FOKNBois: Jesters on the throne

2014-09-29 18:45

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As African hip-hop becomes increasingly commercial, Ghana’s FOKNBois is the antidote. The duo continues its fiercely hilarious project to rattle cages, take a political stand and bust social taboos. Charl Blignaut sat down with Mensa in Durban

‘Is there a crisis of American twang in African hip-hop?” I ask FOKN Bois in an email. “:) yerx!” replies Mensa. “It’s a deep-seated inferiority complex.”

It’s something he and Wanlov the Kubolor?–?the other half of the FOKN Bois duo?–?conspicuously reject, the cloned American drawl flicked from the lips of every second hot new African hip-hop artist the internet urges you to click on if you want to be cool.

“It took us some time to phase out,” says Mensa. “Now we see twanged English as a separate language and we only use it in speech with other Americans in critical situations, like ordering chocolate cake, to stop them from saying ‘excuse me?’ all the time.”

Instead, FOKN Bois raps in pidgin English (Tsotsitaal). In fact, they rap whole movies in pidgin, which is how I get to meet Mensa in the first place.

A guest of the Durban International Film Festival, the infamous satirical rapper is in town to promote Coz Ov Moni 2 (FOKN Revenge).

Cos Ov Moni was billed as “the world’s first pidgin musical”. An endearing and provocative romp of a rapped movie that tracks a day in the life of two Ghanaian lads, fans ­demanded a follow-up.

So “the world’s second first pidgin musical” was shot in Accra and is doing the festival circuit. Mensa and I are ordering dinner out on the fake grass of our hotel’s pool deck along the sanitised beachfront of Durban.

The new FOKN Bois film is even bolder than the first and even funnier than their last album, FOKN Wit Ewe. It’s a street coup. As subversive as it is packed full of love, it continues the adventure of the men who have been described as “the South Park of Ghanaian music” and are widely regarded as some of the most cutting edge rappers anywhere in the world right now.

Raised on Monty Python and conscious rappers like Guru, Mensa is a natural-born envelope pusher.

This is a rap outfit that can get away with poking fun at the perceived arrogance of some African states with a track like Thank God We’re Not A Nigerians.

Who’ll tackle homophobia by flipping the script and turning gay men into a threat on Strong Homosexual Guys.

They’ll get away with releasing a video for a track like Sexin Islamic Girls.

They’ll describe themselves as a “gospel porn band” to actively critique “blind religions” and the wave of prosperity doctrines sweeping Ghana.

They’ll go naked in a public service announcement to get people’s attention while they diss their government for squandering money. They’ll even launch an environmentally conscious act that urges Africans to pick up their litter.

“You’ll get so frustrated with this society that you’ll wanna hurt somebody. So we have to make light of our situation,” says a patently intelligent, surprisingly earnest, soft-spoken Mensa.

He’s freshly shorn of his trademark dreads and speaks with a slight British clip after years of living in ­London, but travelling home often.

“That’s why we’re called the FOKN Bois. In Ghana they call you a ‘fucken boy’ when you do something crazy and people are shocked. ‘What a fucken boy.’ Why do they do this, why do they say this, why do they go naked even though we all go naked?” he says with a smile.

FOKN Bois rejects commercial hip-hop and instead strives to use comedy to speak truth to power.

“African hip-hop keeps splitting like a snake’s tongue,” says Mensa. “Either being very underground or very pop, but it does not thrive well in the middle...” FOKN Bois is in the middle.

“Do you see yourself as political?” I ask.

“We didn’t start out that way, it became that way. In the last couple of years, we’ve been given more reverence than what we want. We’re just going to keep discussing these things in the manner that we want because that seems to be working.”

The project, he says, is to make it cool “to be a free-thinking Ghanaian”.

As we chat, it becomes clear there are vast similarities between Ghana and South Africa. Ghana might not have a skhothane trend (“Oh. Wow. Really? Burning expensive clothes?”), but it does have a generation devoted to bling and brands, he says.

“Ghana is in a bad place right now. We don’t really care any more. The lack of discipline, the corruption. Everything is a joke. Something terrible happens. We talk about it and make jokes about it and then we move on to the next terrible thing.”

I tell him I was surprised by the band’s recent green turn.

“It’s part of a bigger issue, a bigger responsibility. A lot of Ghanaians will not think, I’m finished with this plastic bottle, let me chuck it in the bin. They’ll just chuck the bottle on the street and walk into church and pray to God to bring them wealth and make sure the planet is okay.

“We treat Ghana like it’s a place we’ve rented and when we’re done, we’ll move on. But we have nowhere else to go,” he says as the sun starts to set.

A group of famous film makers have joined our table and the conversation turns to a prominent local thriller at the festival. Everyone has different problems with its slick crime-riddled genre approach. Mensa sums it up, returning the conversation to our need to emulate the US.

“Here’s a situation where we’re in Africa. And we have the equipment and the technical know-how and so we’re going to show Hollywood that we can make a Hollywood movie just like the way they make it.”

One of the film makers is in awe of Cos Ov Moni, unpacking how FOKN Bois tackles issues around their own masculinity head-on?–?as opposed to the South African film that showed sex scenes where the characters were clothed.

“We’re a sexually immature nation,” says a director.

“We have genital panic,” I quip, and Mensa relates the tale of the FOKN Bois naked photo that went viral.

“So we have to get naked in Cos Ov Moni 2 and we take a photo. And then somebody saw the picture on Wanlov’s phone and posted it on Twitter and it was on the front of every newspaper in Ghana and it was a scandal. So everyone was pissed off. What’s going on here? These guys are crazy. They’re taking their clothes off.

“First of all we didn’t put that picture out. It was a private picture that someone stole from Wanlov’s phone. People were now abusing us but yet everybody had that picture on their phone and they would show it to their friends. Almost like they were shy predators. We really love it, but no, they say it’s not good. But everyone’s got it.”

He sums it up: “I mean FOKN Bois, we’re just saying what everyone’s thinking, all the crazy conversations we have, bizarre conversations, me and Wanlov. We decided actually we’re just gonna put that on record and say the things that everyone else is thinking and is not saying.”

The downside of trying to change the world through satire, of course, is that you don’t get rich quick.

“We’re not making a lot of money from the music. It’s a true labour of love. We do it ’cos it’s a path that we’ve chosen. But at least we own ourselves. We’re producing all our tracks ourselves in our own studio and filming ourselves with our own equipment. So all the money we make goes back into it. And our kids.”

“You have kids?”

“I have two daughters now. Wanlov has five. From five different women. But having kids has been great.”

The other downside is being rejected by commercial radio. But that is also becoming less of a problem.

“Most of the big radio stations won’t play us ’cos they’re afraid. But we get downloaded. The kids are actually just going out there and finding the music themselves?...?What we need more in Ghana is young people being concerned about issues.”

As the food arrives, Mensa brings the interview to a close.

“More so than anything, we’re getting people who are starting to feel that it’s okay to talk about these things. We’re having the dialogue now, we’re talking about it, and now we can start to talk about what we’re going to do about it.”

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