Wednesday, 27th September 2023

Sarkodie…Blazing A Trail For African Hip Hop

By Chinonso Ihekire
18 February 2023   |   4:20 am
Success has been a long time coming for Ghana’s king of flows, Sarkodie. The African rap prodigy has taken this all to heart, setting up his record label as Sarkcess Music and carting away accolades for nearly two decades.


Success has been a long time coming for Ghana’s king of flows, Sarkodie. The African rap prodigy has taken this all to heart, setting up his record label as Sarkcess Music and carting away accolades for nearly two decades. His latest feat? Scoring a collaboration with the late reggae luminary Bob Marley and The Wailers. Dubbed Stir it up, the song is a remake of the 1973 Marley classic, and beyond that, it is evidence of Sarkodie’s unending ascent to the Everest of African Hip Hop. 
Born Michael Addo, the 36-year-old began a rock-solid career as a battle rapper on the chilly streets of Tema, in Ghana. After beating more than a dozen other rappers in a freestyle battle on a radio programme, he won the heart of the show’s host, Duncan Williams, who later became his manager. Through Williams, he met Edem, Castro, Hammer of the Last Two, and soon became prominent among Ghana’s underground music scene.
Fast-forward to 2009, he steps out with Makye, the debut album that changed his life. And, after 7 albums, multiple awards and brand deals, Sarkodie still seems to be on an endless pursuit of expression – creating sheer sonics that soar with shock-appeal and replay value. 
With his latest album, Jamz, the father-of-two rehashes this template, running on solid footing with several collaborators, including Joeboy, BNXN, Black Sherif, Cina Soul, Oxlade, among others. He reminds one of his unmatched cadence, poignant lyricism, and his love-soaked themes that have since dominated his discography.
In this chat with Guardian Music, the lyrical juggernaut opens up on working with Bob Marley, creating commercially appealing raps, as well as why he remains more driven by impact over popularity. 

You’ve been doing a lot recently, including working with Bob Marley and The wailers on Stair it Up. How did that come about?
I THINK about three years ago when my manager told me that this is something that is a possibility to happen. Of course, it wasn’t a new song. I thought it was not real. Maybe somebody would say something, but I didn’t believe that there could be a possibility until we had that conversation and when we finally got to meet the record label, and they gave us the file to the music. Then, I had to believe that this was happening. 

How did you feel when you were sure that you were doing that record? 
It was more of a doubt for me at the beginning, not being too sure. I think everybody will relate to it; if they call you right now and say you have to feature a song with Michael Jackson, the first thing you will do is laugh, because you know it’s not real. So, that was my approach to it, until I had to do it and felt the pressure. That was the next phase of it.

I was about to record my vocals right next to the legend Bob Marley; that’s a lot of pressure. It’s not a regular song that I do on a daily basis where I could use two, three minutes to just wrap up. This one is very heavy. I was so concerned about how the feedback would be, especially from the people that gave me the opportunity to do it.

So yeah, there was a lot of pressure, but I had to shake it off, because if you record with pressure, sometimes you don’t do your best. I had to break it down as if I was making the song with just anybody, just to get me in the creative process. After I was done, I had to judge what I did. Yes, that’s how we made magic. 

How long did it take you to come up with your verses for the song?
What I do is I normally create cadence with sounds. So, within the first five to ten minutes, I knew what the cadence was going to be. For the lyrics, I would say I got the base of the lyrics the same day around like within one or two hours. Then I had to change it. So in all, I would say like in a week I was done with that. 

You rapped in Twi on that track. Was that the direction they preferred, given that it was a global record?
My whole career, I want to be seen as somebody that people want to look up to. I like to lead; I don’t like to follow. So, that is what informed me pushing my native tongue. I think I can work on everything I want to do. I want to rap in English and rap well; I just have to put my mind to it.

Funny enough, I started rapping dominantly in English, before I switched to Twi. When I made my decision earlier on in my career that this is not the way I want to go, even if that is not going to take me to my next level. I want to go to the next level, and also make history with it. So, everything I stood for is what happened.

This record proved to me that I was right. This is Bob Marley! Who can they not get to do a verse? Everybody is going to rush to do it. They could get Jay Z, J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, or whoever they want. So, if you are doing a project based on Africa, which is a strong statement, they don’t expect you to come in and just sound like something they could have already easily got.

I could recall that the first verse I sent to them had a lot of English in it, and they had to make it clear to me that the reason why they wanted me to rap on this song is because they want me to use my native language. All I had to do is just translate to them so they at least know one isn’t insulting Bob Marley or something. So, that was established and I had to translate the lyrics for them; they loved it. To prove they did, they released the song as the lead single of the project they are working on. This is a whole project they are working on for the late Bob Marley. 

You recently dropped a new album dubbed, Jamz. What inspired it?
Yeah, Jamz is my latest album, and one of my albums that I really like. I think throughout my career, everybody who has been a Sarkodie fan knows that I love love; I actually celebrate love. I’m really drawn to that. So, in my whole career, I have had a lot of great, sweet melody type of songs.

However, it’s only one of my albums that is kind of similar to this. It is called Black Love, which is dominated by commercial and beautiful melodies. And Jamz is just a version of that, but more super commercial and more international sounds. It was inspired by just me taking time off and just enjoying my life in these beautiful places; I carried strong memories from these places back home in Ghana.

So, when I’m writing, it creeps into my head. I think about the soundtracks to those places that I went to. I went to Zanzibar, Mauritius, and many other places with beautiful scenery. And here in Ghana, I went to The Moon, in the Western Region. The Amapiano movement also inspired me. I started talking to producers, and they know that I hate flat commercial music; I won’t put anybody’s music on blast.

In fact, let me use my own music. A song like Confam does not necessarily have soul, but it is a vibe. If you let me dictate the type of songs I like, I always like mood music that makes you feel something. So, melody has always been a part of me. Even in Hip Hop, sometimes I like when you have melodies in them. So, yeah, I just gave the guidelines to the producers. I wanted sweet melodies so I could have great vocals. The drums had to favour me too, since I had to rap. So, that’s how calm we created the sound.

We called it the playlist; because I imagine Jamz being on rotation by one DJ on the radio that you don’t skip. So, that’s what the project is really about. Normally, I would have one type of those records and maybe the rest of the album dominated by Hip Hop. But this is a super commercial album in which every track will have a single-worthy approach. 

If you are looking at the hip-hop conversation and you are looking at the trend of having to have these types of ‘super commercial songs’, do you think it is a strategy you would encourage other rappers to follow?
Yeah, personally I believe in that, but I also respect people who stay true to what they want to stay true to, if you are not limiting yourself from something that you can actually do. And then this is just what you like; you just want to rap; you don’t want to hear any commercial music. That is fine. I am a musician to start with, but I just choose rap because I can relate more to it. But I love music generally.

You know, I did the BBC concert with the orchestra and I loved it. I would like to try stuff. Of course, I can say seventy to eighty per cent of what I write is always Hip Hop, but I won’t shy away from the fact that I am attracted to RnB. I love High Life, etc. I love all these sounds, and I can rap on anything. And I have seen what that has done for me.

When people compare me to the super successful African artists, sometimes I laugh, because you are talking about people who sing and it is a compliment to me, because I rap. But then, I could be in those conversations around successful artistes. But the reason is because I don’t limit myself to just rapping; I do music just as they do. So, yes, I will encourage that. I have seen the benefits of that.

I don’t know why you would want to limit yourself. Just try sounds, but you just keep your core. Your fanbase wants you to rap, which is okay, but you have to still experiment, if you can. There are certain people who would not know Sarkodie, until they listen to the Bob Marley record. But these are all Reggae heads; they listen to conscious music. So, maybe they know Sarkodie, but they don’t know really about what I do. This is a good time for them to hear Sarkodie. Why would I miss out from reaching these ears? I believe this is a good strategy. 

How fulfilling does it feel for someone who is Sarkodie? What are you feeling?
That’s a very broad and deep question. What am I feeling? So, I see the point where you are coming from, where you are asking the question from and I know exactly how you want me to answer it, like what you imagine. However, it doesn’t really feel any different because I am still Michael. What I am trying to do is not to lose myself as Michael; that is my core being.

And who is Michael? I love my family. I want to be with my kids, spend time with my wife; we go somewhere, we do whatever. People that I cherish, I make time for. I spend time with my mum. So, I don’t lose Michael for Sarkodie.

So, here is a funny story. When I am in a car and I am outside and somebody looks at me for a very long time, I forget that I am Sarkodie and that’s why he is looking right? Then I notice probably he is looking at me, either as a fan or he actually knows that I am Sarkodie. So, that is how serious it is for me. I am not walking around thinking about the fact that I am Sarkodie 24/7. I think of Michael, because I want to keep that. That is the most precious thing that every human being can have. You don’t want to lose yourself.

One thing I know, of course, is that when you get into your space, you know you are Sarkodie. You’ve done this thing for a very long time; you can’t dent your legacy. But I keep Michael, it is very core to me. So, that is why there is no problem when I have to deal with ‘me being me’.

The choice of collaborations you’ve always had is like always spot on. How were you able to finesse such a line up for Jamz? 
I have a good ear for sound. I think maybe in the future, when I am done and not actively recording, I want to get used to just putting music together, because I would know who and who would sound well on a record. I am a big fan of music, despite being a musician professionally. I love music and I know what type of hook goes with what bassline, and which voice would sound good on a song like this.

I just did a record on – this is exclusive to you – Ajebo Hustlers. It was yesterday, or two days ago. I really mess with their music. Like I am the biggest fan of their music, because it is so distinct. As soon as I hear their voice, I notice. So, when I send songs to a lot of people, a few times they might want to try something else. However, most of the time, I know what I have in my head is going to work and it does.

So, I am very good with my ear. I bring the best out of people; even if they have not tried it, I know they are going to sound good on it. So, with collaborations, it comes easier for me. Most of the records that you hear on Jamz, none of them involved me having a hard time selecting a beat for it.

For instance, with Oxlade on She Bad, it was the first beat I sent to him, I knew it was him that could shine most on that beat. On Labadi with King Promise, I knew it was him too. I had Country Side, months earlier, knowing that this song was best suited for Black Sheriff. But when he came, I just wanted him to just hear other stuff to see if he was going to have any other ideas. And I realised that it was stressing him out. So, I played the beat I had reserved for him, and 10 minutes after he heard it, he had the hook for the song. So, I have a good ear for sounds.

You are one of the few African artistes that are not really nepotistic about the type of collaborations that you do. 
Yeah. Like I said, I love music. So, I appreciate and understand every type of music. There might be some limitations, but it is not much. I think I have touched on almost every genre at this point in my career and I could get into anybody’s world. Maybe try to fit in. Even if I don’t do the best of music, I think I can find where I would sit on every type of records.

I believe in collaborations, because no matter how good you are, it’s just natural. People can get tired of what you are doing, so you just have to present it well. That is why you have brands like Gucci and Adidas who come up with something. You have Balenciaga and Adidas creating something. These are strong brands on their own. Why do you think they are collaborating? They bring two markets together. You have Supreme; a Supreme fan is never going to buy Gucci. Anybody who is in Supreme will never want to buy Gucci or Prada; it doesn’t even make sense to them. But then, when the two come together, they go well.

I believe you don’t build a brand to a certain point, but when it gets to a certain point, it is only necessary that you collaborate; it brings a different type of sound. You put it up in a refreshing environment, because this is not what you are used to. It’s beautiful, because I like challenges. Like ‘oh, I want to try this, what can I do with this?’

I look at some of the great people, like Drake doing collaboration with 21 Savage. These two people are like two separate brands, but then Drake knows that no matter how big you are, the people who will listen to the lyrics of 21 Savage might not necessarily be into you. And it is only right that you tap into that; you tap into other sources. So, yes, that has been my belief for the longest. 

What is next for Sarkodie? Are you working on a new project, tours, and videos?
That is always going to happen. I mean, I am an artiste, so, every year, there is always music being done. I am definitely coming outside this year; I am doing a tour. I will be announcing like any moment from now. Also, basically I just want to be able to give back to the industry. And what made me Sarkodie.

Having a hit song at this point is not my biggest high. Even with the Bob Marley collaboration, it is a high for me, but to be very honest, it goes beyond just the music. There is a lot more that I can do. With all these years accumulated and the experience I have had, I need to give back to the industry in any form from having conversations with the young ones coming up or building structures that we need. I have been trying to bring these corporate investors on board, to see how we can properly create something impactful. This is where my state of mind has been for a minute now. 

Could you list five of your favorite Sarkodie songs of all time?
I would say all of my favorite records are very motivational, given the type of person I am. That is my core. If you allow me, I mean, if you want to see my energy in physical form or just to see what my energy represents, it’s more of motivation and inspiration form. First will be Hope, the song featuring Obrafour. I will definitely take Lucky featuring Rudeboy. Anadwo featuring King Promise. I will put in Better Days featuring BNXN. Then Glory featuring Yung L. 

You seem very personal about these songs. 
I barely listen to the songs that I have released; I listen to songs that I am about to release. So, I am always trying to judge it. When I go back to the songs I have released already, these songs I have mentioned to you, I can listen to them like I am listening to someone else’s song. So, that is how I know I like them that much.