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Views From Below: The underground Ghanaian music scene

“Underground dierr it’s like saying kanzo. Use upcoming artiste.”Kwame Yesu, Ghanaian rapper

Every huge artiste has to come from somewhere. The legends we know today all had to break out from what is collectively known as the underground scene. Call it the stepping-stone to fame or a never-ending National Service period before you achieve full-blown Ghanaian artiste status, the underground music scene remains a scrambling yet thriving hub for young talents all looking towards the ultimate goal: “to blow.” For Bully, a singer who has just been in the industry for about 17 months, blowing is relative. It is not just about going viral. It’s about being able to pursue her art the way she wants to, with no financial restrictions to hold her back from pushing her works to her audience.

“Ending up as a mainstream artiste is just a plus. All you need to do is find your target audience and conquer them”. –Bully

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Kwame Yesu holds the more common notion behind blowing: Making money, living the life, and not worrying about being broke.

“Blowing is when I can put my mama in a G Wagon and boast of mansions. I am in for the cash, to be honest. The fame is a plus. You can’t save fame in the bank you know? But right now, for now, I just need the fame to spark the money engine.”-Kwame Yesu

SO WHAT DOES THE UNDERGROUND MUSIC SCENE REALLY LOOK LIKE?

The underground entertainment scene comes across as a sea of artistes, all clamoring to be seen but Kwame Yesu insists that there are several factions and alliances.

It’s lowkey a competition. Some circles have heavy links so they are doing quite well but this does not affect the music-making process for others who don’t have these links. If I reach out to a rapper in some other circle for a verse and I don’t get it, I just complete the song or put someone else on.”

However, MC Nel, a recording artiste, MC, and DJ insists that, in as much as it’s a big field of upcoming acts, everyone remains approachable and willing to lend a helping hand if need be: 

“I don’t know if unity is the word to describe the entertainment industry. But, if we need to pull something off, we approach each other. I’m yet to see an instance where someone is beefing another. Everyone is actually quite accessible.” 

Though factions exist, it seems focusing on your crew and being open to collaborations is the way to go, even if not everyone shares the same sentiment. In an industry where talent is easily snuffed out by a frustrating and informal environment, artistes need a good support system, and one of the best-said systems can be your fellow acts who want to see you succeed.

THE ART AND BUSINESS BEHIND BEING AN UPCOMING ACT

Being underground is difficult and for those of us merely consuming the music, we may not see it entirely but the scene is a lot of work. There is a constant need to work thrice as hard as everyone else or risk getting lost in the sea of talent. It’s an endless cycle of proving yourself, churning out excellent content, learning and unlearning a bunch of things, and praying for a miracle and that the right people find your sound or what MC Nel describes as “believing in yourself and inshallah”. As someone involved in different aspects of the entertainment industry, he describes the process for upcoming DJs as being very similar to that of being an upcoming artiste but… a slightly harder version.

“With DJ-ing, you need to put in twice the effort. You constantly have to prove yourself over and over again because there are more people who can replicate what you are doing so you need to go in harder. You can’t always find your niche just being an artiste ”- MC Nel

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There is a lot of hard work in the struggle and it’s not unusual to see some people fall off along the line. The stress coupled with not having enough funds to keep pushing your craft can be damn near depressing which is why artists like Bully suggest that having a solid team and maintaining a mind for business should be the priority for artistes especially those making music that is not considered mainstream.

Bully cited young Ghanaian musician, BRYAN THE MENSAH and Nigerian superstar, Mr. Eazi as examples of artistes who understand the business of music.

“Give BRYAN THE MENSAH a few years and he’ll be one of the biggest in the music business”

Kojo Manuel, an MC known for moving crowds at the biggest concerts in Ghana agrees with this. As a renowned MC and radio presenter at YFM, a Ghanaian radio station known for breaking the hottest emerging music, Manuel has encountered his share of upcoming artistes.

“Upcoming artistes need to understand that the most important thing about making music and blowing is centered on your talent and understanding the business of things and not following the gimmicks from established artistes who set bad examples: The beef culture, fake lifestyle and clout chasing”

“Those things work sometimes but it’s not always sustainable. You need a perfect balance. Your talent and your understanding of the business is what is important”-Kojo Manuel

Is this sustainable? We know that there is no exact formula to blowing however, knowing the business and working hard seems to be a great starting point. Regardless, there’s one thing every artist needs in order to ‘blow’ and that is support. This includes support from a steady and growing fanbase alongside a number of key actors such as blogs, journalists, A&Rs, hosts, influencers, DJs, and curators, etc. After all, how would underground artistes break out or ‘blow’ without the support of their fans and major industry players?

SUPPORT IN THE UNDERGROUND MUSIC SCENE

Support in this scene rests heavily on key players in the industry, aside from the fans and the expectation that they patronize your music and share your craft. From music and culture blogs who were traditionally the gatekeepers of the mainstream world of music to event organizers expected to allocate slots for upcoming acts, DJs responsible for introducing great talents to people through their setlists, and more; all these tastemakers make up a critical mass of support that can propel any underground artiste into the limelight.

Often, you hear artists complain about not receiving enough support, and others expected to provide this support referring to some of them as entitled. According to Hotor, a well-known voice within the GH music scene and creator of Scripts and Sounds, an annual event that serves as a platform for poets and upcoming musicians, the phenomenon of entitled artistes is a given. Despite having her fair share of bad experiences with certain artists, she does not let the actions of a few clouds her efforts to push the culture.

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 “No one owes you anything. No one owes you his or her support. If you get it, cool. If you have to pay to get it too…cool. Just do you, watch your circle and pray to what you believe in charle”-Hotor

Kojo Manuel on the other hand felt the need to explain to upcoming artistes that the support is not just there for the taking. The fact that he has some power to help you does not mean he has to offer it just because you are a “struggling artiste”.

“Most of these underground artistes are so entitled. They approach me all the time and when I lay out what the steps and structure is, for them to follow, they get offended and think you don’t want to help them because they aren’t popular enough”

“I love to see upcoming artistes grow. I support when I can but what artistes need to understand is that we (radio and TV personalities) also have a task to put out and promote good content. Music is a product.”-Kojo Manuel

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MC Nel’s roles have brought him into contact with his fair share of “entitled artists” but this is also what has helped him as an artiste allowing him to use some of those experiences to make informed decisions when it comes to his art.

“Everyone’s running a business and it makes sense that they’d only go for what makes them make steady money. They (media houses and the like) also have an audience to feed. What needs to be done as an artiste is to observe and understand the entertainment industry and the different aspects in it and how they all work. Observe, learn and use your knowledge of it all to your advantage”- MC Nel

SO HOW CAN ARTISTES KEEP BEING PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR WORK WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT “BLOWING?”

With a huge pool of different, talented artistes each doing their thing, the underground music scene is a never-ending waterfall of new acts adding up to an already concerned group of artistes not “graduating” fast enough into the mainstream.

Not everyone can go mainstream, not everyone will get his or her music played in every corner in Ghana. Not everyone can become famous. But, it’s likely that putting structures in place to help artistes make money to invest back into their craft is a viable option. 

“Upcoming artistes are like interests. I don’t think you can structure that. What we need is a structure in the industry so that anyone who wants to make music seriously knows that -ok my hard work, coupled with other things I’m supposed to do will pay off”MC Nel

“I think artistes are struggling now because we don’t really have proper structures in place. If we can get basic structures where artistes can easily monetize their craft and get paid royalties, everyone can just focus on putting out their music”Hotor

“Support when you can, be open to new things, and BUY artiste’s music. The Music Association needs to put in better structures in place and royalties, contracts and terms should be taken more seriously”Bully

 “Right now we all just want the fame to spark the money engine but if you can make money from being an underground artiste without necessarily waiting to be famous, then that’s good. Cos then, you’d be making money and investing it back into your craft.”Kwame Yesu

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One thing everyone agrees on in the meantime, is to work hard, be consistent and focus on making your fans content with your product because as Kojo Manuel so eloquently put it “If your product is good and you turn me into a fan, I will buy and share your music, unasked.

Words by

Maxwell Adjavon

Margaret Sagoe

Efia Serwah

Directed by

Maxwell Adjavon

Margaret Sagoe

Photography

Maxwell Adjavon

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