Whispers Down the Lane: an immersive, wholesome experience

I’ve been to several Gallery 1957 exhibitions since the galleries opened, but none of them have impressed me as much as Whispers Down the Lane, a solo exhibition by Araba Opoku, who is, in my opinion, some sort of prodigy. After seeing the exhibition once, I was so impressed by it that I had to memorialize my experience of it in writing and see it a second time.

The Spider Kid standing before the chalkboard outside the exhibiton

One of the greatest things about Whispers Down the Lane is that it is intentionally designed to be a truly immersive experience. It is too unique to resort to the usual experience of walking through a white-walled room to look at a collection of paintings. As a matter of fact, this exhibition starts even before you walk into the gallery.

Just outside the exhibition space, there is a green chalkboard that has become almost a more iconic backdrop for me-too-I-saw-the-exhibition-some pictures than the paintings themselves. The chalkboard is not only a title poster but a mind map showing, presumably, the thoughts that went into the conception of the project. Because I’m a sucker for lexical scrutiny, I notice a few typos in the mind map, like “cobrebs” for cobwebs, and the word corrugated, spelled with only one “r”. Surprisingly enough, what these misspellings give me is a sense of authenticity. These are the sorts of mistakes one makes when one is in a creative frenzy, trying to write down as many ideas as one can, as fast as they can, without sparing much thought for correctness. The chalkboard makes me feel like I am looking at a copy of the real, deliberately unedited sheet of paper on which Opoku penned down her very first ideas. Besides which, it is just so aesthetically pleasing, from the hand-drawn aesthetic to the green-pink-white color scheme, to how it is framed with palm fronds on either side. The sprawling, spider web arrangement of the map feels well into the exhibition’s surprisingly coherent, though large, set of themes.

The mind map of a chalkboard just outside the exhibition

Entering the exhibition space feels like stepping into a fluid, surreal, possibly underwater universe. Nowhere in sight are the classic white walls of modern museums. Instead, deep green drapery serve as the backdrop to all the paintings, and hang from the ceiling in billowy, inverted pleats. Begging for a visitor’s attention as soon as they walk in is a screen, directly opposite the entrance, on which a short film plays on a loop, made even more inviting by the small arrangement of velvet green beanbag chairs a short distance from the screen. Or at least, I think it’s a screen. It isn’t until my second viewing of the exhibition, when I really take my time to go through the list of paintings on the exhibition’s QR code-linked webpage, that I realize the “screen” is itself a painting listed in the exhibition: I Saw a World Without a Moon, acrylic on canvas. Indeed, on closer inspection, I discover that the irregularities on the “screen” which are reminiscent of the tiles at the bottom of a fancy pool, are painted and deliberate. This blows my mind.

Before allowing myself to become too immediately enticed by the film, I insist on exploring the installation tucked away to the left, near the entrance of the exhibition space. I can’t lie, I am astonished to find a whole sink inside an exhibition space, but it is so appropriate and so artfully done that I have to respect it. (A certain owner of a certain social media company could take notes, shade intended.) An arrangement of potted plants beneath the sink gives a sense of the outdoors, even in the air-conditioned gallery, further complemented by the basin, buckets and empty gallons around the sink. Simultaneously subtle and obvious, the installation speaks more to the theme of water in a way that feels remarkably grounded in the Ghanaian context. Behind the sink installation is another green chalkboard, which contains words from the exhibition’s curator, Katherine Finerty, bookended by snippets of a poetic passage presumably written by Opoku herself. This chalkboard is also loaded with themes that prime you, orienting your mind to properly absorb what you are about to see: midnight and the moon; water scarcity in Ghana; sci-fi and fantasy TV; dreams; a childhood whispering game; upside-down orientations and rotation.

Sink installation just inside the exhibition space

Whispers Down the Lane has probably the most cohesive set of paintings I have ever seen in an exhibition. Each painting is remarkably similar to (although quite distinct from) the next one, because of the consistent colors and swirling brushstrokes, and the common elements and objects in the paintings. In each one, I see a creepy forest at midnight. The most identifiable elements, for me, are brown tree trunks, predominantly green-blue-yellow foliage, dark-feathered birds, and black stars. Nevertheless, each painting is abstract enough that two people can interpret the same paintings completely differently. The ambiguous swirls and blends of shapes and colors really do reflect for me what dreaming feels like: the conscious part of your brain knows that this is too surreal to be reality, but according to dream logic, and the specific context of the dream (or, in this case, Opoku’s speculative universe), everything makes sense. At the same time, the swirls and blends remind me of the distortion of objects and reflections caused by rippling, swirling water in the real world, especially in the nighttime, under the illumination of the moon.

If you move through the exhibition too quickly, it could feel dizzying, as though you are seeing the very same painting over and over again, but slightly different each time. The same scene of the woods at night, reoriented; turned upside down or sideways, or spliced into pieces and reassembled in a different configuration. Although the explanation for this is written plain and bold in chalk, it takes me until my second, more unrushed visit to understand what Whispers Down the Lane means. Because I didn’t grow up calling it that; I grew up calling it “Chinese Whispers.” Picture a group of children in a line. The first one comes up with a phrase and whispers it into the ear of the child beside them. The child whispers what they hear into the next child’s ear, and on and on, until the last child has to say aloud what they heard—often an incredible distortion of what the first child said, phonetically similar, yet absolute gibberish. Now, instead of a group of children in a line, picture a group of paintings, and there you have Opoku’s collection of paintings.

For the record, my favorite painting is the one called On a Voyage into Blue’s Euporie (one that several others are automatically drawn to, if the pictures I’ve seen online are any indication!), and a close second is The Pillars of Galilea.

The exhibition’s accompanying film, directed by Christine Boateng, is slow and meditative. The narrative—two sisters waking up at dawn to fetch as much water as possible—is at once mundane and beautiful, a poetic representation of a practice that is a quintessential part of the modern Ghanaian resident’s experience. The theme of water scarcity is not explored as a tragedy but as a nostalgic, dreamlike, collective, and bonding experience. The sense of nostalgia, in particular, is heightened by Claudia Owusu’s poem, narrated by the director, Christine, in lines such as these: “There was a time the water came, and we filled buckets into neat lines. Elbows locked and knees set to life and carry all that came with it.” I can’t help thinking about the experience of fetching water before sunrise in boarding school and some of the severe water shortages we experienced in those times. And indeed, there’s a sense in Claudia’s poem that flowing water is the exception rather than the norm. In the film, Opoku and her sister fill an almost absurd number of buckets, which, I think, is part of the commentary: you never know when water is going to be flowing again, so you might as well milk every drop you can, now.

Like everything else about the exhibition, the film is loaded with themes and a distinctive atmosphere. Everything that occurs in the film feels like it is happening in a dream, even the most regular, real-life things, like clothes drying on a line, or a Polytank running out of water. Some of the more out-there elements, like Araba submerged in a full tub of water, give visuals to the idea, planted by Claudia’s poem, of dreaming as submersion: a literal metaphor, very similar to how it feels to be in the exhibition space itself. There are a few editing elements that make me smile, like how, in the beginning of the film, the sound of almost every single drop of water coincides perfectly with Araba blinking herself awake.

By the time the film ends, I feel a sense of warmth, not only from how the film is paced and edited, but because of the beautiful, unspoken camaraderie between the two sisters, and how, in settling back down around sunrise for a morning nap, they give off a sense of satisfaction from a necessary job well done. I, too, after watching the film a handful of times, finally leave the gallery for the second time, satisfied at the wholesome, immersive experience of Whispers Down the Lane.

-Akotowaa 🕸️

Thoughts on Jordan Peele’s NOPE

Author’s Note: Dear friends, spoilers abound. Therefore, if you have not seen this film and still intend to, proceed with caution.

On my first watch of Jordan Peele’s Nope, I was in a state of confusion from beginning to end. On my second watch, I enjoyed the movie more, even laughing aloud a few times. And yet, certain issues I had on my first watch were never resolved. I had questions about the murderous chimpanzee, questions about at least half of the characters’ decisions and motivations, and I had trouble making sense of the story itself. I couldn’t make head or tail of the chapter titles beyond surmising that each was the name of a different horse. On that first watch, I felt myself go, “Ah?” every time the picture on the screen cut to black, including the final title card of “NOPE” at the end. I also felt, on first watch, that there was far too much talking at times, with very little action. The second time, because I already knew the plot, I was significantly less frustrated with the pacing.

Film poster for NOPE

But I should touch on the things about the film that I enjoyed the most, since the rest of this piece is going to be about… the opposite of those.

I was a big fan of Keke Palmer’s performance. Keke is a superstar, an incredibly vibrant personality, and the character of Em fit on her so well. Em herself was interesting and endearing. A charismatic Jill-of-all-trades, a talkative, queer (loved how subtly and naturally this was written into her character), reckless, adorably annoying and juvenile at times. Her expressiveness certainly compensated for her brother’s stark lack of it.

I appreciated the understated humor within the script. Like when the white woman at the studio did a double take when OJ introduced himself as “OJ”. We all know exactly which OJ she was thinking of. And then there was that meta joke was when we, as viewers of the film, had to witness Jupe saying to a fictional audience that they were being surveilled by a species called “the Viewers”. That’s the sort of corny thing I’d write into a slightly absurd comedy.

A few more: I enjoyed how naturally and often the film’s title was worked into the dialogue. The title felt so appropriate because of it. And the alien, in its full form, really was pretty, a spectacle mesmerizing enough to be worthy of attention.

And now we return to the issues. Starting with that chimpanzee.

The first visual that viewers of Nope encounter is a gory scene on a studio soundstage, most of the gore conveniently hidden from the screen, teased at by a pair of limp legs and a blood-spattered simian. Now, there’s a certain level of expectation a storyteller creates when they use something so dramatic and provocative as an introduction. One of the effects this scene had on me was that it made me expect that whatever had happened with the chimpanzee was deeply connected to the central event, if not itself being the central event of Nope’s storyline.

Alas.

I watched until the end, waiting for at least an explanation for just why the simian went rogue. I got nothing. I watched until the end, waiting for the moment when the chimpanzee’s massacre is shown to have been crucially tied to the film’s true antagonist monster: the alien in the sky. But, as far as I can tell, even after two watches, the chimpanzee and the alien have nothing to do with each other. The chimp seemed to be relevant solely as part of a secondary character’s backstory, nothing else.

I understand that not every element of every story has to be absolutely critical to the central event. But I believe that plot points of secondary importance shouldn’t be set up for the audience as points of primary importance. Otherwise, it feels like false expectations have been set, pertinent questions have gone unanswered, and now the audience—namely me—is left to deal with disappointment that could have been avoided. In my opinion, the intrigue and shock value of that intro scene was outweighed by the false expectations it set for me, when that scene could possibly have been more artfully placed somewhere else.

My next point is about death. I have to admit, I had some discomforts with the way the film and the main characters handled death. I didn’t understand why Otis Snr’s dying words were—presumably—horse names. On second watch, I paid close attention to his delirious ramblings, thinking I could figure out their relevance. But they didn’t seem linked to the film’s chapter titles or just about anything else, and I wondered why a dying man, even in a state of semi-consciousness, would be more concerned about his horses than, say, the children he’s leaving behind.

More importantly, however, I take issue with OJ and Emerald’s response to their father’s death—or, more accurately, their lack of response. For the greater part of the movie, his death hardly seems to have an emotional effect on either child. While I know that grief looks different on different people, it is still hard for me to come to terms with an attitude of, “Daddy just died, time to go bust out his liquor, haha!” or, “Some madness in the sky killed our daddy, let’s find a way to go viral and get rich off it, haha!”

I have read reviews and articles that interpret the Haywood siblings’ obsession with getting “the Oprah shot” as a desperate attempt to financially save their historic, Black-owned horse ranch. That is not the impression I got when I watched it. The film did not give me the sense that the maintenance of the ranch was truly a priority for either of the Haywood siblings, especially Emerald, whom, you might remember, is the one who brought up the “Oprah shot” idea in the first place. In Em’s own words, the horse ranch is her side gig. OJ, I could almost believe is concerned with keeping the ranch alive. Almost, but not quite. It doesn’t help me believe that OJ cares about anything at all, when he spends the entire movie hardly veering away from his deadpan facial expression and his low vocal monotone. I can believe, through some of his actions, that he cares personally for his horses. But I cannot be convinced that saving the ranch from financial doom was his motivator for capturing the alien on camera. Sure, he mentions to Em that he is broke, but OJ doesn’t come off as the type of person who would chase money for the hell of it. Frankly, I don’t know what his motivation was at all. I wonder if this was part of Jordan Peele’s point: that people chase spectacle, obsessively, often illogically, often at the expense of their own wellbeing, simply for the sake of the spectacle.

If that is indeed Peele’s point, I have to say that I don’t see the point of trying to make such a point. While I agree that, in our camera-filled society, individuals do chase spectacle obsessively and often illogically, I don’t think that there really is any sort of danger that humans are obsessed with capturing spectacle to the point of complete disregard for their own lives and safety. Interestingly enough, I feel like I’d have afforded more credibility to Nope if it didn’t feel like it was trying, with any gravity, to offer social commentary. I might have enjoyed the plot more if I felt the film didn’t take itself so seriously, and that it was intended to be an absurdist parody. As it exists now, the film feels generically confused, like a parody attempting to wear the garments of horror.

The way I understand it, one of the purposes of parody is to expose the ridiculousness of certain phenomena through techniques such as exaggeration. Nothing about Nope felt more parodical than that TMZ guy on his motorcycle. That character—and not any of the film’s speculative elements—felt to me like the single most unrealistic part of the entire film. More than parody, he was a downright caricature. Here’s why I felt like his character, as well as the character of Antlers, do not work well as serious social commentary: Humans are often stupid, and do naturally become mesmerized by the things we find fascinating, even if grimly so, but our senses of self-preservation can be incredibly strong. Fight-or-flight responses are innately wired into a great many of us. When we are faced with things we don’t understand, our response is often fear, and our fear often takes the form of either, “OMG, kill it!” or, “OMG, run away!” I find it very hard to suspend my disbelief for the response of “Attempt to capture this terrifying, mysterious thing on camera in a way that fully avails myself to be eaten by it!”

At this point, I want to talk about the parts of the story where I feel the author’s hand was not concealed well enough to prevent certain things from coming off as too artificial.

As a writer, I often face a certain challenge: as omniscient creator, I know how the plot is meant to go, and what I have intended for the characters to do, and so I just… make them do it, without bothering to adequately set the events up or justify the characters’ actions for the reader. This often happens unconsciously, and sometimes has to be pointed out to me by an editor or critique partner. Left unresolved, these are the sorts of issues that might make an audience go, “Ah?” at various points of a story. That said, I feel like there was no precedent, no adequate set-up, to justify why OJ and Em are so superstitious, or why they’re apparent experts on the alien they literally just met.

Why is it so automatic that OJ jumps to the conclusion that something supernatural/extraterrestrial killed his father, in the absence of concrete evidence? Why is Em so quick to ride on the UFO hypothesis without a challenge to her brother? In the current age, and especially in secular America, the more credible response from Em would have been to question OJ’s sanity, or otherwise dismiss the unexplainable, or suggest something more logical. There are certain groups of people—a particular brand of West African aunties, for instance—for whom it could make all the sense in the world to land first and firmly on the supernatural explanation for any weird event. I do not feel like OJ and Em fall into any such categories of people. The only reason I can come up with for why they can accept the fact of the UFO so easily is that the author wanted them to. All the time Peele spent in his prologue priming us for a level of gore which, face it, never visually delivers, he could have spent adequately setting up his actual main characters as superstitious, or at the very least, religious people. It wouldn’t even have to be dramatic. Say something relatively spooky happened to either OJ or Em, and they reflexively crossed themselves. Or maybe a throwaway detail, like, one of the characters has a visible crucifix tattoo, or wears a chain with an African mask pendant. Any sort of cue that tells us, “These characters have a propensity for superstition,” so that, when they conclude at once that aliens are responsible for their father’s death, it’s not too weird. Even Angel—very much a side character—was better justified than the main characters were. Angel’s character—technology geek, forum browser, conspiracy theory nerd—was set up such that his easy acceptance of the alien provoked no further questions. Not so for OJ and Em.

Additionally, every single supposition the Haywood kids made about the alien was extraordinarily accurate. Again, I feel like this was because the author knew exactly how the plot was supposed to go, and therefore had the characters just know everything they might need to know for the plot to go that way. It shouldn’t have been so easy for the Haywoods to figure out how the wavy, balloon-person things would affect the alien, or to figure out that a decoy horse would work exactly as they wanted it to, or to understand that the alien thrives on being given the attention of the eye, or that the alien would go exactly where they wanted it to go when they were drawing up the plan on how to capture it on camera. That lack of credibility, the author showing his hand too much, prevented me from being truly immersed in the story.

I’d also like to throw in the fact that, even though the story of the horse, Jean Jacket, was recounted in the drinking scene, I couldn’t find any logical connection or justification for why OJ later decided to name the alien after that horse. If Peele was trying to do something poetic there concerning Em’s childhood experience with the horse Jean Jacket, I have to admit that it didn’t clock for me at all.

And then there was the problem of how the alien gave the Haywood kids too much of a fighting chance. At the beginning of the film, the alien killed Otis Snr; no warning, no need for the attention of the eye, no mercy—dead. When the alien took out the Jupiter’s Claim theme park, all it needed was a few seconds of optical attention, and bang, everyone was getting sucked up. The alien sucked Antlers up with extraordinary swiftness once he gave it his attention. Even Angel didn’t even have to look at the alien for too long to get himself sucked up. And yet. In the final showdown between OJ, Em, and the alien, the alien was inexplicably able to hesitate long enough for the siblings to be screaming, “Come on!” at each other, giving each other touching, inside-knowledge hand gestures, manipulating the alien by trying to steal its attention away from the other. Even though the Haywoods looked at it repeatedly and with determination, it waited, it moved slowly, when every other time, it had been swift. But for the Haywood kids, it hesitated long enough to be manipulated into self-destruction? Hard for me not to believe the author’s hand was way overexposed here. Nope. I couldn’t buy it, I’m sorry.

My final point is on the theme of Black response to horror genre phenomena. Many are familiar with the popular discourse about how Black characters would never do the stupid things white characters do in typical horror movies. The idea is that Black characters wouldn’t think to themselves, “Hmm, let me go towards this creepy phenomenon and stupidly put myself in the position to become a victim.” It’s generally understood that a more authentic Black response would be, “Nope, I’m out.” So I can kind of understand why some Twitter users would laud the scene of OJ in the stables saying, “Nope,” and getting tense as the Blackest scene in any horror movie. After my first watch of Nope, however, my sentiments were that these Black protagonists actually had some very typical white character responses to spooky phenomena: they stayed in the haunted house instead of packing up and saying deuces. They chased the alien, pursuing what I consider to be a bit of an asinine goal, instead of running away from the murderous thing like sensible people should. Even in that stable scene, OJ didn’t bother to try to leave as things were getting tenser. On second watch, however, I was more lenient, at least towards Em. Because it was only on second watch that I truly registered that Em pushed, multiple times, to clear off and leave things the hell alone, and that she very nearly did, and probably would have, if Antlers hadn’t texted her back. I haven’t cut the protagonists slack completely, because I still don’t see any justification for OJ’s pigheaded determination to pursue the asinine goal at all, especially when it wasn’t even his idea. And I still think that, even in the face of Antlers’ text, and even in spite of their eventual victory, the most sensible thing to do would have been to leave the alien the hell alone—and if not, it should have been better justified why not.

-Akotowaa 🕸️

Accra Might Just Have a Sound Problem

When I first interrupted my schedule to write bullet points down for what would become this very blog post, I was sitting in the outdoor space of a very bougie café in Accra. Aesthetically, my surroundings were serene, full of enough vegetation to fill a garden. The little ornamentations from various cultures and eras should have seemed mismatched, but they came together well to form an artsy and antique vibe that ought to have inspired any patron to tap deeply into a sense of peace and calm. But from inside, where the confections display and the coffee machine were situated, employees of this establishment were jamming loudly to aggressively energetic Afrobeats music.

On any other day, this might have been just another personal annoyance. On this day, however, it was a struggle to hold myself back either from breaking down into tears or breaking out into screams. I held myself together and did neither. Instead, I spent a few minutes looking around and wondering if I was insane.

Somewhere to my left, another patron was deep in concentration, working on what I imagined to be some academic assignment. She alternated studiously between her laptop and a fat textbook with a level of focus I could only aspire to. She didn’t seem to have any qualms with the café’s music, aggravating my anxiety that perhaps my inability to function amidst sonic distraction was a personal deficiency. Then again, she had headphones on—probably serving her with whatever sounds she’d curated to help, rather than hinder, her own productivity. An effective strategy, except for those of us whose generative ability relies often on silence.

Natural preference for silence aside, circumstances within my household had cultivated within me, over the course of maybe a year, a nearly visceral abhorrence for too-loud music. A member of my household—one with admittedly deep psychological issues—had adopted a habit of blasting music on their unfortunately formidable loudspeaker at thought-drowning levels throughout their waking hours.

By the time I found myself at the bougie café, I had already spent at least one year trying to figure out how to do basic things such as sleep at night, nap in the daytime due to lack of sleep in the night-time, wake up at dawn to get writing done before work, and more, while loud music disrupted all my attempts to do these things. In seasons when I wasn’t required to go to an office, I found myself needing places to go every day—a café, a friend’s place—to get work done or otherwise preserve my sanity. And so every time I left my house to escape the noise, only to be met once more with noise, it inspired in a me a violent desire to yell, cry, or strangle someone.

The day I went to the bougie café was one of those days that I started out with no intentions to leave the house (or spend money, for that matter), but I had to do so anyway, due to unbearable frustration with the sonic terrorism in my house. I wanted a quiet space to think and write, and thus decided to place myself in a serene environment.

Only to be met with aesthetically incongruous, louder-than-necessary Afrobeats music.

The bougie café in question has actively marketed itself as somewhere people can go to work and concentrate. Visually, they’ve created a unique, conducive environment to do just that. Sonically, however—particularly on the day I was losing my mind—I feared they had lost the plot somewhat.

I was near tears as I called an employee’s attention and asked for the music to be turned down. Guilt for ruining someone else’s good time warred with the thought that as a paying customer, I had at least some right to say something if the environment wasn’t allowing me to achieve what I came there—and spent money—to do.

My heart rate, which had been building up to anxiety attack levels, slowed back down once the waiter fulfilled my request, and I finally had the presence of mind to write. And instead of working on the fiction piece I’d intended to tackle, I started to write this. Because I am truly concerned that Accra might have a sound problem. Or several.

City vs. Culture

Accra is obviously a city and as such, is plagued with the sounds of one. Since being traumatized by the situation in my household, I’ve become hypersensitive to the fact that Accra is rarely, if ever, quiet. There are bars in the night-time, construction work in the daytime, street preachers in the early morning, traffic in the afternoons and evenings, sounds from a primary school’s assembly at the top of the day, and do not get me started on the seemingly countless churches.

While it may be true that cities are generally louder than villages, suburbs and countrysides, I think there are certain things that are peculiar to Accra because of the culture of its people and what we allow to be considered normal. On an individual and social level, we do not pay critical attention to sound, and we treat sound culture with a nonchalance that gives birth to various types of dissonance and cacophony, both of which we continue not to care about as they are happening.

Sonic Mismatch

One type of dissonance is the case of the visual aesthetic not matching the sonic aesthetic.

In the past year, a new Mexican restaurant opened up in Labone. I have since patronized it once. (I still have not forgiven it for taking the spot of my formerly favorite café in the area, but that is another story.) I had ordered food by phone and was arriving to pick it up. Once I left my car, I was struck by sound much more powerfully than by sight. A DJ had set up station in the outdoor seating area, and was playing some of Afrobeats’ latest, greatest hits. Just like they might be doing in any other regular eatery in Accra.

But as soon as I stepped into the restaurant proper, it was obvious that this wasn’t any other regular eatery in Accra. I was impressed by the striking, distinctive Mexican-themed decor. Vibrant, consistent, and excellent for visual and aesthetic marketing. The playlist immediately struck me as blatantly incongruous. The next thought that followed was: I’m probably the only person in here who even gives a damn about sonic congruity. The waiters who weren’t busy at the moment—and even some who were—were having the time of their lives to the DJ’s set.

While the employees’ joy was entertaining to witness, I considered how much more impressed I would have been if the first sounds I ever heard from this Mexican restaurant were some dangerously sexy Spanish guitar riffs. It wouldn’t have to be Mariachi music. It wouldn’t even have to be strictly Mexican. If I’d walked in to Snow tha Product spitting bars over the speakers, or even the delightful weirdness of Rosalía, my mind would have been blown. I allowed myself to consider that maybe this particular DJ was there by special request for an anomalous event, and that maybe if I came on another day, there would be evidence of equal effort put into the curation of sound as to the visual and culinary themes. Alas, due in part to lack of funds, I haven’t been back since.

On the day I nearly lost my mind in the bougie café, it wasn’t just the volume that got to me. It was also the fact that the music wasn’t making sense according to the visual environment nor to the reasons the patrons were there. A cursory glance around the place would show you people looking intently into laptops or books, or talking to each other. There are places in Accra we go to jam, and this café was never designed to be one of them.

It seems to me that various new and bougie establishments in Accra are throwing a lot of energy into being visually attractive and Instagrammable, and may not be throwing nearly enough energy into sonically aligning with their own chosen brand/vibe, or the needs of their clientele.

Another type of dissonance is the case of sonic interludes actively disrupting the current or appropriate emotional energy.

As a poetry lover and performer, I have personal beef with DJs who do not pay attention to vibe and context when playing for events like poetry shows or album launches. It just doesn’t make sense for me to be regaled with some heartfelt original track about daddy issues and, sandwiched between that and the next emotionally packed performance about re-learning how to breathe post-trauma, the DJ is regaling me with a track about what some guy will do if he catches some girl’s backside. When I hear a devastating poem about sexual exploitation, I want to have the minute before the next poem to just digest and meditate on the content I just consumed. But the DJ will choose that moment to disrupt my emotional processing by playing some dancehall track that the current context simply will not allow me to enjoy.

Imagine what it would be like if we curated the sound accompanying our events—with the informed cooperation of the DJs working that event—to actually fit the event? Imagine a culture in which sound workers found it an exciting challenge to pick the next most appropriate song based on the mood after a performance. Imagine what would happen if it was normal for sound workers to think on their feet and be as creative as they possibly can because they enjoy the work they are (hopefully!) getting paid for and want to dutifully serve the people they are responsible for entertaining.

There are some experiences that would be more immersive and emotionally congruent if we attached greater care and creativity to the music we choose to play, and where, and when.

The Louder, the Litter

A few months ago, I visited my friend in Mamprobi, and on (or around) the same street, there were four different churches, all of which all seemed to be in competition over who could be the most obnoxiously loud on the same night. Perhaps each wanted to show the others that their congregation was the most turnt that night. (I thought of this as a joke, but, you know, I wouldn’t put it past them.) Dreadful cacophony.

In my experience, if any city at all can give Accra a run for its money, it has to be Kumasi, at least on a weekend. Good luck trying to convince me that I won’t find a new funeral after every twenty steps in that city on any given Saturday. But here is the weirder thing: based on my observation, the idea of a loudspeaker system operating at balanced levels is utterly unacceptable. The preacher isn’t spewing the word of God until he’s screeching so hard that the mic is giving feedback, and you can’t pick out a single individual word from the sonic slush besides “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” The four-person worship team isn’t worshipping well enough until there is literal distortion occurring on an otherwise perfectly good sound system. You will hear the sounds of a stadium-sized megachurch, and upon investigating the source of the sound, discover it to be a single room whose congregation is less than eighty people. There seems to be only one rule for the mixer or DJ (if there is one on duty): make everything louder.

In both Accra and Kumasi, we have very warped ideas of appropriate levels. To some extent, I would imagine it is because many people in charge of sound are not particularly trained to handle sound. Not everyone who knows songs also knows the technicalities of operating a complicated mixer. But beyond that, it’s the culture. We have become used to everything always being loud, and so that has become the accepted, unquestioned way to do sound. If it ain’t loud, it ain’t lit.

Zoning is also a problem. Because even the areas that are meant to be residential aren’t immune from the churches, restaurants and bars. It does not seem to be built into our culture to consider whether people will be trying to unwind or to sleep when we feel like screaming to a deity whom we apparently assume to be hard of hearing. And I am certain the seven people at a certain restaurant on a weeknight do not need the music turned up as though a dance party of hundreds is taking place. I have to wonder if the people running such establishments want to create the illusion that their venues are several times busier than they truly are at a given moment.

Public/Personal Border Erosion

I go swimming semi-regularly at a sports complex in Accra. The outdoor pool area is fitted with loudspeakers, which are always on when I go swimming. The playlist is never updated, and I suspect it is one single USB that is never removed from its port because nobody cares enough. You can hear the music as soon as you walk into the complex. You can hear it when you are lounging in the pool chairs, and even when you are underwater.

One day, I was training as usual, and a young man showed up with his own portable loudspeaker. Music was already playing on the complex’s sound system, but even so, this young man saw fit to turn up his own music over it. He placed his portable speaker at the pool’s edge when he was in the water, and beside his pool chair when he was out of it. For as long as I remained at the complex, I was forced to listen to hip-hop that did not appeal to me, and which clashed on multiple levels with the Afrobeats blaring from the complex’s speakers.

I was struck with true, genuine wonder, that anyone of sound mind could go out in public, into a facility that other people were also paying to use, and take it for granted that a) everyone else wouldn’t mind listening to whatever it was he liked to listen to, and b) that even if there was already loud music playing in this communal area, there was nothing wrong with playing more loud music, simply because he felt like it. The sheer bafflement was so great that it stopped me from walking over to have a conversation about sonic etiquette and common sense. I simply could not believe it was happening.

A couple of months ago, on a flight back to Ghana after a writing workshop, I sat, among several other returning Ghanaians, at the boarding gate in Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport. My flights were red-eyes, and having had very little sleep on my first flight—which had taken off at midnight—I was looking forward to dozing off during my layover at Addis Ababa. Despite the gross discomfort of boarding gate seating, my efforts were proving almost successful, until a middle-aged Ghanaian gentleman seated at the same gate decided that he was in the mood for throwback pop music. This meant that for the remainder of my layover, I—and everyone else at this section of the boarding gate—was subjected to a soundtrack consisting of Destiny’s Child, Sean Paul, Mariah Carey, Nelly and the like, from this gentleman’s oddly loud smartphone. Mind you, this occurred between the hours of five and seven-thirty in the morning, when the airport itself hadn’t fully decided to be awake.

Even on a personal level, consideration of other people’s volume/sound preferences just isn’t embedded into our culture. People play their personal sounds on speaker mode, without particular concern about disturbing anybody else. You do what you want with your volume first, and then if there’s anybody who has a problem with it, the onus is apparently on them to tell you to adjust your volume, whereas good etiquette would have things the other way round. I haven’t been able to figure out why Accra’s culture is like this.

A friend was recently telling me that their South African friend, faced with the country’s load-shedding challenges, had resolved to get a generator. In order to do so, this person was required to write to the manager of the property/estate to inform the neighbors and ensure that they were comfortable with the level of noise that the new generator would surely produce. I heard that and thought to myself, “Wow. What a concept!”

-Akotowaa

Our Africa Risen anthology is available for preorder!

Hello, friends!

Several months ago, Tor.com announced the table of contents for an upcoming speculative fiction anthology from Africa and the African diaspora. And guess who featured, among several other incredible writers, on that table of contents? Your favorite Spider Kid!

Photo source: Tor.com website

I cannot downplay how big an achievement it is for me to be published in a Tor.com book. They are literally my dream publisher! And to have my story “Exiles of Witchery” (inspired by Doctor Who and fueled by the distress about Ghana’s relationship to women who are considered “witches”) sitting amongst writing from the likes of Ytasha L. Woamck, Wole Talabi, Tananarive Due and more? Stop, I’ll asphyxiate.

I’m more than proud to be part of this anthology, which recently received a starred review from Publishers Weekly!

I am also pleased to announced that it is available for preorder now! The book itself comes out on November 8th, 2022. Order a copy, friends. Tell your friends to order copies, friends. Tell your booksellers, tell your librarians. Inside Ghana (this is very important to me!), outside Ghana. Though speculative fiction doesn’t seem very popular in Ghana now, I can almost guarantee that this gorgeous cover simply being on bookshelves (or Instagram tiles from our favorite Ghanaian bookstagrammers!) is going to draw people’s attention.

So, kindly preorder. Please and thank you.

Love,

Akotz 🕸️