HIGHEST! How Sarkodie Rewrote the Rules of African Hip-Hop

By Robert Solomon, Rolling Stone

The Ghanaian rapper goes deep on his second album in two years, rhyming in Twi, and the secrets to his success.

Back in 2007, Sarkodie had a dream — and a problem. He wanted to be a great rapper, but his native tongue, Twi, was not a language many understood, especially outside his hometown of Tema, Ghana. He wasn’t about to be deterred. “I believed that I was able to take Twi somewhere,” he says. “That I was able to push it and go beyond the shores of Ghana.”

Sarkodie came up through the underground, and his battle skills and rap-fire delivery set him on an unstoppable upward trajectory as he rhymed mostly in Twi. He earned a rabid fan base across Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. — a feat many African rappers have attempted but failed to achieve — and even took home Best International Flow at the BET Awards in 2019. At the same time, Sarkodie, born Michael Owusu, also became an integral part of a Ghanaian hip-hop scene that’s home to one of Africa’s largest rosters of rappers, with artists such as Kwesi Arthur, Black Sheriff, Yaw Tog, and Medikal constructing cross-continental hits.

As the years progressed, so did Sarkodie’s abilities. His bars have become more clever and considered, full of acerbic wordplay and heartfelt, true-life stories. Sarkodie’s last full-length effort, 2021’s No Pressure, showed off the rapper’s elite lyricism while also pulling in generation- and continent-spanning features from Oxlade, Giggs, Kwesi Arthur, Vic Mensa, and others.

Now, he’s back with another new album — JAMZ, which blends African-inspired hip-hop, tropical Afropop, and vibrant amapiano. Ahead of the album’s Friday release, Rolling Stone spoke with Sarkodie about the new project, his evolution as an artist, and his secrets to his long-term success.

Your songs are rooted in your life experiences. How has hip-hop been instrumental in helping you navigate life as a child?

I was born and bred in Ghana. I kind of had a dark upbringing when I was coming up. My mom and dad were separated, so I had to go with my dad, and he took me to live with somebody else. It was a very dark experience and a harsh one for me as a little child. I had no idea where my real immediate family was and I just had to deal with this woman. This is just for me to tell the story and not necessarily trying to make her seem like a bad person, but I didn’t really have a great childhood experience with her. So it brought up a lot of emotion in me as a child, but then I had to find a way to express how I felt. I have always been an antisocial person and I used to keep to myself, but I wanted a way out.

That was when I fell in love with hip-hop music because I’ve heard people talk, but all they had to do was make it sit on a beat. I started writing what I was going through and how I wanted to get out, and just what I wanted for my life. It just carried on from there.

Who were some performers who helped mold you into the artist you are today?

We had Biggie, Jay-Z, and Tupac. Of course, I was young and I was listening to them, but I think who got me to write my first ever lyrics was a legend here in Ghana called Obrafour. He inspired me. This was because I loved hip-hop, but then they were rapping in English. I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to do until I heard him rap in my native language, so I felt very connected to it. He raps in Twi, and I am an Asante and I speak Twi.

That was when I picked up the pen and paper to write my first ever verse, which I don’t remember. I had to do my own version of one of his biggest records, called “Yaanom.” I changed those lyrics and then put my own lyrics. Then, moving forward, a lot of people played different roles with their style and everything. In the States, Jay-Z gave me the business approach on how to prolong my career. So it’s been a lot of people for different reasons, but I can say Obrafour and Jay-Z have been very consistent in my career.

With your music, there’s this sense of purpose. For you, what is the ultimate goal you want your music to achieve?

One thing I realize is that subconsciously, what I touch on the most in my music is giving people hope because of how I came up. This is because I was in a situation and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to get out. It was like a stain in my life, and it’s something that I always still relive in my head because it’s hard to forget. And I know a lot of people go through that, and if I am here today as Sarkodie, who is winning awards like the BET, being able to have a family and provide for your family, I am just grateful. I really want my music to give people hope.

Hip-hop creates so many egos, but your levelheadedness amazes me.

I did not sit down to have a plan that I’d appeal more than anyone else, but I think it is something that I have as a natural thing. But one thing I can say is that hip-hop is kind of limited. There are certain people that want to listen to rap music, and especially here in Africa, which is dominated by music that makes you move, but I still find a way to appeal to the ears. I had to come up with a way that, whether you are into rap or not, you’d find it interesting to listen to me. That is why I am very keen on the flow and delivery. But knowing why people love Sarkodie in general, I just think it’s God’s grace and his favor.

Your work to date has featured a lot of exciting African artists. When choosing artists to collaborate with, how do you know who to pick?

Before I started doing music, I used to be a very big music lover. So when I listen to music, I kind of get what makes me like music because I can see what type goes with the other. I think I just know the right focus for the right beat. I can hear beats and within two seconds I’d know who has to jump on it. I don’t struggle too much to figure out what would make this song a dope record. Sometimes I write the choruses and then I’d know the melodies I’m going for, the right person to do it, and the mood of the music. That’s also something that is natural to me because I have been into music for a long time. I know how to come about great records and to find the right people to execute them.

JAMZ is almost ready for release. Can you tell us about it?

Actually, it didn’t start up as me recording an album. I was just recording some random songs and realized that I was in the space where I was having fun in life, so I needed music that I could have fun with. Of course, there were certain moods, for instance, where you are on a boat or a yacht with your beautiful family or loved ones. There’s a type of sound that you would want to hear, and that is what inspired JAMZ. It’s basically like you listening to your favorite playlist on the radio and you do not want to skip. That’s how this project is — a batch of good songs that you do not want to skip. You just want to put it on when you are having a road trip or any occasion where you want to be in a good mood.

Do you think this is your best project so far?

I think everybody says that, but I definitely love this project. It’s going to be one of my favorites because I love the records. I don’t skip them whenever I’m determining a good project. But I think my all-time favorite project would be my fourth studio album, Mary. I named it after my grandma, and I won’t lie, I put a lot of work into it. It was a phase I was in because I lost my grandma, and that inspired the project. It must be very hard to place anything above that but, yes, there’s no way I am going to record something I don’t like. So this is one of the projects that I like, but I wouldn’t put that over the Mary album.

With this new album, do you feel like this is a new era for you?

I try not to lose my first reason for recording songs. I never set expectations, which sometimes are bad, but I don’t do that. I just do what I like, what I feel, and I have a business team that works with me. But my motive is just creating music that, first of all, I personally would want to listen to, and also knowing that it is going to appeal to the masses. It is actually natural and it is not like I am trying to target something. I also know that there is definitely going to be some kind of record that would take me to the next level. 

You released an album last year, as well. Have you ever thought about slowing down?

I do what I feel. If there’s a feeling of slowing down, I would. There was a time I took a break for a year or two. If I don’t feel like it, I am not going to try to suppress it. I always go with feelings. The project Mary came as a feeling. JAMZ came as a feeling too. Recently, I have been taking trips to some African countries. I went to Zanzibar, Cape Town, and all these beautiful cities inspired me. So if I am not inspired, I am not going to try to push myself to put a project out. I thank God that I am inspired every now and then to be able to write. Sometimes I might feel like I’m not inspired and I do not want to make a record. But until then, I don’t know why I should put brakes on it.

How do you think your technique has changed since you released your debut album?

I love this question. Recently, I sat down, listened to my flow over the years, and I realized that it is always like an upgrade. Yes, you would always find Sarkodie, my voice and tone is still the same. I work on the delivery because I have performed to different crowds. The more you get opened to different crowds, the more you get to know what they react to and what they don’t. Sometimes there is a good flow that Africans love but my people don’t, because we have our authentic, typical Sarkodie delivery that Ghanaians really like.

Most records that Africans really love, Ghanians do not necessarily. If you come to Ghana and you ask Ghanaians what is the peak of Sarkodie’s songs, they would have different songs that other African countries do not know because the delivery works for them. I am good at adjusting into the ears of those I am appealing to. I am at the point that I perform to crowds of different races, and your delivery matters a lot. It is more of my experience with my fans and where my music is reaching. This is how JAMZ is. For most of the songs on it, you do not have to be a Ghanian to like them. The delivery just sounds appealing to the ear, and I can’t wait for the fans to hear it.

You had a big run a decade ago, and here you are doing it again. What is the key to your long-term success?

First thing is that you should try not to lose that feeling that makes you fall in love with music. It is easy to fall for the gimmicks, the lies, the hype and everything as an artist. All these things come in after you are into the game because you are scared and you try to find a way to stay relevant. People think that I have had smooth sailing due to my 10-to-15-years journey, but it is not the case. I have had times where, as a normal human being, things broke me down. There were times where everyone was saying that I am done and they are tired of listening to my music. There’s always someone coming up and comparing you to this other person. But one thing is that I am a true artist, I respect art and I feel like nobody was born to be just the one. It is not even logic. I think your understanding of life in general would make you be treated the way it is. And now, when someone comes up and the person is dope, that is a blessing from God.

There’s a significant shift taking place in the African music industry, in particular with regard to the continued use of social media platforms like TikTok. How have you experienced that as an artist?

Like I said, you have to read the room and make sure music is something you can do. Sometimes, being one way can also help. As the music industry continues to evolve, you just have to figure out what your strengths are. We have people who can be a TikTok type of artist because they naturally have that side of them that they can switch on. Good for them, because if you can’t, that’s not the only way that you can survive.

You cannot tell me that because you don’t have a TikTok account you cannot be an artist. That doesn’t make sense. It helps, and so if you can do it, why not? I am not on Snapchat, I am not too active on TikTok, but I utilize what I know best, and even if I’m not so active on TikTok, I’d find ways to creep in there. But it doesn’t assure anything. This is because you can still go there and not make it. I just think you should stay true to yourself and stand for something, and not fall for everything that comes.

What do you want your legacy to be when it’s all said and done?

Sarkodie’s legacy is a guy that came into this world and believed in something. He had a lot of people that believed in him, that he was stubborn enough to be able to prove it — a whole list of stuff. But the common example is the fact that I was rapping in Twi and I believed that I was able to take Twi somewhere. I was able to push it and go beyond the shores of Ghana. There were a lot of setbacks, that it wasn’t possible because it was like people didn’t understand me and it was going to be hard for them to listen to me. But then, when I stood on the BET stage, taking my award for the Best International Flow in 2019, I said to myself, “I’m one stubborn person, but I believed in something, and today I’m here.” I want to be remembered as someone who was really stubborn about his dream and was able to achieve it.


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