“ezz noh awa korcha” the dichotomy of Queerness in hip-hop dance in Ghana in the wake of a homophobic apocalypse.
Dodzi K. Aveh
This is a response to Deanne Kearney’s essay Derogatory Dancing: Heteronormative Inscriptions on Female Hip-Hop Dancers in Breaking and Commercial Spheres. Reflecting on her work had me noticing heteronormative inscriptions on depictions of queerness within my community and my country, Ghana.
Given that most modern-day depictions of queerness here can be linked historically to queerness being depicted in Soloku dance traditions, I noticed that when queerness is depicted in hip-hop dance in Ghanaian media the reactions are different. Sometimes there are violent uproars, and on other occasions it’s not just over looked but celebrated by the public. In this essay I’ll share examples and instances of different reactions to queerness in hip-hop dance, investigate the reasons behind these reactions and draw linkages between queerness in Ghanaian hip-hop dance and Soloku dance traditions, and other dance traditions as a way of dispelling the notion of homophobia being a traditional Ghanaian cultural practice, instead of the colonial remnant that it is.
I identify as a CIS gendered heterosexual man who is an ally to the Ghanaian queer community. Despite the fact that homophobia here is very violent - to the extent that it actively endangers the lives of allies too - my experiences as an ally are not the same as queerfolk and most of my views are from observation and experiences shared by my queer friends and family members.
The Homophobic Apocalypse
In February 2021, Ghanaian queerfolk and their allies were happy because for the first time ever LGBT+ Rights Ghana had finally officially opened their community centre which was to serve as a safe space for queer Ghanaians in a country where homophobia was passive aggressive...most of the time. There was an event to celebrate the progress that this nonprofit organisation had made in terms of advocating for the rights of queer Ghanaians and the celebration was graced by the presence of dignitaries that are allies to the community and a few ambassadors from some western countries.
There were reports of the event in the media and then the discussions (and uproar) began.
Media agencies began platforming homophobes and leaders of homophobic organisations who began to spin and paraphrase the narrative as “the west is forcing homosexuality down the throats of Ghanaians and officially launching it in the country so they can initiate their children into it.” Within a week of the opening of the community centre a team of government officials and heavily armed policemen raided the place and shut it down. Since then there has been an increase in the levels of violence against the Ghanaian queer community with people being beaten, raped and arrested by the police - still now most queer folk are living in fear and all community events are done with heightened security. The NGO RightifyGhana was set up in February 2020 and has been monitoring the killings and homophobic violence against Ghanaian queerfolk and they have documented the data on their website.
The Anti-LGBT bill
A lot of people claim that homosexuality is illegal in Ghana, this is untrue. The law in the Ghanaian constitution that is used to criminalise queerness is a British colonial law that labels any form of sexual activity that does not lead to pregnancy as unnatural carnal knowledge, as seen in Section 104 of the 1992 Constitution. This clause can be used to prosecute anyone using birth control or engaging in any form of sex or sexual activity that is not penovaginal.
After the closure of the LGBT+ Rights Ghana community centre, a very violent bill was introduced as a draft to the Ghanaian parliament “The Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill.” It is currently before parliament and is being pushed (mainly) by Sam George the Member of Parliament for the Ningo-Prampram constituency. A little background on Sam George shows that over the years he has become quite unpopular in his constituency and in his political party. There is not a single working hospital in the area, the roads are bad, chemical pollution from factories is destroying marine life and affecting the fishing industry, there have been numerous cases of kidnapping and child trafficking where children are stolen from their families and being sold to work on the canoes on the Volta lake.
Amidst the outrage caused by the bill, Alex Kofi Donkor - the Director of LGBT+ Rights Ghana - wrote for www.opendemocracy.net on the violent homophobic uproar:
“With impunity, the police have taken to arresting LGBTIQ persons, or people who are perceived to be LGBTIQ. Last year, 21 people were arrested for attending a paralegal LGBTIQ rights training workshop in Ho, in the Volta region. Another 22 people were arrested in eastern Ghana, because they were said to be celebrating a lesbian wedding. There have been numerous individual attacks on various community members who are known or perceived to be LGBTIQ persons. People have been kicked out of their homes or rented spaces and left homeless as a result of their perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Aside from the bill being poorly written with very loose definitions of its parameters, what it proposes is ridiculously violent. Essentially, the bill prescribes 15 years in prison for anyone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or has been accused or identified as so. People who identify as allies and anyone who renders any services to, or refuses to report anyone identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community can face up to 5 years in prison. The use of sex toys would be a criminal offence and if queerness is depicted or reported in any form of media, that too would be a criminal offence. The bill has an extradition clause where it seeks to extradite any Ghanaian asylum seekers and bring them back home to face prosecution, while also prescribing mandatory conversion therapy for all queer Ghanaians.
Queerness in Hip-hop Dance in Ghana
In amongst all this, a lot of people in Ghana got excited over a viral video of a Ghanaian football referee (named Somo) who was dancing on the pitch and shaking his ass to a local hip-hop song. If the antiLGBT bill was currently law, the referee’s actions would be criminalised - but instead he is celebrated and the situation has grown into what could be labelled as homoerotic as he is now continuously platformed by the Ghanaian media. The referee even had his ass playfully slapped on national TV by popular Ghanaian comedian and TV show host Akrobeto. The referee’s fame has begun to grow with numerous videos on social media of him being booked for private events and weddings, but the incident that caught my attention - and gave me the idea for this paper - was when he was used as a video vixen in the Ghanaian hip-hop song Gorilla by Joey B and Yaw Tog.
Gorilla (music video) by Joey B ft. Yaw Tog. Directed by David Duncan, released December 2021
The song - like almost all Ghanaian drill songs - talks a lot about flex, and in the hook of the song heteronormativity is expressed in the line that talks about the pretty girl with her polished nails:
Wo p3, wo p3
White airforce ni me two step
Girl no y3 fine, hw3 ni cutiex
Come and hop in my ride 3y3 roofless
However, there are no women in the music video. The only video vixen dancing in the video is Somo the referee right at the end of the video, where he’s twerking to the hook. Paying critical analysis to this song and music video - through the lens of heteronormative inscriptions on hip-hop dance in Ghana - this video can be labelled as an anomaly, given the absence of female dancers.
Ghanaian hip-hop dance - especially in music videos - is such that there are always women video vixens who’re dancing seductively with flashy lights...even when the concept of the song has nothing to do with the female body. Within this context, referee Somo’s performance in the Gorilla video is interesting, he’s in his referee costume, with a whistle and twerking besides a sports car...similar to the tropes in other hip-hop music video dances where video vixens dance in a sexually appealing way besides sports cars. The only thing that’s different about his dance moves are that they have some elements of Soloku dance traditions in them. Movements like the squat walk he does while twerking are particular to Soloku.
After seeing this video - especially in the period in which it was released - I began to look at other instances where queerness was depicted in hip-hop dance in Ghana. Unlike other instances before where queerness was depicted, this particular video is accepted and celebrated by the general Ghanaian public. Logically speaking that should not have been the case, especially with what was happening in Ghana at the time of the video release.
I went back to 2017, when Ghanaian-Romanian musician Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu - popularly known as Wanlov the Kubolor - first released his song My Toto.
My Toto (music video) by Wanlov the Kubolor. Directed by @fotombo, released March 2017
The video was shot on a dusty football park with a pretty simple set: a mat, a wooden office table and a swivel chair. The video concept has three video vixens dressed in formal office wear and they’re sitting with serious faces whilst one of them plays the guitar. The shots are cut between this scene and Wanlov (who is wearing nothing but booty shorts) dancing like a video vixen. His movements vary from him doing push-ups, to lifting weights and twerking and wining alone on the wooden office table. His dance movements become very suggestive. One moment he’s sexily biting on his index finger while twerking, the next he’s suggestively moving his hands around his lower regions and at one point he’s virtually hanging off the table while twerking. This progresses to him (sort of) doing a hand stand with his legs in the air while the rest of him seems to be grinding on the side of the table. The camera angles switch between him working out and him dancing/twerking; the switch is done in such a manner that we are seeing the same individual in the same costume and location but in one instance they are presented masculine and in the next they are presented as feminine. In a conversation I had with Wanlov about this video, he said that in the concept for the video he wanted to break the stereotype of sexualising women in hip-hop dance and music videos, so he switched roles with the video vixens.
Despite this video going viral, most of the general public did not share his sentiments. They labelled him as “Kojo Besia” a Ghanaian vernacular expression for gay men, for dancing like a sexy “gorgormi”(maggot). Wanlov’s “sexy” dancing in the video has been criticised by the public, but ironically this song and video is his most streamed and celebrated work despite the fact that he has an extensive discography on political activism.
True Friends (music video) by FOKN Bois ft. Mr Eazi. Directed by Kubolor Cini, released November 2019
In 2019 the duo Fokn bois - comprising of Wanlov and M3nsa - released an EP titled Afrobeats Lol. The hip-hop tape is a blend of solid hip-hop sounds with afrobeats fusions. Before the tape came out Fokn Bois were offered $100,000 (USD) from an investor to change the cover art and their name - which the investor (he) thought was very gay. The group refused and decided to shoot the music video for one of their songs in Bukom - a suburb of accra that has a traditional safe space for queer folk. The song is titled True Friends and features Mr Eazi and the video has Fokn Bois in Bukom dancing with gay men in a very playful way.
The video is shot in a typical neighbourhood drinking spot in Bukom. These drinking spots are not classy and are basically a shed with a local bar and a fridge and sell cheap alcohol. It opens with a queer man happily twerking and dancing expressively with a group of other queer men cheering him on. This particular action progresses into what I recognise as a popular Ghanaian children’s game where everyone takes turns to get on the dance floor and show their dance moves amidst cheers from their colleagues. The only difference here is that it is queer men dancing expressively and cheering each other on, but they are still very playful about it and seem to be really having fun. The playfulness in the dance runs throughout, even when the shots change to other scenes including where the artistes are in a small crowd with the queer men still dancing and singing the song, or where they’re all kneeling down around a plastic bar stool and gesticulate as if they are praying, or where two artistes are embracing each other in a waltz while singing.
Despite the playful nature of this video which shows queer men in community safely existing and being themselves, there was still some public uproar which can be seen in the comments on the Ghanaweb article written about the song (trigger warning: homophobia)
Other instances of queerness being depicted in Ghanaian hip-hop videos are when women are depicted as queer in a way that sexualises them to appeal to the male gaze. An example for this is the dancing in the music video Bumbum by Kwaw Kesse featuring Skonti,Yaw Tog, Y Pee and Akata Yesu.
This video is set in a mansion and is basically a house party vibe, with women in lingerie twerking, drinking and smoking cigars, with a few guys present. Paying critical attention to this video you notice common tropes in Ghanaian hip-hop dance concerning the sexualisation of women’s bodies. For starters the women are all half naked, while the men are fully clothed and grinding on them. The dancing the women do is suggestive and sexual; they twerk and wine and there’s many close-up shots taken of their moving bodies. It’s common to see women grinding on each other and embracing in a sexual manner in hip-hop music videos, yet behaviour like this is seen as accepted social norms and enjoyed.
Researching into sexuality being expressed by women in Ghanaian hip-hop dance brought to light an important incident from 2007 when Ghanaian hip-hop artiste Mzbel released her song 16 years.
16 years (music video) by Mzbel. Released 2007
This song was deemed very controversial at the time because of the dancing in the music video. The video opens with Mzbel dressed in a shirt and miniskirt dancing in her room. Her dance movements are mildly suggestive compared to the women dancing in Ghanaian hip-hop music videos in 2022. The video then cuts to a court scene about sexual assault as the songs lyrics address this:
“I be sixteen years,
I go dey be like this ooo,
if you touch my tin ooo,
I go tell poppy ooo”
With regards to the dance in this music video, the artist is cat-walking down a dusty street, singing and is joined by over 10 video vixens and then the group catwalks for a bit. The rest of the dance movements in the video are mildly suggestive and the dancers are barely showing skin, yet this video was labelled as overly sexual when it was first released. One can argue that society has evolved to become more tolerant (or desensitised) of sexual depictions in music and hip-hop dance, but it’s important not to forget that Mzbel was raped and sexually assaulted (link to interview) because of the how society sexualised her for her music and dance performances.
Stories from Queer Ghanaian Hip-hop Dancers
A very difficult, yet important part of writing this piece was finding Ghanaian queer hip-hop dancers who were willing to be interviewed - given the current homophobic climate in Ghana and recent spikes in homophobic violence because of the anti-lgbt bill. I was able to find four people (two women and two men) who agreed to speak to me if I could guarantee their safety after this is published. To do that I must anonymise their identities by giving them aliases and I cannot write about their work as this could leave clues that point to their identities. My questions were tailored to ask about their experiences as queer hip-hop dancers.
As a hip-hop dancer would you describe yourself as out and openly queer?
Fredrick: No. I don't have an interest in being open about my sexuality...as to whether the community in which I find myself accepts it or not. As an academic dancer I've performed to themes within the framework of womanhood where I had to present myself cross dressing on two different occasions to suit the theme. Even though I couldn't physically, gestures like that represent the theme, personally I didn't feel okay it within...even though the masses loved it.
Afi: I will say I am out and openly queer because I love to keep it real with other dancers. I’m tired of hiding who I am just to fit in. Life has more to it than faking.
Nii: As out and openly queer I'll say no, but also some people in the industry know I am. Why? The society I find myself in tends to shy away from talking about homosexuality in general.
Juliana: Yes. The taking of a character and the way in which movement is explored by both being in touch with both my feminine and masculine sides. Sometimes choreographing feminine movements for males and masculine for females.
What was your experience as a queer person in hip-hop dance before the recent homophobic uproar in Ghana?
Afi: Before the recent uproar I was still hiding my true self and sometimes I have to wear clothes I don’t feel comfortable in just for performances and I ended up not performing because I didn’t like what I had to wear.
Juliana: It was good. The extension of creative license is such that one can express what they feel and put it into movement
Nii: In Ghana, depending on the sub-society you find yourself in, you can either call it a safe heaven or living in hell. I fortunately find myself in a space where people are tolerant and accept us for who we are.
Fredrick: I've always lived a normal life. It’s just that sometimes you may have some projections but you'll have to think twice about the audience
Has the homophobic uproar affected how you're perceived in your industry?
Nii: Not really.
Afi: The homophobic uproar has affected me so much. Friends I used to dance with no longer want to get close because they are warned to stay away from me and that I’m going to influence them. But I’ve got real friends who love me as I am.
Juliana: The uproar has affected the number of people you can get to work with since most are reluctant to work with some of my male dancers because they are effeminate and it has made vogue dances almost non-existent in hip hop.
Fredrick: Well to some extent no because personally if my inner self approves anything I want to do in terms of hair braiding, style of dressing etc. I go for it irrespective of the perception surrounding it
How has it affected your livelihood?
Nii: As of now no change, but after the passing of the bill, I'll have to wait and see.
Juliana: My livelihood has greatly been affected since most people do not request my services since they fear the backlash from been associated with me.
Fredrick: Because of my academic setting under no circumstances will I ever stage anything purely for queerness even outside academic jurisdiction. I don't think I'll ever do such a thing. I'm just not interested with people double sided talking. I may present some queerness colours in a normal piece
What adjustments have you been made to make?
Nii: None so far
Fredrick: (no answer)
Afi: I have been forced into wearing things I don’t feel comfortable in and I actually gave up. So now I’m just doing me now.
Juliana: I have had to revert to more feminine style of dancing since they see more masculine styles as threatening to the norm.
Queer Traditions in Dance
Queerness had a place in precolonial Ghana, even though homophobia exists as a colonial legacy, queer elements are still present in certain cultural practices in Ghana, and dance is no exception.
The Bamaya traditional dance of the Dagomba people of northern Ghana is worth considering in terms of queer traditions in dance. The name of the dance means “the river or valley is wet.” It is said to have originated in Dagbon in the 19th century. According to the tale behind the dance, there was a severe famine and drought on Dagbon land. The chiefs decided to consult an oracle within a valley because they believed that the deities of the land were withholding rain. The instructions that came from the deities was that they were to gather a group of male dancers and have them dress up in women’s clothes and then dance their hearts out to appease the gods. That is how this queer presenting ritual became a part of the Dagomba traditions and it is still performed today.
Bamaya (11 minute video), uploaded by Youth Home in August 2013
Another traditional dance is Kpanlogo. It started out as a popular contemporary dance in the 1950s - around the time Ghana gained independence - and was created by the Ga people who took pieces and movements from their earlier traditional dances of Gome and Kolomashie. Oral tradition has it that when Kpanlogo was first created, the dance movements were heavily sexually suggestive and it was banned by the Government until the dance evolved to accommodate larger spaces between the dancers. This dance was predominantly performed by men, and some of its risqué movements are still present.
After Kpanlogo came Soloku - which quickly became one of the most popular dance traditions in Ghana. The dance is a free for all freeform frenzy. Most of the Ghanaian hip-hop dances - like Azonto - were formed out of Soloku. The importance of Soloku is the music has heavy influences on sub genres of Ghanaian hip-hop music (Hiplife, Asakaa and afrobeats) which sample the sounds and rhythms from it. The dance Soloku is known for its very sexually suggestive dance movements and cross-dressing...even referee Somo is heavily influenced by Soloku dance movements.
I have noticed that the way (and manner) in which Ghanaians react to queerness in hip-hop dance is because homophobia is deeply rooted in our neocolonial culture; what is viewed as “cultural” are Eurocentric ideas of misogyny and racism that demonise certain aspects of African culture (religion and queerness) and in recent times these ideals are once again being used and pushed by right-wing American evangelicals. Ghana is mostly presenting as a neocolonial matrix. We as Ghanaians seem to have a strong sense of cultural values and what we believe to be the norms of our society and the guidelines for who we are. Taking a critical look at these said norms shows how antiblack and colonial they actually are, and most of them are rooted in the “morality” that came along with Christianity and how it was used by colonial powers to violently shape our society into the perfect colony. Even though the country had been independent some people seem to not be able to remember who they are and what was theirs before colonisation.
The Future of Queerness in Hip-hop Dance in Ghana as a Tool for Activism
I’ve noticed that Ghanaians tend to be more receptive to queerness when it is presented through familiar parameters. For example, when queer men are referred to as “Kwadwo Besia” the local slang for effeminate men, there isn’t an uproar - compared to when queerness is being defined by western terms and definitions. That being said, I’ve been able to identify instances in Ghanaian hip-hop dance where queerness is depicted so naturally through the artiste’s personal expression, it has been achieving visibility.
One example is the song Tomboy by Ghanaian rapper and alternative artiste Baaba J.
Baaba’s music is celebrated by Ghanaian alternative music fans (irrespective of their sexuality) and this music video is one of the most popular music videos the alternative scene has produced. It features the artist just chilling and vibing with both masc and fem presenting women, and it presents women in ways that break the usual stereotypes for women in Ghanaian hip-hop music videos. With regards to dance, we see the artiste and the other women in the video skating for a bit and then doing the wu walk dance. This is the first time that women are being portrayed in in Ghanaian hip-hop dance doing a dance that is perceived as very masculine. Most Ghanaian women hip-hop artistes will stick to the norm of being as feminine as they can and play to the male gaze in their songs, sticking to heteronormative inscriptions. Baaba J’s song truly lives up to its name as a song for the tomboys.
From my conversations with queer hip-hop dancers in Ghana it’s clear that despite the current homophobic apocalypse, queer people are still able to find solace and community. Hip-hop dance can play a key role in creating safe spaces for queerfolk and it can be used as a tool to unlearn homophobia. Despite the fact that we still have a lot of work to do, the future has at least the promise of hope, burning slowly in fickle flames that have the potential to roar soon. Hip-hop dance in Ghana happens to be a crucial ember of hot coal that still keeps sustaining these flames of hope.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to Derogatory Dancing: Heteronormative Inscriptions on Female Hip-Hop Dancers in Breaking and Commercial Spheres by Deanne Kearney
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Dodzi K Aveh
Dodzi Korsi Aveh is a 23 year old Ghanaian creative and academic, who creates under the identity WhoIsDeydzi.
He tells stories through spoken word poetry, hip-hop, film and theatre. Dodzi uses his craft as a tool for social advocacy and community engagements. Currently he is working on creating a new subgenre of Hip-hop, inspired by indigenous Anlo-Ewe performance poetry.
Dodzi K Aveh