My interview with Blakk Rasta, Ghana’s most famous reggae star, has not started well. Who’d have thought a Ghanaian Rastafarian would actually turn up on time – at 9am on a Saturday? I certainly didn’t expect it… so I’d spent most of the night drinking in what I dimly recall was a red leather-lined cage in Twist, one of Accra’s best night clubs.
But here he is, on time, standing outside his four-wheel drive, beside his manager Kweku Legacy, and Red Fire, another reggae artist. They look sprightly; they’re here to promote two things: his new album which is out the following week and the upcoming Kuchoko Roots Festival on La Boma beach on May 21.
I’ve never smoked weed.
We go and sit under the palm trees by the swimming pool in the middle of a plush apartment complex in the Airport neighbourhood of Accra. Kweku – all flat cap and toothy grin – films the luxury oasis, sizing it up for a possible video shoot.
There are some middle-aged women doing an aqua-aerobics class who look worried by these unexpected visitors. These ladies don’t realise they’re in the presence of Blakk Rasta, a man who’s met Obama (‘He was wonderful, he was irie’); has taught African history at the University of Central Missouri; and has apparently never smoked marijuana.
‘I’ve never smoked weed. It doesn’t sit well with my body. I don’t condemn it, I have a lot of brethren who smoke,’ Blakk Rasta tells me, slightly red-eyed, but so deadpan I’m not sure whether to believe him. ‘The fact that I don’t smoke doesn’t mean I don’t use it for other things,’ he clarifies.
‘I use it for my hair. In Holland I bought ganga-made jeans trousers. I use hemp seed oil and once in a while, fresh ganga leaves, I pick them and cook them into a beautiful green tea, no sugar, nothing. Sometimes I put in honey, once in a while when I want to get a little cosy and a little irie.’
Foregoing a toke hasn’t stopped him getting into trouble. In 2015, Abubakar Ahmed (his real name) was hauled in front of parliament for claiming that 80 per cent of politicians smoke weed. He apologised, just about.
I was asking the government to grow marijuana in huge state farms.
He tells me that if he were them – he calls them ‘politrickians’ – he’d make it legal. ‘I was asking the government to grow marijuana in huge state farms. Let the police take care of that. When you finished take it to California. Smoke it legally. Use it in pharmacies. You will make a lot of foreign exchange from this.’
Thanks for exposing those the criminal MPs who want to be called honourables @JonBenjamin19 . Laughable! I doff my herbal hat for you, sir.
— Blakk Rasta (@Blakkrasta) May 4, 2017
Blakk Rasta has always thought a little differently. He used his student loan when he was studying science and technology at the University of Kumasi in the late nineties to record and launch his first album. At that time, everyone was listening to Highlife. But after meeting some Rastas on campus, and inspired by the Nigerian artist Ras Kimono whose accent he could understand better than Jamaican patois, he started playing reggae.
This didn’t sit well with his parents. Born in Tamale, the northern part of Ghana, he was ‘from a family that would like to consider itself elite, by local standards’. They weren’t thrilled by their eldest child’s new direction. ‘They did not like the idea of me having to wear my locks long and leaving my beard unkempt and my moustache flowing all over the place.’
But their attitude changed: ‘To jah be the glory, after a while they realised the brother was being himself, and I was being unique.’ When his father heard his first album Rasta Shrine featured on the BBC, Blakk Rasta says he realised: ‘It was not about waywardness, it was just a mission that had to be accomplished.’
Blakk Rasta carved out his sound with his second album More Fyah in 2002. Now recording and playing with a live band, he felt free to use traditional instruments like talking drums, wooden xylophones and reed flutes to give his music a more African sound. He even used his locks to beat the djembe, a traditional drum, while performing in the Ivory Coast. Like Madinke reggae, which was pioneered by Alpha Blondy, he developed it into a whole new genre.
‘I have tried to come out with a new kind of Reggae thing. Kuchocko: it is the sound of authentic, original reggae music. When you listen to proper reggae music, indigenous reggae music, you hear that “chucko chucko”. It’s the African version of Jamaican reggae.’
If Bob Marley were alive today, I believe he would be doing Kuchoko.
Reggae has always been innovative, he says, while pointing out that one of the ladies who was balancing awkwardly on a float in the pool is now drinking a drink the same colour as her swimming suit.
‘If Bob Marley were alive today, I believe he would be doing Kuchoko. Bob was a man who loved to put new things in his music. He introduced rock guitar into his music – listen to Could You be Loved ... At that point in Jamaica, it was looked down on. If he were alive today he’d be infusing African beats into the reggae, giving it more energy and more soul.’
The current roster of Jamaican reggae stars doesn’t impress him, particularly when it comes to returning to the green lands of Africa. ‘A lot of it is just lip service. A lot of Jamaican artists will go to America and perform for US$1,000 but when they are invited to Africa, they want $20,000.’ Bob Marley, on the other hand, he goes on to remind me, went to Gabon in 1980 and in the same year played in a free concert for Zimbabwe’s Independence celebrations in the Rufaro Stadium in Harare.
He also admires legends like Mutabaruka, DYCR, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Peter Tosh but also reggae’s current poster boy Chronixx.
Africa is the hub; it’s the birthplace of music.
Although he hasn’t made it to Jamaica yet, it’s a huge influence for him. ‘We are taking a lot of experience from Jamaican music, but we want to practicalise it by putting African sounds in it. Africa is the hub; it’s the birthplace of music. Almost every kind of music came from Africa. Jamaica took music from Africa and now we’re taking it back from Jamaica and serving it to Jamaicans refreshed and ready to eat.’
He’s serving up new music to hungry fans now. His latest album Kuchoko Revolution has just been released on VP Records, a legendary reggae label who’ve also signed the Nigerian dancehall star Patoranking. ‘They are already thinking of putting this album in for the Grammys,’ he says.
— almightyjayblakk (@jayblakkgh) April 16, 2017
The immense pride in his heritage comes through in his advocacy as well as his sound. He speaks up against bleaching, using English names instead of African ones, and ‘a certain type of complex.’
‘Some time ago it was difficult to see people wearing the African print but we wear that now with pride. Things are changing,’ he says, looking at the clear, empty pool. ‘People are getting more conscious everyday.’