Two weeks ago to the day I’m posting this, Black Girls Glow had an event, as part of their For the Culture series, called “Talent Alone No Be Enough.” OG Ghanaian rapper and musician M3NSA was in conversation with BGG founder, Poetra Asantewa, and he dropped several gems. I took notes throughout the event and I think they’re worth documenting and sharing on my blog. Enjoy!
M3NSA doesn’t think of himself as a genius, but as a person who is okay at something. But that something is part of the point of his existence and he is willing to sacrifice for it. For instance, he’s willing to put in 20 hours trying to figure out the sound of one kick, assisted by his ADHD brain.
Even when it seems you’re on the brink of success (like signing some crazy deal that has the potential to change your whole life), remember that something can always go wrong, even at the very last minute.
Success is being able to stick at a thing for the longest time.
M3NSA feels that if he had blown up already, he would have burnt out. He prefers to be a career musician rather than being at the top of the music world for 5-ish years and then fizzling out such that nobody wants to have anything to do with him anymore.
He feels he has gotten to where he is by finding himself at the right places at the right times.
Consistency is how one holds on to one’s fanbase.
Some fans may want to pigeonhole an artist, and that is the worst thing ever. Facing demands that you should just keep making only the type of stuff they first heard you make and that they first liked. But keep being true to yourself and evolving where you want to. Be steadfast as an artist. The critics may even turn around to respect you.
If you can’t do the business side of your artistic career, find a team of believers who can do it for you. (M3NSA also acknowledged that this may be coming from a privileged perspective.)
There’s no hack to balancing the creation part and the business/marketing part.
Collaboration is an opportunity to learn, especially from younger creators.
If something doesn’t feel right to your gut, just reject it. (M3NSA rejected an offer to sign with J Dilla’s record label, because despite how grand it seemed, and the emotional importance it carried for him as the label that had released so many albums that made M3NSA who he is today… when something isn’t right, you just have to reject it.)
Learn to communicate what it is that you create.
M3NSA called Snapchat “Slap-stick,” which I found hilarious..
Stop autoscrolling. It doesn’t help you reflect on where in your art you are stuck. You really need to let things ruminate rather than spending every free moment filling your mind with other people’s words and images (because a lot of the time, we’re not really taking in the content anyway).
Every artist, when they are starting out, should be less on social media and more focused on learning their craft.
Become comfortable with hearing yourself. (Literally referring to your voice, for those who are musicians/vocalists/recording artists.)
Learn how to accept both criticism and praise.
Have people around you that make you comfortable about saying no.
Literally giving an artist food is one of the best ways to support them.
“Collaboration is synonymous with being an artist.”
“‘No’” is not the end of the world, no matter how poor you think you are.” (M3NSA also admits that this statement is one he may be making from a privileged perspective.)
“I just do not have the tenacity to be Tikking.” (In reference to not being on TikTok. I LOL’d.)
“To be an artist in Ghana, you have to be an entrepreneur first”. (As part of a point about how it’s not just about what you create, but about the things around what you create–the environment and how to work it and work the system you’re in.)
“Artists are always hungry. Feed us so that we can think clearly.”
That’s all I’ve got. It’s always such a delight to listen to M3NSA speak. If you’re not familiar with who he is, his last album, Bondzie, which was crowdfunded, is out everywhere. Give it a listen. 🙂
Waiting is one of my least favorite (in)activities. I can get very stressed when I’m forced to wait longer than I’ve anticipated. Two reasons for this are that I operate in time blocks, and I wait with my whole body and mind. Mentally, as well as in my physical planner, I schedule my activities within chunks of time, which makes it almost impossible for me to intersperse activities. When I know that something is supposed to happen at a particular time, I feel very uncomfortable starting anything or getting sucked into some alternate activity because it could be interrupted at any point, once whatever I am waiting for actually occurs. For example, it’s hard for me to read anything while I’m seated, waiting for an event that should have started forty minutes ago, to finally kick off. It’s extremely difficult for me to watch a portion of a film or TV show while I’m waiting for someone to show up at my house at any minute. I cannot focus on editing a short story while waiting for my name to be called at the doctor’s office.
Then, there’s the physical toll of waiting. It literally sucks the energy out of me. When I’m expecting something or someone, my mind and body tend to put me on high alert for them. I am unable to relax. From my senses to my muscles, I am taut with expectation as I do things like incessantly check my phone or, if I’m waiting for someone in a public place, involuntarily snapping my head up anytime somebody walks in, in case it’s the person I’m expecting. You might imagine how hard it is to read, write, watch, or do anything productive when you’re that highly strung. Every disappointment—when there’s no text, no doorbell, it wasn’t my name that the nurse came to call, or the person who just walked into the restaurant just wasn’t my person—also requires the conscious effort of calming myself down from the spike of energy that came with my anticipation. A few moments later, I go through the whole thing again, rinse and repeat, until the thing I’m waiting for finally happens, or I get a confirmation that it’s not going to happen, at which point I can finally allow myself to release all the tension and find something else to do—that is, after I’ve recovered all the energy that drained out of me during the waiting period.
I honestly have no idea if life is like this for other people. I don’t even know where to begin trying to explain to my friends or my partner the depth of stress I experience when, for instance, they tell me they are on their way to me, and the ETA, by all accounts, is 20 minutes, yet it somehow takes them more than an hour to reach me. (A substantial part of me thinks it’s an inane thing to get so deeply stressed about, and that this is something I need to train myself out of on my own, if possible, rather than bring it up with them, especially since I don’t seem to know anyone else who experiences waiting similarly.)
But my antagonistic relationship with waiting goes much deeper than the attention/energy issues described above.
When I first started writing this post—which began as a journal entry in December 2022—I was seated alone, in the early afternoon, at a restaurant, waiting hopelessly for a friend who I knew by then wasn’t coming. I was irritated, but it would have been graceless to show it. For various reasons, I was sleep deprived that day. I had gone to bed later than 3:30 a.m. the previous night, but had woken up early in the morning, specifically because of this now-solo brunch date.
Initially, our brunch was scheduled for 11 a.m. But my friend texted me at 9:30 a.m., by which time I was already awake, asking if we could move it to 12 p.m. That was fine with me. I got ready and decided to wait until it was a reasonable time to leave my house. But then she texted me again, asking if we could move it to 1 p.m. I agreed again. About an hour later, I got yet another text, asking if we could push our meal to 2pm. But by this point, I was hungry, and I admitted it. I told my friend I would just go by myself to get some food; if she was able to pass by the restaurant, she could come join me there, later. Otherwise, she could come and meet me back at my place afterwards. That was how I ended up alone at the restaurant, journalling, because the emotions I was feeling were disproportionate, even inappropriate, to the situation, and I wanted to understand why I felt the way I felt.
In this instance, while I ate at the restaurant alone, I felt sad and blown off. I knew that it was not my friend’s intention to make me feel that way, and that it wasn’t even her fault that her day had taken so many unexpected turns. Even so, sadness and the sense of being blown off were feelings I could justify. What I couldn’t justify, and wished I didn’t feel, was the sense of general inadequacy that my morning hadn’t been as disruptive as my friend’s. If you had to read that again because of confusion, rest assured that you are not the problem. What I said—what I felt—simply doesn’t make sense.
As I journalled, I had to come to terms with the fact that I have irrational insecurities about being the one who waits. There is a series of self-deprecating thoughts that occurs to me almost every time I’m forced to wait for people that I have casual, social plans with. My brain tries to tell me that the other person is late because they actually have a life to take care of, and the reason why I’m so available is because I don’t. The ones who are late, are late because they are occupied with Serious Things, and because I am not a serious person, I have no Serious Things to occupy my time. They have jobs that they have to work at because they are adults who have their lives together; I, on the other hand, have all this flexibility that makes my own time waste-able, because I am a writer and a freelancer, neither of which is a Serious Occupation. You don’t have to point out the fallacies in my logic to me. I see them quite clearly. Alas, I still seem to be having a hard time trying to stop the distorted, irrational thoughts from affecting my feelings.
The first time I remember feeling intense shame and inadequacy while waiting for a (different) friend was a couple of years ago. This other friend worked in an office close to my house at the time, and I hadn’t seen him in a while. We decided to meet up at a close-by café right after his working hours and have an evening catch-up. I remember waiting for him for between forty-five minutes to an hour past our agreed time, maybe a little more. As I waited, my thoughts rushed in a damning cascade.
I imagined—correctly—that my friend had been held up by a lot of work that he could not easily get away from. Instead of taking that in stride, or with healthy doses of sympathy that he had to work so late, I allowed it to make me feel inadequate. I concluded that, since I wasn’t as obviously busy as he was, I probably wasn’t working hard enough.
I don’t know exactly what had changed in my life to make me think that it was shameful to have time—to carve out time, to be on time—to hang out with my friends, to do things that aren’t geared towards making money or the development of my career. Perhaps a good portion of it came from anxiety around my decision not to try getting a full-time job straight out of college, so that I could focus on developing a literary portfolio instead. Once I finished college, my days were largely self-governed. My productivity schedule was flexible and designed entirely on my terms. And perhaps, my thoughts were colored heavily by the pressure I had put on myself to “make it” as a writer by a certain time, accompanied by repressed fears that my “plan” wasn’t going to work out and I’d end up book-less and financially destitute.
It seemed to me, as I waited at the café for my friend years ago, that if I truly wanted to make it, professionally and financially, I should be working hours just as long as his, even if my days were self-governed. I shouldn’t have any right to take things easy or prioritize “frivolous” things like catch-up dates with friends. I should, like them, live my life like I didn’t even have the choiceto prioritize catch-up dates with friends, because work needed to get done, and everything simply had to fall secondary to the accomplishment of the work.
Fast forward to a couple of years down the line, while I waited for the friend who never showed up for brunch. The reason why she hadn’t been able to make it had nothing to do with work, and yet, knowing that didn’t make me feel any better. I saw then that my problem with waiting went a little beyond productivity inadequacy. It had extended so far that the idea had entrenched itself in my mind that if my life isn’t some sort of scheduling nightmare, it means my life is lacking something critical. Now, I don’t even, on a logical level, believe this, so it baffles me more than it may baffle you why I still feel it, regardless.
There’s no conclusion to this essay I’m writing. There’s no big lesson that I’ve learned from all my introspection. It’s possible that the only reason I’ve chosen to share this with the public is for the cathartic effect of making myself heard. Maybe I’ve just missed how it feels to just treat my blog as my public trash can. Eventually, whenever I’m able to get the funds together to afford consistent therapy (or any therapy at all, ha-ha), this is one of the admittedly more superficial issues I’m hoping to work through with a mental health professional.
A few things happened in the latter part of 2022 that I had something to do with. If you don’t follow me on social media, you might have missed some of them, so here’s a quick wrap-up.
Ironically, this blog post is more like a newsletter post than the posts in my actual newsletter, which has migrated to Substack. Maybe you’ll want to check it out. My latest issue was about the conundrum of qualifying for opportunities as an emerging writer. Subscribe if you like it!
The first is Tsoo Boi, published by Tampered Press, and available for purchase on BookNook and through Paystack. My contribution is a short story called “Golden Rings,” featuring a protest in Accra and unexpected metaphysical events.
The second is Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, published by Tor.com and available on all your major book-buying platforms. Hopefully, at some point, it will be physically available in Acca. I’ve been working on that, but it seems shipping has been endlessly delayed. But at least, if you’re in Ghana, you can still cop the Kindle version or listen on Audible. My contribution in this anthology is a Doctor Who-inspired short story called “Exiles of Witchery”, set in northern Ghana and featuring a trio of badass female protagonists.
I had the privilege of being a featured artist on two tracks on my friend and collaborator DJ Yamz’s debut album, 27 in Accra Town. You’ll find me briefly on U 4 Smoke Well as well as Champion No Easy (which is my favorite track on the entire album, if I do say so myself. It’s so groovy, and every feature is fire. Ahem).
The Canon Podcast, one of our favorite online platforms for poetry in Ghana, did a series in honor of Ama Ata Aidoo. I featured on an episode, with an original poem, read out loud. You can check out my episode, as well as the other episodes in the series. I’m glad we are giving Auntie Ama her flowers now, because that is a living legend.
In case you missed it, folks, I will soon be a published author of my own book! I recently announced that Android Press will be publishing my novella, The Year of Return, later this year (beware, though: the publication date may change). Brittle Paper reported on the deal in this press release, and I can’t lie, I was so gassed when I came across the article. My face! On BrittlePaper! I won’t talk too much though, because heaven knows there’s much more work to be done and many more stories to write. So, for now, we say cheers, and then we get right back to work.
On the final weekend of October 2022, I had the privilege of attending two showings of The Mud People, a dance performance choreographed by Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, at Terra Alta. Despite having spent 10 years of my life as a dance student, I wasn’t confident in my ability to understand an entire contemporary dance performance. But the dancers were talented, the emotional energy was distinct, and I was able to piece together meaning with much less difficulty than I’d anticipated.
The Mud People was a dance performance in three acts, tied together by a central narrative that has layers upon layers of meanings, only a few of which I believe I understood. And yet, I can’t help remarking how thematically coherent it was. The fitting title of the show was referenced in several literal and metaphorical ways, down to the set design. The “stage” was a rectangle of soil which extended forward into a T-shape, and on each end of T’s upper line was an upside-down African broom fanning out behind a mound of peat. Simple, yet elegant.
The show opened on four dancers—Mary Addis Ababa Ackwerh, Sunday Whedoku, James Brown, and Aguy Sibailly—apparently dancing in the mud in excellent synchrony and silence. They broke out of synchrony to perform domestic gestures: sweeping, carrying water, pounding fufu, fanning a fire, sleeping, and waking up. The most interesting part of their daily rituals, however, was one that did not seem to be related to domestic productivity at all: a dancer would occasionally position themselves upside-down, with their head entirely obscured by an ambiguous prop. Considering the title of the show, it was hard not to draw connections to the expression of having one’s “head stuck in the sand”, the sister-expression of being “stuck in the mud”, and all their associated connotations of avoidance and resistance to progress. Once the metaphor occurred to me, it became impossible to unsee. All at once, the queerest part of the dancers’ all-black costumes—the fact that their heads were all covered with black fabric—made so much symbolic sense.
There was something strange about the way the dancers moved through their domestic routines and head-in-the-sand rituals. There was a sense of mindlessness and a lack of emotion, and although the choreography, the blocking, and the lights were aesthetically gorgeous, those first moments made the characters seem two-dimensional. I was reminded of a stereotypical painting style: black stick-figures of African people going about mundane tasks, no definition to their facial features, but only, at most, the shapes of their silhouetted bodies and their clothing. Throughout the first act, the basic movements, attire, and narrative felt like something from humankind’s earliest history. Watching it, I felt as though I had time traveled.
The dancers’ dispassionate routine began to disintegrate when Sunday’s character doused himself with water and seemed to “wake up” to his potential. His head was uncovered; no longer was he stuck in the mud. His awakening was dramatic, a performance rife with lithe, sweeping, grand motions. Change had arrived. But would it be accepted?
Sunday tried to “wake” someone else up: one of the female dancers, Aguy. The two had a beautiful duet, which spelled hope for another awakening. Alas, Aguy’s reluctance returned in full force when Sunday tried to remove her face covering. She resisted being fully lifted out of the mud and separated herself from Sunday entirely.
The music—composed by David Addo Gyan—up until this point, had been rhythmic, simple, heavy with the percussive sounds of sticks and drums, and evenly paced enough to avoid evoking too-strong emotions. However, when Sunday’s stint with Aguy prompted her to team up with the other two—James and Mary—to punish Sunday for his deviance, I could feel sinister energy permeate the music and the entire atmosphere of the show.
The co-conspirators started to create music using their own bodies as instruments as they prowled around in a circle whose circumference was defined by their bodies, patting their thighs and clapping their hands in a way that was reminiscent of Ghanaian childhood games, and yet felt far from playful. Again, dance became a literal representation of an idiomatic expression: where two co-conspirators, James and Mary, literally “put their heads together” as to what to do about Sunday.
Sunday tried desperately to create a sculpture out of mud—what for? Perhaps to leave a legacy, or a last attempt to create something that could help guide his community into progress once he was not available to do so himself—until he was dragged away and violently killed. The two co-conspirators turned into a single, large figure, in a feat of acrobatic prowess and abdominal strength.
The first act ended with a projection on a screen: a graphic of Sunday’s head, surrounded by a halo of earth, which was in turn surrounded by a body of water. The projection changed afterwards to a looping clip of water with a toxic green tint, a riverbed distorting from the motion of the water. In the interim between the first and second acts, a drummer, Akiva, performed onstage while a short lamentation on the screen read:
“OH, I WHO SO WANTED TO OWN SOME EARTH, AM CONSUMED BY THE EARTH INSTEAD: BLOOD INTO RIVER BONE INTO LAND THE GRAVE RESTORES WHAT FINDS ITS BED.”
At this point, I began to understand one of layers of meaning to this show, beyond being a narrative of an outcast punished for daring to be different: environmental commentary. After reading this quote, Sunday, for me, began to represent the unjust death of African agency regarding our own natural resources. Those of us who try to take charge of our own destinies and the ways in which we use the natural resources that are our birthright and heritage, are deprived of the chance to manage what is ours. And yet, at the end of that lamentation, there is a glimmer of hope. A possibility of regrowth. If “the grave restores what finds its bed”, if even a dead body, rubbish, and waste, can meld with the earth and become fertile again, the essences that they contained could very well be born again in different forms.
The second act was the most abstract, the most difficult to understand. Mary emerged onto the stage, wearing white now and dancing with a metal bucket, reminiscent of a crustacean or gastropod. There was something furtive about her movements, making me wonder if she was a small, slow animal, like snail or a tortoise, trying to avoid a predator. She rotated in her shell, and from within the bucket, did a dance with her legs that made her look like an overturned crab. While she did her shell dance, Aguy returned as well, also in white, and her movements were jerky, body making distinct, unnatural angles, as though she was trying to disguise herself as a tree. Her head moved a little like a snake’s or a lizard’s. I got the sense that these characters were not necessarily the same people they were in Act 1. These ones might not even be human.
Aguy’s unnatural motion was unsettling, made worse by the words projected on the screen behind her, an accusatory question: “DID YOU DROWN THE CITIES?” Evidently, whatever happened to Sunday had much larger ramifications than the death of a single man. Somehow, he may have caused a flooding disaster to an extent that could wipe out entire civilizations.
Eventually, a character who did seem human—Elisabeth Efua Sutherland herself, the choreographer—emerged onto the stage, at once dominating the audience’s attention with her movements and introducing a certain fluidity which, hitherto, no other dancer had moved with. Her actions, which flowed smoothly from one to the other, were almost as defined as the dancers’ movements in the opening scene. I could believe, through her gestures, that she was somehow bringing down the sun; I could believe that she was introducing the concept of farming.
As Elisabeth danced, Aguy some paces behind her, the text on the screen changed to read, “DID YOU SELL YOUR SOUL FOR GOLD?” This surely had implications related to galamsey, the illegal mining of gold in Ghana, but I struggled to understand how this could be related to the narrative of the performance so far, or the dancing that was occurring onstage with the question as its backdrop. Unable to connect the ongoing narrative to galamsey, I interpreted Elisabeth’s character instead as some sort of teacher, arrived from a distant land, to bring guidance and direction into a place that seemed to have lost both. I could noy help thinking about colonization. Soon, Mary and Aguy became what look like Elisabeth’s “converts,” dancing in a line with Elisabeth as the leader, adapting to the new status quo of fluidity where before, they had been rigid, timid, and inhuman.
This marked the end of Act 2.
Another drumming interlude by Akiva occupied the space between Acts 2 and 3. This time, his drumming was backed by the sounds of the ocean.
The dancers—James, Aguy and Mary, three of the original four—danced their way onto the foreground with their hands over their ears. They moved like a single organism, and repeated their sinister circle dance from Act 1, patting their knees and clapping their hands as the atmospheric audio changed sneakily from ocean waves to sounds of heavy wind. The dancers’ circular movements reflected the energy of wind, as did their flowing white clothing. James, for some reason, still had the black covering over his head, though the two women did not. Perhaps this spoke to his absence from the second act; whatever transformation may have occurred for Aguy and Mary during that time, James did not equally benefit from it.
The three dancers descended to the floor like a singular organism, heads resting on one another’s shoulders in a beautifully choreographed pose of unified stability. Sunday had also returned to the stage, the only dancer still in black, lying there as dead as they left him in Act 1.
It seemed that almost all the attempts at transformation for the three living dancers had largely failed. The only changes that stuck, it appeared, were superficial; changes in appearance alone. James picked up Sunday’s limp body, and, astonishingly, attempted to make his corpse repeat the domestic actions executed by the four in Act 1. A word of praise regarding Sunday’s performance: he was extraordinarily good at being dead. His head and limbs moved like there was no life in them at all. It was hard to convince myself as an audience member that the dancer wasn’t actually unconscious, and utterly impossible to not be impressed.
Eventually, James contorted Sunday’s dead body into the upside-down position from the opening act, with Sunday’s head stuck in the sand. Together, the living three enacted a ritual of dumping mud all over Sunday’s corpse. This did not feel like a respectful burial, but like stubbornness and incorrigibility, the desecration of a soul who tried to break out of a stagnant routine, by forcing him, even in death, to follow that routine. In death, the stripping away of agency was made complete.
By the end of the show, I was shaken and provoked. The conclusion of The Mud People simultaneously prompted self-reflection and reflections on the Ghanaian citizenry: Are we mud people—stuck in our ways and murderously hostile towards members of our communities who see wisdom in doing things differently? Are we taking charge of, and care of, our environment, or have we let greed take the lead? The performance’s answers to these questions, in my opinion, were far from optimistic, and unfortunately, rightly so.