In life, as in death, Priscilla Opoku Kwarteng and controversy never parted.
In many ways, she was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
She, known better by her stage name ‘Ebony Reigns’, was — and probably still is — a character of the sort Ghanaian showbiz hasn’t seen since Daddy Lumba in his prime, dividing opinion so sharply you’d probably forget she sprang out of her teens into the realm of national consciousness not long ago, and daring to be damned by the censorious culture she nonetheless thrived in.
Truth be told, it’s hard to cast Ebony into a particular mould; her vivacious, dynamic self just wouldn’t permit it. For a dancehall artiste, she did gospel too well (more on that later), and for a girl whose sense of fashion would make her a perfect fit at any club on a sweaty Friday night, Ebony’s voice would hardly have been out of place as part of a sombre Sunday service choir. Like I said, you just couldn’t tag her — unless you were the ‘mortuary man’ at the Bechem Government Hospital charged with that uneasy duty.
It’s easy to remember Ebony as one of the genuinely naughty ones: her own nickname, identifying her as a self-styled ‘90s BadGyal’, left little doubt about that. Her eye-poppingly suggestive choice of clothing for music videos, live performances and even TV interviews, along with a catalogue of risqué stagecraft, did plenty to validate the said moniker. She was brazen in that way, presenting herself in a manner that Ghanaians hadn’t had thrust at them since a certain Mzbel’s star dimmed — and, really, Ebony was Mzbel re-born, only more talented and daring.
Half of the society she sought to entertain — an exuberant, rebellious and youthful army seeking a poster figure for an increasingly liberal outlook — egged her on, while the other half — unwavering in their resolve to stay conventional and desperate to preserve norms of morality apparently being dragged down the drain by Ebony and her ilk — slammed her afresh after each show.
Oh, and about her music itself? Where do I even start?
Well, let’s just say only her appearance made her lyrics — loaded with double entendres that would make even Lumba blush — seem mild. If you could read between lines she rarely ever left unblurred, you’d easily realize enduring hits like ‘Kupe’, ‘Poison’, ‘Sponsor’ and ‘Hustle’ were packaged and delivered with little subtlety.
That, though, was just one of Ebony’s faces. Like the mythological Janus, she had another which stared right in the opposite direction. For every ‘Dancefloor’ that begged to be wiggled to at the waist and would long remain a staple on the, er, dancefloor, (forgive the pun), there was a ‘Maame Hwe’ which tugged at even her harshest critic’s heart and has come to stay forever and a day as the anthem for the campaign against domestic violence in Ghana.
And for every gospel-heavy ‘Aseda’ that a mom-of-six trader at the Makola market would hum to herself as she displays her wares each morning, there is an innuendo-laden ‘Hustle’ (the video of which employs a market setting, ironically) that some Circle-based ladies-of-the-night wouldn’t mind having as their unofficial soundtrack while going about their nocturnal business.
To think that Ebony crammed all of this in so short a time is even more startling than anything she’d actually accomplished. It’s why she’s had her genius acknowledged and has been mourned by many whose professional affairs have little to do with a music studio, including international football stars as well as past and sitting presidents. Indeed, while 2017 may have only been her second full year in the limelight, it already qualified as something of an annus mirabilis; the ‘Bonyfied’ album she launched in December of that year was just her maiden compilation, but we were certain it would be the first of many.
What’s certain now, though, is that offering would eternally stand alone as a body of work to be prized as a collector’s item, a timeless legacy of one who did more with three of her 20 years on earth to define Ghanaian music than most contemporaries. Post-mortem, Ebony rose to become the first female ever named the Ghana Music Awards’ Artiste of the Year, and not just because of some sympathetic swing or a wave of sentiment.
A year later, with the tears all dried and the dust settled and the ‘pastors’ who lined up to claim ‘credit’ for Ebony’s February 8 passing each exhausting their 15 minutes of fame — and, yes, after the conspiracy theorists rest their cases about who predicted the misfortune [but shouldn’t have] and who could have averted it [but didn’t] — the story is still told of a young diva who boldly drove on to a saddening and sudden anticlimax.
Ebony tried to bare it all, but just as she so often deliberately stopped short of exposing the most intimate details of her body while alive, she never quite gave us a full glimpse of her range of gifts either — and that, alas, wasn’t deliberate.