Ghana has, for many decades, enjoyed the spotlight as a destination of immense creative and cultural value. In music, for instance, it is hoisted as the nerve centre of sounds from Africa, which in turn, currently enjoys considerable global rediscovery, mainly via the explosive Afropop/ Afrobeats rubric. Similar pronouncements can be made for nearly all other facets of our culture/ tourism spectrum. The unprecedented success of the “Year of Return” initiative last year, under which the Nana Addo-led nation welcomed the African diaspora is further testament to her place as an epicentre.
Sadly, however, it is also a widely held belief that the quality of documentation, particularly in the area of writing, doesn’t quite do justice to the country’s rich art and culture scene. The criticism hinges on the proclivity for a hurried copy, and fixation with the sensational. This, cynics believe, deducts from the integrity and durability of much of Ghanaian entertainment writing.
But there may yet be hope, believes the respected Nigerian pop writer Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, for pop writing in this town. There are a number of positives, he notes in one of our recent discussions, “the most important being that it exists. This isn’t quite as negligible a thing as you might imagine.”
As West African editor for Music in Africa for nearly five years — during which he picked up the 2015 All Africa Music Award (AFRIMA) for music journalism — he observed that “entertainment writing or even the broader culture writing wasn’t taking place in many countries in the region. Not as much as you’d think. This, as you can imagine, was quite a problem. How do you cover a region when its own citizens weren’t doing so? There is probably a way to handle that but I’m sure it’ll be expensive.”
But the scene in Ghana, particularly Accra, impressed him, for it was “the one country outside Nigeria that covered its own entertainment scene. So just the fact of its existence gave me joy — and made my life easier.”
He noticed a second positive: even if it was not in the same proportion, everybody seemed to enjoy coverage; both the established and the up-and-coming: “Naturally the big boys get written about but Ghana/Accra also seems to care about the guys who haven’t quite blown, as we say in Nigeria. Of course, this could mean that they have rich backers but still it struck me that this was a good thing, that from reading the culture pages, I came to know about artists that perhaps only few Nigerians had heard of because they don’t feature on our radio.”
What about subjects and angles? Do they impress Aigbokhaevbolo as much?
The subject of the culture pieces, yes: “the fact that almost everybody on the spectrum of success gets a look-in is particularly praiseworthy.” The angles, on the other hand, might require “a bit more work,” he says, offering the following explanation:
“Culture has to be covered in many ways: interviews, news, reportage, reviews. The field should inform its readers about the culture producer’s work, how it is received and when it would be received. Broadly speaking, the job covers information and commentary.
“For now, there is information but that is also available on social media controlled by the artists. Culture writing and journalism needs to carve a space different from that otherwise it becomes just another organ copying and pasting the same information the artist has already disseminated through her social media.
“I can’t quite declare myself as a voice to be listened to, so I’d say that Ghanaian culture writing in the mainstream needs a bit more work — in the sense that news coverage and gossip can’t be the only things produced by Ghanaian entertainment journalism.”
Ghanaian culture writing is led by bloggers. Bloggers — more so in showbiz — are businessmen first. The rule of thumb: follow the money. Money comes by how many clicks a story generates. This means that bloggers would lean toward the more lucrative kind of reporting: tabloid journalism. The situation is not entirely different in Aigbokhaevbolo’s Nigeria, except in this area: “Nigeria has online platforms that sometimes have culture writers on their payroll. So one doesn’t get the sense that covering the scene isn’t entirely up to one-man teams. It means there is usually someone to take a look at what gets published.”
In recent years, entertainment blogging in Ghana has come under constant, growing backlash, with many bemoaning the “loose writing” that prevails in that space, the compulsion for scandal, and a general aversion to journalistic principles in the pursuit of internet traffic — so much so that the craft has now assumed a negative stereotype. How can such a fundamentally entrepreneurial venture be realistically streamlined to improve writing standards?
For one thing, majority of bloggers now belong the Arts and Tourism Writers Association of Ghana (ATWAG). Also home to the leading culture journalists at work today, it allows, at least in principle, a platform to rub minds and collectively improve the quality of writing in the space.
Again, bloggers, Aigbokhaevbolo believes “can hold themselves to higher standards.
“But maybe there has to be an incentive besides the financial,” he suggests. “One really has to develop a culture of excellence to produce great work in the online world.
“Barring that, then maybe, someone has to tell an awarding body or a corporate establishment in Ghana to sponsor an award for writing well in the blogging space? Maybe you can be the guy who whispers to them,” he tells me.
The “idea of excellence” is tied to other aspects of the culture business, he argues. For example, he heads a business communication outfit whose focus is excellence. “This, first, is connected to the writing we produce. And practically every sector in the entertainment industry needs writing.
“So musicians and actors and visual artists and telecom companies and any other entity that contracts us is doing so, I like to believe, because we can communicate what they stand for and what they are organising in the best way possible. It’s why I set up C&B Limited, an entertainment consulting firm.”
Having worked worked in, and contributed to the African media space for a decade, Aigbokhaevbolo remembers coming across press releases, notices, or descriptions that “didn’t really sell whatever it is they wanted to sell because of some basic errors.
“I recall that in my time as west African editor for a platform supported by European organisations, I read some emails from artist managers some PR firms and wondered if any serious establishment, especially outside of our continent, would take us seriously. I expect that you know what I mean. You are in the space as well, so don’t tell me those kind of emails skipped your desk.”
On whether or not conventional journalism can realistically survive in the age of blogging, the Nigerian neither has concrete answer nor thinks anyone does with certainty. Only hope.
“Everybody is averse to negative reviews,” he begins when the conversation shifts to how averse artists generally are to commentary on their work, one that typically finds them dismissing the reviews as merely “hater talk.”
“Everybody loves positive reviews. It is the same in every culture. But I would think the actual enemy is indifference. So there is no real panacea unless we find a panacea for human nature. All the reviewer has is her words and her authority has to come from how well she has mastered her own craft and has thought about the work of the artist under review. So no real panacea; just the pursuit of excellence: in thought and in expression.”
What’s the value of a critic’s opinion to the work he’s dissecting, I ask, especially in an era when the general sentiment by artists is one of nonchalance: “it doesn’t affect my streaming numbers”?
Aigbokhaevbolo’s response: “There is no response to that actually.”
“If the artist only cares about numbers, then there is no real way to reach them, he states. “I have always thought of a review as being in service of the audience, so that takes away the sting an artist thinks that has. In any case, part of the mainstream critics work is helping the reader understand, helping her think. If that is achieved, the job is done. There are people who feel differently but it would be too much burden to think my work has that much power over someone’s income — except for when the work is marketed falsely. Even so it’s too much power but in that case, I wouldn’t feel too terrible at having a commercial effect. The goal is excellence or the pursuit of it as I said. Producing such a work is enough for me. Mostly.”
In the end, though, why bother about writing at all? It is clear that globally, content is rapidly shifting from prose to video, hence, the impending death of the prose?
He laughs. “Ha, but prose is always dying. Be it criticism, novels or short stories. It is true that devotees like myself are reducing per generation but writing will survive. The writer who can should however learn to use today’s technology. It is no subtraction. In the end, the most successful videos are based in some way on a script. As a technology, writing is pretty hard to kill. Culture writing might become more niche but it can’t really die. And, let’s face it, has it really lived in my country or in yours?”
That last question strikes me as rhetorical, but I ponder an answer: few open-ended questions have fought my mind as this.
Overall, for Aigbokhaevbolo, pop writing in Ghana is salvageable. “You are doing a great job of it,” he assures me. I’m as relieved as can be in such a circumstance. I exist in a community of writers. If the word is that pop writers here neeed to pick up the pace, I must be worried, too.
“I am glad when I see folks commenting on your social media about how your writing moves them,” he goes on. “I think that means something. Of course, your comments are probably less than those under a post by Shatta Wale — but let’s remember that a decent number under Shatta Wale’s posts are just basking in his celebrity. Most of yours are actually engaging with your thoughts on a subject. The trick would be to expand that and that is where the system comes in.
“That is where ‘catching them young’ comes in. If illiteracy is a problem in the West African region, attracting young people to writing and reading about one of the most popular forms of art is a way to help boost literacy rates. A child who listens to Stonebwoy being asked to articulate his thoughts about the artist is developing his ability to think and to write. You contribute to improving literacy and ‘salvage’ Ghanaian pop writing. Maybe we should be talking to the Ministry of Culture. In any case, I would be teaching a writing class in Accra soon. I am no saviour but I have learned things that I can pass on to others.”
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, writer, critic, and essayist, is the founder of the Write With Style Workshop. His first collection of prose, From Wizkid to Chimamanda: Essays on Nigerian Pop Culture, is forthcoming. He’s on Twitter: @catchoris.