by Sionne Neely
*This is an excerpt from a fuller article originally printed in Jive magazine, Accra [June 2008]. Double-click on photos to enlarge.He sounded like a Black Panther on the phone. Voice all deep and guttural like he had been cussing out “the Man” all day. I imagined him with a black beret cocked to the side and a matching leather jacket, right fist raised in the air, his left fingers coiled tightly around a megaphone.
Or maybe the bass-like voice betrayed a strong pan-Africanist sensibility. Perhaps he wore a crown of locs as long as time and divided his days between reading books on natural medicine, vegetarianism, and kimetics while composing new songs that like him, were before his time. All stereotypes, I know. But these are the thoughts that ran through my head as I began the interview.
I was told that GYEDU-BLAY AMBOLLEY was the first rapper ever, busting simigwado freestyles in Ghana in 1973 before DJ Kool Herc became famous for his bangin’ parties in the South Bronx projects during the mid-70s. Before Sugarhill Gang’s classic “Rapper’s Delight” took over the disco scene in 1979, before this thing called hip hop spread like the gospel (or the plague depending on how you look at it) capturing the hearts and minds of young folks across the planet. GOOD LORD!Ambolley hails from Sekondi-Takoradi and has played music professionally since 1968 with 23 albums to his credit and a diverse fan base that spans the globe. He’s circulated the international jazz music festival scene and has lived in New York and Los Angeles.
Ambolley is a creative genius behind this thing called rap music. He describes rap as “an African thing” where he and his schoolmates would play with their mouths since they had no money for instruments. Putting this amusing style of rhyming to live music, Ambolley coined something new.
He declares, “I am the father of rap. When I started rapping, no rap was coming from America or anywhere. But I wasn’t calling it rap at that time because no word had come for it. My first record, I took the baseline from a song by the Temptations called “Cloud Nine”. And it was a big hit. People hadn’t heard that style of music before and I introduced that language to music.” Ambolley talks fondly about falling in love with the sound of music in the Voice of America broadcasts (projected across Africa, South and Central America as a more subtle kind of imperialist propaganda) as a child during the ‘50s. A fan of big musicals and jazz, he would later incorporate these expressions into his own sound. He shares how Black people everywhere have consciously and unconsciously stitched pieces of themselves and their art from one another’s experiences: “When I saw my Black brothers doing it, coming from America, I said ‘wow, it’s in the blood’. So they’re exhibiting their Africanism.”
Can we talk about the love? The godfather of rap music tells of an overwhelming reception from schoolchildren who greet him on the street by reciting his lyrics. His music is now passed down to new generations from their older siblings, fathers and mothers, who grew up grooving to Ambolley.
As a living ancestor of rap music, Ambolley’s hiplife progeny respect his innovative work, often asking for advice about the music business and requests for collaborations. Ambolley responds, “I look at it like I am the tree, my brothers who have taken what I started and improved upon it, I see them as the branches. But I am the tree.” Unfortunately, American hip hop artists have yet to give credit where it’s due.
Ambolley is quite disturbed with the direction of a contemporary hip hop and hiplife music that is more focused on making money, bedding women and popping bottles than building sustaining relationships that bolster cultural knowledge and youth empowerment. He replies, “The media industry has targeted the younger generation from about 18-25. These are the generations without responsibility. When you make music and talk ‘hey baby, hey baby’ all the time and you call your own sister ‘bitch’ and think it’s fun. They call their own brothers ‘dog’. Come on, we need to be real. When they grow and make money they don’t know how to use their mind.”
Our conversation turned grave as we discussed the persistent cultural breach between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora: “We’re sleeping. It’s really serious. The roots—that is where your culture is—that’s where your strength is. Without the roots, the tree will perish. If people are cut away from their roots, then what is going to happen? It is like they become blind people because there is nothing for them to fall upon. He [Black Americans] doesn’t see anywhere in Africa that belongs to him. Because he doesn’t know where he’s going. So he says, ‘I’m cool here’. The Black people in America, to me, are in limbo. You can’t go to Africa and where they are the system is not favoring them. The most dangerous thing in the world is you don’t know where you belong. When the children see that, there’s no future for them.”
We then spoke about the intense fascination many Ghanaians have with America as a land of opportunity, privilege and wealth. Ambolley has traveled extensively all over the world including a two decade stay in the States and because of this, folks might think he’s loco to return home to Ghana. He notes the logic behind “The American Dream” as mere myth, fantasy, a “now you see it, now you don’t” magic trick.
Ambolley shares, “Here in Ghana I don’t have to work because my music works for me. In L.A., I had to get up every morning and go to work. I’m very popular here. Getting jobs, performances, jingles, you know all these just come. I asked myself why do I have to trade this for being in America? Getting up every morning, hustling…I saw that the U.S. is just make-believe. That is why they call it democracy and everyone’s trying to follow that system. The meaning of democracy to me is ‘demonstration of craziness’. At the end of the day, America’s not looking for the welfare of its citizens. It’s craziness…it’s not real.”
For Ambolley, Africa is the key to opening the door to sanity, proper social responsibility, cultural viability and Black ingenuity. He says, “I started by singing conscious music. What the white man is afraid of is the linkage between African Americans and Africa. Because he knows the Black people in America, we have engineers among them, we have lawyers, we have doctors, we have scientists, so when they bring all these kinds of technology back to Africa where the resource of everything is, that is the end of it. This is where we need to get up as a people.”
I suppose I met my Black Panther Man after all.
Get Up with GYEDU-BLAY AMBOLLEY | @gyedublay