Underground Mp3 Trade Brings Music to Accra’s Ears

Accra | 02/26/2013 9:34am
Sharon Benzoni | Informal City Dialogues

In Accra, music is a way of life, even if internet access isn’t. Photo credit: Naijamayor via Flickr Creative Commons

“You can’t stop music,” David tells me. He’s sitting in the narrow, closet-like shop his brother bought several years ago in Accra’s Odawa Pedestrian Market, surrounded by imported sound systems. The power is off, he says regretfully, so he can’t sell me any mp3s. And technically, he says, he doesn’t do that kind of business anymore. Just a few days before, most of the boys still selling mp3s here were shut down by the police.

David was hard to find. It’s generally agreed that Kwame Nkrumah Circle – known simply as “Circle” – is the place to go if you want to buy mp3 downloads of local music. But when I got there and started asking questions, people shook their heads: No, sorry, they don’t know anyone. I was standing in a small market area packed with small shops and kiosks just outside the towering offices of Ghana Commercial Bank. When pressed, a few of the proprietors pointed vaguely toward a nightclub across the street. One, an electronics dealer, told me, “I can sell you the mp3 player,” but said I’d have to go all the way around the huge roundabout to the main market – Odawa Market – to buy the mp3s themselves.

A compilation of people dancing the azonto to Ghanaian rap artist Sarkodie’s classic “U Go Kill Me Ooo.” Video by Flourish MultimediaGH via YouTube.

So when I finally found David, perched in his small shop, it was like a sighting an endangered species. David was a DJ in secondary school, he tells me, and he’s always loved music. Especially Ghana’s music.

He’s not alone. Music is a way of life in Ghana. It has flourished for generations, fusing traditional styles with American and European, creating new and distinctly Ghanaian genres. Highlife, a world-famous mellow, jazzy genre, fused in the late 20th century with hiphop to create hiplife. More recently, highlife and hiplife merged with house-influenced beats from Europe to create azonto, a new genre born to accommodate a homegrown dance form in need of a musical style. Dancing is basically a chemical reaction to azonto; every self-respecting Ghanaian can do the azonto, which has blown up into a worldwide craze. Ghanaians embrace azonto and the other genres of their music with fierce cultural pride.

Music is omnipresent in Accra. It’s not unusual to hear it blasting out of speakers in markets, on the streets, and in taxis and trotros. Sometimes you’ll be walking down the street and see someone with earbuds in, dancing away in their own private nightclub, oblivious to the world.

Azonto version of the song “Obuu Mo” by Ghanaian artist E.L. Video by ELGhRapper via YouTube.

Many Ghanaians don’t have computers, and in fact, many are computer illiterate: they don’t, as another seller put it to me, “know the computer inside.” And even those who do often don’t have the credit cards needed to legally purchase music online. They listen to music on their cell phones or small mp3 players, available for as little as 20 GhC ($10 USD). “Caller tunes,” available through some of the telco companies, do not seem to have staunched the demand for the large volumes of music – four to eight gigabytes – that you can buy on the street for 15 to 25 Ghana cedis.

But mp3 sellers in Circle, at least, have mostly been scared away, and the cautiousness displayed by those remaining is not surprising, given the war being waged against them. For a little over a year now, the police, in conjunction with national government and the Ghana Music Rights Organization (GHAMRO), have staged an assault against music piracy as part of “Operation Jail the Pirates.” The markets here and in La Paz have been raided several times, and those who are convicted of piracy can face stiff sentences of up to two years in prison.

Carlos Sakyi of GHAMRO says that some of Ghana’s judges are becoming more sympathetic to his cause, especially those who have seen, as he puts it, some of the country’s legendary older musicians “die as paupers” as street vendors profit from selling their songs. “I believe piracy [makes up] 95 percent of music sales,” he says. “They don’t realize the negative impacts their actions have.”

“Good Morning” by Yaa Pono & Efya, two of the most talented artists in Ghana. This video was filmed in one of Accra’s slums. Video by King Mo Joe via YouTube.

A few days after meeting David, I find Stanley, who has a small glass case from which he sells mobile phone top-up cards and used cell phones and accessories. He also has an array of chargers with a few phones connected. Some of the people who live in the slums don’t have electricity, so for 1 Ghana cedi (50 cents USD) they can leave their phones with him to be charged and come back to pick them up later.

But the tell-tale sign of Stanley’s mp3 racket is his laptop with a USB modem plugged in, his browser open to Facebook. Like David, he is loathe to talk about his lucrative side business. At first, he thinks I’m there to sell music to him. He lowers his voice and asks me what I have. I explain that I want to know how the business works, and slowly he opens up. He learned how to download music and convert YouTube videos to mp3s from the DJ at a nearby nightclub. He gets perhaps five or ten customers a day for mp3 sales, and he does well, putting about 20 Ghana cedis in the bank at the end of the day. He employs two boys to help him watch the shop at night – this is Accra’s red-light district – and do other errands for him when they’re not in school.

Stanley is from Koridua, a beautiful, hilly town in the nearby Eastern Region. When he was orphaned and could no longer afford school, he moved to Accra and started selling MTN top-up cards. He saved money and paid for the right to use the small plot of land where his shop now sits. Like many Ghanaians facing a life with few formal employment opportunities, Stanley dreamed of going to America. With his earnings, he was able to save money to enter the American visa lottery, which he won. He was denied entry by the U.S. authorities, however, and lost the 3,000 cedis he’d spent on his preparations to emigrate.

Now, like David, he is reluctant to cop to his mp3 sales business, for fear of prosecution for piracy. Both he and David said that they would agree to pay taxes or royalties to artists’ unions, but that a system hasn’t been put in place for them to do so. Carlos Sakyi agrees that this is a problem, but he feels it’s more important to clamp down on illegal sales, drying up the market to create an opportunity for legal music sales models to be developed. “The creator has to be in control of their rights,” he says, “and benefit from their creative work.”

A very catchy reggae-pop fusion track by Kaakie called “Too Much.” Video by DJ Blackstar via YouTube.

The irony is that much of Ghana’s popular music is available online for free. Sites like GhanaMotion.com and BigXGh.com were started by, respectively, diaspora and local entrepreneurs frustrated by how difficult it was to obtain copies – legally or otherwise – of the local music they loved. They upload music for free, usually at the behest of the artists themselves, who value the exposure. According to people in the industry, most artists make their money from playing shows, not from selling music. Global trends have already created conditions where internet users expect to be able to access free music; perhaps MUSIGA and GHAMRO are simply fighting the inevitable when they should be looking for alternative business models. As Benjamin LeBrave, a French DJ and owner of Akwaaba Music in Accra puts it, “Piracy today in Ghana is a false dilemma.”

“Payola,” some suggest, may be a more important issue. Another informal side of the music industry, payola reflects a power imbalance: getting exposure on radio, Ghana’s ascendant medium, makes artists likely to earn more from shows. On-air DJs have all the power, and some reputedly make thousands of cedis a month in under-the-table earnings from artists who pay them for airplay. Kofi Anokye, LeBrave’s employee, points out that this is par for the course in Ghana. “It’s not just music,” he says. “You find [corruption] at all levels of Ghanaian society.”

“You know say money no be problem,” is Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie’s most famous line. But for many artists, money is the problem. Unless you have a lot of money or the right connections, making it in the creative industries is even harder in Ghana than many other places. As Sakyi puts it, “When you go to the graveyard, you find a lot of buried talent,” referring to the creatively gifted artists who never had the opportunity to seriously focus on music. It makes sense that frustrated musicians want to fight piracy – other people profiting from their hard work and years of struggle. But the way things are going, they may be playing a zero-sum game.