History Was Made: Sarkodie And The Historic Hip Life Showcase At The Apollo Theater

Wayblackmemories of Harlem. Poet Laureate David Henderson situates the Harlem of today within the Harlem of yesterday: “There was a dance called the ‘Bop’/ And there was also a dance we used to do in the streets with our walk/ Talk of diddy-bops. Talk of bopping/ The charismatic colors/ Sway of head and vertebrae…”

Harlem is shining. The heat from the sun is penetrating its hard concrete streets. It’s a Saturday afternoon in August, and a bunch of vendors are out hustling and bustling. Bootleg CD’s are being sold, and customers are haggling for deals on appealing ornaments. In the words of Baraka: “We are on the streets. We all somewhere in the world we are made by. See all sides. Strive for righteous-righteousness. It may be the poetry of the perfect description so that the blood boils, boils through our words they describe…”

Spectrum. Galaxies. Monsters beneath and above the existential black holes on 125th Street. We are en-route to the Apollo to cover Sarkodie in concert, along with the full battery of West African Hip Hop and Hip Life artists he brought to share the stage with him. It is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated and aesthetically powerful shows in the Apollo’s long history of entertainment. The theatre stands tall like the Khufu Pyramid in Egypt, and Fela’s Musical Shrine in Nigeria.

                                                    Enter Harlem World

As we come up out of the subway we are facing a postmodern silver metallic statue of Harlem’s Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Harlem is all around us. Black bodies in motion, anticipating the arrival of Hip Hop avatars and Hip Life Rockstones built like the Rock of Gibraltar. It’s the marvelous possibilities of music in 21st century empowerment zones.

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Just a week prior, a documentary on the history of Hip Life aired on CNN, featuring the “Godfather” of the movement, Reggie Rockstone. The genre is a mixture of Hip Hop and Highlife, the celebrated and soulful indigenous music that originated in Ghana. Hip Life functions side-by-side with Afrobeats, which is often used as a general umbrella term for all the modern Afro sounds protruding the borders of West Africa, but also characterizes the eclectic, many a time Hip Hop infused, fast-paced, amalgamation of rhythms championed by 21st century Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians.

In 2015, trailblazing at the Mecca of Black Music, is a new generation with a fully lit torch poised for an extended transatlantic artistic and enterprising experience. The arrival of West Africa in the States for this monumental event furthers the manifestation of U.S Hip Hop and Afromusic standing together, and it continues to make way for culturally rich and economically empowering occasions. The Afrocipha sits as a medium for this showcasing and documentation, and a platform for its growth and expansion. U.S. Hip Hop, Afrobeats, and Hip Life will be playing a principal role in the future of cities like Philadelphia, Lagos, Accra, Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami. These cities — among other possibilities — offer opportunities in travel, information technology, expansion of the leisure time industry, and combined business explorations.

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…..Moving closer to the Apollo, the blue umbrella rises high above the 125th Street subway stop a few blocks from the cold, cold medina. Is this not a clear, clear sign that Ralph Ellison’s Ras The Exhorter was not very far away? But where are Billie Holiday and Nina Simone on this bright August afternoon? Who whispered quietly, “Black Lives Matter” on a street filled with vendors and vectors? Melancholy, music and mimetic forces fill the air. Two stands down someone is selling the “WE WANT JUSTICE” DVD from Muhammad’s 1959 Speech at the Uline Arena in DC. Like Larry Neal be saying, “that’s weird.” We are equidistant from The Studio Museum of Harlem’s Gift Shoppe and Hotel Theresa, where Fidel Castro and Malcolm X reasoned more than fifty years ago. Standing in this spacious alley before Showtime one is reminded of “Sarkology.” Perhaps, Langer failed to understand the Ethnopragmatics of The Akan Palace Language of Ghana. When one considers the philosophical dimensions of Highlife, Hip Life, Hip Hop and Afrobeats it becomes evident how Sark and his confrères turn chaos into “You Go Kill Me,” just as his African-American brother turns tuna into lobster.

We’re moving on to the next street with the swiftness of Jonathon. It’s a whole nother world. Ain’t nuthin but a G thang, baby. It’s crazy. We’re only a block away. Is it any wonder that the noted Italian artist to the left is giving color to this urban animal on the Truck? Can you believe we are standing right in the same space the downtown boys half a century ago tried to kill Jazz Trumpeter Lee Morgan, before his own concert at the Apollo? Yeah, but this is before he had the popular record, the “Sidewinder.”

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Each kilometer back here on 126th street is sacred. All the great musicians played here and out back was always where the action was. It’s different in 2015. Sarkodie knows. Simon knows. As does the brother who came from Ohio a few days earlier. Peace. Salaam. Peace. Walking ahead of us is a Moorish Scientist who has on a red fez, red tee, and matching blue jeans and blue backpack. But he is not a blood, a crip, nor a backpack rapper. His presence at Sarkodie’s show would assure a certain level of peace and honor to the West African musician, as well as a peaceful stay in Harlem. And why was there a prayer group, gathered around like warriors in back of the Apollo? To protect Sarkodie as well? Must have known that DJ Mensah was on the wheels of steel all the way from Accra, Ghana. The tremendous impact of having one of the most prominent African musicians walking the streets of Harlem signals a major change in the dynamic relationship between Afro Americans and their African brothers.

                                                Stylin’ on 126th street

There is a whole ecosystem full of dynamism and animation at the backstage area. On site, there are family members, including fans and performers that are reuniting after 15 years. This is in the midst of cars passing down 126th street on a typical busy Harlem Saturday afternoon. One car blasts off ‘R.I.C.O,’ the newly controversial but undeniably remarkable Meek Mill track featuring Drake. It’s harmoniously noisy. Views. Not from the 6 today, but from the historical Harlem World.

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The sun sets at 8:02pm and the anticipation begins to rise exponentially. Positioned at the backstage of the Apollo Theatre are the artist management, venue, and promotional teams scrambling to oil the knobs of the production wheel. The energy is focused on the crowd of performers and their affiliates, many of whom are also located behind backstage. The crowd is antsy and excited; they ‘wanna know’ if tonight will live up to the hype, as they prepare to change from their stylish casual-wear into the night’s performance gear. One guy is wearing a black hat, and a white dashiki with pine green, purple, and yellow geometric designs. Another has on a multi-colored, orange, green and black hat, with a ‘Long Live A$AP’ black tee.

Sarkodie is also outside with his crew, leaning against a car in a navy blue sleeveless shirt, white kicks and black sweats. 45 minutes earlier he was just arriving with his manager and supporters. His introduction to the scene ‘charged up’ the ambience, as eyes from all directions turned onto him. A couple of photographers, one of whom is wearing a green buttoned down shirt and black knee-cut jeans, snaps pictures before Sarkodie walks into the backstage entrance. It’s mostly laughter, chatter, and phone checking from here on out. There’s an all around cherry energy in the air; bonds are being formed and rekindled. Members of The Compozers, a rising Ghanaian band based in the UK, make their entrance, and more pictures get taken. Showtime is approaching.

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Ghede’s prophecy is being fulfilled on this memorable Saturday, as are the dreams of ol’ African people around the world. They are the original Dreamchasers, and they know that dreams are worth more than money… The seats in the theatre are your typical red, cotton-like, black plated seats. Attendees are gently guided to their assignments, as if each person here, no matter his or her status is an honored guest. It’s about 9:45pm, the auditorium is one-quarter of the way full, but it looks like there’s still some time before everything gets going. The patrons get situated, speaking with those who are sitting close, or walking to the back of the theatre where the bar is located for a drink.

Even though the space is still moderately empty, there is a permanently intimate vibe to the Apollo theatre. There are three tiers, all of which are relatively close to the stage. Whoever built this place made way for an environment that would encourage a sense of connection, among the workers, audience members and performers. By the end of the night, those in attendance will be able to share in the joy of what is to occur.

                                                       Curtains Open

A rap artist named Rison opens the show. He was dressed in all black – black jacket, black shirt, black jeans, black loafers. The stands are maybe one-third of the way full now, but the venue is just warming up. Rison plays two cuts before esteemed Ghanaian actor, John Dumelo, takes the stage to begin hosting the show. Dumelo has won and been nominated for a number of Ghanaian Awards and African Movie Academy Awards. After tonight however, it’ll be no surprise if stand up comedy is added to that list.

Dumelo is in a white short sleeve shirt, and blue jeans, staged in front of the projector that reads “TM Entertainment Welcomes You To The Apollo.” One would think that his first career was standup by how continuously and effortlessly he was able to improvise. Due to travel issues or otherwise, there were a number of artists who were unable to make it across the Atlantic for the show – Ice Prince, Joey B, Pappy Kojo, Efya, Samini, Obfrafour – but Dumelo held the stage down by engaging the audience, and evidently creating on-the-spot comedic skits between each opening performance that ultimately would turn the event into a once in a lifetime experience. The audience dies of laughter when Dumelo does Nigerian vs. Ghanaian Jollof Rice and African parents skits. And he gets the stage moving by integrating two comedian-dancers — one in a dark blue buttoned down shirt and cackys, and the other in aquamarine sports wear – into his mix. Along with the other dancers who come out before the main acts, the show is giving off a refreshing, award-show vibe.

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Kaalu, Bands In My Pocket, Yakubu and our favorite Ghanaian Band

The concert enters its next phase – the main phase – when rapper Lighter comes out on stage. Lighter, like most of the Hip Life artists who will touch the stage tonight generally raps in both English and Twi, and has been fortunate enough to call both the U.S and Ghana home. He’s in a black tee and blue jeans, and is distinguished by the large “Lighter” gold chain around his neck as the audience gets hip to his “Bands In My Pocket” record. What we start experiencing here on out are the most famed Ghanaian artists each taking the stage, one by one, playing two or three of their hit singles before letting the next artist go on. Kwaw Kese is who follows, with his energetic, vibrant and daggering presence. By now the whole theatre is filled to capacity, and it’s difficult to tell whether the venue is shaking from the rapper himself or the volume that the speakers were turned up to. Everyone is out of his or her seat, rapping word for word with Kwese and his hit record “Yakubu.” Kwese is flying from left to right in black shades, a long shirt and blue jeans. ‘We made history,’ Kwese voices to the audience before leaving the stage.

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Then E.L comes on. Dignified, head in the air, dressed simply, escorted by also casually dressed professional background dancers. The audience can’t get enough of “Kaalu,” his Azonto music record that mixes into it aspects of Chinese and Japanese Culture. It’s about two hours in and it’s already feeling like this is a concert unlike any other concert. The Compozers are feeling their UK and GH pride, but repping NY hard tonight; each of them is wearing a Yankees Jersey. The Compozers have played for the biggest modern stars in Afromusic, including Davido, Sarkodie, Wizkid, and FuseODG. They take the stage and play through a number of familiar hit records, creating a short dance party for the audience. Once their music ceases, they stay on stage, and not long after are playing complementary to the main feature, Sarkodie, who finally jumps in, in a blue sleeveless coat and his signature black shades.

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       Team Sarkodie and the Distinguished Guests

The crowd is absorbed and gratified. On the second and third tiers of seats to the right [if one is facing the stage] are guests dressed in very distinguished, and distinctive attire. Some of them are wearing native clothing: long caps, traditional upper and bottom wear. They must either be artists, celebrities, or public figures, one-way or another. The same tiers except on the left side are housing the family members of the promoter, as John Dumelo called out during his comedic sequence earlier; and the one, two and three degrees of separation for everyone else is spread throughout the rest of the theatre.

When Sarkodie walked backstage earlier in the day, and was out chillen behind the Apollo, it was evident just from those few observances that this is a man who is as humble as they come. He explains on stage to the audience that he does not consider this just his concert, but it is that of everyone he is performing with. Each special guest he begins to showcase on stage he considers a part of “Team Sarkodie,” and it elevates the event once again. After he performs his introductory songs, he leaves off for Nigerian R&B artist Banky W to come on stage to woo the ladies in the crowd. Banky is a mogul in the industry and the crowd has no reservations in singing his own wide-ranging catalogue that includes his heart-throbbing jam “Yes/No.” Sarkodie, this time in a white, heavenly, long sleeve shirt, comes back out and performs “Pon D Ting” with Banky, who is modestly sporting a black dry-fitting-ish shirt and hat.

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 History In the Making

It’s now an alternation of Sarkodie performing his repertoire, and bringing out his guests for the crowd.  These guests would include Bisa Kdei, Jadi Luc, and Shatta Wale. Kdei – white jacket, white shirt, white pants — leaves a large portion of the audience in awe with his lamentations, as he sings and chants in a somewhat raw, authentic, crude, but modern way. If you’re from West Africa, think of your Aunties who abruptly but beautifully start breaking out in song with no queue. Kdei leaves off after “Chingam,” the swooning record he has with Sarkodie. Sarkodie then introduces Jadi Luc, a Spanish Pop artist also wearing white, whose single topped off at #15 on the UK charts. They perform the record “Tonight,” from her album in which she features Sarkodie.

Shatta Wale, the Ghanaian reggae-dancehall phenom with spiked up hair, who is in a blue jacket and white shirt, is the last artist brought out before Sarkodie finishes his set. The bass-shaking “M3gye Wo Girl” that Shatta performs with Sarkodie before stepping off, electrifies the crowd. There have been so many high points that it makes it difficult to simplify the concert into having just one peak, but when Sarkodie is handed a Ghanaian flag and he throws it up in pride, the noise is loud enough to blow the roof off.

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The Ghanaian superstar caps out the whole event by performing the celebratory soul-lifting hit song “Adonai [remix],” before the night is officially sealed in stone:

“S3 wo ba mu a Ne3ma nyinaa y3 din/Nana Nyame ne3 w’aka no na 3b3ba mu oo oh/S3 wo ma wo nsa so aa/Bep) nyinaa tutu/So ma paddy don’t lose guard/Ka wa’koma to wo yam.”

“When you are involved everything goes well/ What you said is what will happen/ When you raise your hands mountains will break/ So my friend don’t lose God let your heart be at rest.”

It was Lit

The performances are over, but despite it being past two in the morning, the energy has yet to die down. Conversations and interviews are being conducted with the fans and artists who just left the smoldering Fyahhhhhh on the Apollo stage. Lighter discusses the history that is being made that night, providing his Wayblackmemories with the flicka-da-wrist: “The concert is very historic. History baby. I first heard about the Apollo Theater… When? I think I was in Middle School, I used to always want to come to the Apollo Wednesday nights, when they had ‘Talent Nights.’ I always wanted to sign up to come to that.” Lighter pauses for a moment and looks out into the deep black night surrounding the Apollo. Son is moving into some next zone as he continues: “It has been a long time in the making. But tonight is even better. I am performing with Sarkodie and some of the greatest African musicians ever. All on the same stage in HARLEM. Can you imagine that? I performed with Sarkodie and so many great Hip Life musicians from Ghana and the diaspora.”

Afrocipha: What was it like performing live and in living color at the Apollo Theatre with Sarkodie, Banky W., Kwaw Kese, El and others? You were one of the greats among all the greats on stage a few minutes ago. What was it like for you personally blazing the stage and blessing the MIC at the Apollo alongside a full galaxy of all those Black Stars in the constellation?

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Lighter:  I’ve done recordings with Sarkodie and other artists who performed tonight. But definitely being on stage and performing with them at the Apollo Theatre is special. It was a totally new experience. We have performed overseas together but this is the very first time a show like this has taken place in the United States and at the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem. This is the first time any of us have performed together like this at The Apollo. This is a new experience both in and for Harlem and all of the musicians who played tonight.

History was made not only in Harlem but also in the transnational global community. To have been in the audience that night is to have witnessed a total new connection that, like Garvey’s Black Starline shipping company, brings Africa and its Diaspora closer together. Who would’ve thought in the 1930’s when Nkrumah sold fish on the streets of Harlem to get enough money to catch a bus to Lincoln University, that 80 years later, a Ghanaian from an independent Ghana would be headlining a show at the Apollo? This is just the beginning of the beginning. Hip Life, Afromusic, has arrived on American ground. And similar to when Hip Hop hit West Africa, it will change the dynamics and cultural contours on U.S soil forever.

 © James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015