In the video for her song “Rock My Body”, the singer Noella Wiyaala drives her motorbike through Ghana wearing red heeled boots. Jubilantly, she pauses to dance on the bike and sings, “I want a man to rock my body.” Some people just saw the suggestive side. But as an advocate for women’s rights, for her, the message was political. She told Refinery29: “When I do a song like “Rock My Body”, I want people to know that I, as an African woman, can be the one choosing which man will rock my body… in the video, it is me you see going shopping for a man at Aishaman market!”
With her bold lip palette, Wiyaala intends to draw your attention to her mouth because of the importance of the words that come out. Through her music, she seeks to promote choice for young women and fight back against practices like child marriage and FGM, using her lyrics to raise awareness of such issues. Because of this commitment, she was recently invited to perform in the UK as part of the “Voices of the Revolution” collective, which saw an organisation called In Place of War gather together an inspirational lineup of female musicians from around the world to share ideas and perform throughout the summer.
When we sat down with Noella Wiyaala for a chat, she assured us that, while she may be a pop star on the side, her day-to-day in Ghana is often just like anyone else’s; a simple life, with her two dogs, designing her own dresses while watching crappy TV. Still, we were blown away by her voice, passion and athleticism on stage, so wanted to find out more about the woman dubbed the “Young Lioness of Africa”, and how she believes music can bring about change.
Hi Noella. In your own words, could you tell us a little more about what you choose to sing about?
I believe a musician is free to sing about anything they want. Not only that, they can sing in any style they choose. And this is what I do. I don’t sing for awards. And while it’s good to be popular, I refuse to write a song just for commercial reasons alone. This means my songs are about what I want them to be about.
For example, in “Rock My Body”, I want people to know that I, as an African woman, can have that choice. In our culture, women have traditionally been given to men in exchange for cows, a herd of goats or some other barter arrangement. This practice is dying out among more educated sections of our society but still exists in rural areas. The song promotes the idea to young women that they have a choice about which man they have sex with or marry. In reality, the change will come when education becomes more equal in Africa.
Other songs, such as “Tinambanyi”, are a battle cry on behalf of women or any oppressed people. It is saying, you the guilty ones, fear our power, even though we are not out yet. “Isaala! (I’m calling you) is a direct challenge for you to come out and face us. However, you know you are in the wrong and we know you will run away from the truth!
On my mother’s side, music was always in the family. My uncle, who was blind, used to write and sing songs that were popular in the church. My mother was a chorister and as a small girl I would drum in the church. I started singing and dancing from a very early age. Even at about the age of five, though I didn’t realise it, music was already empowering me. One day, my mum and dad had a big row and my mum took us to stay with an auntie in Tamale. We were in a local bar and I started singing and dancing. I entertained the patrons so well they threw coins for me. I picked them from the floor and gave them to my mother and told her not to worry because I could always do this to get money.A few years later, when TV and video cassettes came to the village and I was able to watch Michael Jackson and Madonna, I learnt all their songs and would imitate them in the compound to entertain friends and family. In my teens, I began to realise I had a real singing voice when I was always included in the school entertainment programmes. Then it all started to become a more conscious process. I told myself that I was going to get out of the village and become a famous singer. Not an easy journey, but it is happening.
Wow! In your performances, you can see you have such amazing energy. What is it that makes you think music can bring about social change?
Music has given me everything. And I am grateful. I can never have imagined that I would travel the world and meet so many wonderful people. When I was a child in the village, I saw a postcard of a woman in Holland carrying milk in front of a windmill, I believed the windmill was a giant fan to cool the people and that you could drink as much milk as you liked. I thought it was a vision of heaven! Well, thanks to music, I have now been to Holland and seen these things for real!
Music has given me both popularity and responsibility. The popularity is good because people will take you more seriously. But it comes with duties. You automatically become a role model and that gives you the power to influence. I know that many girls and young women look up to me as a young woman who has managed to break out. I try to encourage them to believe in themselves. I always talk to them about going to school and using that opportunity to become economically independent.
I believe in the saying, “When you educate a girl, you educate a whole nation. When you educate a man, you educate an individual.” So, it’s the education and independence of young females that will bring about social change. As a leading female musician in Ghana and Africa, that is how I plan to have a positive impact. I also work with Unicef Ghana and the Ministry of Gender in Ghana to combat early child marriage and education.
You have talked previously about how no woman has ever won the biggest music awards in Ghana. Were there particular problems you faced in the industry there or do you think this is just a symptom of worldwide issues that women in music face?
From what I read, it appears that women all over the world are complaining about discriminatory practices in the music industry and Africa is just no different. It starts when you are a female child and are told that music is no future for a girl. When you get older, controlling men in the industry will tell you that if you are willing to fuck them, they can get you a recording contract or put you on a show. Of course, the naïve female doesn’t realise that the man has no intention of honouring the devil’s bargain.
Many, many talented females have been lost to music as they give up their aspirations in despair. I have been both strong-willed and lucky. I managed to resist these lies and then met a manager who did not impose such conditions. But even then, as a woman I had to struggle in an industry that always favours men. The leading awards scheme in Ghana is the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards. It has been in existence for 17 years. In that time, no woman has ever won the artist of the year. In all the leading shows in Ghana, women are never featured as the headline act. Their images appear as an afterthought on the billboards. All that said, I have met honourable men and I love them, but overall the industry is run by men, for men.
You are quite the activist though… are you doing something, aside from making your presence felt, to challenge this inequality?
Musical inequality is a symptom of general inequality around the world. Even in western societies, I read that women are still struggling to get equal pay. In practical terms, there are two or three things I can do. I can sing about it. I can talk about it. Thanks to the internet, I can also work outside the system direct to my audience using social media. I can also start my own things. For example, I have created The Djimba World Music Festival in Wa (my hometown) in the Upper West Region of Ghana, far away from Accra, where the commercial music industry is mainly based. I have also set up my own rehearsal and recording studio to encourage local musicians, especially girls, to develop their own abilities.
Amazing. And finally, what are your aspirations for the future?
Short-term, I want to run a successful festival, to release my second album by May 2017, make an epic video for “Tinambanyi” and finish building enough of my family house so that we can live in it. Long-term, I want to have a very long and varied career and to be a symbol of hope for my continent.