Who do men say he is?
“I’m a human being in Africa/ but a black man in America/ an African in England/ don’t forget who you are.”
Fuse ODG is impressed, and surprised by the quality of internet that has just carried his Skype interview. He exhales, and quips that all through the video call to a Jamaican media house, he had been anxious that the network would give in any moment. Laughter rumbles about the room, amongst a dozen men who constitute his team and company. Before the Skype call was an in-studio convo with broadcaster Abeiku Santana, and before that, sessions with Andy Dosty of Hitz FM among others. Our sit down, which happens about 7 pm, is his final one for the day.
This evening, he cuts the look of a really cool monk; in an all-black ensemble comprising a bam hat labeled “New Africa Nation,” a kaftan, jeans, sneakers, and a miniature Africa map hanging down his neck. He also emits via his language, a deeply philosophical outlook on identity and the psychology of home. He readjusts in his seat, and signals to me that he’s ready.
Since the start of his career, Fuse, known to his parents as Nana Richard Abiona, and who grew up in South London, has had to constantly explain (or rather, defend) his identity. The quotation that begins this essay, from “Bra Fie,” his recent single featuring reggae star Damian Marley, attempts to bring an end to never-ending inquiries regarding his identity. Nevertheless, those lines, eloquently penned and movingly rendered, still seem insufficient to a cross section of Ghanafo, who criticize him as not being “Ghanaian enough,” per the “Ghananometer” which they invented.
“Me fri Kumasi, ɛnti you can’t come and talk to me about being Ghanaian,” he shoots back at skeptics, in immaculate Twi, and then in English. It is his approach throughout the conversation. Fuse emphasizes that it is here in Ghana, where sunshine is everlasting, and where he can have Waakye, his beloved rice and beans meal for breakfast, that he feels most at home.
Fuse, who holds a number of top laurels including Ghana Music Awards and a MOBO (Music of Black Origin) prize, is famed for “Antenna,” a 2013 UK Singles Chart placing number. Its predecessor, “Azonto,” was pivotal in popularizing the sub-genre internationally. Other offerings by the musician, due to their immense impact the world over; have earned him a reputation as Afrobeats forbear.
Afrobeats – the term— is repetitively employed as label for a wide variety of sounds from Africa and the diaspora, leading many to dismiss it as suffering an identity crisis. As I’m currently encountering one who practices the genre, and is credited globally as bona fide champion, I am keen on finding out his definition, and what elements must exist in music bearing that tag – an explanation I intend to subsequently cite with the intellectual snootiness of a scholar. However the genre is often viewed, a definition by Fuse, a founding member of the movement (which must not be confused with Fela Kuti’s 1970s invention resulting from a fusion of Nigerian highlife, jazz, soul, and traditional Yoruba sounds –but which also pays tribute to the spirit of Fela’s experimentation) should hold weight. But even Fuse’s definition doesn’t offer me the specificity I long for –or rather, does not arrive in the manner conventional definitions do. He narrows Afrobeats down though, to a template of percussion work and an inner antenna for the African pulse: “of course, we have our percussions, we have our vibes –you know –but it’s hard to pin Afrobeats down to one sound –because it’s not just one sound –it’s different grooves, it’s different vibes in the same genre –different tempos and everything.
So, a lot of times, I hear a song and I can just feel that it’s Afrobeats, because I know where they get the inspiration from. We need to learn how to just know that Afrobeats is not just one thing –it’s different vibes. I make Afrobeats in different ways. Some people might not even see it as Afrobeats, but it’s Afrobeats because it’s inspired by Africa.”
Vibes: an ever-present jargon in the speech of specialists of Afrobeats. No definition may truly suffice for Afrobeats, due to the many rivulets linked to the sound, but Afrobeats will always reveal itself via a vibe. If you feel it, you’ll know, opine Fuse, and other disciples of that music. How does one achieve the “vibe”? Originality for sure, and the unique Ghana baptism, which is the psychic root of the sound (Mr. Eazi alludes to the Ghana contribution in a 2017 conversation with me on the topic.)
“I just make music that I feel. And the fact is that to me, I make it in Ghana, and I make it with the people of Ghana – so it’s got a spiritual Ghana vibe to it, I’m good. I never feel like I need to intentionally make a certain type of music. Afrobeats is so diverse anyway –so I have no problem with making different vibes within the Afrobeats genre.” There it is again: vibes. Should Afrobeats’ identity at any point be summarized into a single sentence, vibe will feature strongly, I more than suspect.
The great Bob Marley is the reggae vibe. ET Mensah is highlife. Fela is Afrobeat. In their respective spaces, they are supreme custodians. I can’t hear Bob Marley doing highlife. I don’t see Amakye Dede freestyling over hip-hop instrumentals, and so, for many, Fuse must remain in the genre, so as to retain the purity of the sound, and be referenced like Marley or Mensah. But he tells me that he feels no such pressure, because of the sonic capacity of Afrobeats: “that’s the beauty of Afrobeats,” he points out eagerly, “there’s vibes that’s very slow, but it’s still Afrobeats, and then there’s vibes that’s very fast, but it’s still Afrobeats. So, in the world of Afrobeats is enough excitement for an artist for a lifetime…I love the fact that I can dive into so many different worlds, but with Afro as the heartbeat of the music,” accentuating his final sentence on the Afrobeats question, “it doesn’t have an identity crisis –it just has a lot of personalities” with a chuckle.
Next, he addresses allegations that he has facilitated a kind of “Azonto appropriation.” Fuse is not only accused of mining sounds from these parts –never mind that his Ghanaian heritage is provable –but he’s likened to a scrupulous collaborator during an invasion by aliens, guiding the foreigners by hand, to the location of hidden treasures. This charge, albeit uninformed and misguided, might have stemmed from the fact that he’s constantly actively bringing new people to the Afrobeats sound; sometimes, even getting them to sing in his native Twi –as was the case with pop star, Ed Sheeran for “Boa Me,” and the Grammy –winning “Bibia Be Ye Ye.” Other high-profile acts he has been associated with are Wyclef Jean, Elephant Man, Sean Paul, Ed Sheeran, and Major Lazer –all of whom have received their doses of the Afrobeats baptism from him. Fuse brushes the accusation aside as nothing more than the customary animosity that comes with any level of success.
“The word appropriation is used if you’re taking something and it’s just benefiting you as a person. I’ve been working in Ghana way before my music blew up. I didn’t even know Azonto was going to blow up like that. I was making other songs, but because now I have a song that has blown up, people are just, you know, looking for anything negative, you know, but I’m someone who is a proud Ghanaian. Mefri Kumasi, enti I know sɛɛ you can’t come and talk to me about being Ghanaian. I lived in Ashtown (short for the suburb, Ashanti New Town), so I’ve been in the hood. I didn’t just pop out of nowhere. It might look like it, but I’ve been working from a long time ago. I’m someone who’s very passionate about the country, so to me, it was a blessing from God that I was very much inspired by Ghana, and my music took off the way it’s taken off.”
The African artist is typically an angry man, in my estimation – not when he’s delivering Afropop: professing love to a woman, or gushing over her desirable curvature – but when he’s engaging in social commentary. And this trait can be noticed as far back as the era of Fela, the father of fury. Why is the African musician so angry? Even Fuse, usually soft-spoken and measured, leaks anger when he’s discussing race disparities, an extra exuberance in the African’s hospitality towards a White man, or adverts glorifying light skin tones over the brown of the Black woman –or so I detect. Why is the African artist so angry? “It’s only fury if you perceive the passion as fury,” is his response to my observation. “Everybody has the right to express whatever they want to express. Social media has given us a platform to be able to speak out how we feel…I’m just expressing my opinion. So, everybody has their freedom of speech, and you can express it how you want to express it,” he continues.
Fuse’s passion to correct erroneous narratives about the African and his value among the races have led him to also build a school in Akosombo, pen children’s literature highlighting African heroes, and roll out the Nana dolls complete with complexion and hair texture of the African, and named after iconic African women like Yaa Asantewaa, the fearless Ejisu queen mother, and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who bore Fela. He considers it of supreme importance to repair young kids’ perceptions about their identity as Africans early, even though he also targets adults. Fuse recounts as he navigates this issue to me, how growing up, he, like fellow Ghanaian Christian boys, lived with the fear that by questioning anything in the Bible, he ran the risk of lunacy; “wo bɛbo dam. Embisa questions bebree.” But is it not the nature of kids to ask questions? Why must a child, who has been wired to be curious, fear to ask questions? How does he grow? How does he know?
“It’s okay for a son to ask questions of their father. So, it’s time for us—and I’m not saying rebelling against the elders –but more importantly, focus on the young ones, because it’s easier to teach a child when they’re growing up –they’re like a foam, they’re soaking up everything you teach them. We try our best to teach the older ones to unlearn what they’ve learned, so they can relearn –but it’s best for us to focus on the young ones because they’re the future; they’re the ones who are going to grow up and run the country. They’re the ones who are going to travel across the world. We need to put measures in place for them to love who they are. We need to put measures in place to let them know that they are not inferior –they’re on the same level,” and then stresses: “even higher than any other race.”
“It’s time for us to teach the kids that way. We can spend some time with the older ones, but [with] the younger ones, it’s a lot more important, and that’s why things like the schools that we’re building are so important, because we’re teaching them a different way of thinking than we were taught. It’s a long mission, but it’s an exciting mission.”
Fuse’s approach sounds both laudable and troubling to me: laudable that he’s keen on building for kids a better experience than he met grew up in –circumstances so inimical that it’s a surprise he still turned out enlightened: “sometimes, I say that it’s a miracle that our parents raised us [the way they did], but some of us are woke, because our parents were miseducated in such a dangerous way that it’s a miracle that some of us are actually woke and are actually speaking against their traditional misconceptions of the White man and the Black man. So I’m very thankful to be in a position where I can change people’s way of thinking.” Troubling because he sees little prospect in an adult’s ability to change –like the woman in the front seat of the trotro I boarded to work earlier in the day, dark-skinned and crowned with faux dreadlocks more out of convenience than as a beauty decision. The woman, whose face I couldn’t properly see from the back row of the bus, was the loudest of the three people engaged in the argument, the other two were men. As all of them spoke simultaneously, their speeches were muffled in one another, but a line by the woman, shot past the other passengers in the car, straight to me. “A White person’s witchcraft is unmatched. It’s extremely useful. For us Africans, even in your progress, another envies you.” She smiled a sagacious smile after, like she had just uttered profound philosophy. I boiled with disgust. How would this woman, definitely over 30 and ignorance about her own history, raise he kids progressively, devoid of poisonous perceptions that have led her to argue publicly like this? Targeting children matters, but it is important to take care of parents too, who are key stakeholders in the upbringing of kids.
“ɛyɛ me ya sɛɛ wo bɛ ka sɛɛ obroni wɔ nyansa sen obibini,” Fuse laments, about how anyone should be comfortable or capable of saying “the White man is wiser than the Black man,” blaming it partly on a longstanding culture of what constitutes respect.
“You know, growing up nu, a sɛ if you question an older person, it’s like you’re disrespecting them. So sometimes, I still get caught up in our culture of respecting our elders and keep[ing] quiet. But we’re now adults, and at some point we have to speak up, because, it doesn’t make sense to say that a White man possesses better intellectual equipment than the African. It’s time to question it.
“Why is it that you’re speaking like that?” he asks, and then serves up an answer himself: “it’s the way you’ve been conditioned.”
A major reason he’s back home, is to promote “Bra Fie,” a joint that lends itself both as a protest against marginalization based on race, and a clarion call for the diaspora to return to their heritage. It is taken off Fuse’s forthcoming sophomore album, “New Africa Nation,” an audacious enterprise to rebrand the continent. Wouldn’t one want to know the conversations that ensued between Fuse and Damian Marley, distant relatives and descendants of a powerful ancestry, leading to the making of the song? “The dialogue that myself [sic] and Damian [Marley] went through before making the song is a lot to even go through, but essentially, we both agreed that it’s time for us to work together as Africa and the Caribbean –of course we are all Africans –it’s time for us to work together, because you know, there are so many things that have been put in place to block us from the motherland and taken to another land, you know, from the Americas to the Caribbean, to Europe – so many things that are stopping us from uniting. We’re using the music –it’s time for us to use the music as a way to unite, and speak to the people, and unite the people, so we can all learn to spend time with each other, build trust, and do business together. And between the conversation and the song, and what’s going to happen in the future, I’m very excited for that journey, because there’s gonna be some amazing manifestation for Africa and Black people.”
To conclude our discussion, we revisit at my request, the looming dystopian future of a Ghana where parents still socialize their kids into an inferiority complex about their potential simply based on their skin color. Fuse categorizes parents into those his age (in the neighborhood of 30), and then “parents parents,” (referring to guardians his parents’ age). He notes that the approach for each demographic should be unique. Many young parents are gradually buying into the philosophy of the “New Africa Nation.” With “parents parents” however, it will take a lot more convincing –several years’ worth.
But ultimately, questions have to be asked. Why did our ancestors embrace a White Jesus, and oppression, and a skewed educational system? By all means, Fuse encourages, listen. But it’s “also cool to ask questions.” It’s how we can get parents to appreciate a new, progressive way of thinking: “when you’re born as a baby, everybody is looking after you, and then you get to a certain level where you feel like you’re independent, and then you get to a level where you don’t want your mum to hold your hand to cross the road. And then they [parents] get to a level where we have to hold their hands to cross the road.
“It’s time for us to hold their hands to cross the road – and that’s the education part.”