The Mzeducation of Mzbel
Mzbel is the closest thing Ghana has to American singer, Beyonce Knowles. Sure, there are other girls with more musical voices. Some even make straightforward R&B. Whoever they are though; there are two things they lack that define both Beyonce and Mzbel – star power and duality.
There is no contemporary female singer in Ghana who can draw a crowd like Mzbel. Moreover, no other artist in Ghana has created a persona as distinct from herself as Mzbel is to Nana Akua Amoah. Beyonce claims to be a shy girl with stage fright who overcomes it by embodying a character she calls ‘Sasha Fierce’. Meeting Nana Akua Amoah, one is also struck by how shy she appears to be. She too has an alter-ego which she calls ‘Mzbel’ and, in that persona, Nana Akua becomes whatever the people want her to be.
“People think I’m rude and I’m a loose girl. That any guy that has money can sleep with me. I’m the direct opposite. MzBel is a saucy girl. She doesn’t care what people say. She likes to have fun no matter what, and she’s an entertainer. Nana Akua is a very shy person. Down to earth. Approachable. She likes to hang out with kids and likes to have fun too. Just a different kind of fun.”
It may surprise you to know Nana Akua did not even want to be a singer. She grew up with dreams of dancing, dreaming up moves to songs by Deborah Cox, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and J Lo. Her hero was however Akosua Adjapong: “I used to dress like her. Oh God! I had a friend in Cape Coast and we both used to dress up like her.”
She says her former manager, Daniel Adjei of Hush Hush Studios, is the one who pushed her into music: “I was working as a production assistant. Hush Hush was new and [people] weren’t patronizing the studio, so anytime there was an engineer in the studio, they could call on you to sing songs to beats they had put together. I recorded about 21 songs and people liked them. One day, Daniel said to me “okay, I think we can make money from these songs, so we’re gonna have a photo shoot and release an album””.
“I didn’t see myself as a musical artist. I wanted to be a broadcaster, in radio or TV. Or a dancer. I never wanted to be the one in front, you know? But they convinced me and encouraged me and before I knew it, I had an album. After they released the songs and they were successful, everybody was saying my name. I thought ‘this is nice’. I didn’t find it difficult putting the songs together, so I thought to myself ‘I can do this’. I realized it was fun.”
When 16 Years came out, Mzbel was actually 22 years old: “I looked very, very small. You might think I was 13 or 14 years. But I was an adult. I was old. I’m saying ‘fa ma me, fa wo me’ and people asked ‘why would a small girl be bold enough to say these things?’ By then, Daddy Lumba and others were already saying it. But they had a way of saying it.”
Since then, Mzbel has had to learn to adjust to living life in the media’s glare: “No matter how hard I try, it comes out. My relationships, where I live, my friends… everything. You don’t see [the media] chasing you but before you realize they have a story out saying all sorts of crap. Some are true. Maybe 30%.”
“What I wear on stage is strictly for showbusiness. You know? When I’m on stage, it’s like I’m in my office and I have to wear my uniform. If I come on stage in African fabric and I can’t move, people will say I’m confused. I don’t want to look like the people who came to see me. I want to look different, like an artist. I want to entertain. That’s exactly what I do and people always complain.
“You don’t expect a doctor or the nurse to be wearing what you want them to. They wear their uniforms when they are in the hospital and remove it when they are not. When you go to the beach you can’t say “because I’m an African I will wear kaba and slit to swim. This is not our culture so I will wear batakari to swim”. People will think you’re crazy! You’ll wear the bikini even though it’s showing your thighs, your boobs and your back. You’ll wear it because that’s the costume made for swimming. Period. When I’m on stage, it’s the same. I am Mzbel, I like to be comfortable and I like to move. And they love it.”
A recent robbery incident reminded her of the dark side of fame: “Before I realized, all the media people were in my house. They wanted to come to my bedroom to take pictures and talk to me. Some people even had recorders behind my window. I don’t know what came over me. I was screaming, yelling and breaking things. I lost it a little but and they were recording: nobody helped. They came to get news. What broke my heart more was that people called radio stations and said I deserved to get robbed.”
“I almost gave up, you know? I can direct and edit and do production. I thought maybe I should just buy some computers, set up a multimedia company and forget about music. But I get encouragement from people. “When are you coming out with a new album? We love your song.” You’ll be driving in town and someone will say “Oh MzBel, that track of yours, I love it, I love it.” MzBel concerts always get packed. When [Graphic] Showbiz put me on their cover, they tell me it sells. When there’s an announcement that MzBel will appear on a TV show, people watch.”
Mzbel is the last of seven girls and she is closely supported by her family. She attended the DUST photo-shoot with her niece and when she travels on tour, she leaves her eight year-old son with her elder sister. “I love him, papa”, she says. He apparently wants to follow in his mother’s show business footsteps, and features in her new video, Runaway: “He loves it. I don’t know if he understands what it is. He is happy all the time. Before the Miss Ghana show, he saw us practicing the song. As we were leaving the house that evening for the show, he asked “why am I not coming?” I said “we don’t need you” and he replied, “but people will be asking, where is the boy in the video?””
With such support, it is perhaps natural the half-krobo, half-fanti singer does not apologize for being brazen: “I don’t plan any of my songs. I don’t plan the lyrics, the rhythm or anything. It comes naturally. As I’m sitting with you right now, something can just trigger a rhythm or lyrics. As I keep humming the rhythm, the lyrics just come naturally and it fits. There’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t care if it’s offending someone or not.”
Her latest single, Saucy Girl is classic Mzbel: provocative and catchy. She says it is her favourite song on the album, as she can dance to it and did most of the vocal work on the track herself. Funnily enough, she originally wrote it for one of her dancers: “She took part in Dance Fever and came second. She wanted to do a single [but] she didn’t have a song so I had to compose a song for her. She’s very small and she’s saucy on stage, so I wrote that song for her. But unfortunately she didn’t like it. She wanted something more hip-hop. So I kept the song for myself.”
The new album marks a departure for the singer from Mzbel’s usual sound. While her previous albums were in twi and stuck to hiplife, this time around the singer is being more experimental: “I don’t only perform to Ghanaian crowds. I do most of my shows outside Ghana. They treat you like a star, make you feel special. They are so amazed when they see you, they want to take photos with you. You don’t get that here in Ghana. And you make more money there than here. So this time, I decided to make songs that will fetch me more shows outside.”
“The song that fetches me the most shows outside is 16 Years because it has pidgin. [When] I perform other songs, they love them but they don’t understand what I’m saying. So this time around, I’ve studied their style of music and fused it with what I have: I have rock, house music, dancehall, a little bit of crunk too.”
“I’m hoping to be nominated for awards outside Ghana. The African ladies that usually get nominated for these awards, their songs are on MTV and Channel O all the time. Girls like Blue, Three, and Sasha. No girl from Ghana has ever won those awards, so this time around, I’m aiming higher. That’s why the album is much different.”
With three tracks on the album for those who want her old sound, Mzbel says she has not turned her back on her fans. She does however feel her fans will grow with her as “the foreign music is what they dance to in the clubs anyway.” She is however baffled as to why Ghanaian DJs do not mix Ghanaian music with foreign sounds: “On Saucy Girl, the tempo is a little like Beyonce’s Single Ladies, but they don’t want to play the songs next to each other. They think “oh, this is Ghanaian music” so they only play it when [they are ] playing Ghanaian stuff. But music is music. It doesn’t matter if the artist is from Ghana or Togo or whatever. My new style doesn’t blend with hiplife. They are playing it because I’m MzBel but if a new artist tried it, they probably wouldn’t play it.”
Speaking of new artists, Mzbel is not worried about competition: “I’m in it for fun and money. And I’m making the money and having fun, so I don’t see anything wrong with anyone trying to do what I’m doing. If you go to Makola, you’ll see one thousand and one people selling the same [products]. They all have their customers and they are all making their money”
Of the new crop of female artists following her footsteps, she sections out Efiya (Jane Awindor) for praise, saying she looks forward to collaborating with her in the near-future. Of the men, she loves Samini, but says she would love to collaborate with her fellow DUST cover stars:
“I love Wanlov. I love his style, the way he talks. He’s always calm. When you see him, you think he’ll be this rasta kind of person but whenever I see him, he’s calm. He doesn’t listen to what people say. You know he doesn’t wear slippers? People talk a lot about that. But he’s doing his thing. He loves it, and that’s what I love.”
“I love Mensa too. Mensa was one of the few people I used to look up to. He was at OM studios (formerly Syphex). Hush Hush was right behind so I used to hang around there. I’d see them and I’d admire them…”
“…and now I’m one of them!”
By Kobby Graham
Photography by RQ Visuals