If you’re in Accra, please go for my friend’s distin. :)

One of my oldest and dearest friends, Lena Morton, is finally coming out from under her metaphorical social rock. She’s one of the most talented and sweetest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know – and she’s a superb visual artist.

She’s having a public art exhibition, in collaboration with Untamed Empire and Xane Asiamah. Xane Asiamah, someone of whose existence I found out only a few months ago, is another stunner artist. In case the name sounds familiar, he’s the guy I lauded in this blog post, and he’s the lit guy that did the cover illustration for my On the Ceiling series.

At the time of this post’s publishing, the very first day – the grand opening – has passed. But the exhibition itself is going on for the rest of the week. If you have a moment in the upcoming week, please go. It means a lot to me, and I’m sure it would mean a lot to them. I’m sad I can’t go myself, given that I’m like, across the world, but please go if you can. Thanks. Love you!

(Details in the flyer below.)

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-Akotowaa

What We Mean When We Ask For An Artist’s Assistance

We give the artist an idea and tell her to bring it to life with creativity. We have not said what we really mean; it is not her creativity we desire to see; it is our own.

We have decided, for some reason, that what we want done, we cannot do ourselves – not because we find ourselves lacking in vision and imagination, but because we find ourselves lacking in technical know-how.

We have asked the artist for her skill, not her artistry. We have failed to understand that a handwritten note does not look like a typewritten one, and that if we wanted photocopies done, we should not have gone to a calligrapher.

The artist is not a machine; she infuses creativity into her interpretation of an idea, and this is not always a favorable trait to us.

The artist is not a mind-reader. We want her to be, though, and she knows. Our commissions come with our vague instructions, and when she asks for clarification, we tell her to get creative with it, that we don’t mind. We receive our products and realize that we minded after all, that we always had our own visions in our heads, which we never had the language to articulate. And we expected the artist to have seen our invisible thoughts, despite everything. We have seen that this is ineffective.

Now it is up to us to begin to expect art when we request an artist’s assistance, or come into consciousness of how badly we want artists to be reduced to mere technicians. We have another option: to become artists ourselves, so that we may get what we want, as we want it – but this path is the hardest to follow.

-Akotowaa

Breaking Bars Broken Down

As a lexivist, I choose not to be apologetic about being more concerned with (read: borderline obsessed with) the meaning and words in songs more than anything else about them. Usually. There are certainly exceptions. However, most often, the lyrics are what define excellence for me, and from what I’ve seen, in this regard, I am in the minority. But who cares? I’m a writer first and a musician anywhere from second to tenth.

Now as someone primarily concerned with lyrical meaning, I cannot help but desire to expose and explain songs or projects that I find particularly meaningful for their lyrical content. Examples on my blog are The Magnificent Relevance of Motherfuckitude and The Spiritual Journey of Gallant. And now, I want to talk about one of the most lyrically important songs I have ever heard in my life, especially considering my own geographical and cultural contexts: Breaking Bars, by Tronomie.

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Cover art by DeSouza Nelson

Aside from the fact that Tronomie is currently my best friend, whom I’d like to believe I know deeply well enough to write accurately about his intention, the thing that makes this post different from the ones about Motherfuckitude and Ology is that this is not an interpretation of the lyrics; it is an explanation. I understand the lyrics better than anyone other than Tronomie himself, precisely because I co-wrote them.

Before I go into lyrical meaning, I want to first acknowledge that this song sounds fantastic. Sonic quality alone. And if you want a better idea of why Breaking Bars’ sonic uniqueness is just about as relevant as its lyrics to the Ghanaian music society from people who seem to understand the sonic qualities of music several times better than I do, I suggest you listen to Episode 3 of Nkenten’s Decaf podcast, which talks extensively about the song and whatever industrial complexities surround it. (Aside: You can also listen to Episode 2 of the Decaf Podcast, The Lexivist Edition, which features yours truly!)

Now, on to my specialty area: the lyrics. (Which many people either seem neither to understand nor care that they don’t understand. And if you think this is salt…well, it just might be. LOL)

“Mirror, mirror

It’s been a while since the face in you was mine

Now all I see is a broken figure”

The lyrics begin with an awakening to self, or the consciousness within a persona/the singer/Tronomie that he is not doing something right.

“How long until I settle for ‘this is fine’?”

But a greater issue than the fact that the persona is no longer recognizable to himself is the fact that he can foresee a moment when he will no longer aspire to be better than he is – to conquer the true vice that makes him unrecognizable to himself in the mirror: mediocrity.

If you had no idea what the song was really about, at least you could follow the metaphor up to that point. Before we come in with our river metaphors, leave you baffled and potentially lose you entirely. And so, at this point, I would like to explain the actual meaning of the song.

The Christian artistic industry, especially the music one, in Ghana appears to be suffering from mediocrity with regards to content. Many are satisfied with merely scratching the surface of the religion, playing it safe in the name of approval from local audiences, content that as long as they mention Jesus’ name in their song, it automatically becomes great Christian music. Resultantly, they fail to address issues of prime concern in society which need to be tackled, but more than that, refuse to apply genius and creativity in the way they create their art – leading to an occasionally stunning difference in quality of what is considered “secular” music and what we accept as “Christian” music. While it is sometimes evident how much effort some secular artistes/rappers put into their songwriting internationally (note that international ≠ exclusively foreign, so save your breath if you wanted to attack me for that) is evidence of effort that is so often apparently missing from the works of Ghanaian Christian artistes who consciously or unconsciously know that whether their songs are trashy or not, they are likely to get coverage in the church context. (I’m talking about music specifically in this blog post, partially because I know that if I start going off on the Ghanaian Christian spoken word scene, this blog post won’t finish.)

What on earth does all this have to do with Breaking Bars? Well, you see, the Christian artiste who makes mediocre music, both lyrically and sonically, is exactly like the persona at the beginning of Breaking Bars, reversed; s/he hasn’t realized that his/her image is distorted, and has indeed settled, unknowingly for “this [mediocrity] is fine”. BUT

“Why should a river compromise if it reflects the sky?”

The persona – no, the Christian artiste – is the river. What is the sky? The sky is God. The Christian must reflect God the way a river reflects the sky. S/he cannot do that if there are a bunch of obstacles in his/her way – in this case, the obstacles are those of mediocrity. The idea of river and sky’s reflection is just a way to imperfectly (which metaphor can ever fully encapsulate a complex, real-world idea?) the concept of having a higher purpose or potential. The absolute highest thing a river can reflect is not the branch of a tree, nor a mountaintop, nor even a passing bird; it is the limitless sky. To be content with anything intermediary, less, is to be content with mediocrity, in the context of this song.

And again, here, we potentially lose you again with the confusing retention of the general river metaphor, while we swiftly change the dimensions of it.

“So I’m going to run on deeper,

Break the dam if the bars won’t let me by”

Where is the change? Well, it lies in how we have suddenly gone from looking at things in the upward direction (sky) to looking at them sideways. No longer are we talking about the river’s reflection, but now we are talking about its flow. The same way objects between river and sky stop the river from reflecting, so do the “bars” create a dam within the river, a stoppage that does not allow it to flow the way it should. The bar is mediocrity. And the goal is to break past it.

Then there’s another very rapid metaphor switch, sorry-not-sorry. The “bars” have transformed from river dam bars into prison bars. Either way, they are the unwanted obstruction. Now the bars of mediocrity are the ones that “hold the standards too low”. We are speaking again, of course, of the general standards of the Christian artistic industry. And so this persona/Tronomie sees an antidote as a course of action, to

“Rip every note,

Transcend what I’ve known”.

It’s somewhat metonymic. Ripping notes, singing excellently, stands in for also doing everything related to music creation or art creation excellently. Including writing lyrics. [This is where I am pleased to reveal my jon by mentioning that music is and/or lyrics are written in…bars. Hehehee!] So, fundamentally, this is the meaning of Breaking Bars. You could stop reading here because by now you should at least vaguely get it. But please continue reading because I am going to continue writing, as there are obviously more lyrics, and certainly more to say.

The second verse of the song more explicitly brings out the purpose of the song rather than just the meaning. The purpose of this song is to be a challenge to Christian artistes wherever, to step up their game when it comes to making excellent art.

“Step up, leader

If your speaker is connected to your mic

Your voice makes me listen, eager

But your message is disconnected from my mind”

If you have access to a platform, and an audience for anything that you do (e.g. If you have a working microphone and have a voice coming out through speakers that people are listening to), you are probably a leader of sorts, whether you know it or not. But now what is the point of the sweetest voice that claims to be doing the work of glorifying God but is really not saying anything that the audience’s minds can recognize as substantial content? If you have a platform, you might as well use it well.

“Silver spoon on a golden plate,

Do you only decorate?

Your guests will be starving for dinner

If you’re living your life behind your case.”

(Trust Tronomie to be there thinking about spoons when we’re talking about bars. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t already know that he was crazy but…LOL.)

How baffling that you can turn something so purposefully utilitarian (literally, utensils) into purposeless decorations. As an artist, you should not want to be a purposeless decoration – not when people are starving and you are the person that can be used to feed them. The “case” here is your comfort zone of mediocrity, of acceptability, of refusal to say or do anything that could disrupt the problematically silent status quo of Christian culture on issues that matter more than we give them credit for. This protective shield is another “bar” that must be broken. Christianity. Is. Not. Safe. You can’t even finish listing issues Christian culture, especially in Ghana, has too long been silent about. Examples that readily come to my mind are mental health, the de-contextualization of Scripture, and the very real struggle of going through doubt while still ascribing to the faith. I’m sure there are countless more you can name.

“Where is the mind God has given you?

Do you want to do better?

Do you want to say better?”

The minds that we have must be used. The Psalmist was an artiste who used his mind to create lyrical excellence. What is your excuse? To refuse usage of the mind in the capacity it was designed for is to transform it from purposefully utilitarian to purposelessly decorative.

And so as a whole, we tried to do with Breaking Bars what Breaking Bars is trying to challenge others to do. If the amount of deliberation, intentionality and effort that was put into trying to make this song transcend standards and expectations is any indication, I’d say we have reason to be at least a little bit proud of what Tronomie and everyone involved in the making of this song have managed to produce.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize that Breaking Bars is not a Gospel song. I have heard it referred to as such and I just can’t deal with it. What it is, plain as day, is a song written by a couple of Christians. It is a song. It is music. Aside from the fact that it simply does not fit the conventional “Gospel” category of music, there is also the (valid) argument that there really is no such thing as Christian music in the first place. And to illustrate, I shall pull up my favorite quote from rapper Lecrae’s Unashamed autobiography:

“There is no such thing as Christian rap and secular rap. Only people can become Christians. Music can’t accept Jesus into its heart. So I am not trying to make Christian music or secular music. I’m just making music. Hip-hop, like all music, is a good thing. I could use it for evil by filling it with violence and misogyny and profanity. Or I can use it to glorify God. Every song I write doesn’t have to have the Gospel spelled out or quote Scripture so that people will know I love Jesus. My goal is just to use my gifts to produce great art that tells the truth about the world. If I see the world through a biblical lens, the music will naturally paint a picture that serves people and honors God.” – Lecrae Moore

Fin.

-Akotowaa

P.S.: The Genius.com lyrics to Breaking Bars can be found here.

Can You See God?

It was late, near midnight, and I was in the library, trying to finish a paper whose deadline (midnight) I wouldn’t meet anyway, and overdosed on coffee to the point of mentally hyperactive discomfort. The paper I was writing was far less exciting for me than the project of passion that I was working on simultaneously with the team over a long distance: the Solitaire EP.

Moving to California for school caused a lot of complications and coordination problems with the Vision Inspired team back in Ghana, not least of which was the 8-hour difference between us. This was early in the morning in Ghana, around 7 or 8 am, and Tronomie had just sent me a Whatsapp audio of the final arrangement of Dear God part 2. He hadn’t slept all night. Of course I halted my work immediately to listen to it. And. I. Loved. It. I think that was the moment I actually began to get excited about the whole EP. I think this is how Tronomie became my favorite singer. The only person who loved it more than I did was my manager/CEO, Ekko, who had, as usual, offered his creative input and direction – in this case, his suggestions had worked such that Dear God had begun to sound not just like two songs, but like three.

Before these Vision Inspired Magicians did their surgical sorcery to Dear God, it had existed as a classically angsty Akotowaa spoken-word-on-beat with all the enthusiastic anger my performances are known for.

“I feel caged by expectations, grades, examinations, the range of practical occupations” – Akotowaa [Dear God]

And it was very short – barely even 2 minutes long. Also, it wasn’t supposed to be part of the Solitaire EP. Ironically, now that Tronomie is on it, I think it’s the longest Solitaire track.

When I got the “final draft” of Dear God, it was the first time I’d heard that final bit of the song; the Ekko addition that made the song sound like three instead of just two. The aim of all the light production and the BVs was to end the track on a sonically significantly happier note than the one it began with. When Ekko asked me what I thought about it, I said, truthfully, that the sound I was hearing did not fit my perception of something that should come out of God. (And for those of you who still haven’t gotten the clue that Tronomie is the voice of God on this track, here’s your chance to pretend like you knew it all along.)

As horrified as I was to admit it, it was true. Despite my intellectual awareness of the complex nature of God, I still had a fixed, streamlined vision of Him in my mind – one that was very much captured by the production vocals Tronomie had created at the beginning of Dear God part 2. The sudden, powerful drums. The vocals swinging through crescendo and diminuendo to give me the impression of a dark room, smoke and an invisible, invincible, untouchable, out-of-reach force. That was God. The sweetly-singing “Love me” person just wasn’t adding up to the one whom I’d heard sing before him, in my brain. Problematic? Indeed. (Ironically, I had written the lyrics, and I don’t know how I expected the words “love me” to constantly sound booming and menacing, more like a command and less like a request.)

I had another poem in the works by this time, one I was to perform at the VIM concert on the 23rd of December. It was supposed to be a Christmas poem. I’d been working on it for a while but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was one of those unfortunate projects that felt like everything that was coming out of my pen was trash. I was trying unsuccessfully to turn the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth into a poetic narrative, but it lacked any meaning I could identify… until after this incident with being asked about how I felt about the end of Dear God.

When I began I See God, I didn’t know it was going to be my Christmas poem. It was merely a story I was telling of a man who could only see the harshest side of God, being introduced to the loving image of Him. The God of John 3:16.

“I see God in the rolling thunder,

The crashing of the waves and them pulling under

Everything that cannot withstand

The fearful power of the ocean’s command” -Akotowaa [I See God]

In the beginning, this fictional man’s rant to the stranger who has joined him seems harmless. You see God as impressive and powerful; is He not these things, anyway? Will every knee not eventually bow to him whether it desires to or not? But then later, you start to see how destructive this kind of image, when held in isolation from the whole nature of God, begins to get.

“I see God as an icy God

A block so cold proximity burns

A rock so old it doesn’t age

The God that sent Egypt the plague

…A God that, by nature, pushes people away.” -Akotowaa [I See God]

When this carries on, the image of invincible power turns into an image of unbridled cruelty. Such a Being becomes unapproachable and incapable of love, much less getting others to love Him. He is indeed a God who pushes people away. A Being like that is someone I’d be careful to keep my distance from because I’d be terrified of what He could do to me if I even breathed the wrong way.

The stranger whom the man in my poem is showing his God off to remains unimpressed. You can tell that the man who spoke was proud of his speech. The might of his God probably fed his ego; made him feel special and conceited, for belonging to a religion whose God would effortlessly smite the gods of any other person’s religion. I can only imagine how he expected the stranger to look at him with starry eyes, envying this man his religion and even fearing him a little for being a worshipper of Someone so fearful. But then the stranger says to the man what I would now say to myself:

“Your God sounds like a terrorist

A God without rhyme,

A God without reason

A God that only knows the harshest season

A God of power but not of love

A God as a vulture, never a dove

The God of the flood,

But not of the rainbow

That’s the God that most of us claim to know.” -Akotowaa [I See God]

The question, as I was thinking of all this dialogue between the two men, was where had I seen evidence – plain, undeniable evidence – of the loving, soft God that would croon “Love me” softly to me? Where could I find evidence of the John 3:16 God who “so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son…”? Well, in the circumstances of John 3:16, of course!

If God loved us enough to send His son to save us, in what manner would His son be sent? In a tornado, perhaps? The falling of the sky? For goodness’ sake, this is the entrance of Jesus we’re talking about. Jesus, who is a son of the terrifying, all-powerful God; Jesus who is himself God. Surely, the earth would at least quake a little. But Jesus showed up in a way I’d have never, ever expected an omnipotent being to show himself to mankind: naturally, as a baby, naked, small and defenseless, pulled from a woman’s vagina into a manger. It really doesn’t make any sense. If you showed me a naked, newborn baby and told me that he was God, I’d probably laugh in your face. Interestingly enough, that isn’t what the shepherds did. I would really love to know what those guys were thinking that night. I wonder how difficult it was to accept everything that they were experiencing.

“What if he looked naked?
And quiet?
With the facial features of an Israelite
With baby skin not made of iron
covered in blood and prone to crying
The one who made us in His image
taking our image and making it His
defying your notion of a superhero
and speaking to people just like this?
A lamb to complement my argument for the lion
the one who forgave and healed and saved
and became a shoulder to cry on” -Akotowaa [I See God]

Yes, God is mighty and supreme. It is impossible to ignore this aspect of Him. But God is also meek and humble. It is impossible to ignore this side of Him. To hold the image of a perpetually angry and mean God will push you away. However, to ignore Him as a supreme holder of power in favor of the loving image, to believe that every single thing you do would be looked upon favorably no matter what, will also condemn you. Be careful how you see God. I do not have enough expertise in theology to explain this to a greater extent yet, but hopefully you understand what I’m saying.

When I stopped to think about it, that image of a superpower-less, naked baby countered my perception of a solely huge, unapproachable and severe God. And since the circumstances around this were the ones for which Christmas is celebrated, well, I finally had subject matter for my overdue Christmas poem.

I merged I See God with the as-yet-titleless poem I’d been constructing, and I’m happy to say that I wrote a poem that would have changed (some part of) my life if I hadn’t written it myself. As a matter of fact, something about my life (i.e. my vision of God) did indeed have to change before I could even write his poem. I’m proud of I See God. I think it’s excellent content-wise. (The sonic quality is questionable, given that it was recorded on my phone, and the VI guys did their best to enhance it so that it didn’t sound entirely like trash. Shout-out to Reynolds TheGentleMan for the dope production!)

I don’t know how many people have the same problem with how they see God as I did. Whoever they are, wherever they are, I hope they somehow get to hear I See God and be as impacted by listening to it as I was by writing it.

-Akotowaa

For complete lyrics of Dear God, click here.

For complete lyrics of I See God, click here.