“Racializing Obama while Creating Diaspora in Ghana”
Lee D. Baker
A warm humid breeze blew as the burnt orange sun set quickly in the tony neighborhood of East Legon, one of the ever-expanding “suburbs” of Ghana’s capital city of Accra. In this neighborhood, multi-million-dollar mansions belonging to radio executives and professional soccer players tower over street-corner abodes refashioned out of steel cargo ship containers that do double-duty as shops in the morning and sleeping quarters in the evening. This evening, I was dining alone at a busy open-air café. Next to me was a group of lovely, loquacious ladies whose audible volume increased as the liquid volume in their carafes decreased. It was obviously girls’ night out and these middle-aged, middle-class women were paying me no mind as I ate my grilled Tilapia and banku. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard a gunshot. Most in the restaurant whooped and some patrons let out half-hearted “screams,” but no one looked too concerned. I ducked under the table.
Within seconds, the skies opened up and tropical, torrential rain bucketed from the now black sky. The forceful rain created random columns of water that pierced through the otherwise sturdy thatched roof. No one was concerned. Waitresses deftly donned plastic bags over their hair, and customers quickly arranged tables and chairs in an odd but orderly pattern that enabled everyone to keep eating without getting soaked. Elbows touched, strangers’ hips were flush, and sticky backs pressed up against each other.
In Ghana, personal space is a luxury that is willingly sacrificed to accommodate more people, and surrendering it is de rigueur when it comes to taking public transportation; everyday millions of Ghanaians cram as many people as physically possible into vans that have been refashioned from European delivery trucks. They call the vans tro-tros; I call them crowded.
Just as I was getting a little uncomfortable trying to eat without elbowing my neighbor, a catchy one-drop reggae tune came bounding over the speakers. Just as the hook let loose, people started bobbing their heads, moving their shoulders, humming, and looking at me. I was stunned when the backup vocals pulsated the words: Barack, Barack, Obama, Barack, Barack, Obama. I just grinned with utter approval. At once, I became very comfortable as I enjoyed the music, the warmth, and the rain. Halfway through the song, the power went out. It was pitch dark and still pouring. Immediately, people took out cell phones and the entire restaurant was aglow with the liquid crystal diodes of a dozen or so cell phones that looked like fireflies dancing and darting around.
Despite getting clipped by a power outage, that experience was one of those rare and tender moments when people from different parts of the diaspora reach out, embrace, and bond with their brothers and sisters in cultural and political solidarity. In Ghana, these moments are very, very rare; despite the fact that thousands of African American tourists visit Ghana every year to ostensibly “gohome,” connect, bond, and inhabit mother Africa.
I often like to say that Ghana is the only place in the world where I can be a rich white man, butthat is changing as the dollar tanks, Ghana’s economy improves, and the light-skinned Barack Obama becomes the international standard bearer for the African in African American. In general, most Ghanaians have a fairly narrow understanding of modern blackness. If you are not from Nigeria, Liberia, Mali or another sub-Saharan African country, you are simply Obruni, or translated: a white person.
Many of the students that I bring to Ghana come to explicitly find their African roots, and instead they find the impacts of colonialism and structural adjustment. As one can imagine, these students are horrified when a market person affectionately hails one of them: “white man, please come.”
Ghanaian perceptions of diasporic blacks have been slowly changing in the wake of closer economic ties to Caribbean countries, globalization, mass media, and the international appeal of hip-hop. In recent months, however, the processes have quickened their pace, thanks in large part to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and his self-appointed and defiantly unofficial director of field operations in Ghana: Blakk Rasta. He is the man who wrote and performed both the dancehall and crunk version of this seriously funky tune: Barack Obama. Besides being one of Ghana’s most widely recognized and acclaimed reggae musicians, Blakk Rasta hosts a widely popular, albeit controversial, talk-radio show where he holds sway on many topics– first and foremost of late- Barack Obama.
Between the single, the video, and his radio show, Blakk Rasta has done more than anyone to raise the awareness of Barack Obama’s candidacy in Ghana, and by extension, a broader understanding of blackness, the diaspora, and “One Love for One Africa.” Although it’s a far cry from Kwame Nkrumah’s call for pan-African liberation, Blakk Rasta articulates a sincere call for a unified diaspora that loves and respects each other.
The son of devout Muslims, he was born Abubakar Ahmed in 1974 in the northern city of Tamale. Growing up poor in Moshie-Zongo, he was a high achieving student who excelled in the arts and sciences. As he completed his bachelor’s degree in land economy from Kwame Nkrumah University, he turned to the reggae scene, embraced Rastafari, and pursued writing, producing, and performing music with a decidedly political edge, which also frames his unique approach to talk radio.
Equal parts preacher, teacher, and pundit, his show often consists of playing music, turning the volume down, pontificating for awhile, and turning the music back up, only to randomly turn it back down to take a call or two, and then turning the music back up, then he turns it back down to inform the public about some important upcoming event or plug a product, then he turns up the music one more time. His show is quite entertaining, but he does push everyone’s buttons when he speaks “the truth,” which of course is the truth according to Blakk Rasta. Although I find his views on women unacceptable, everyone finds something to like and dislike in his philosophy. And, I have to assume, that is the point: to push and pull, educate and liberate. Like any good teacher, he wants you to question your assumptions. Even among his loyal fans, no one agrees with everything he says, but even his staunchest critics learn something new. Employing his well-rehearsed locally-acquired foreign accent, his Jamaican patois is fast, his mind is nimble, and his perspectives range from really out there to spot on.
I had the privilege of interviewing Blakk Rasta after one of his radio shows. In the lobby of Joy FM, in the heart of Accra’s computer and information district, I sat down for a free-ranging and very enlightening conversation. The pretext, of course, was how Obama was racialized in Africa, but the conversations covered issues of strong women, the family, race, racism, the African diaspora, black on black violence, colonialism, and the exploitation of house help in Ghana. He is very, very smart. Although he had his phone on vibrate, I could tell it was ringing non-stop. As we continued our conversation, a bevy of young men respectfully formed around us. Some were trying to ply him with their own reggae tunes, others were adoring fans, while another was a radio personality from Toronto, Canada who was there to compare notes about the international reggae scene.
I asked him how he approached his popular radio show:
Blakk Rasta: There are some who go on the radio and just play reggae music and shout ‘Jah, Jah, Rastafari’ and go away-- that is not right. My conscience would not set me free when my brothers are fighting in Sudan. . . If I were to come on the radio and be a preacher, no one would listen to me, but through reggae music I play it, entertain them, and weave these things in and it is catching on with the people. It has never happened in this country. That is why I get death threats, a whole lot of death threats. Lee, I don’t really mind if my life is taken away and Africa unites- that is fine. If I am supposed to be a sacrificial lamb for the unity of Africa, so be it. I would smile wherever I am. If taking me away makes Africa worse, I will not go and will work in my own small way to unite Africa. People are saying I am getting political, but I don’t vote and I am not political. If party A does something wrong, I let them know it’s wrong, but the way I teach, people don’t like it because it is very militant and very raw. I speak the truth and do not believe in euphemisms. If the man is dead, he is dead; he hasn’t kicked any bucket. . .
The message is going on and on, and now I have a whole lot of sponsors on my show and people are saying that this guy is the modern-day Marcus Garvey. These accolades are just too big for me, but it makes me appreciate the fact that the people are in for the truth. I try to tell people that I am just an insignificant person occupying a small space, but the message is going out loud and clear. Maybe that is why I was brought here, because all of my schoolmates are sitting in air conditioned offices taking money from the government. That is not my thing; my thing is to talk my people.
Trying to hone in on how Barack Obama is racialized in West Africa, I asked Blakk Rasta how people perceived their lighter-skinned African Brother:
BR: We consider him African, but he is black because the whole world considers him black. So, we consider him black, but also African. So many people didn’t even know who Barack was, until I came up with that song, Barack Obama, and people started realizing, oh, who is this? And even still, people just like the music and don’t know exactly what the music is talking about. Some people see a picture of Obama, and say to me that he is not even black, and I have to tell them that he is a black man like you and me.
On this one point, Blakk Rasta has stayed remarkably on message, and he has hammered that point home, in the video, on the single, throughout his radio broadcast, and at just about any opportunity he gets. Although the song itself belies the message will.i.am advanced in his viral internet smash hit “Yes, We Can,” you sure can dance to it! Blakk Rasta takes a decidedly more macabre perspective with his wicked rhymes: Too long they disrespect blacks and Africans combine. And black people flesh and blood the Ku Klux Klan love to dine. Watch out Barack Obama and intensify your power turbine. Or else brethren Obama, your dark days will never sublime.
Although it is difficult to ferret out the cause from the effect, the way Blakk Rasta has racialized Barack here in Ghana has had a meaningful impact on the way many Ghanaians perceive blackness and their connection to the diaspora. Or, it just could have felt that way as I looked around me in the din of a torrential down pour. Either way, it was still a meaningful moment.
Lee D. Baker is Dean of Academic Affairs, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University.