Ghana Controversial: Music from the Ground Up

Young artists in Ghana shake things up as they question global powers and local values with their music.

Editor’s note: This film will be removed on August 7, 2020.

In Ghana, a new bold music scene has taken hold.

“Help America!” calls the rap duo, FOKN Bois, as they walk the streets of Accra, shaking a plastic donation bucket at passers-by, a camera trained on them.

“Ghana, we don’t have any problems. Americans are suffering,” they say, passing vendors and shop fronts.

They begin to rap as part of a music video calling for African countries to help the impoverished and homeless in the United States.

FOKN Bois, made up of friends M3NSA and Wanlov the Kubolor, use their music to challenge the status quo. Using the tools of parody, humour, and protest, they highlight social issues and call for political change.

“We were never raised or trained or programmed to be patriotic, to care about the country,” says Wanlov the Kubolor. “We are just raised to know that whatever we are learning is for us to get a visa to go somewhere else or to go to heaven.”

But they, along with a new generation of artists – who produce songs, poems, murals, clothes, and more – are investing in home.

Capturing drone footage, shooting videos on iPhones, editing songs in private studios, and streaming music online, they spread a message of confidence and self-love. Using the power of the internet, they contradict mainstream views of their communities, call out politicians, and challenge the messages of megachurches.

“I feel like our people should believe in themselves, that’s my dream,” says Worlasi, a rapper and producer. “We can be our highest self. We can be strong enough to say no to any external power, fear or force, you know, and just believe in making ourselves better.”

But as they push for change, at times the road to progress looks longer than ever, and their work threatens to drain them.

Over the course of five years, Ghana Controversial follows musicians like M3NSA, Wanlov the Kubolor, Adomaa, Worlasi, Akan, Mutombo Da Poet and Poetra Asantewa as they shake things up at home. They have written and produced new songs and videos exclusively for this film in collaboration with Swiss filmmakers.

Listen to their songs, filled with funk and finesse, belief and grief, and calls for a brighter future.

Ghana Controversial - Witness - DO NOT USE
Wanlov the Kubolor, a rapper and musician, holds up a camera during a music video shoot [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 



By Peter Guyer and Thomas Burkhalter

We have worked with and around music in different ways for many years now. Peter directed and worked on various documentary films, Thomas co-directed one documentary, wrote and produced books, broadcasts and podcasts about music, and has run the Norient platform The Now in Sound since 2002.

Five years ago we decided to collaborate on a multimedia project, Sound Translations, that would deal with current trends in global music. A first research trip in 2013 took us to Ghana where we were introduced to a thriving, young, alternative music scene that fascinated us. The two main musicians were Wanlov the Kubolor and M3NSA – the FOKN Bois – who are now two main characters in our documentary.

We were both impressed and inspired by their fresh approach, and their Pidgin musicals Cov Ov Moni. Through parody, humour and direct protest, these two – and other musicians – engaged critically with social and political issues, both locally and globally. We shot and edited the long teaser Ghana is the Future, a short film meant for our multimedia project that never saw the light of day. Ghana would have been one of many playgrounds.

But four years later, the world had changed. Populist movements had become stronger, the US elected a new president and social achievements of past decades were put into question.

Still in contact with Ghana, we decided with the Ghanaian artists on a project that would observe, comment on and contradict the status quo. The idea was to collaborate closely and look at today’s world from both a Ghanaian, African as well as a Swiss, European perspective.

With Ghana Controversial our aim was to create an artistic dialogue, a musical kaleidoscope. The musicians produced their own tracks and video clips for this documentary. They filmed and edited them with their own local crews and brought their own aesthetics into Ghana Controversial. The film also uses audio-driven moments where people we interviewed speak about anger, depression and other urgent issues; we felt it was best to use their voices only for these sequences.

Through small and big ideas, loud and quiet sounds, and our own observations, this film seeks to reflect on our fast-changing world. A mirror of today; a call to contradict the status quo – globally and locally.

We hope to broaden horizons – both our own and our viewers – to show Africa in a different and possibly new light; to offer insights into strong, fragile and experimental artistic positions; and to hint at possibilities, dreams, hopes and fears of contemporary life in a globalised, digitised and urbanised world.

Ghana Controversial - Witness - DO NOT USE
A new generation of artists is highlighting political and social issues through music [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]