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Paapa hMensa: the Man, the Music and the Mission

With GH music in full renaissance mode, thoughtful artistes like Paapa hMensa are all the rage now. The genre-defying performer, now studying in the United States of America seems to have an edge, a vision and a mission. We spoke to him about his art, his charity work and the ever-evolving GH music scene.  How did your love with music begin?

Paapa hMensa: My late grandfather played the organ for his Methodist church. My father plays the organ and guitar for his Presbyterian church so I can say some of the influences stemmed from that. However, growing up with a stammer, music presented itself as a medium of expression for me so you could say that was the biggest draw for me. How would you describe your music?

Paapa hMensa: Alternative, Progressive, Spiritual. Your genre of music is rather unusual. What motivates you to continue doing what you do?

Paapa hMensa: Passion is the only motive I need. So long as God provides this passion, I’ll keep doing what I do. Without hearing your name, somebody would assume from the music you make that you are not Ghanaian. How do you express your Ghanaian identity in your art?

Paapa hMensa: Some of my lyrics have references that are pretty Ghana-specific so I think that should be helpful enough. Wondering why someone would assume I’m not Ghanaian though… Why do you refer to yourself as a forgiven sinner being a gospel artiste?

Paapa hMensa: Cause that’s really what I am. I don’t think the fact that I talk a lot about the Gospel in my music makes me a Gospel artist. Gospel music, as a recognized music genre, developed mainly in the African-American church. Before Gospel music, we had hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs but no one called them Gospel music just because they dealt with the Gospel. Gospel music, in a purely musical conversation, lyrics aside, identifies a particular style of music that sounds a certain way. Hip-hop in that same conversation also identifies a much different style of music. So in many ways, in a purely musical sense, I’m a hip-hop artist and my lyrical themes happen to be about faith & Christianity. In future projects, I’ll be dabbling in all other kinds of musical genres but we won’t see much of a change in my lyrical themes. Sometimes, even, I’ll make purely instrumental music without lyrics.

Having called myself a Christian for so long, I forgot what it is that even means so I refer to myself as a ‘forgiven sinner’ because it reminds me of what a Christian essentially is. Your record label Skillions is known for the nurturing of hip hop artistes. What actually make you guys stand out of the lot who call themselves “artistes”?

Paapa hMensa: There are two kinds of music artistes; those who make music just to make money, and those who make music to make money to make more music. Skillions artistes are the latter. Doing music for the love of music ideally shouldn’t be what makes us stand out, but it does. The summer brand awareness was massive with you performing at different gigs. What actually informed that drive?

Paapa hMensa: I had really only planned two major gigs before I got back home. All the other gigs really sprouted from all over the place. After my first gig, all the other gigs just snowballed into my final concert and I promise you, the impact I had was very unintentional. Before coming home, I really thought ‘Solar’ was dead and I needed to start work on a new project but the response from my first gig told me I was completely wrong. What made you decide to make “Solar”, your debut album free for download?

Paapa hMensa: I took a lot of things into consideration before coming to this. A major factor was my move to Reed College, USA. It totally changed the scheme of things. For an album to be commercially successful, several things have to be done pre and post release (promotional shows, interviews, etc.) most of which I knew I wouldn’t be able to do under the circumstances.

Also, with the saturation of artists in the music industry, listeners aren’t ready to ‘trust’ just any artist after just one or two releases. People want to hear more from an artist to know if he/she is consistent with quality, before actually committing to buy his/her album. Being a very new and young artist on a less-travelled road, people would be even more skeptical about my work.

As interest in my music grows and my material keeps floating all over the internet, the traffic on my Facebook, twitter and other social media would gain momentum, and eventually would put me at a statistical advantage when it comes to Google searches/recommendations, among many other benefits.

Above all, it was my top priority to make sure as many people as possible have access to my music. What does NMA, a social initiative of yours, involve and how did that start?

Paapa hMensa: Nima Muhinmanchi Art (NMA) is a workshop program founded by a collective of artists in Nima, Accra inspired to create artistic opportunities for the youth of their community that they did not have growing up. Through workshops and public painting programs, NMA empowers youth in Ghana to express themselves and beautify their community. It’s been an honour serving as a Creative Director since December 2011. You can be said to be a multi-talented artiste in that you rap, sing and produce, so which of them would you consider as your forte?

Paapa hMensa: Well I think my forte is being able to do all of them, and more. I’m not working at being the best rapper or best singer or whatever. I sometimes call myself the jack of all trades, Master of Jacks. What is your general over-view of the Gh music industry?

Paapa hMensa: I’m happy it’s finally getting the local and international respect it deserves. I’m glad that GH music is now more likely to fill local dancefloors than foreign music. But I also think our popular music is getting a bit too club-minded. Nobody spends 24 hours in clubs, and many people don’t even go there. Where’s the music for the times that we’re not in the club or at a party? Where are the songs that’ll give 30th Century Ghanaians a well-rounded view of 21st Century Ghana? We need sharper songwriting that intentionally or unintentionally chronicles where Ghana has been, where we’re at, and where we want to go through music. Do you see a future for your chosen genre?

Paapa hMensa: I’m not a big fan of the genre-game. Genres are simply boxes that people sort art into just to keep things neat. But see, we run into square-peg-in-round-hole cases everyday. True art is messy. It cannot be tamed. Put it in one box today, it’ll jump into another tomorrow. What’s my genre? I don’t know and honestly, that’s not something I bother thinking about. Like I said in my song Solar, “My life ain’t calculus; I don’t need limits to define the function and purpose of my spirit”. On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate the potency of Ghanaian music outside and why?

Paapa hMensa: I’ll give it a safe 5. Popular music now, coupled with the Azonto dance, is ‘potent’ enough to blast through clubs in Europe as it already is. But I think we need to work on our songwriting, lyricism and actual musicianship. Many GH music artists know very little about music and that’s what has kept us from going head to head with the big music industries from other countries. How are you received in the states?

Paapa hMensa: Well I’m now a sophomore college. I moved to college with little intention of pushing my music here. I’ve actually been making a conscious effort not to be ‘the musician’ over here but I guess it’s like hiding an elephant in a mini-fridge. I’ve been invited to several gigs on and off campus and have always had great feedback from people. Also got invited to share a panel and stage with Blitz the Ambassador and Soulfege at Haverford College in March 2012. Though it may change eventually, I definitely wear my artist-cap a lot more in Ghana than I do here.

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