One of the hallmarks of what makes an artist great is the subject matter they choose to address through their craft. Indeed, the idea and the messages that an artist adopts as their core mission will determine whether he or she will be remembered and revered in the annals of music history, or will fade from memory like a dying star. This is why Bob Marley is an icon, and Buju Banton’s music was something we boggled to for a few years in the 90’s and haven’t brought up since. Marley’s music had – and still has – a timeless, relevant message about poverty, love and pride; and since “boom bye-bye in a batty boy head” is considered hate speech… well, you get the picture.
Consumer appetite for music is ever changing. There was a time when “message music” was the order of the day until record executives decided that people no longer wanted to be preached to. Somewhere between the late 70’s and early 80’s, you begin to see a shift in themes covered in popular Top 40 songs, most centering around partying, every so often around romance, and eventually exclusively around sex.
I don’t know if we’re better off for it, but that’s the state of things.
For those of us who grew up on and in love with Bob Marley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and others who occupied space in the musical vanguard, there has been an unfillable void in contemporary music in this area. It’s the reason we clutch so dearly to John Legend, Janelle Monae and the High Priestess of Musical Mind-bending – Erykah Badu. Instead of relying on tired, 10 for a dollar, sexually explicit matter like many of their contemporaries, these artists express a range in the themes they cover: sometimes sensual, often political, always relevant.
In my opinion, Noella Wiyaala absolutely belongs in this rank.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting my fair share of Ghanaian artists; some because we shared the same social circles or educational opportunities, and others by happy accident… but I am hard pressed to think of any who is as generous and genuine as Wiyaala.
She recent shared her single Sun & Moon with me, which will be on her album coming out in November (*gleeful shriek!*). I played the song for my children, and we shared similar reactions.
“It’s so peaceful,” my second born remarked with a sigh. “But I don’t understand what she’s saying…”
“It doesn’t matter. It just matters how it makes you feel.”
Wiyaala sings the song in Sissala and it is based around a traditional folk song sung from the villages of the Upper West. The Sissala have earned a reputation for being needlessly aggressive and war-hungry, which makes the story around the song and the song itself reason to pause and consider it more deeply.
The song is about a group of villagers who are sat round discussing life (in the days before TV) and chatting. The elder poses the question:
“Who amongst us doesn’t have issues?”
After much debate, the conclusion was that everyone – no matter their background – has concern and problems. The elder who posed the question then goes on to suggest that everyone in the village pause, reflect on their actions before making rash decisions and exercise patience since “whatever our issues, the sun will give way to the moon and in its turn the moon will give way to the sun.”
The stars are out
They shine so bright
Sun and Moon
Anxiously wait their turn
But who can tell what
Judgement day will bring?
If you happened to catch the Tamale Summit online, you may recall Wiyaala talking about the global marketability of Northern culture and language, and the huge opportunities that are being missed.
Her assertion is that songs/rap from Northern region are just as palatable as hip-life done in Akan/Twi, however many potential artists from other disenfranchised parts of the country are led to believe that their mother-tongue is not marketable. However, the brilliance of King Ayisoba – who hails from the North and is making inroads on the path to international acclaim – dispels this myth. Unfortunately (and shamefully), one is more likely to hear Ayisoba on German radio than to hear him in Accra at drive time. It is another case of Ghanaians not valuing our culture and its purveyors at home.
Wiyaala is the most generous musical artist in Ghana in my estimation because she looks at fame beyond herself and does it so effortlessly and unconsciously. During the Tamale Summit, she mentioned plans to build a stage in her hometown where young men and women can come and practice singing and stage presence. While other musicians’ goal is to “put Ghana on the map” through their personal rise to fame, she seeks to empower others and provide tangible structures to enable them to do so. This is what cements a woman’s honored place in history: to be remembered as someone who lifted and encouraged others to go beyond the heights even she has achieved.
Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to share mp3s on the site, otherwise I’d happily order you to click ‘Play’ and prepare yourself for auditory pleasure. The song is a lesson about tolerance, about preferring others above oneself, and about patience. In the end, everyone gets their turn, as no state of existence is forever, is it? I guess we’ll all have to wait until November when the album drops to have this conversation again!
2 hours later:
Oh look what I have for you! Click ‘Play’ :)