My name seems to have appeared in quite a few places over the past few months, so I thought it would be convenient to give my blog readers an update on all of them at once. I’m not usually this involved in things, so I don’t expect blog posts like this to be frequent. But, for now, here we go:
A few weeks ago, I found out I was longlisted for the 2018 Writivism Short Story Prize. The shortlist was released yesterday and I did not make it that far, but making it onto the longlist means that my short story, as well as all the other longlisted writers’ short stories, are going to be published in an anthology by Black Letter Media later. So, that’s fantastic.
More on the Writivism initiative/competition here. You can follow them on Twitter as well, here.
Poetra Asantewa launched a new art magazine in July, and for its first issue, she got a few people to contribute. My contribution was a very dissatisfying story that we can pretend is sci-fi flash fiction for classification purposes, highly augmented by some lit photography by Josephine Kuuire. The magazine is really refreshing in terms of layout, vibrancy, minimalism, collaboration and the general nature of its content. I highly recommend you take a read – it’s very short – and digital versions are available on the Tampered Press website.
Paapa’s Technical Difficulties 2
Paapa hMensa, a musical and lyrical legend whom I’ve met once (he probably doesn’t remember it, though, because I was entirely irrelevant then, and it was during his concert, so he was meeting a ton of people at once anyway), released the second installment to his Technical Difficulties EP series, and the title track features me! It’s a beautiful song, going perfectly excellently as it plays, and then I barge in and start talking plenty in the name of spoken word poetry, SMH. I also briefly introduced each song, so my voice is on literally every track.
The EP is amazing, it’s been on heavy rotation in my music library since it dropped, and it’s musically even better than its prequel. (Is the word prequel applicable to musical projects? I don’t know.) Paapa is a magician, because I don’t even understand how he managed to achieve that. No Heart Left, ft. M.anifest, is a favorite. You can find his EP on pretty much every major music distribution site. 🙂
The DJ duo, #IFKR, which is composed of Eff the DJ and DJ K3V, released a new EP yesterday, exclusively on the Ghanaian musical platform, Aftown. I introduced that EP as well, with a lot of talking in the beginning that feels very weird to hear because I wrote it years ago and hadn’t heard it for a while. The entire EP has been years in the making, and I can personally vouch for the true banger-ness of particularly Lie B3n which features Ayat, and, of course, the pre-released single Omi Gbono, which features Odunsi. You can find the link to the EP here.
I know a previous blog post has mentioned this already, but I compiled Kuukua Annan’s OTC stories into a single PDF and created a new site for the OTC project so ayyy check it out and tell a friend!
I saw Jonathan D. Bellion in person for the first, and what I hope will not be the last time. I wonder if he’ll get famous enough or I’ll get broke enough to be unable to afford his tickets anymore. Unfortunately, at the end of this wonderful concert of LA’s The Human Condition III tour, the love of my life failed to propose to me so I’m still single. It’s a tragedy.
I can honestly say that seeing Jon Bellion live was one of the most necessary things I’ve ever had to do with my life. I can also say that he’s my favorite – in my opinion, the best – performing musician I know of. Yes, yes, I’ll concede that Beyoncé has phenomenal breath control, vocal training, resilience and excellent dance moves. She may be the best performing singer alive. But Jonathan is my best performing musician. Watching him perform, I think, should be an almost life-changing experience, even if you don’t rock with his musical sound itself. I’d felt it in videos, but was something I was determined to see for myself.
In 2016, when I got into Jon Bellion, the strange sounds he made, particularly in The Definition, caught my attention. I believe I started first listening to his tapes in chronological order. I started with the ancient mixtape, Scattered Thoughts Vol. I. (There have never been any subsequent volumes, which I think is very sad.) I remember thinking Jon’s music was okay – not mind-blowing, but nice – but the texture of his voice made me uncomfortable. It’s so strange, because only two hours later, I’d be in love with the very same voice on subsequent music projects.
I listened to Translations Through Speakers, and I was like okay, I like this content. I like what he’s doing with these beats… I moved on to The Separation and thought, this is stuff I’ll be coming back to again and again. But then The Definition. Hmm. “Munny Right,” the first track, slaughtered me in the post-hook by Beautiful Mind member, Mylon Haydes:
“Put the pause button on that weak shit
You sound like everybody else, muh’fucka”
Those lines became a mantra and I couldn’t do a thing about it. They energized me every time I felt low. Along with “All Time Low,” of course. The second track, “Carry Your Throne” made me so happy especially because of the drums and the vocals in the chorus. After that song, I was pretty sure I wanted to date Jon Bellion. But by the third track on the tape, “Pre-Occupied,” I was jumping up and down in my room around 2am thinking, “Who is this guy, and how can I get him to marry me?!” I am telling you, it was a spiritual experience! My goodness. I was nearly high for the rest of the time I used to finish The Definition.
And then I went to YouTube. I can only assume I was looking for corresponding music videos. I found something much better than music videos, though. I found “The Making Of…” videos. And they changed my life more than anything by any musician has ever changed my life before. And this is the story of how Jon Bellion became my favorite musician in one night.
To be honest, “The Making Of…” videos are the reasons I absolutely had to see him perform live. As much as I like the music of many other artistes, Jon Bellion is virtually the only non-poet I have ever wanted to see live so badly. Now that I have, I wonder if I’ll ever be interested in attending anybody else’s concerts, LOL.
Jon Bellion writes himself. And he’s a freaking lyricist. He’s the producer of all his songs. He can’t read music, apparently, but he’s a multi-instrumentalist. And I include beat pads and drum machines in the list of musical instruments in the world. He made his production and composition and recording process transparent in his “The Making Of…” videos in a way I’ve never seen been done before. He’s been intentionally mini-documentary-ing almost his whole creating process. So, I had to do everything I’d seen him do on video live. I was not disappointed. Except for the part where I had to stand, waiting at least 25 minutes after the end of Blaque Keyz’ opening act for Jon to come on.
Jon’s personality is contagious. It’s genuine, casual and bubbly. He’s almost always performing in just a white T-shirt and jeans. He doesn’t have a million-times-practiced choreography or team of 20 dancers in formation, yet his stagecraft is fantastic with just a themed slideshow behind him, his Beautiful Mind band, his loop station, and a lot of help from the ever-energetic Travis Mendes. The themed slideshow was such that, for example, there were clips of crashing waves as he performed “Overwhelming” and a collage of ’80s movies clips as he performed “80s Films.”
To see Jon practically effortlessly switch between the microphone, a piano, a physical drum set and a loop station or beat pad was one of the littest things I’ve ever experienced. And let’s not even talk about how amazing it is to have the whole crowd singing your lyrics even louder than you. And even the non-lyrics like “YEE!” and “Bambudeybambambudeybambudeybambambudey, Guillotine!” That crowd felt like community in unity.
I think my magical moment was when he walked us through a quasi-production process of the song “Luxury” from The Definition, whose trumpets, I think, are iconic. More iconic than the trumpets in Jason Derulo’s “Trumpets,” which, by the way, is a song Jon Bellion wrote and “donated” to Derulo because it was too pop for him. LOL.
By the encore, I had lost my mind, with a few minutes of silence to recover somewhat after the end of the official concert. Several times, Jon built up tension with the ascending backing vocals in the “Jim Morrison” chorus from The Separation (and yes, I LOVED it that only the Day Ones knew the lyrics form this 2013 song – so that by the time Jon yelled, “Rock the fuck out!” I was unapologetically screaming,
“Ask my father, getting money is hereditary,
Will Smith, bitch, I am feeling legendary!”
like I was the most turnt person in the room. I was intoxicated by nothing other than the drug of Jon Bellion’s physical presence and energy.
I was a baritone the next day. It was a wonder I hadn’t lost my voice completely saf.
So yes, not only has Jon Bellion redefined for me what it means to be a great musician, but he has also restored my faith and aspirations in the art of musical performance. That was so, so refreshing. Take me again!
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 Motherfuckitudeand 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.
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)
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
P.S.: The Genius.com lyrics to Breaking Bars can be found here.
I’m surprised I haven’t seen as many new year resolution blog posts this year. Are we just tired of declaring things for ourselves that we can’t stick to? Anyway, that’s besides the point. What’s interesting though, is that more than defined goals, at least 3 people I follow have more of central themes than anything else, for example, a word or a virtue, like “peace” or “joy”. I realized I kind of do the same thing – but I use songs. In 2015, my theme song was Lecrae’s Anomaly. In 2016, I didn’t explicitly choose a theme song, but I guess it unfortunately ended up being Sia’s Unstoppable. I wrote a blog post on it, which I am not eager to re-read, because those were depressing times.
This year’s song just happens to be the appropriately titled Excellent, 2017 by Sho Baraka, off his latest album, The Narrative. Every song has a year attached to its title, and this one is perfect for this purpose. [Side-note: Please listen to The Narrative. It’s great stuff. My favorite changes, but for now, it’s Love, 1959.]
“Hat on top ’cause we think excellent
Frames on straight ’cause I see excellent
Dressed for success ’cause I be excellent
Everything we do, everything we do”
I chose “Excellent, 2017” to remind myself not to settle for less than what I am capable of – because I feel like I have been doing that for a while. And also to remind myself that I need to make excellent things and be excellent because I was made excellent by a God who is excellent.
In 2016, when Tronomie became my best friend, I invented the word “swagblocking” just for him. At first it seemed like he was just cockblocking himself, but then I realized it extended beyond that context even. He refuses, to this day, to acknowledge nearly anything about himself which is cool. (And that’s everything about him, by the way, because he’s an amazing human being.) So he was swagblocking himself. Speaking down on his own genius, for no apparent reason. And it was ridiculously annoying until I realized I do it too. Now I’m not okay with that.
What really sparked my discomfort is the realization that my influence is growing. An increasing number of people now have their eyes on me, either because I interest them, they resonate with me, or they generally admire what I am doing. Now, the more my influence grows, the more unhealthy my giving in during my battles with my inferiority complex gets. There are several reasons why. For one thing, I cannot imagine the nasty spiral my psyche would take if I kept this up, believing that every single compliment I receive is a lie. The compliments keep getting longer and more heartfelt and there’s going to be a destructive, consuming war within me if the self-deprecation simultaneously augments.
Another thing is that I’m a freaking lexivist – an activist/advocate for word-related things, and I want to actually help people to go forward with their word-related endeavors. AS I said, there are far more people looking up to me than there used to be, and I’m going to be no help to them if I consistently refuse to acknowledge my own abilities and achievements. Then I become a dormant resource, which completely defeats the “activism” part of “lexivism”. So the swagblocking gotta go.
But the most important reason why it gotta go is that it stops me from being excellent. Swag-blocking is being defeated before one has even started. When you begin by believing you are “not that good anyway”, chances are, you will not be able to push yourself into creating art that is anything better than “not that good anyway”. It’s entirely unhelpful when you are, like me, aiming for excellence.
“Art on high ’cause we make excellent”
I am on a mission to become the person I want to be – the person I believe I was meant to be. I’ve found that I waste too much time. It takes far too long for me to bring my ideas to fruition, not because I’m meditating on it, but probably because I spend hours a day scrolling through timelines. And it’s made me realize I’m letting a lot of opportunities pass me by. This must stop.
I’ve decided that I’m going to take my writing way more seriously. Like my life depends on it. Which it does. Well, the career part of my life, anyway. I need to be writing like I actually plan to get published. Because as much as I love words, I must admit that I half-ass things a lot.
Additionally, I’ve discovered that I’ve been passively running away from things I’m too scared to try. Like making new friends. Asking people for favors. Buying books that I want. Saying things that I mean. Being a rapper. Starting a YouTube channel. Learning videography. In IWITP, I said “I just wish I could have been bolder.” In 2017, I am saying, “Well then, be bold now.” A huge part of all this is learning how to not be scared to fail. It’s entirely possible that I could fail at any, none or all of the things I bother to try. The important thing is not, as they say, to at least have tried; for me, the important thing is, if I fail, to have failed excellently. Even trying can be half-assed, you see. But I can only fail excellently if I tried excellently.
“If you’re reaching for the top, you better learn to survive
You can either fall or fly when you’re reaching for the sky