An Indepth Conversation With Award-Winning Rapper, M.ANIFEST
Often endowed in bold and enormous signature beads laying over a stylish colorful shirt or hoody designed in African print, it’s not too hard to identify M.anifest; an award winning international MC from Accra, Ghana. He’s been described as an artist with “an incredible gift” (the run off groove) who possesses “the kind of assured, joyful, ruminative voice that made Mos Def into Hollywood’s favorite conscious–‐rap star”(City Pages). In 2013, he was crowned the Best Rapper of the Year at the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards – a feat of very little surprise considering that he was born into a historical legacy as the grandson of Professor J.H. Nketia, one of Ghana’s foremost ethnomusicologists. With such strong and impressionable roots, it’s safe to say that M.anifest, AKA Kwame Amet Tsikata, was destined for a career in music. This career was also influenced by the decade he spent in Twin Cities, Minnesota where he became deeply immersed in the underground music scene after winning a scholarship to pursue a B.A. in Economics. The influence and exposure to the music scene in Twin Cities led to the production of his first album, aptly titled Manifestations – an album which garnered great international attention and Song Writing Of The Year Honors. The evolvement and cultural expansion of M.anifest continued to popularize by leaps and bounds and by 2010, he was acknowledged by MTV as an artist to look out for. After touring Europe in 2011 with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers amongst others, he gave birth to a second album,Immigrant Chronicles: Coming to America which attracted international acclaim followed by several awards and nominations that continue to follow him to date.
Music, politics, social awareness and philanthropy are all elements from the dynamic composition of his DNA. His stories and thoughts are of great intrigue, and his depth will take you on a journey of thought provoking Manifestations…
I tracked M.anifest down on the phone while he was driving through Madina – just days before his historic collaboration with the legendary A.B. Crentsil. The song, “Ye Wo Adze Oye,” which is a refix of the original, was produced by Jayso in support of a coastline project called NShoreNa. NShoreNa is a project that focuses on showcasing Ghana’s tourism potentials in addition to the environmental challenges with its beaches – spanning from Aflao to Half Asini. Their mantra emphatically states “Enjoy our beaches, don’t destroy them!” “Ye wo adze oye” translates from Fante into “We have something of worth/value,” and is currently available on I-Tunes.
“I think a lot about excellence and originality. I also focus on honesty, integrity and fearlessness in music. That is the only way… We have to be excellent and original in all that we do. I don’t believe in any excuses be it monetary or the lack of infrastructure; you have to make your music and your art form the very best it can be. My focus will always be based on excellence and originality.””
M.Anifest (April 2014)
Design233: M.dor dor dor ti dor! I am very excited to talk to you today. Thanks for making the time to meet with me. I’d like to jump right into it if I may. You come from very historical roots that are deeply tied into academics, politics to an extent, and especially music. How have your roots shaped the form of your music as an artist?
M.anifest: Well, I think one of the most important aspects of my roots is seeing the way all the people before me approached everything they did with true dedication, determination, passion and integrity. I have learned that there is no half way of doing things; you need to do everything to the fullest – through education for example, and be willing to do things that impact other people. It should never be just about you, we need to think communally.
D233: M.anifest to me, is so much bigger than a stage name, it is actually an identity. What is the discovery story behind this very poignant identity?
M.: It’s crazy, because M.anifest is not a character I created; Manifest and Kwame Tsikata are one in the same person. My identity comes from growing up middle class yet still living in Madina. It comes from being an immigrant living and schooling in the US. It comes from being someone who is college educated yet decided to become a musician and is still trying to make it work. It’s involved a great deal of sacrifice. I could have become anything, but chose to become a musician. My identity is sewn in my roots – none of the people in my family for example, have English names, we all have local Ghanaian names. Being successful by trying so hard to be other than myself would have set me up for failure. The re-discovery of me identity-wise, has enabled me to be exactly who I am today.
D233: You received a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Macalester College in Minnesota. Twin Cities is the home of the producing powerhouse Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and his royal highness, Prince – just to name a few. Would you say that your time in the States greatly influenced your decision to become an MC?
M.: Not really because I had already been in a rap group, when I was in Ghana so it did not influence my decision to become an MC, but it influenced my decision to become a musician professionally. Twin Cities cultivated me as an artist and enabled me to become a professional.
D233: You deliberately chose the indie artist route and even used your royalties from a Pepsi jingle to forge your indie journey forward. How did the jingle come about and what made you choose the indie route?
M: I started my independent career in music at a time when the industry as a whole was falling apart due to Napster, social media, the internet and so on. Pepsi at the time, was using a middle company to handle their talent search for advertising and promotion. That middle company that they used happened to be right where I was in Minnesota. Pepsi was looking for very diverse sounds and voices for their campaign. They were led to my Myspace page and loved what they saw and heard and the rest as they say, is history. It was a great arrangement and a tidy sum was made as was the journey to my independent career.
D233: In one of our previous conversations, I mentioned to you that I would equate you to Mos Def, but especially Talib Kweli and would even like to set up a collaboration with one or both of them. I felt this strongly, particularly after listening to your first album, Manifestations. Where do you see the tie-in or similarities to Talib & Mos Def?
M.: I respect them both as artists. I am not too sure about the similarities, other than that musically, they have both done and continue to do something very different than the norm. They may not be trendy or popular, but their focus on quality led to their eventual success. I follow the same formula
(Lilian) I would say it’s more than that. There is a definite similarity in delivery and your lyrical consciousness in the music. In short, you have a message and something to say other than just rapping about drinking, partying, cars and women. Lyrically, you are so much deeper.
Yeah, I guess we keep our music organic and very positive because there is so much to say about what’s happening around us. That is important to me as an artist.
D233: You are much more than a rapper to me; you are an artist, an activist, a linguist, historian of sorts, and a poet. You co-wrote and produced a mini Hip-Hopera for Channel O and a historical piece for Ghana’s Music week. Where do you draw inspiration to become the type of MC that you are?
M.: I can find inspiration in the most mundane things, but it has to tickle my fancy and provoke me in order for me to feel inspired. For example, I am driving right now and something such as right of way is non-existent in Ghana. You may have the right of way, but another driver will still try and take that right of way from you – it’s oxymoronic, the sort of things that inspire me. Another example would be watching soccer when suddenly the lights go off and everyone in the neighborhood is like “Ohhh,” then they come right back on and everyone is like “Yaayyy”. Some of the best art is made when things are provoking you – I personally just need to be provoked and that’s when I get inspired.
D233: I’d like to segue into the documentary you are featured in, We Rock Long Distance, where you actually work with your grandfather, the legendary Professor J.H. Kwame Nketia. Did his appreciation for hip-hop change after that experience? How did he impact you in the process?
M.: It’s very interesting because my grandfather has always been very open-minded when it comes to music. His first appreciation for hip-hop occurred when he was in Brazil which is ironic because he does not understand a word of Portuguese. It just goes to show you that it’s the power of the musicians that really moved him. The same rules apply today – the validity and quality of music is what moves him most. He has definitely gained more understanding and insight as to what I do with hip-hop. In his older years, he has spent more time listening to the music that the young musicians are making and he finds it fascinating. In the process, he got to understand my music more. Before that experience I didn’t realize the depth of the writing and poetry he composed back in the 1940’s. I was very impressed with the depth of the Twi he wrote for example, and the overall content of his lyrics. He made me realize that I definitely have to step my game up as a writer.
D233: Let’s talk imagery – I’ll start with the amazing beads that you wear. What gave birth to them and do you design them personally or just have them made for you?
M.: I have always found beads fascinating. I started first with just small beads and with time, they got bolder and bigger. I don’t design them, but I will say what I want combined and add brass pieces to make them stand out. My bead designer will call when he has beads for me or when he finds a piece from Niger, for example, that he knows that I will love. I have cultivated a taste for beads and know exactly what I like and what works best. This is the closest I can come to a woman’s shoe fetish.
D233: I want to also discuss your very cultural sense of style – African shirts, hoodies, high-tops etc. that you wear. They are trendsetting to say the least. How did your Brand Ambassadorship with Woodin come about?
M.: The business venture between Woodin and I was a very natural process. I have always fancied African fabric greatly, and Woodin wanted to target the younger generation to view African fabric as being cool. They approached me and it made sense and worked out very well. I love the ability to be modern with a cultural twist – like hoodies, chucks and shirts that have our local prints incorporated into them. We have been able to come up with some wicked and awesome ideas by experimenting. It’s such a great cultural advantage that we have here in Ghana and I love it.
D233: Another layer of you that I find intriguing is your passion for giving back – free concerts, humanitarian efforts and so on. Let’s talk specifically about Madina – not the most posh area of Accra, but a place you seem to have a great affinity and loyalty to. What does Madina mean to you?
M: Madina is where I was born and raised. I felt life was genuine and sincere here and I learned so much from this area. A lot of people forget that success does not define where you live or where you come from, but rather what you take from it. There is so much life in places like Madina that people could learn and benefit from. It means a lot to me to be able to block off a few streets and throw a free concert for people that support our local artists but may not be able to attend their concerts. If free concerts happened when I was like 10 years old – it would have been super dope and amazing to me back then. It’s important to remember to feel good and do for people by giving back even though the music industry is a business. Though it’s not easy, and you may not get sponsors initially, you should try to do it any way just to give back. We did not allow whether or not we would get sponsors to determine if we could pull off the concert, we were just very determined and motivated and made it happen. In the future, I am very sure the sponsors will come, but we had to start somewhere.
D233: You have successfully made your mark on two continents – your return to Ghana’s music scene has been very successful and you remain actively entrenched in what you call your second home, Minnesota. How do you keep your musical presence relevant in two very contrasting spaces?
M.: That’s a great question Lilian. It’s required a certain level of deliberateness from me, and also required me to be very organic. I have experienced both worlds by being organic and very authentic as a musician, and that experience allows me to flow very naturally in both spaces. It also requires relationships – that keep me relevant, healthy and creative. I have to have that balance of operating in both places because I would suffocate musically if I were just in Ghana or solely in the states.
D233: Your collaborative efforts have been awesome: from Erykah Badu, to Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Damon Alborn from the Gorillaz to Kenya’s Camp Mulla, to SA’s Proverb to selected Ghanaian artists. What is your game plan when you go into a collaborative effort?
M.: There is no game plan per say, it just needs to work. I have been fortunate enough to have had 95% of my collaborations really work. Not because they looked good on paper, but because they have been organic, had mutual respect and a synergy that resulted in something interesting. If you force it, it just never comes off right.
D233: Two of my favorite collaborative videos would have to be “The Chosen” and“Proverbs Manifest” which is an ingenious play on you & Proverb’s names. Those videos were very simplistic and clean, yet artistically shot which enables viewers to focus on the content rather than be distracted by other aesthetics. Do you have a particular goal when you plan your videos or do you generally leave it up to the director?
M.: It’s always a collaborative effort. I never leave it completely up to the director. I don’t like to be involved in anything that mirrors an imitation – there must be originality. We are getting to the place this year where we can actually shoot the kind of videos that we want to make. It’s not just about money; it has so many other different considerations. E.L’s “Hallelujah,” would be a video that I could use as an example of an original idea that turned out amazing. These are some of the things that we will be able to portray in my upcoming videos. Regardless, I still believe that an average original is far better than a really good imitation.
D233: “Blue (Chale What Dey Happen)” & “Makaa, Maka” were on rotation on BET International. The team was very impressed with your lyrical style and interested in you as an artist. What do you think was so special about those videos and what was that experience like for you to have your videos air on BET?
M.: “Makaa, Maka” for me was the perfect song to transition back home with. That video was RAW, and it came out at a time when there were a lot of glossy high class videos out. It went against the grain in its raw form by portraying Makola and the streets. I was really proud that I my video got on an international platform that portrayed me as I am rather than an alternate representation. “Blue (Chale What Dey Happen)” was a bit more challenging because I wanted a better video, but was not able to get exactly what I wanted. It still accomplished what we set out to do even if it wasn’t exact. They were both low budget videos so what we were lacking in resources, we had to make up for in creativity. Those two videos were experiments for what we are about to do now. I am so happy that they were internationally well received.
D233: Your second album, Immigrant Chronicles: Coming To America, placed you firmly on the map in Ghana and won you Ghana Music Award nominations for Best Rapper and Songwriter of the Year. What do you think it was about the album that gained you so much respect as an MC?
M.: I think it’s because I sounded more mature. For the first time, you could really hear my voice for what it was. You could hear it was African Hip-Hop and you also heard that I was a Ghanaian – my voice definitely became clearer at that point so it resonated with people.
D233: As you grow as an artist, what is most prominent in your mind when you are to consider the advancement of your career globally?
M.: I think a lot about excellence and originality. I also focus on honesty, integrity and fearlessness in music. That is the only way. What people fail to recognize is that there is no one in Germany, the UK or even American trying to find something from their countries in Africa. We have to be excellent and original in all that we do. I don’t believe in any excuses be it monetary or infrastructure; you have to make your music and your art form the best. My focus will always be based on excellence and originality.
D233: When you are not composing lyrics, what would you identify as that second love that takes up some of your time?
M.: Currently, entrepreneurship has become very important to me in my adult life which is why Giant Steps MN was created. I know that we can’t keep relying on handouts which is why we need to be innovative and entrepreneurial. We cannot continue to rely on the generosity of others for our success. Giant Steps MN is a conference for artists and entrepreneurs that identifies and discusses the challenges in both business and the arts for creative entrepreneurism. A lot of explosive collaborations have been born from these conferences.
D233: What do you dream about when you are all alone and completely relaxed?
M.: If I told you Lilian, I would have to kill you… LOL! Nowadays, I dream with my eyes open. I dream of travel. I am a physical and mental traveler. Travel is also my passion and I plan to see and travel the world.
D233: What can we expect in the next few years from M.anifest – creatively, musically and even politically?
M.: Apart from the fact that I am going to become the Pope (hearty laugh) – I would say my creative juices are on steroids. I am looking forward to giving the world some very creative work that will shift the way music is done and how people view themselves in the world. I want to build things creatively like our infrastructure and contribute things like a performance space and other things along those lines. I want to contribute infrastructure to the creative ecosystem.
D233: If you had 5 minutes with God, what would you talk about?
M.: I would ask him why everything is “Someway Bi?” Then I would go over a long list of things that are “Someway Bi,” and maybe he could help explain them to me. After that, I would make sure I give him thanks for all the good people that He has put in my life and that make this “Someway Bi” life worthwhile.
D233: This has been an amazing conversation M.anifest. Thank you for sharing your heart and your thoughts with me. On behalf of Design 233, we wish you continued success!
M.: Thank YOU Lilian, and remember always – M.anifest is the GREATEST!
M.anifest & Professor J.H. Nketia.