Popularly known as the rap doctor of Ghana, Okyeame Kwame is a versatile artiste whose music talent cuts across different genres which made him relevant and constant in the Ghanaian music industry. He has bagged many local and international awards to show for his creativity, with lots of collaborations with both local and international acts including J.Martin, among others. In an exclusive interview with ENCOMIUM Weekly, Okyeame Kwame, a.k.a Mr. Versatile, opened up on life, career and how he and his wife, Aneka Kwame, who also doubles as his manager, have been able to stay married with all the challenges that come with showbiz and more.
What spurred you into music?
I started my music journey at five. My mother, who was a teacher, taught me a poem in my local language and I went from house to house to recite the poem and the satisfaction created made me understand that when I grow up, I was going to do something in the area of poetry. I didn’t know why. So, growing up, I was very keen in poetry, so I took Literature, English, Akan language seriously. I developed my skills as a poet. In 1991, I started rapping and this was when hip hop had become the main thing and everybody caught the fever. I never stopped since then and that’s the beginning of my journey into music. When I started rapping, I met Okyeame Kofi, we pulled our resources together and formed a group. We came out with our first album in 1997 and our second album became the most successful commercial hip life song ever to be released. We became the first artistes to receive the Ghana Hip Life Award. We moved to America and when we came back, I became a solo artiste. I have released four albums under my own company, One Mic Entertainment.
Because, the type of music I play is very inspirational and so, people alluded to the fact that my music heals, brings back broken relationships, good for the mind, mentally uplifting, positive, similar things the doctor does my music also does. It’s therapeutic, it relaxes distress, that’s why I am the rap doctor.
What inspires you when you are writing your songs?
A lot of things, sometimes it’s something I’d seen, heard or I’m thinking about, a question that has been on my mind, or a maze I want to solve. Apart from all these, another thing that inspires me is that I believe my music is for the family and I am from a family too. So, if a family of two young people of 16 and 18 are in a car and they play my music on radio or daddy puts my CD, he would not be quick to stop some of the songs because he believes I will not use abuse, curse or direct the attention of their children to something silly. When you are watching me on TV or on stage, decency is also prevalent in my inspiration. I want to inspire myself to stay on the decent part. I want to use my music and videos to remind people of the importance of the value system of Africa.
How long have you been in the music industry officially?
I’ve been in the music industry since 1997. My first album came out in 1997 and I think that’s like 18 years now.
What does music mean to you?
Music is life to me. Music is everything. It is the easiest way to talk to people without them even knowing you. A music video played in a room where there are five people, immediately you are talking to all the five people. So, with music, you can talk to millions every day. Music means a lot to me, I think it is beyond just entertainment, it’s a tool that must be used for governance, social purposes, and development. It should be for consciousness and enriching the soul. To me, it’s the most important thing in the world.
So, what is your take on artistes who throw caution to the wind and compose songs that could trigger violence?
My take is that we decide to be good or bad. They are all in the blood stream and what you decide to do has its effect. So, if you believe that you can create music that is sexually empowering…because in Africa we don’t have the censorship mechanism to make sure sex songs are played only when children are sleeping, that’s wrong. It’s offensive when you want children to listen to these songs when they are supposed to be learning and turn out to be whatever they want to become. You have a responsibility to contribute to their mentality.
What would you have been doing if you weren’t a musician?
If I wasn’t a musician I would have been a teacher. Though I am a musician, I am still going to school, and by the time I turn 50, I want to stop everything I am doing and go back to the classroom. I’ve finished my first degree and doing my second degree in Marketing Strategy. I will be done by June next year so, when I’m done, hopefully in November, I will start my Ph.D and in four years I will continue to do music till I turn 50…
Are you going to retire from music at that age?
I will retire from active music at 50 and apply all the experience I’ve had from marriage, performances, taking care of children, running a business; to help younger people from the grassroots.
What is the motive behind your Versatile Show?
The motive behind the Versatile Show is to give my patrons more value. I remember for about 15 years of my career, like most rappers, I was just rapping; get on stage, held my balls and told people that paid to come for my show to raise their hands up (laughs). So, it got to a point I thought there was no value, so I decided to create an event that would create real values for my patrons and that’s how the Versatile Show was born. And so far, this is my third year and we are getting ready for the fourth edition. Every year that we do it, it is adjudged the best. It’s not what I am saying but what the people are saying about it, because it is creative and it the first of its kind. When you put drama, music, and dance together, you have a full theatre. But when you put drama, dance, multimedia screens, comedy, poetry, music all together, then you have a versatile show.
What would you say has been your challenges since you started?
We have so many problems, from inadequate finances, human resources, lack of government policies and regulations, all those things are setbacks. But the main setback for music in Ghana is perception. From the general public, it’s believed that a musician would destroy his family, he would abuse drugs, waste resources, won’t show up on time, he would not be forward looking; that is the perception. So, when you have recorded a great song and people perceive that this song is only good for the dance floor, it makes it very difficult for it to exhaust its mental effect. So, when you have a great proposal, you want to do a show, you want to talk to a marketing manager, and by the time you get there, he or she tells you; hey! I don’t want to align with musicians because they are always fighting each other, it makes corporate Ghana skeptical about associating with musicians. That type of perception is the number one problem of the Ghana music industry.
What do you think can be done to make things better?
I think musicians artistes in general should try and become role models, to the point that we appear on time, we are respectful, we give values, we wear right clothes and also make lots of money(laughs) because sports used to have the same problem, but when footballers started earning international money, people started respecting them. So, I am not saying it is the money that would bring respect but when musicians begin to show the value system and their origin and also make money, then we can change that perception.
Tell us about your collaborations with some international artistes so far?
Internationally, I have done collaborations with J.Martins, Dudu Marlinga of Zimbabwe. I have done with DJ Clock of South Africa, Dede Awade from Senegal, and I’m yet to do one from Burkina Faso. So, I’ve done some international collaborations. Next year, I will be doing a collabo with Slizzer Carlongi from Jamaica. Tuface, is also an artiste I would love to work with because he has longevity, and he is very humble. I can feel the music in him. He is truly a Nigerian. He is not trying to become an American or anything else. He is so African.
When you listen to news, you hear that judges are taking bribe, people are stabbing their girlfriends because they are jilted, all the things that are going wrong; politicians stealing money and all that, it’s because they don’t live within their means. People want to take their children abroad to study, they want to drive exotic cars, live a big life, because of that they don’t live within their budget therefore; corruption. So, I did a song called; Small, Small, a romantic song meant for weddings to tell you that; to walk with me, you first learn to crawl with me. If you are going to run with me, learn to walk with me. If you want to fly with me, you need to run with me. And if you want to land with me, first learn to fly with me; let us follow the process. So, the song is meant to take people back to small beginning. If you believe in small beginning, it is easy for you to become successful and be happy.
How would you describe marriage, you’ve been married for more than seven years?
Marriage is the best thing that God created. It is sweet, comforting, and peaceful, it has no trouble, especially if you marry your best friend and you use the courtship to arrange how the marriage is going to be. If you can do that, marriage is the best.
But why do you think some marriages still fail despite all of these?
I don’t know about outside Africa, but I lived with my parents for 22 years. My parents were married for 30 years until my father died. For those 22 years, there wasn’t any time my mother or father sat me down to discuss marriage. So, marriage is like sending a soldier to war without enough training. All of us are sent into marriage…I don’t have any friend who got any form of tuition from their parents about marriage before they got married. It is on the day of the wedding, when the man has come to take the woman that people give advice and that is bogus. So, like everything else, if a man or woman risks everything to go to school to prepare his or herself for a position or job that you want to do, I also believe the whole marriage institution must be looked at properly. At home, people should not be left to learn about marriage on their own or just go into the Bible and read everything about marriage, it is not possible. I believe that the African parents do not teach their children about marriage and expect them to excel in it. That is the number one cause of divorces that we have now. At least most of the people that pass through secondary school and university are expected to get married, so just use one semester to teach marriage, bring successful married people to talk to the students. Once you have created that fertile ground, then you can sow a seed of love, then I believe things will change. But with what we have right now, marriage will continue to deteriorate. Even Jesus Christ, who gave lectures on marriage never had a girlfriend…He said the only way you can leave your wife is when she cheats on you, but if you foolishly marry a woman who is disrespectful and calls you a fool in public, you should leave that person, but because we all don’t get the right tuition, information and knowledge, we need to develop a library of expectations and perceptions about marriage before you go into it and none of us gets that.
I started as a hip life artiste, and I realized that I can do a lot of things and I started playing Jazz, afro beat, reggae, etc. I play everything. The last award I was nominated for here in Ghana is a reggae song. I do any type of music. I think I’m a musician that can virtually do anything when it comes to music that is why I am called Mr. Versatile. My last album, I did afro pop, reggae, hip hop, high life, jazz…
Who are your role models?
I have lots of role models, but if I’m to reduce them to one. It will be Kofi Annan.
Because Kofi Annan, like myself grew up in the same small neighbourhood in Kumasi, went to secondary school in Kumasi and from there he worked very hard, he was diligent, truthful and he became the UN Secretary General. He became an ambassador for Ghana, an ambassador to himself, an ambassador for truth and love and I think that is what I am. Though, I have never met the man. If Kofi Annan, can become the secretary of the world, why can’t I sell my music to the whole world. So, he is my topmost role model, but musically, Ejacko Nimo, he is one of the top guitarists in the world. He taught me the philosophy of music at the university, and he was an intellectual and a great musician and I want to be just like that. Business wise, I would say Puff Daddy. As a musician, he did not rest on music; he used his mentality to create money and shared it with the people. I also love Kojo Entwi, I don’t know if he inspires me, but he is a musician I like to listen to.
What advice would you give to up and coming artistes?
I would say once you have learnt to write, and put a couple of rhymes together, do not run to a studio and ask for a beat, because you feel you are a musician already. Take your time. If you do not follow, you cannot lead. Take your time, become an apprentice to someone who has been successful already. Second, pick up an instrument and play it because most of the musicians that have been on top forever played an instrument. Third, learn small, do not leave your career in the hands of management because you might fall in the wrong hands. Go on-line and Google management of musicians, learn small, understand branding, strategies. Don’t leave your career in the hands of any road manager, try to understand what they are doing and get a lawyer. The fact that you can rap or sing doesn’t mean you are ready. It took me 15 years to know what I am telling you. If I knew what I am saying now, I would have been a much better musician. So, if you are a musician, an Anglophone African, learn French, and sing in French, you will go further.
Have you been to Nigeria before and what was the experience?
I have been to Nigeria several times, and it was amazing. Nigeria is just a bigger Ghana. Basically, same food, music, etc. I’ve had the privilege of playing at shows like Felabration, Mtv Base, making of the video. I performed in a club also, though I can’t remember the name right now, and I did collaboration with Olu Maintain, I did the remix of Yahooze with Olu Maintain, and it was recorded in Nigeria. I also played at the Ovation Red Carol with D’Banj, P-Square, Tuface, Mafikizolo of South Africa, I represented Ghana. I think, Ghana and Nigeria should do more collaborations, not only at the level of music, but in business, politics, governance and in social life because I believe we are the same people, we are just separated by artificial boundaries.