3:25 pm Mar. 27, 201213
Tonight New York was going to get seriously rocked by one of the most provocative hip hop outfits on the planet right now, Ghana's FOKN Bois.
Perhaps too provocative: U.S. Immigration wasn't so excited to host them. It's a shame New York audiences will now have to wait, because African rap has come of age, and FOKN Bois are at the top of the heap.
A rumor of the visa troubles was floating around Ghanaian rap circles earlier this month, but, given the number of bizarre stories that the group inspires (both intentionally and by reputation), few fans were sure whether to take it seriously. The venue the group was supposed to play, Le Poisson Rouge, confirmed that one half of the group, Wanlov The Kubolor—whose 2007 visit to America inspired his immigration-baiting solo debut album Green Card—had been denied a travel visa. In the end it's not all that surprising. Nearly every move the group makes is intended to provoke listeners, especially in the West.
FOKN Bois (Wanlov and fellow emcee M3NSA) trade in the sort of incendiary rhetoric that make the P.C.-baiting of Das Racist or the teen-Fight Club nihilism of Odd Future, however skillful, seem provincial by comparison. FOKN Bois take incitement to another level. Politically charged and packing some of the sharpest back-and-forth flows since Method Man and Redman, they’re out to trash every cultural taboo possible, both African and Western.
Wanlov The Kubolor and M3NSA have been central to Ghana’s contemporary musical renaissance, and are widely regarded as Ghana’s most prolific conscious rap artists. As solo artists, they were keenly interested in Ghanaian traditional and popular music styles—hardly controversial. Wanlov’s most recent solo album was 2011’s Brown Card: African Gypsy, an exploration of his half-Romanian roots with a part-Gypsy, part-Ghanaian band of traditional musicians. M3NSA, first and foremost a producer, dropped his solo debut in 2010, the warm fusion of soul, hip hop and Fante folk music that is No.1 Mango Street. Their 2010 debut as FOKN Bois was likewise a serious, ambitious effort: West Africa’s first full-length Pidgin language musical based entirely around samples of classic African highlife records, Cos Ov Moni.
But since then there's been a change afoot. The group has gotten progressively hammier, more irreverent, and more popular, invested in asserting their ability to dominate as a conventional hip-hop act. And this year, for whatever reason, they have pretty much fully eschewed direct political commentary for material that exists somewhere between satirical pranksterism and mock invective. The result is the most hilariously offensive rap album of the modern era, FOKN Wit Ewe: 18 tracks of tightly-worded ridicule aimed at a planet of targets, but particularly at Christians, Muslims, Rastafarians, Chinese, and whites of all kinds. On the album the duo celebrates skin bleaching, bestiality, and incest, and plenty of other icky things. While there's plenty of sexual boasting of the hetero kind, the Bois also find time to big up homosexuality, still rap music's greatest taboo.
Particularly harsh lyrical venom is reserved for the Western assumption that African artists can only be relevant internationally when they do an “African ting.” Handing over most of the production duties to various emerging Ghanaian hip hop producers, the duo have concentrated on crafting rhymes to leave their growing audience laughing uncomfortably. When I met them at the Pidgin Music studio complex in Accra, Wanlov and M3NSA were keen to stress that in fact none of their controversial songs are even remotely offensive, and indeed that those who find FOKN Wit Ewe to be a cocktail of blasphemy and obscenity are simply victims their own moral weakness.
“People say ‘Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!’” said Wanlov of the group's song of the same name, “and he hasn’t showed up yet, but people are getting rich off that! We have billionaire pastors who are making money because they just keep saying 'Jesus is coming!' We put a twist to it where, if you listen to it with a non-Christian mind, the whole song is about sex. But if you are a true Christian, a real Christian, and you are listening to the FOKN Bois—the For Our King Now Boys—you will be inspired … It’s about Jesus’s second coming.”
“Because the first coming is always short,” rejoined M3NSA, unable to resist the gag.
“The first coming was quite quick, 35 or so years. But the next coming will take a while.”
The other religiously themed song on the album, “Sexin' Islamic Girls,” is perhaps the track likely to raise the most eyebrows. The closest the world will come to a Salman Rushdie/2 Live Crew collaboration, it has a video featuring the duo surrounded by women in headscarves fellating various foodstuffs. Again, the pair were keen to stress that to take offense is to miss the point. For them, the song was totally straightforward, a solution to bigotry rather than a cheap courting of outrage.
“It’s just that, we have girlfriends...” began Wanlov.
“...who are Islamic...”
“...who are Muslims...”
“...and have sex...”
“And I think—I don’t know, but I think—that other people are having sex with other Islamic girls.”
This is of course true, yet there's always another level of provocation lurking beneath even the most harmless-sounding of the group's tunes. In this case the duo has claimed previously that their costars in the video are the wives and daughters of Nigerian Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram. This is the true measure of hip-hop swagger in the 21st century: not manufacturing “beefs” with other artists, but publicly making fun of people who might actually want to assassinate you. As to whether they were worried about angering dangerous people, the pair were deadpan.
“We’ll see if we have to start looking for asylum, or maybe just convert to Islam,” smirked M3NSA.
“Or become a Rasta,” suggested Wanlov. “The Rasta people might kill us.”
“I think they’ll probably get us first.”
In retrospect, this is exactly the sort of talk that results in visas being refused. For the benefit of future immigration investigations, they’re joking; the FOKN Bois have played several European dates since this interview, without throwing themselves upon the mercy of any of the countries in question.
“What we’re doing really is being the devil’s advocate,” said M3NSA of the group’s philosophy. “We’re saying things that people are thinking—what people are afraid to say, or afraid to be questioned for saying. We just so happen to have a humorous twist.”
Generally, the Bois take delight in being misinterpreted. Nevertheless, even they were left uncomfortable by the varied receptions to last year’s single “Thank God We’re Not A Nigerians.” Released in summer 2011 ahead of a Ghana-Nigeria football match, the song plays on long-standing cultural rivalries between the two nations, but is deliberately unclear as to whether it is actually mocking Nigeria or mocking Ghanaians’ stereotypical attitudes towards Nigeria. The song was initially condemned by most mainstream Ghanaian media; however, when northern Nigeria suffered an escalation of Islamist terrorism in late 2011, that attitude changed.
Wanlov, with evident anger, complained, “The most prestigious radio stations, where we couldn’t even get an interview, started playing the song on the day bombings were going on in Nigeria. It was like, ‘What kind of sadist...?’ Cos we wouldn’t play that song on that day. Those are the same stations where the condemnation came from, when the song came out: ‘How can you do such a song? We are supposed to be Pan-Africans, together! We denounce rappers Wanlov the Kubolor and M3NSA...’”
M3NSA continued, “We’re on Twitter telling people to support the Occupy Nigeria movement, and that things are gonna change, and they are playing ‘Thank God We’re Not A Nigerians’? Then Nigerians, in their times of hardships, started quoting lyrics from the song as well. We’re like ‘No, no! That’s not what the song is!’ With the line ‘President Goodluck, but you still suck’, we were talking about football! But they’ve taken it to another, different game.”
Back in Ghana, the promotional campaign for FOKN Wit Ewe is appropriately button-pushing, and so far has included Wanlov exposing his penis on national television. Of course, if you ask the Bois, there’s nothing possibly offensive in that either: an outspoken advocate of skirts as being the most appropriate men’s clothing in a humid West African climate, Wanlov was simply demonstrating his claim that such outfits do not require underwear.
The real tragedy of FOKN Bois’ cancelled New York appearance is that, they told me in our interview, they were intending their visit to be a sort of humanitarian mission to a troubled people. They are so worried about the United States that they have even recorded an impassioned charity song, “Help America,” to raise Developing World awareness about the tragic plight of America’s debt-ridden middle class. In the era of "Kony 2012," it is the parodic, mock-charity campaign that the West has long been asking for.