A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Rapper's Delight: Ghanaian MC Wanlov loves the Music not the Bling
By Christabel Nsiah-Buadi
Up and coming Ghanaian-Romanian rapper Wanlov, was born in Bucharest, Romania (where his mother comes from) and was brought up in Ghana (his father's native country). Wanlov describes his sound as 'Afrobeat rebel music' or 'Broken English', but when it comes down to it, his music crosses borders, through its message, and its beats. The AFRican talked to the talented wordsmith, hard at work on his debut album. His album, produced by the likes of Seven X, Bosco and Kweku Ananse, is about his challenges living in the US, the perceptions Ghanaians at home have about their Diaspora relatives, and the state of conscious Hip Hop in Ghana.

The AFRican: Hi Wanlov, good to speak to you. First things first, how did you end up in the US?!

Wanlov: In 2000, I came to the US to do school, and I am still here, you know, doing what the immigrant does, trying to make it, and then go back home to support his people.

The AFRican: So, how did you get into Hip Hop in the first place?

Wanlov: Growing up in Ghana, we used to listen to Leaders of the Old School, LL Cool J, Chubb Rock (Check), Grand Puba, Method Man, Redman, Snoop Dogg, and then, we started listening to artists including Ambolley Reggie Rockstone, who were influenced by Jazz and Hip Hop; we started to appreciate their style, cause that was something from Ghana that we could listen to that the youth were proud, of, you know? Then, small small, other artists started to come up, like Obrafuor, who was also doing Hip Life, but it had more of a Hip Hop feel, even though he was speaking full Twi.

The AFRican: For those who may not be too sure, could you describe what Hip Life is?

Wanlov: It's basically Hip Hop mixed with Hi Life. Hi Life itself is a blend of Jazz and local Ghanaian music. Reggie Rockstone was the pioneer of it.

The AFRican: You have a really interesting background yourself -I don't know of too many people who have one parent from Ghana and the other from Romania! With influences from Eastern Europe and West Africa, what was life like for you growing up in Ghana?!

Wanlov: (Laughs) It was very, very interesting! You know, a lot of times, people assume that if you are of a lighter complexion, you don't speak the language, that you are visiting, so people will talk about you in the local dialect and when you respond in the same language, they are surprised, and then you are eventually accepted, but at the same time people can keep you at a distance. It's hard to blend in on one level. And in Romania too, they know you are from somewhere else, and they don't know that you speak Romanian... you feel a little like a CIA agent, you know! You knew what was going on, but people never knew what you knew! But it gave me an insight into my people, wherever I was...

The AFRican: So you speak Romanian as well??

Wanlov: Yes.. yes..

The AFRican:I see.... So you speak three languages: Twi, Romanian and English...

Wanlov.....and a bit of Ga, because I grew up in Accra, and Ga was the main language spoken there.

The AFRican:Does your mother speak Twi?

Wanlov: She understands, but, I don't know about her fluency! You know, sometimes, when you pronounce something funny in Twi, everybody will let you know that you haven't pronounced it well.

The AFRican: Yeah, I know all about that!!

Wanlov: Eh heh! But she understands, you know! The funny thing is, people don't do it when we are speaking English.... although, when you speak English and you 'gbaa', so called, someone will laugh at you too. It's like things are being balanced by nature!

The AFRican: So, then you moved to the US to study...

Wanlov: Yes!

The AFRican: As a fan of Hip Hop, were you surprised by the American Hip Hop movement?

Wanlov: I was surprised... I didn't know about fact that the people doing Hip Hop with a positive message, were being blackballed in a way, because of the commercial, capitalist system. People don't want you to push the positive messages to the people. So, the music in the forefront isn't really good for the people at the moment. I was really surprised that the people who were really, really soulful and really, really good were on the backburner, they weren't getting any love. So that was the thing that really surprised me, when I first arrived. That said, I was happy with the variety of music that existed in the US.

The AFRican: .... and seeing as the US is so different from Ghana, how did you adjust personally?

Wanlov: Well, I eventually adjusted to the small things, you know! Musically, it was good, because I was so influenced by US Hip Hop, that I started off doing my shows in the US 'Yo Yo' accent, because that is what I knew as being Hip Hop. But then, any time I slipped up and said something in my real accent, some artists would respond really positively to it, they would say things like, 'I liked it when you said this part', and I started to realize that being yourself was going to help me sell records more than trying to be the next Nas or Busta Rhymes, so the adjustment was good for me.

The AFRican: You have been working on your Hip Hop for a while now, while in the US, has your perception of Conscious Hip Hop in the US changed at all.... and do you feel like you involved in the US Hip Hop movement in anyway?

Wanlov: Yes, I feel I am because I know most of the conscious artists in the US, almost, on a personal level. I see their movement coming together and getting very strong, because they are uniting. It used to be that Talib Kweli would do his thing on his own here, while Mos Def did his thing on his own there; everybody was scattered, but now they are all coming together, label-wise, and vision wise.

The AFRican: What themes and issues do you like to deal with in your music? What is it about?

Wanlov: Being aware of your surroundings, socially spiritually, mentally, and then, having fun in life. You know, even if you have to talk about something bad in life affecting you, you don't have to frown while you are saying it, you can smile and say it too. Because frowning will just make the feelings worse - and affect the people around you, My music is also about being proud of who you are and where you are from, and it's about sparking that fire in you that wants to know more and more about life. It's about living life to the fullest.

The AFRican: Conscious Hip Hop movement has empowered some people in America, especially after 2004, with the creation of the National Political Hip Hop Convention. And the election of members of the Hip Hop Political movement into public office is testament to the movements political success. Is Hip Hop in Ghana empowering people politically and socially?

Wanlov: First of all, the number one Conscious Hip Hop group in Ghana is called the Black Monkz. If it wasn't for them, there wouldn't be any alternative Hip Hop in Ghana. Everything would be about flashy things and money - these guys and other groups that are following them are basically reeling in the youths who only have 'bling bling' Hip Hop to listen to, because that is all that is available on M-Net and Channel O and all these channels from other countries. And the ones that think for themselves, and want something different, these Conscious Hip Hop guys, get them and will stay with them forever.....These groups serve a small but very powerful movement.

I feel like that is just a compass, when people get lost following this 'bling bling' and realizing this is too much, alternative Hip Hop will always be there to make them aware and just slow down the spread of the Westernized, commercial kind of music. They talk about Slavery in Ghana. Because, when you are in school in Ghana, you are not taught about anything beyond Elmina Castle, 'they took the slaves', then they will close the book! You are not taught about what happened after they left. What our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora went through, once they embarked on that journey. So, (the conscious Ghanaian Hip Hop artists) start talking about Harriet Tubman, because they listened to Hip Hop in the US, and they know a lot about African American History. So they spread that (knowledge) in their music. Conscious Hip Hop heads all around Africa, they always include African American history, to make the people know, so that past mistakes aren't repeated. They also educate the people on capitalistic ways of 'bling bling' music. There's AIDS awareness, telling girls how to behave themselves, you know, not to be loose. Anything you can think of, Conscious Hip Hop deals with it with a positive message. Basically its your grandma that you don't go to visit anymore, when you listen to Conscious Hip Hop, you'll get the message in there!

The AFRican: How do people get to listen to them?

Wanlov: In Ghana, the media outlets are very limited, so if you are not paying the radio stations to play your music, you are not getting any airplay. They are only playing the record so that they and the artist share the royalties. So, they (the Conscious Hip Hop artists) have to resort to doing shows on the roadside, organizing shows and because of limited resources, they can only get so many people, and it's hard to reel in newcomers, because newcomers have been programmed to listen to a certain kind of beat, or topic. So, you have to catch people on their 'down time'; it's all about timing and luck and other small factors.

The AFRican: You say that one of the themes of your music is talking about being proud of who you are, so how would you describe the general attitude of Ghanaians towards their culture and identity?

Wanlov: Ghanaians are very proud of their culture. A lot of times it seems a 'surface pride', because of Colonialism. You know, a lot of times we will say, 'Oh I am Ashanti, I am this, or I am that', but a lot of times, when we go out, we will wear European clothes, tuxedos for example, when we can wear our traditional outfits we keep doing things the European way. But, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, Ghanaians - will fight to the end to keep the traditions. If Ghanaians knew that the more we are bleaching, the more we are perming our hair, the more we are buying these cars and things and bringing them to our towns and villages in Ghana, and making other people think that this is what they need - if we realized the direction it's taking us in, you know we wouldn't continue doing what we are doing. I think it's a lack of knowledge in some ways. The ancestors had the knowledge and they passed it to us, but our ears were blocked!...All of our knowledge, from the Ashanti roots, Hausa roots, Ayigbe roots, everywhere, is being eroded by western materialism and a 'microwave' quick, quick (have to have it now) mentality. But we will go in the right direction. I have hope in my people, though.

The AFRican: I am part of the Diaspora Ghanaian community, and a lot of what you just talked about touches on issues that I know people in the Diaspora grapple with. For example, I see the kind of pressure some expatriate Ghanaian's put on themselves - when they are about to make a return trip to Ghana - to make sure that people at home don't think they are struggling financially in 'the West'. That they are a 'big man/woman'. I think that insecurity comes from many things, some bad, some good, like the fact that they want to be able to give something back to the people in their hometown. So, I am curious, how do Ghanaian's at home see Ghanaian's who live, or were born abroad?

Wanlov: Well, I mean, they are proud that they have a family member who lives abroad. And, because of the positive village attitude, where we look out for each other, I think deep down some people expect the families that they are connected to abroad to help financially. But, what happens is the help starts becoming like, you know, when we can work to accumulate what we need and what we want, people become lazy, because once you get some dollars, it saves you a lot of work, and when you get used to that quick, quick money, you start to spend it anyhow. But that is just on the money aspect. But in other aspects, for example, there are families that are in Ghana, who are doing fine, and they don't really need anything extra. When another family comes back from abroad and they buy a car or something and bring it back, well, human beings will be human beings, and others will want to have a car like that.

The AFRican: You also touched on something that I know a lot of people who live abroad feel passionately about, that is the issue of giving back. There is a generation of Ghanaians who were born abroad who are now starting to look at how they can give something back to Ghana, but they may not be sure about how to do that, and they may not be sure about returning to Ghana permanently, because they may feel they have two homes; the land of their birth and land of their ancestry. What would you say to them?

Wanlov: Well, you have to look at geography, and work out what part of the planet you are more comfortable on all year round. And you know, I feel like Africa will be our safe haven! I mean, look at how the so called 'First World' nations are behaving right now, with the current nuclear threat. I mean, if you are really globally aware and conscious, I don't think you will think too much about where to invest your future. Because Africa is still ripe to be developed, and protected, whereas, the systems in America and some parts of Europe, have been oversaturated with industries and so on and so forth, But you will eventually work out where you are supposed to be.