Onipa Akoma: Interrogating the mystique of Akan
For Akan, everything is about representation. He is on a studio set with an unmistakably eye-catching hair — what seems a love child between dreadlocks and afro, two “adinkra” rings firmly gripping his fingers, and a beaded necklace visible beneath his extra-large orange shirt. The presenter introduced him to the program, and in ushering him into the conversation she says, “You’re welcome.” Akan responds in a warm smile with “Medaase.” The interviewer cheerfully pivoted to Asante Twi by asking “Ɛte sɛn,” how are you?
That is what Akan does. In a rapidly westernizing Ghanaian society, Akan insists on bringing culture to the room, unabashedly embracing his mother tongue so that it is infectious, so that is it seemingly neglecting not to.
When Akan chose for himself the name of a culture, a golden empire in Trans-Saharan history, he knew he had placed on himself a burden of fidelity to a local tradition, a responsibility that most digital music artistes avoid in fear of losing out on popular appeal.
So far, he and his music have lived the latter reality of seeming oblivion in all standards of what would make popular music or artiste. With fewer than 6,500 subscribers on YouTube, it’s hard to count him in the class of influencers in this era. Nonetheless, his mark for authenticity has earned an almost cult-like local following “Akan Abusua,” the Akan family. In the grander scheme of his ambition, he is flourishing, at least in exhibiting Akan tradition and literature, and is breathing a lost inspiration into highlife music.
On his search for meaning as an artiste, Akan realized early on that he did not check the boxes as the ordinary rapper. A burgeoning rapper trying to make a statement, one would think he would invest in his songs an overdose of inviting wordplays and double entendres. In 2014 tracks like “The Way I Feel” and “Mo Bɛfi Mi,” Akan’s impression was that of an uncommon newcomer. His focus on legacy-speak, his martyrdom to become, and the artistry of his rap, rather than the rap of his artistry vivified his intentions. He would eventually drop his high school moniker, “Quabena Shy,” in the recreation of himself as Akan, on his debut Akan EP; a seed that would bear the fruit of the present-day Akan.
When Akan was recently asked in an interview who his favorite artist was, his response was unusual; he named himself. He did occasionally listen to Bob Marley before a performance for inspiration. He qualifies Marley as “honest” and with “a big heart”, attributes one is likely to associate with the personae Akan represents in his music. But his most potent influences are drawn from outside music. For instance, he lionizes his linguist grandfather Kwaku Appiah as the influence on his lyricism. On “Helebaba” he quotes; “Kwaku Appiah n’awu Ɛna w’agya me nsamanpomu nyansa,” alluding to being bequeathed knowledge from the underworld passed to him by his deceased grandfather.
A pivotal symbolism in Akan (the ethnic group) ancestral worship is the giftings and inheritance of the ancestors to the living. Ancestors are revered ancient descendants who manifest the continuance of culture and tradition by being guardians of the living, and sometimes inhabiting the living to evoke their essence in them. Akan believes he has inherited the spirit of eloquence and wisdom from his grandfather who has earned his place as an ancestor in the afterlife. One would not entirely dismiss this myth after giving a thoughtful audience to his music.
Akan’s first studio album “Onipa Akoma” is his philosophizing of the universal struggle to understand the human self, a foundational theme of some of the earliest thinkers, stretching eons as far back as Aristotle. He embarks on a storytelling journey of the narrative self; deconstructing the Akan philosophy of personhood in an unlikely throwback to what propounders of African philosophical thought like Kwame Gyekye (whose theory of the self Akan adopts over that of Wiredu) believe is the foundation of African reasoning; oral traditions and folksongs. Again, knowingly or fortuitously, Akan marks the significance of his culture by leaning in on the overlooked, often invalidated perspective of African philosophy, and outdoors it with such panache.
Commenting on his transition from European to Akan thought, Dr. Philip Bartle writes: “Language is a way of categorizing that kaleidoscope of experiences called reality into different boxes called words, but the sizes, shapes, and contents of those boxes change from language to language, culture to culture.” While it might be unbeknownst to many that the obvious distinction in African and Western culture is founded on the varying conceptual representation of both worlds, and even more difficult to appreciate in our acculturated present, that Akan can take a step, overlooking the chaos to become aware of his inherent tradition, is inspiring.
The album commences with a great ask on “Odaamanii Abisadeɛ.” With a combination of a contemplative call and response and a skimpy tune, he comments on his wishes as a young man, lashing out unapologetically about all his dreamy ambitions. He is careless and blasphemous.
On “Me Sika Duro” he continues on his wish listing but now, empathically focused on his desire for money. He ponders on all the things he would do when he is rich with an unreserved obsession for wealth, in all its pleasures and vanity. He is inspired by greed and even considers killing in pursuance of this wealth through money rituals.
Akan’s “Akoma No Abuagumu” explores the loneliness of the human heart in the abyss of accepted rejection. It begins with sorrowful poetic soliloquy metaphorizing the escape of the speaker’s heart from his hand. As he prays for reclamation before its fall, he ponders if the hole in his heart would ever be filled. After his desirous intoxication for sex, money, power and fame, Akan is sobering off in the awakening reality of nothingness where all these pleasures have escaped him. In contrast with his greedy persona thus far, a character that would only accept in abundance, he now moans just for a semblance of these pleasures, even if they’re not fulfilling; even if they last for a moment.
“Matu Meto” looks retrospectively on Akan’s lost years in an attempt to fix his present. He claims to have overcome his doubts and is ready to achieve exploits, casually throwing shades at naysayers. This newfound purposeful realization doesn’t appear honorable — at least, not to the responder (a figure Akan seems to depend on) who beckons him to be careful lest he falls into trouble.
“Aprodoo” is justifying why Akan needs to embark on this journey to find the treasures his heart so desires. He believes it is incumbent on him to leave a legacy, to give a head-start to his progeny and although that may come at a risk, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. “Nea ɔkɔ nsuo na ɔbɔ ahina.”
The next 3 tracks of the album continue to explore lascivious, debauchery and wealth. Now and then, in the sunken place of unbounded pleasure, he is ridiculed and haunted by his conscience — that his pursuit of happiness does not lie in these transient escapades.
Akan casts himself as a renegade in a society that is calling for his redemption on “Helebaba.” His reaction is that although society thinks of him as “confused” and “messed up,” he is only misunderstood.
The second chapter (of the tripartite album) concludes with pensive deliberation over what should drive his action: his heart (the desires he has struggled with throughout the album) or his mind (his consciousness of good and evil).
In the conclusion of the album, Akan resolves that he needs patience, ponders on the suddenness and uncertainty of death, and admits that life may not be all about money, sex, power and fame. He admits that the pursuance of God, truth and honor should be the center of our life’s vocation. On the last track, “Kae Kwabena,” he concedes his weakness, asks for forgiveness from God and summons the listener to pray for him. And he does all this in an unmatched display of storytelling, spoken word poetry, an exhibition of his lyrical depth, and brilliant sampling.
The artistry of Akan’s musicality doesn’t end in with his songs; it stretches through his funky “ghetto-youthish” fashion style to his music videos, his performances, even his cult. In his “Mate Aprodoo” video documentary, he brings the arts of improvisation to life in its beauty and form with characters who he says “may have never seen the eyes of a camera before”. He tells the story of how when an attempt to shoot in a bus had failed, he used a naked steering wheel to ride a carriage of boys, behind the words “Me nam kwantenpɔn yi so nkranee ba m’akwan mu a, mɛfa woso;” a case of both an iconic showcase of visual brilliance and how what initially was unplanned, synched directly with both the theme of the song and the process of the video.
Akan demonstrates that as a struggling artiste himself, the inspiration he presents to his “abusua” is not only in crafting arousing lyrics but forging against his own “nkranee;” adversaries, on the highway of his life. Because for Akan, not only is he a preacher, but also a leader who wants to influence by doing. Having lived most of his life in a family house with siblings who still look up to him, now living in Abeka Lapaz, where he is adored by underground rappers as a renegade icon, he is cautious that his message is conscious, but even more aware that his acts may be louder.