FOKN Bois: The Cutting Edge of Satire in African Hip Hop (Pt. 2)
B.E.: One of your songs talks about in Nollywood, and it’s remixed with music from a Fela song.
M.: The Kwaku Anansi remix.
W.: Yeah, well, we have this musical film out, it’s online…
M.: “Coz Ov Moni.” [Available in segments on YouTube]
W: Yes, “Coz Ov Moni.” In America, you can watch it on Hulu.net. And there’s a scene called Mr. Kwashay. Kwashay is the name for the armed robbers in Ghana who like come at you in the night with machetes and guns sometimes, local made guns. Even foreign guns, and rob you of your phone or whatever—purse, wallet. So there’s a scene in the film where we’re being attacked by these Mr. Kwashay people. And then there’s a remix that Kwaku Ananse did, it’s free, it’s online. And it’s a Nollywood remix. So he used Fela, “International Thief Thief,” I think. But he sampled the chorus and spliced it like between the verses. It’s a very nice remix.
M.: Kwaku Ananse is a genius.
B.E.: Tell me about him.
M.: Oh my God, I mean, where do you start? I mean this guy has probably the biggest collection of music, digitally, that I know. He makes amazing beats, probably churns out thirty beats a day, if…
W.: Hmm, if he’s working, he hasn’t done beats for a while.
M.: Yes, if he’s making beats. After we finished “Coz Ov Moni,” I was kind of tired of the sound, because, you know, I’d heard it way too many times. But then when I heard the remix album that he did, incredible. He kind of themed-out every song, every single song, you know, and just took it elsewhere. He actually produced music for…
W.: …most of my first album, Green Card.
M.: And some of the songs on “Coz Ov Moni” as well. He has worked with a few of the musicians here, the poets and stuff here. The guy’s a genius.
W.: He’s actually like a full-time bio…
W.: Some kind of scientist.
W.: Irrigation, he does, to do with water.
W.: And he has a plumbing company as well. So music is just like part time…
M.: Something he does on the side…
W.: His hobby.
B.E.: Okay, let’s back up and go through your discography a little bit.
M.: In 2000, I released an album called Rapublic, but before then, I’d worked with Reggie Rockstone on two albums, producing. I was only 18 when I was working with him. And for me, at that point, it was still very much of a hobby, something that I could do. Then after Rapublic, I moved to London and did an album called Daily Basis. Then No 1 Mango Street. Then, a few years after, we did Coz Ov Moni.
B.E.: No 1 Mango Street gets a whole chapter in Jesse Shipley’s book, and he really gets into how careful your process is. So was Coz of Moni the first FOKN Bois project?
M.: Yeah, Coz Ov Moni was the first. We were doing kind of mixtapes, singles and remixes and stuff like that, just messing around on the internet. But Coz Ov Moni was the first thing we did, officially, together.
B.E.: How did you choose that name?
M.: Coz Ov Moni?
B.E.: No, FOKN Bois.
M.: Myself and Wanlov, the thing is we’ve been listening to a lot of conscious rappers and so on and so-forth. So the whole inception of the idea of what FOKN Bois represent… Like, we were sick and tired of that conscious stuff. We wanted to be…
W.: …not taking ourselves seriously.
M.: Not taking ourselves seriously, but coming from a very African angle. Here in Ghana, if somebody says, “Oh, you are, you are f#%king, you are a f#%king boy, or you are f#%king …” sometimes, it’s almost like a praise. You know, like, I can’t believe you did that, like you’re, you’re out of your mind! But it doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, it’s not a bad thing, it’s not always a bad thing. So, that kind of like worked for us.
W.: It just means you are not serious, like you are really not serious.
M.: “Ah, he’s a f#%king guy.” Or, you can do something crazy, be like, “Ah, this guy, he’s f#%king!” So that kind of like worked for what we stood for, what we wanted to represent. And even as much as we wanted not to take ourselves seriously, the acronym for FOKN was Fear Of Knowing Nothing, that’s what it was when we first started out. And then it went through phases. It became French Objects Killing Ninjas, Fools Of Kwame Nkrumah.
W.: And now, since we are prosperity gospel porn musicians, it’s For Our King Now. That’s what it really stands for now, because now we’re a full-fledged gospel porn, rap…
M.: Prosperity rap…
W.: Prosperity rap group.
B.E.: Since when? When were you ‘born again?’
M.: Well, the prosperity bit, since like…
W.: [LAUGHS] Two days ago.
M.: Two days. We’re evolving, you know.
W.: We keep growing…
M.: Yes. We’re born again everytime…
B.E.: So, coming back to the discography, so, you [to WANLOV] started with Green Card. That was the first one?
W.: Yeah. Well, I’d done some other stuff before. I had an album with a friend from the Bahamas, it was called, They Don’t Know.
M.: But what about Rapscallions?
W.: And then there was Rapscallions, Illegal Immigrants. With a friend called Gebril.
M.: The African.
W.: The African. He’s in New York right now.
B.E.: So you spent some time in the States?
W.: Yes. Seven years. Well, I was there for six months in ’98, January to June, in ’98. At a high-school in, not in Rockdale. I lived in Rockdale, Texas, but the school was in Milano, population 500. So that was the high school I was in. Where the principal was also like the post-man and the sheriff and the Lion’s Club president.
B.E.: That must have been culture shock.
W.: Yeah, it was very strange. I mean, for me, being in America the first time, a lot of kids in the high school, they used to follow me to the Coke machine, because I’d put a dollar in there, and the Coke would come out, and I’d just take it and leave, and the clink sound of my 50 cents change, I didn’t know that I was getting any change back…
M.: So they were taking your change after you left.
W.: So they would always follow me for change, to get an extra Coke behind me and drink. And then I had a friend from Ghana, who I went there with, and for like a week, we didn’t know how to open the chocolate milk cartons, you know, those small boxes they give you in the cafeteria.
M.: Ah, the pop-ems…
W.: Yeah, we didn’t know how to open them, and we didn’t want to disgrace ourselves, so…
M.: Did you chew them?
W.: No, we didn’t chew them. Well, I chewed it once, like I actually chewed through it, but we’d go to the cafeteria, after going in the line and getting all the food, we’d get one of the boxes and sit down, and we’d just watch all the students and still, they would just do it so fast, we’d be like ‘Ah,’ and we just threw it in the trashcan, because we can’t open it and we don’t want to look stupid. And one day, I smuggled one home.
M.: [LAUGHS] And spent time with it.
W.: And spent time with it, learning how to open it, and then…I found it! Yeah, eureka! I came and started showing off to my friend.
M.: Watch me!
W.: And my friend Roots almost got in a fight with the lady in the cafeteria. I think she was a student and also working at the cafeteria during lunch time. But he thought the American pronunciation of ‘fork’ was ‘f#%k.’ He thought just saying it fast and cool means he’s saying it the American way: “Can I have a f#%k?” The girl was like “What?!” “F#%k, f#%k! Can I have a f#%k?” And the girl was like, “You are being rude, or you’re being an asshole,” or something. And then the principle had to come there. I didn’t know what was going on; I was in the far end of the cafeteria. So I finally come there and I was like, “Yeah, Roots, what dey go on? What’s going on?” And he’s like, “I ask this girl for a f#%k and she no give me a f#%k!” I was like, “Oh, he means a fork!” And then everybody was like, “Oh!!” And then he was still angry, he snatched it and went to sit down. He still didn’t understand…
M.: …what he had caused!
W.: What he had done. Yeah, so it was a lot of culture shock. Really a lot! And the training, like the way American students, like they work out. We had a day on Wednesdays called Champions, like running up bleachers and doing all this crazy stuff, lifting weights, pushing these…Oh God! It was…I used to just have phlegm running out my nose, in the cold, running, heh! So it was crazy! Then, 7 years, after that I did a 7 year haul. I lived in Texas for a year, Mississippi for 6 months, then the east coast for like a year, and then L.A. like two years.
B.E.: What were you doing there, school?
W.: No, after two years, after 2000, 2002, I got into trouble with immigration, and so the rest of my time was waiting for immigration to sort out my situation. And just floating around, not doing very legal…
W.: …to survive.
B.E.: Were you doing any music then?
W.: Yes, we were doing music, but it wasn’t making money. There would just be small shows, where we would make a few hundred dollars here and there.
B.E.: So was it after that, when you came home, that you made Green Card?
W.: No, no, no. I made Green Card right before leaving America. I started doing it in 2005, little bit by bit, and by 2007 I had the album. I released it November 2007, before moving to Ghana that December. So I had the album out before moving back. Yeah.
B.E.: I want to talk a little bit about the business of music in Ghana now, and how you guys, you know, clearly you’re not playing the game of trying to get Samsung or Vodafone to endorse you, which seems to be one of the main games that rappers and young musicians are pretty much forced to play. So how do you guys go about it?
M.: [LAUGHS] We eat gari!
M.: We just share our food.
W.: Ask our mom for money! [LAUGHS]
M.: “Wanlov, have you eaten? Because I’m about to eat.” “Okay, I’m on my way to your house.”
M.: No, I mean, there’s a few things: royalties. We kind of have set up a nice, could be better, but, because we are registered with an international collection agency…
W.: …which a lot of Ghanaian musicians aren’t, you know. A lot. It doesn’t make sense to be registered in Ghana, because there are no radio stations here that report any playlist, nothing. So they’re not responsible for paying any royalties. And um, we also do shows, so we make money from shows, in Ghana and outside Ghana. And so even though these companies, you know, these telecom companies and stuff, might not be interested in us, or not sure of us. Organizers that collect money from them to do shows call us to perform at these shows, and pay us. You know, and, just being ourselves, and doing what we are doing, a company from Holland contacted us, called Bavaria, and the product that they had really enticed us. We thought it was a joke at first, but they do beer with zero percent alcohol.
M.: There’s alcohol, but it’s zero percent.
W.: Yeah, so it’s written on it, “Zero percent alcohol. Beer.”
W.: We said, “Are you guys serious?” and they were like, “Yeah!” And like, “Okay.” And then we asked them, “Do you know what we do though?” They were like, “Yeah, yeah…”
M.: “Don’t worry, we’ve done our research.”
W.: “We’ve done our research, and you’re perfect.” And the first project we did with them, last year, was called “Big In Ghana,” a tour of four cities with unsigned artists and we’re going to do this every year. The first one we did last year was a 100,000 Euro budget, and then they’re going to triple the budget this year to do about 10 cities. And so, by just still keeping the same mindset, just having fun, a certain company, which has a different way, a guerrilla way of advertising themselves, as being the alternative, have signed up with us. I don’t think we would have been discouraged if we didn’t have them or not, because we kind of get high on our own supply.
W.: But it’s a big plus for us, because the first thing that came to mind when they came and said “We want to help you, we have money,” we started thinking about underground artists. We thought, okay, we want to do a tour and help unsigned talent. We weren’t just thinking of taking all the money, going to do a show, look at us on stage, and bounce. So now this is something that’s digging up new talent, and it’s also promoting them. It’s called “Big In Ghana.” And basically whoever wins the tour, I mean who’s voted as the best artist, will now be promoted on a commercial level, where they will actually spend money to push them to be a success, so.
Sean Barlow: I think I got you right saying that your goal was to make Ghanaians more open minded. Right?
M.: Yeah. When you made the reference with Reggie Rockstone.
S.B.: Right. So, then, how do you judge your success? Do you have young artists coming up to you and saying, “I want to do what you do,” or do you have bigger and bigger crowds at the universities? And are your songs hitting buttons, songs like “Jesus is Coming.” Will people tell you, “Wow, that really changed my mind about something. ”
M.: Well, some of it you’ve actually answered yourself. People come up to us, and they can’t believe we talk about the things that we do. And also, between myself and Wanlov, we kind of write music to entertain ourselves. When we find that it strikes something with other people, we’re like, “Oh wow, other people think the way we think.” But the real success for us is like walking in the streets, and people from all walks of life, the kids on the streets, on the corners in the ghettos or slums or what-not, just run after us, want to take pictures, are quoting lines from our songs.
We’re kind of hitting all the spectrums of society here in Ghana. Bear in mind that we don’t get played on radio much. So, you know, it’s like, people are actually looking, they go searching for our music on the internet.
W.: Yeah, and it keeps growing.
M.: Because it’s not the radio that’s feeding the people what they need to listen to. People have actually sought after us, and that’s a solid. And now, the universities, the high schools, they get where we’re coming from. Because these are the things they experience but it’s never been presented back to them in that form. So people love the freeness that we bring, the kind of freedom that we present with the music. And that’s actually allowed us to thrive outside of Ghana, more so than the average musician here. You know, we’re touring extensively in the summer. People want to hear what we have to say; they get it; they think we’re funny; people look into the music.
S.B.: What is your stage show like, when you’re touring Europe?
M.: Well, we have two things. We’re either playing with a DJ, or we have a full band that we play with. And you’ll never know what’s going to happen…
W.: [Laughs] Yeah, the band we play with is a Ghanaian-British guitarist, more rock.
M.: Yeah, rock. Half-Ghanaian. Ryan Ansah. He’s my cousin actually.
W.: And there’s Fin Crowther, Finlay Crowther. British virtuoso keyboard virtuoso. And then there’s Akinori.
M.: Fujimoto, a Japanese…
W.: …drummer. And that’s it. We are just 5-piece. We’re playing this summer at Glastonbury, headlining at the Greenpeace…
W.: ..Tadpole Stage…
B.E.: That’s the bigtime!
W.: Yeah! The Tadpole Stage!
M.: It’s the Toad Stage, not Tadpole Stage!
M.: Is it?
W.: Yes, it’s not toad.
M.: Am I kind of…
W.: Yeah, trying to make it grow! But it’s like, I guess, if you want to like not feel too bad, it’s eco-friendly, the most eco-friendly stage.
M.: Oh, okay. Tofu.
W.: Tofu, backstage. Yeah, [LAUGHS]
B.E.: So what are you working on now?
M.: Coz Ov Moni 2!
M.: Sometimes, when I’m alone in my room, with all the doors closed, possibly sitting on the bog, on the toilet, I think, I ask myself, “Have we taken on more than we can chew?” This time, it’s going to be something special.
M.: Yeah, specialah! It’s the sequel to the first Pidgin musical, the world’s first Pidgin musical, Coz Ov Moni 1 so the sequel would be Coz Ov Moni 2.
W.: It’s longer and stronger.
M.: Yeah, and harder…
M.: More difficult, he means.
W.: Yes. Harder to do.
M.: Yes, yes. And it features more people. More artists were actually given more…
W.: …roles. We’re still finishing up on the writing. We want to start on production in May, finish up by the end of May. But that would be the Ghana filming, because we have two scenes we are doing in Romania. We are going to one of Dracula’s castles to finish up. We have a scene between Kweku Ananse, the mythical spider who became Brer Rabbit in Europe…
M.: And also Bugs Bunny and Spider Man.
W.: So Kweku Ananse is like West African mythological smarty-pants guy. And he’s going to be paying a visit to Count Dracula.
M.: Yes, he goes to Transylvania to challenge Count Dracula.
W.: Yes, and that’s a dream sequence in the film, so that’s the reason for the trip. So there’ll be makeup, the whole chitty-bang-bang.
M.: Costumes, everything. And then it kind of moves on to a church scene.
W.: In the club.
M.: In the club. A clubby church. Yeah.
S.B.: We look forward to that. Let me switch gears a moment. When you were growing up with Ghanaian music, who were some of your favorite Ghanaian artists, your personal loves?
M.: Do you have enough tape?
W.: Let me start, because mine are maybe not as many as Mensa’s. I’ll start from Gyedu Blay Ambolley, definitely. Um, E.T. Mensah, Osibisa, Ebo Taylor. Then there’s like the more traditional, like Nana Ampadu and the African Brothers.
M.: Yeah, highlife.
W.: And Koo Nimo. Maybe not the really poppy guys. I’m not big on Kojo Antwi and Daddy Lumba.
M.: Some of his older stuff, Kojo Antwi, I suppose, yeah.
W.: Maybe the older. And then, as for traditional, like King Ayisoba.
M.: Atongo Zimba.
W.: And there’s also like the groups, you know, Wulomei. And then there’s…
M.: …Pan-African Orchestra.
W.: I don’t really know too much of that stuff.
W.: And then these guys too, the Delabo Twi’s band, Hedzoleh Soundz. Then John Collins with Aaron Bebe. They have one called Bokoor Sounds.
B.E.: Yeah. We’re going to record a session with John and Aaron.
M.: Okay, yeah.
W.: They have some nice albums. You know, and then just the old lamenting, kind of funeral songs, the dead singers. And then the drumming. There’s no drumming from Ghana that I don’t enjoy. So since I think we kind of found ourselves, or realized we were West Africans first and foremost before other things, we started including by sampling, and then we started looking out for these musicians, to feature them, or have sessions with them. And then now, we are actually forming bands with them.
M.: And creating the music from scratch.
W.: So it’s kind of our dream to take music back to this richness, this fullness of acoustic sound—a bunch of people together doing like hard, magical work to make the music sound good. It’s also because there are so many languages in Ghana, at least 40. You can take a three-hour journey somewhere, and get lost, you know, in the language. You don’t understand what’s going on, but you can understand the music. And that’s why I think we are drawn to the music, because it makes us feel like we are still, still together.
B.E.: That’s interesting.
S.B.: Thank you for reminding me of bands that I’d forgotten about.
B.E.: You know, I first interviewed John Collins twenty years ago, 1993.
M.: Wow. He’s one of the most knowledgeable people.
B.E.: Right, and it was an interesting moment in 1993, right when the CD had first arrived, but we didn’t have CD burners yet. So he’s imagining, for him at that moment, that the CD represents the industry’s attempt to take away the common person’s control over music. That was what the cassette represented…
M.: Because you could record them.
B.E.: Right. Anybody could record and copy, and that was dangerous to the powers that be, and they wanted to get rid of it, so they were forcing the CD. That was the way he saw it then.
M.: That’s interesting, eh?
B.E.: But he also talked about the demise of live music, which he saw as a world-wide phenomenon. He was grappling with this new way of making music where individual people go into a small room and record their part of the song, and it turns into something that goes out but it never gets performed by any group. And he saw all this as part of an evolution of culture away from the family, the clan, the collective, and moving towards this world where there would be only the state and the individual. He saw the music, at that moment, as a reflection of this kind of evolution. Now, he seems to feel that a lot of things are coming back, that there’s this revival going on. How do you guys feel about all that?
M.: Okay, this is not just in Ghana, but even for like the young people in the rest of the world, people are beginning to take live music more and more seriously. And it’s really cool to play live. When we have the chance, we almost always play live here in Ghana. And I think other musicians are doing that as well. There was a point where I’m sure everybody else thought it’s not going to happen: live music is dead. But Ghana, everybody who comes here says Ghana has some of the best live bands. I was afraid because I recorded my album in London and so on and so forth, and I was thinking I want to play live when I come to Ghana. What am I going to do? And Wanlov and Panji [Anoff] were like, “Don’t worry, you’ll find people who can play.” And they were playing rock versions of my song that I’d never heard before, and I was like, “Wow, this is crazy.”
The thing is, what we try and do is play with young artists, live musicians, so that the kids who are paying attention to our music realize, “We can actually do this.” There was a thing, some kind of notion that it was the older folks who played live music, and it wasn’t cool, so on and so forth. But now there’s a band that we play with called Afroharmony, and I think that the oldest person is about 22 or 23, and these guys are the best musicians we’ve worked with. So you’re right, there is a proper revival of live music. But I could see how, because I wasn’t an active musician then, in the early ‘90s, I can see how it would have been scary especially not being able to think that there’s a possibility for CDs to be burned, you know, that would have been scary! You know, like, you could just record tapes, and then introduce these shiny things, like, “Nope, it’s already been lazar burned.” You take it as you get it, and that’s it, like no…it must have been scary for him, you know?
B.E.: It was. And at the time, you know, we were using DAT machines. Digital Audio Tapes. So in this 1993 interview, John is talking about the DAT as something that could have been the future. But if you just take the word DAT out, and substitute “digital technology” or “mp3” – things he didn’t yet know about – then what he says is really predicting the future. He is predicting that there is this inevitable movement towards, you know, people, street-level musicians taking control of the medium. And of course it’s happened in a way that we could never have foreseen.
M.: Yeah. If anything there’s actually more access right now.
W.: You can record a full song on your phone.
M.: Right now. My brothers, my little daughter she was singing happy birthday, he put it through his phone, and put vocoder on it, and sent it back to me, my daughter singing to a beat. And I was like, Wow.
W.: Put it on iTunes…
M.: Like, you trying to take money from my hands or what? You know. So, it’s been an interesting time, but I’m glad that there has been that revival.
W.: What is the name of that musician…Rob, Funky Rob?
M.: Oh yeah!
W.: You guys know Funky Rob? Oh man!
B.E.: I’ve heard his music on a reissue CD. Is he still around?
W.: I don’t know anything about him.
M.: Don’t know. Nobody knows anything about him. Just so raw! Wanlov, you know that beat that I played you and you said you liked it? You put it on loop, that’s Rob.
S.B.: Mensa, we didn’t give you a chance to say your favorite music.
M.: Well, I mean. If anything, I’d just be listing even more musicians, but I think he nailed it on the head. I’m a big fan of A.B. Crentsil. Pozo Hayes. Alhaji Sidiku Buari, who worked with Faisal Helwani, who produced the Hedzoleh albums…
W.: K. Frimpong
M.: Alhadji K. Frimpong. I mean these are like funky bands, you know. But he mentioned most of the relevant ones, because what happened is these were bands where the band members kind of formed their own kind of things. I just recently had my friend Mutombo, went to his friend’s dad’s house, and picked up like hundreds pieces of vinyl of like old ‘60s, ‘70s highlife music. So we are trying to restore that, like digitally, and like I’m just discovering so much great music.
S.B.: K. Frimpong is someone people have fallen in love with over the years. He gets sampled, right?
M.: Yeah, I mean anything that you hear from Alhaji K. Frimpong… Who was it? The Goo-Goo Dolls or something. What do you call those girls, Pussycat Dolls?
M.: Pussycat Dolls. Yeah, they sampled.
M.: His drum pattern, which was actually sampled by Panji for the Talking Drums song “Aden.” That was a long time ago. Everything from Alhaji K. Frimpong is a gem.
S.B.: So how do you guys work?
M.: We kind of produce everything ourselves, the studio sessions, we record ourselves.
S.B.: No engineer.
M.: No, no, we’ve never been recorded by an engineer before.
M.: Yeah, in our FOKN Bois career. Never. Everything we do ourselves, record, mix master, and the movie that we did, edited, did the post-production, everything ourselves. Yeah, I was just saying this to Thomas Burkhalter. I don’t know if you know Thomas from Norient Film Festival.
B.E.: I do know him.
M.: They did an interview with us yesterday. And I was saying, some of it is not because we don’t have people who are willing to work with us, or like people who are willing to offer us help, or even if we had to pay for studio sessions, but it’s just because we’re slightly anal about these things, and would rather do it ourselves. I just have to stay on top of it, you know.
B.E.: And your stuff sounds really great.
M.: Thank you sir! It’s very important to me, for me the finished product is everything to me. Because I realized a long time ago that there’s songs that I’ve made that people didn’t like, or people didn’t recognize after they were mixed and mastered, and then they were like, “I never heard this song before, it’s amazing.” And I was like, “I played this song to you, over and over, and you never thought anything of it.” So if you kind of take off with EQing and things, I’m very particular, because it really does change the dynamics of the song or even the energy of the song.
B.E.: There’s an interesting paradox in the work that you guys do, because anyone listening to it the first time, the first thing that’s going to hit them is the humor. There could be a tendency not to take you seriously as musicians.
M.: Yeah. Yeah, I mean this guy [Wanlov] is one of the most pedantic people on the planet, you know. I mean, it’s a balance because there are times when I kind of mull over things, and then he’s like “No, it’s fine, let’s go.” And then there are times when he’s just like, “Man, listen, if you don’t wrap this up now, I’m going to lose my mind.” So it’s a good balance between the two of us, because we’re both like that in a sense.
I think it’s good to know how things work so that in future nothing surprises you, you know? As independent artists, you can’t take these chances, coming from Ghana where there’s nothing properly set up to take care of, to protect musicians. You know, I was saying to another person the other day, when I look at the musicians that I think the world of, not only musicians, just artists who have contributed so much here in Ghana, how they’ve been treated, or how they’ve passed away, the conditions, it’s so bad. It’s so sad. So you always have to kind of look at that and let it reflect in your life.
B.E.: Thanks a million, you guys. Good luck with the new film. I just know we’re going to see you in New York one of these days.