“So that we know that we, too, are somebody.”
Ghanaian artist M.anifest is more than a rapper. As he will tell you, he is an artist with a broad vision for himself and his audience as evidenced in his latest album, Nowhere Cool. M.anifest left the capital city of Accra when he was eighteen and spent a decade living in Minneapolis, Minnesota; it was there he earned an economics degree and worked briefly in the nonprofit sector before choosing to pursue music.
His 2011 album, Immigrant Chronicles: Coming to America, which explores some of his experiences during this decade, is easily relatable for many in the diaspora. M.anifest, who describes his move back to Accra four years ago as “an act of possession,” continues to make popular music that offers searing social commentary. He has worked with the likes of Erykah Badu, Damon Albarn of the Gorillaz, South Africa’s ProVerb, and Kenya’s Camp Mullah and has played shows from Serbia to Geneva to South Africa. In a cross-continental interview, the artist and I talk America, music, identity and avocados.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Kwame Tsikata but most people know me as M.anifest. I am an artist, a musician, a creative that used to live in America but is now on the mothership, which is Ghana.
What is your music about? What inspires it?
My music comes out of something that is a provocation; whether pleasant or unpleasant, the ideas have to be felt. I think I have been fortunate—or unfortunate depending on how you look at it—to feel different things that make me feel strongly or that make me want to explore some very mundane things from a different perspective.
I read your Guardian article, where you comment that “Art may not feed us but to be young, restless and creative is still a joy” and you talk about the difficulties of making music in Accra. Has this gotten easier over time?
Technology is my friend, I’ll tell you that. It’s made it possible for me to not worry about the music production in the most fundamental, rudimentary terms of making music. The challenges still exist. Fortunately for me right now, my visionary stage far exceeds my acknowledgement of limitations. Anything I want to do, I know I can do it.
How do you arrive at that level of assuredness in what you’re doing?
It is the African condition. You can’t meddle in the middle over here. If you really want it, you’re going to have to have that confidence. You know that you’re going to leap and you will land. That you are not going to lose your legs. Resources are important but if you look at what’s in your pocket today and [decide] that’s what’s going to determine how creative you are — that’s a problem.
What is your vision with your art and music? What do you want out of it?
I’ve gotten to a sense of purpose in what I do that goes beyond personal fulfillment—of transformation. My grandfather [ethnomusicologist and composer, Professor Nketia] used to compose stuff for [Kwame] Nkrumah and one of the most impactful things he told me was that Nkrumah understood art as a political priority. He understood what it meant for identity and how we think of ourselves. That same reality exists [today].
There are different diasporas of black people or Africans who now are more confident to feel African because of African music being popular. We can Azonto somewhere or we can do all these things because it’s got that visual force. It’s a spiritual thing and it evokes confidence and pride that makes people see beyond limitations. Those kinds of transformations. So that we know that we, too, are somebody, as we say.
What are some of the things that stand out for you about the experience of living in the U.S.?
Living there was a very integral part of how I see the world now. Being different, being an ‘other’ — not just a regular ‘other’ but a Ghanaian African. Also interrogating race; now when I’m here in Ghana, if I go somewhere and the waiter who is as Black as me decides to treat another person who looks lighter than me, or white, better, I am okay to make a fuss in those situations. I’m not saying a person who’s lived in Ghana all their life won’t make that fuss — they do. But I think my level of chagrin, of having that worldview, is sharper. You’re not about to second-class me in my own country.
What made you quit your career path and choose music?
It wasn’t so much that I digressed from a career path as it was that I finally had the courage and confidence to embrace my future. My career was in music, my job was in the nonprofit sector.
And what made you move back to Accra? What influenced that decision?
It was a combination of personal and professional things that drove me back. Personally, I was growing; I had a child and I had never envisioned raising a child in America. On a more personal note, I missed three significant funerals; my grandmother and some uncles. Looking back, those are some of my greatest regrets because there was always an excuse why I couldn’t go back at that moment in time. Professionally, I was gaining opportunities in Europe and other things which were more interesting—or were more significant than what was happening with me in America. There was no grand-decision moment, it just felt like an act of possession.
How do you feel about your passport? Not The Ghanaian passport but your own, actual one. What is your connection to it?
My sense of nationality is not tied to my passport; they are more artificial than African borders if I’m being honest. Someone can be born somewhere and have a passport and never live there. My relationship to that document is not a practical loyalty. All I know is the difficulties it presents. I wish that could be undone or at least improved.
Why the name Nowhere Cool for your album (inspired by Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo’s short story of the same title)?
It came from a personal realization. Through my travels, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience different lives in different places, but realizing that ‘nowhere cool.’ That realization became a philosophy that drove the album. Each song approaches that nowhere cool realization or philosophy in different respects.
I’ve been obsessed with the letter Frank Ocean wrote to himself of five years ago, what would you say to the you of five years ago?
The first would be, risk is wealth. Not wealth in just a material sense, but wealth in terms of living a full life and fulfilling your purpose. Chale [dude], remember that and check your hesitations at the door. I would tell myself that you’re never too far gone in any direction to switch up. There’s always the possibility of charting a new path that can be quite different but it grows from everything you learned. When you start feeling that way, myself from five years ago, you will have more confidence to do what you’re supposed to do. That confidence will start showing itself in the level of quality, excellence, or attractiveness in what you’re doing. Then I would tell my five-year-old self that avocado is amazing. That you don’t always have to buy it, you can have an avocado tree in your house.
Do you have an avocado tree in your house?
That would be a yes.
Anything else you want to add?
I hope I’m not an immigrant anymore. I want to be an Expat too, a black expat. It’s a fascinating concept, so why not?