it in a different way.
That’s interesting because there doesn’t seem to be too much outside the mainstream in Ghana.
That’s part of the challenge. And with that challenge is the opportunity to fill a different space and that’s part of how I see what I do. I see their responses, people are very excited to hear a different approach. They see me go and perform on Big Brother Africa and go, okay, this is Ghana being represented with something different.
Yes, you don’t necessarily fit in with Ghanaian hip-hop or American hip-hop, which brings me to your album Immigrant Chronicles. What kind of statement did you hope to make with that?
I think with Immigrant Chronicles I was finally experiencing growth musically and personally. The music comes from a very inspired place but I could still be very intentional about combining my experiences. I am a product of this country and its musical heritage but at the same time, I’ve very much been exposed to hip-hop and lived in other places. And I’ve worked with some musicians for quite a while now, some who have never been to Ghana, and we have that rapport. So, I’m able to more easily convey that story of who I am and the influences I’ve had.
Sometimes when you do albums you do what you can but I think I’m in a place now where I can do what I wish to. And that was a big step on there, with Ghanaian collaborations, doing a track with Efya, who is a great songstress from here. It definitely allowed me to establish what kind of musical angle I come from.
You know, they say if you propagate a lie long enough and loud enough people will start to believe it. But, in comparison, if you are able to propagate the truth about what you do and who you are even once it catches on very quickly. It’s easier to sell the truth. So, I’m more easily selling the truth of who I am.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, we’re still on Immigrant Chronicles. We’ve got the first video being released soon for a song called “Asa,” which funnily enough establishes what we just spoke about. It’s produced by Budo, who is from Seattle and has never been to Ghana.
That’s one of the big things. I know video is popular everywhere but it’s hard to explain the video thing in Africa. TV is huge here. So, we are definitely working to make our videos an extension of the art form.
And we’re going to go to South Africa for the Channel O awards, Africa’s version of the VMAs. I’m nominated in the same category and Ice Prince and K’naan.
Okay, so what’s vim?
Vim is like swag meets mojo in a very Ghanaian, raw and energetic way. It’s something that we can say, you know, “chale more vim,” to indicate that, right now, we are feeling that energy, that swag, just to take things to the next level. So, if I’m on stage and I tell the audience “more vim” then they’re going to say more vim back and if I just say “vim” then it’s like, yeah, I’m feeling that swag.
It’s one of these random things that just pop up. It’s Pidgin, really, that’s what it is. Pidgin English, you know. It goes back to what I was saying, it’s great to be able to just say these things without explanation.
Ghana is a country with great proverbs. Could you name a favorite?
That’s an impossible task, but I can give you a few.
Which one is most operative in your life at the moment?
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the adinkra symbols. They’re these symbols that have big life meaning, like sankofa, that’s the most famous one. They all represent proverbs in essence but they are short, very short. If there’s any one of those signs that encompasses what I do right now it’s the gye nyame one, which means “except god” or “except the creator,” depending on how you translate it.
The reason why is I was having a conversation with a friend of mine and she said, and I think it’s so profound, “Africa is not a place for the faithless.” As much as it’s exciting because there are so many possibilities, there are also many time when you could feel a lot of frustrations. If you are a faithless person, whatever that means to you, if you are just living by what you can see and feel alone, it’s not really going to happen. That is how I basically live now, thinking gye nyame, except the creator, except god. Things that are outside of your realm help to make things happen. Actually, one of my wooden beads that I wear is that symbol. For me it’s an important thing to remember being around these parts.