"This is the place," the good-natured taxi driver finally announces, pulling up near a house tucked deep in the McCarthy Hills.
As I step out of the cab, a neat breeze salutes me, as do healthy greenery and overall quietude. The driver, dark and middle-aged, turn the cab around and zooms down the untarred road we have just ascended.
Before long, the dreadlocked man I seek this afternoon emerges, clad in a black turban over his head, blue denim shirt, and khaki trousers over black boots. On his left breast pocket the word ‘Blakk’ is emblazoned; on the right, ‘Rasta’. Together, these two constitute the alias he goes by.
Born Abubakar Ahmed, Blakk Rasta has gained prominence as one of the most dominant voices in the land. It is specifically this attribute, which has embedded itself in the minds of many via music and media, that I have visited to explore.
We’ll have a conversation for sure, only not in his house. He knows just the right spot, beckoning me into his Pajero. We cruise around the neighbourhood for a few minutes, his car stereo blasting a new single which he intends to release the following day, before stopping at a cul-de-sac near a stately white mansion. He alights and begins to walk toward the edifice, I in tow.
“You see, McCarthy [Hills] has that history,” Rasta starts, addressing my curiosity about his choice of location for residence. Sir Charles McCarthy — one-time governor of the Gold Coast after whom these uplands were named — selected the area because it was devoid of mosquitoes, Rasta informs me. He adds that the building in view — rising like a dome from below the mountain — was once McCarthy’s personal residence. He would relate more of such anecdotes during our afternoon-long interaction which happens right in front of said house.
The words that descend from Rasta’s mouth are both winding and moving, like a sermon on a mount, and not unlike our journey in his Pajero to this peak. I also pick up a mild stutter — an ironic discovery that leaves me stunned.
He’s always had a natural affinity for altitudes. For one thing, Rasta explains, “you get unpolluted air.”
For another, it is conducive for prayer — which he does often. During this exercise, he prefers to see “nothing but the blue skies and the scenes.”
A seasoned broadcaster best known for his drive-time show, ‘Taxi Driver’ (which most recently ran on Zylofon FM), Rasta is, thus far into our conference, significantly calmer in person than he sounds. On air, he wears a different cloak, one that has him inflammable and descending heavily on African leaders in his trademark tirades. Inside his wardrobe, though, there is another apparel that has him looking the part of an intellectual as he dishes out rare knowledge in in his popular ‘Africa History Class’ segment.
The long drive from his abode to the Accra-based station, which affords him the opportunity to observe happenings in his adopted city as well as a reliance on the orders of nature, only serve as the build-up. By the time Rasta arrives at the studios, he’s pregnant with so much anger or excitement — depending on the mood — which translates into severe passion that “does not end until it ends.”
It’s a passion to see development — to see leaders do better. This fire is so strong that if he’s unable to accomplish the day’s task, he feels incomplete. On some days, he tackles four subjects at a go; on others, he takes on less and tries his best to do justice to it.
As expected, after a successful show, it’s as though he’s been relieved of a heavy load. The cycle repeats itself when Rasta returns to the microphone the next day. Nobody is spared and nobody is safe, because when he strikes — as he often does — he strikes hard.
A recent court order secured by the Economic and Organised Crime Office (EOCO) to freeze all landed properties and vehicles belonging to embattled business mogul Nana Appiah Mensah in the ongoing Menzgold saga meant that Rasta has had to suspend his show for a while. Not being able to exercise his voice on radio, his primary and seminal outlet, has been devastating.
“It’s a slow killer,” Rasta says. “It’s like slow poison.”
Rasta has been forced off radio twice prior in his career for different reasons, but it’s not a feeling he can ever get used to; without a medium to lend expression to his convictions, Rasta is nothing.
“Everyone has a voice,” he says. “Even the mute do, because sign language offers them a voice, too. A man without a voice is worse than a mummy.”
With this, I feel his passion for radio rising gradually in his throat, his voice becoming louder. It is not long before he begins to get really animated, decrying the failure of the African to reach his full potential.
Wait — no microphone?
No problem la.
It’s a familiar subject, one close to his heart, and Rasta reiterates a sentiment about the culture of muteness, his voice amplified by the hilltop breeze: “the silence of the wise ones is what has kept all these wicked people in power!”
Rasta’s voice is both unique and not easily predictable. When it filters through the airwaves and into our ears, the identity of its owner is unmistakable. From that voice, we expect life, fire and positivity. Still, we aren’t quite sure just which direction it’s going to take. Like the wind, it’s not restricted to a single direction. Like the sea, peaceful or raging at will, you can’t judge by its waves. Like God himself, it’s calm one moment and furious the next.
“It’s beautiful and I love it,” Rasta says with a chuckle. “There is no other voice like that on earth.”
And it’s okay if we cannot predict him, because even he fails at this task. Ultimately, though, the goal is to keep his voice functioning, given his declaration that he would prefer death to not having a voice.
How was this voice, so obviously cherished and refined, nurtured?
Well, as a child, Ahmed was taught to speak only the truth and to ensure that his speech affects society positively, with the less pleasant alternative of saying nothing at all. It’s counsel he’s stuck with even after making the transition to Rasta.
“The heart only keeps you going, but the voice is the most important instrument of human life; it’s what decides your life,” he explains. In other words, the heart gives life, but the voice decides the quality of that life.
Growing up, Rasta resolved to never perpetuate a lie — or deliberately misinform — with his voice. The smile on his face as he speaks now is one of pride, at how jealously he’s guarded its integrity while stirring up fear in evildoers.
But, for all his goodness, Rasta is no saint, and his voice — his ‘truth’ — is bound to land him in trouble every now and then, as has already happened a few times. It’s why, in July 2015, Rasta parted ways with Hitz FM after eight years working at the station.
Modestly, he’s the first to accept punishment for his wrongdoing, borrowing a line from Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot a Sheriff’: “If I am guilty, I will pay.”
He echoes the italicised word multiple times, as happens on the song itself. But, hey, it’s the serviceable child that breaks the pot, isn’t it?
And that’s why Rasta has made peace with the fact that his style of radical honesty isn’t for everyone.
“I don’t blame them. Some of them [eventually] repent to see the truth — to ‘see the light,’ as Bob would say.”
A quote from another legendary creative with African roots, Maya Angelou, goes: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you cannot practice any of the other virtues consistently.”
Rasta’s voice, dripping with such courage as Angelou speaks of, has unsurprisingly courted a huge cult following in the capital and beyond. To cultivate this rare trait and unfailingly practice it in a world as this is a skill Rasta has mastered, armed with a powerful yet simple weapon: the knowledge of death.
We are all bound to die — some at birth, others much later or probably earlier — and that’s a fate even the greatest man who ever lived (Jesus Christ, for the avoidance of doubt) succumbed to while on earth. Believers in reincarnation — or other concepts of life beyond death, for that matter — don’t dispute the mortality of man and neither does Rasta.
“Whether you die now, tomorrow or the day after, death is constant,” he emphasizes.
Surely, he cannot be wearied of an eventuality so inevitable and natural. Therefore, he prays and strikes hard while he has breath in him so that, when he’s gone, people would remember him.
“Even if they don’t, the Almighty who sent me on this mission will acknowledge that I fulfilled my duty.”
In these parts, few social commentators critique the African leader (whom Rasta believes is the source of all the continent’s problems, anyway) as bitingly as my host has done so consistently during his highly eventful career. On radio and over multiple critically acclaimed, poetry-suffused albums, Rasta has done so. Time and again.
“If Africans were the first to be created and were so dear to the Creator and dared explore to invent a lot of things at a time Europeans were totally illiterate and living in caves, why are we looking to [Europeans] today for crumbs?” he cries.
Oh, and he’s not done lamenting:
“We were created long before any other race. Why is it that, today, we’re seemingly at the bottom of the mountain? Where did we go wrong?”
To myself, I repeat that last rhetorical question, scrambling for answers that seem elusive.
“It makes me sad because I know our history,” Rasta’s booming voice cuts into my musings, making my brows furrow even more.
He presents me with a sobering analogy: Mansa Musa, the ancient Malian emperor, and British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes (who named parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe after himself) are cited among the wealthiest people to ever walk this earth. Both made their wealth from Africa, which goes to substantiate the continent’s long-standing reputation as the world’s most naturally endowed.
“If we’re rich, why are we poor? Why are we so rich in resources, and yet so rich in poverty too?” he asks. “Where did we go wrong?”
Ah, that million-dollar question again, along with others which lie in a giant heap at the doorstep of the African leader who, Rasta maintains, has sold us out.
He has a solution, though, even if it remains mere wishful thinking at this point: prison!
Not a regular prison, no, but one that also functions as a school, rewiring the African leader’s brain to make him truly beneficial to society. It can be done, Rasta insists: a land devoid of societal ills is achievable.
“If you and I decide that corruption should end, it will end right now; because corruption starts and ends with me, as it does with you.”
In an interview while alive, Fela Kuti, Afrobeats’ originator and revolutionary social commentator, once remarked: “If you’re in England, music can be an instrument of enjoyment […] but in my own environment, my society is under-developing because of an alien system on our people, so there’s no music for enjoyment — there’s something like a struggle for existence. So, as an artist, politically, artistically, your whole idea about your environment must be represented in music; in the arts.
“Art is what is happening at a particular time of a people’s development—or underdevelopment. As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment; music must be for revolution.”
Rasta agrees largely with Fela’s opinion, only veering slightly. Armed with satire, he argues, it is possible for an artiste to entertain and invoke thought at the same time. A balance, in Rasta’s opinion, is the best way: draw them in with the fun, and then hit them with hard, painful education.
The aversion he feels for the governance template in these parts also extends to religion as, over here, the latter doubles as an oppressive tool. Ghanaians, per Rasta’s observation, are religious in a way that could be toxic — and that’s why he settles for ‘mere’ spirituality.
I inquire the difference between spirituality and religion — often used interchangeably — and Rasta explains: the former relates to one’s personal relationship with God, devoid of man-made principles; the latter — which, needless to say, he doesn’t quite recommend — is “the opium of the masses,” only making addicts of the public.
“Even Jesus came to abolish religion!” Rasta claims, wrapping up that topic.
Back to his voice, though, which boasts significance posterity will appreciate — and on to ‘Kuchoko’, his musical invention carved from the reggae genre more out of necessity than anything else.
I know Kuchoko refers to a melting point of various musical influences, with reggae as the foundation. Named after the classic reggae shuffle, it is a fusion of original reggae grooves and indigenous African sounds and rhythms: the kondo, xylophone, omolebata, Adwa melody, etc.
But what informed his choice of that as label for the sub-genre he proffered years back and now practices?
“Nice question,” he nods, before answering.
There’s a fascinating backstory which he will now share with me, also setting off his peroration this hour.
Throughout his travels, he noticed a worrying trend about Jamaican acts’ reticence with accepting non-Jamaican practitioners of the genre. They are so protective of ‘theirs’, Rasta quickly found out.
Before we go any further on that subject, let’s be clear about something: he “ate, drank, and got awards from Jamaican communities here in Ghana.”
Rasta adds: “I’ve represented Jamaica and the consciousness of Jamaica, but everywhere I went I didn’t feel Jamaican love.”
And then he met Jamaican colleagues, expecting plaudits from them for spreading Jamaican culture, but was hit with a different reality. Whenever and wherever he would proclaim that he did reggae, he got disapproving looks. At a gig in Canada, he was told by Jamaican colleagues in Patois: “brethren, go do some likkle African tin.”
In England, his music was shoved aside — “this is not reggae,” they say — because, to them, Rasta’s sound bore foreign instruments and was hardly archetypal. He stomached all that disrespect until he could no more.
“Enough is enough!” Rasta reasoned. “I don’t do reggae anymore!”
And thus Kuchoko was born.
The Ghanaian Rasta disciple must take some blame, though, he concedes.
“We want to liberate ourselves from Europe and America, but it now looks like we’re getting recolonized by Jamaica.”
He squints at the paradox. Why is the Ghanaian Rasta man/reggae singer obsessed about sounding — even appearing — ‘more Jamaican’ than the Jamaican himself?
“No matter how long a log stays in the water,” the Bambara say, “it doesn’t become a crocodile.” In Rasta’s candid view, no proverb could be truer.
“Africa is the motherland. If anything at all, people should try to sound like us, instead of the other way round,” he proclaims.
An infamous statement uttered in 2016 by Luciano, a Jamaican crooner, comes up. Speaking with Winford William on the ‘OnStage’ show in his homeland, the singer accused most Ghanaian dancehall artistes of appropriating Jamaican culture.
“These young artistes now are emulating what is going on in Jamaica. Instead of making the Jamaicans popular in Ghana, they are making their own popularity. They look on the Internet and steal every move going on in Jamaica.”
Disciples of that school suggest that it is why Jamaican acts often don’t get contracts to play in Africa.
But consider what Marley — doubtlessly Jamaica’s biggest authority on music — once said about reggae. As he lets the quote out, Rasta mimics the reggae maestro dramatically, also in Patois: “this music a go grow big and big and big and big — until it reach its rightful audience.”
Today, during his trek around the globe, should Jamaican colleagues ask what music he performs, Rasta simply responds: “Kuchoko.”
“Ah, wha is kuchoko, me bredren?” they retort, ears perked up for a response.
It is how he’s made believers of them all.
“Kuchoko for life!”
An academic and recipient of a dozen laurels both home and abroad, Rasta has eight albums to his credit and is best-known for records as ‘Barack Obama’, ‘Ganja Nice’, ‘Serwaa Akoto’, ‘Dede’, ‘Kofi Annan Says’ and a catalogue of other masterpieces. Rasta is scheduled to release a new body of work — a thirty-tracker — later this year.
Wait for it; watch this space.