SARK – The Origins Of A Rapper
The Lilian N. Blankson Interview With Sarkodie
“You Know Say Money No Be Problem” or “You Know What Time It Is” are just two of the many catch phrases belonging to Michael Owusu Addo. His career has literally experienced a whirlwind over the last two weeks. Just a few days ago, he was nominated yet again for a BET International Award – just a week shy from his MTV Africa Music Awards nomination. It was also only two weeks prior when he gave a magnificent stage performance at the 2014 Vodafone Ghana Music Awards shortly after winning the categories of Hip-Hop Artist of The Year and Hip-Hop Song of the Year. Many have said his swag was at a 1000% that night – out shadowing the other acts on the show, and solidifying his brand and lyrical skill, but there is a lot more to Michael than meets the eye. A very quiet laid back guy, he is often misunderstood and misread, but an intimate conversation will reveal years of hard work, sacrifice and dedication to become the internationally recognized brand he is today. Seldom satisfied, he is often at work, calculating his next track or power move, and his love and complete dedication to hip-hop remains a dominant force in his life.
With humble beginnings originating in Tema, he was initially destined to be a dancer who pursued a degree in Graphic Design, but fate had a completely different career path in mind. Seldom able to express himself, he took to rapping in Twi where he could share his innermost expressions about life and the world at large to an attentive audience. Beating out almost every rapper in battle, he became a street sensation with massive appeal, and began to grind his way to the top. His natural ability to twist was just an added bonus for the MC who refused to depend on a gimmick to solidify his career. By becoming one of the pioneers of Ghana’s Azonto movement with his song “You Go Kill Me,” he soon became a household name to fans across the world. Multiple Awards followed for his first album,Makye in 2010, but it was his sophomore release, Rapperholic that attracted a record winning 12 GMA nominations and a BET Award for Best International Act: Africa. Not to be slowed down, he followed those achievements with an impressive performance on the 2012 BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher. Despite several lucrative endorsement deals with Samsung and Fan Yogo to name a few, he also launched a successful fashion line and shop: Sark★ Collections by YAS, and landed himself eighth on the 2013 Forbes List of Top 10 Richest/ Bankable African Artists. With a very successful third album, Sarkology, and endless local and international shows at hand, he keeps us all wondering what his next move will be, but I soon discovered that although those plans are well in the works, he has no intention of revealing them – anytime soon.
I was fortunate to catch this very busy phenomenon as he was being driven from Tema to Accra for an interview with R2Bees at a radio station. It was a great day, for he was open and honest and revealed a very compelling story to me about his life. I was deeply moved and hung up feeling more inspired and motivated than I have in a very long time. In short, it was undoubtedly the best and most heartfelt interview of my career. This is the life and story of Michael Owusu Addo – known to us all very simply by the name, SARKODIE.
“I am allergic to defeat. I am always moving. I try to create positions for myself so that defeat will never be an option. That’s what I do personally and I believe this way of thinking and strategy could help a lot of others. Surround yourself with a lot of positive energy, and you will discover that defeat will never be an option.”
Sarkodie (May 2014)
Design233: SARK! It’s no secret that I am one of your biggest fans. I haven’t interviewed you since right before you won the 2012 BET Best International Act. Sooooo much has happened since then, are you ready for our more than overdue chat?
Sarkodie: I think, I am ready… I am ready for everything! Big ups to God who is my manager first and foremost – and my team, and managers at Duncwills. We have indeed accomplished a lot since we last spoke and are going to go even further
D233: Cool! Well, let’s start off with the names – which have literally become a very successful trademark worldwide. Tell your fans outside of Ghana exactly how you got the names Sarkodie & Obidi Pon Bidi and what they actually mean.
Sark: I am an Ashanti and Sarkodie is actually an Ashanti surname. The true story is that my dad had friends and there were also a few people that I knew growing up with that surname. Each and every one of them was very wealthy and living large, so I had the perception at a young age that there was power in that name and that anyone who bared it would be successful. The name seemed to carry a lot of weight so it became a great name to choose. Sarkodie also sounds similar to the eagle in Twi – I love the eagle because it is the king of all birds. Eagles are very aggressive and large, and if I had to be an animal, I would be an eagle. With “Obidi,” I pretty much created it, to become and mean “Great one.” I am not exactly sure how it came about, but I was in the booth when it did and it wasn’t planned. I was rapping really intensely and it just came out of me. When I heard it, I just loved it and went with it and it became a stage moniker of sorts.
D233: Soooo… I am told that you are an outstanding dancer and that you were actually named after Michael Jackson – how true is this?
Sark: (Chuckles), yes this is very true. I believe that my Dad should have met Michael Jackson because he was truly his biggest fan. My Mom told me that shortly after she gave birth to me, my Dad told her that he wanted to name me after MJ. Growing up, he would buy me an entire wardrobe of Michael Jackson inspired clothes, from the hats to the socks to short pants and shoes. I’d always go to parties and dance and I am actually a really great dancer. I used to be a dancer before I started rapping and that’s actually how and why my timing and delivery is so good because of the influence of dance. Even on my acappella tracks, you can still feel a groove and beat, and it’s all because of dancing. I never knew I was going to become a rapper, it was always just dance for me. I went into hip-hop because it was large when I was in school and I wanted to stand out in a much bigger way. I won’t be dancing any time soon so don’t try to put me on the spot, just know that for real, I am an excellent dancer.
D233: Well alrighty then! I will need my personal preview to judge that for myself – thank you very much! So anyway, you grew up in Tema, and began rapping at age 4 – What were you being exposed to at such a young age that influenced you to start rapping?
Sark: I actually got the idea to start rapping while going through a very very dark time in my life while growing up. I was born in Tema but actually grew up in Accra and at the time, was living with a relative who was a very wicked woman. I don’t use that term loosely, so believe me when I say she was wicked. My mom didn’t know where I was so she couldn’t save me. My dad had taken me to go and live with this woman and it was a horrible experience. There were seven of us crowded in this very small compound house. I was being made to sell yam, and used to carry it around on my head. I only had joy when I was in school and when the bell would sound – indicating it was time to go home, that’s when I would get severely depressed. There were no phones then to call my mother to come for me and my father had no idea what was going on so I had to suffer in silence. My Aunt had a son who was my age, but we were treated very differently. Things like being fed were incidental and sporadic to me, but not him. There is a lot more, but I would rather not say – all I know is that music was my savior back then. I have been so timid my whole life and unable to open up. The only way I was able to express myself was through rap and I revealed everything through my lyrics. When I first started rapping, I was so deep although very young, but I was able to very clearly articulate all of my pain and frustration in Twi. I believe the experience, cruelty and hardship of my youth prepared me for today because music was my therapy. There was no one to talk to – no sibling or anything, just music – and it allowed me to openly discuss everything that was going on. I would sit under a tree while I was selling the yam and just look at people and observe life in general. I got to see it from a very different perspective and wrote about what I was seeing. I met different types of people on the street and got to really understand life and relayed it all in my music. When I finally got back to Tema after my Mom found me, she took me back with a lot of tears and that’s when I observed and began to live a whole new life. Hip-Hop was then growing in Tema and I saw stages set up with mics and artists rapping and it appealed to me because I had a dope story to tell. So it all started from then and continues until this day.
D233: Wow. Sarkodie, that is so so heavy on multiples levels. Very moving, yet inspiring.
I have heard so many different versions of your “Discovery” or “Come Up” story. Why don’t you give me the official?
Sark: When I came to Tema and started doing all the street shows, rap battles and road blocks, I also heard there was a radio station that was hosting a live battle. That station was Adom FM and those battles were then being presented by Duncan Williams. He was impressed with my skill and delivery and gave me the opportunity to battle several rappers until I remained undefeated. Back then, I was at Adom FM every single day – if you tuned in at a certain time, you would hear me rapping on the radio. People eventually got very interested and wanted to sign me, but my loyalty and respect was with Duncan because he believed in me from the start and gave me my very first chance. Duncan eventually took me on during that time, signed me and introduced me to the world. I will always appreciate him for that.
D233: I remember vividly coming to Ghana in 2010 to shoot the first ever African cipher for the BET Hip-Hop Awards. You weren’t quite the Sarkodie you are today, but your talent was obvious. You were releasing like a track a day back then. Some folks have no idea how hard you were grinding as an underground rapper and building your fan base from the ground up. What exactly do you think it was that brought you out as the artist you are today?
Sark: I think and can only imagine or picture the reason why. If you are truly meant for something, it will happen very naturally with time. I tell the upcoming artists that we all want to come up, and I believe in hard work to do so, but I really couldn’t see myself doing anything other than music. All I could see was myself rapping and it was a part of everything that I did – eating sleeping, resting all I focused on was rapping. I had to sacrifice a lot and when my peers were doing other things that I could have done, I didn’t because I was steadily preparing for this moment without even knowing it. I was not concerned about when my time would come or if and when I would blow up – I just keep rapping. I was lost in the moment and let myself go and gave my whole life to music. You should never have a break if you are a true musician, you have to give music 100% and always be ready and dedicated even if you are just an underground artist.
D233: You are most definitely one of the pioneers of the Azonto movement – especially with your song “You Go Kill Me.” How important was Azonto in catapulting your career?
Sark: Apart from Kwame Nkrumah, Azonto is the biggest thing that ever happened to Ghana. I have been out there and I have seen white cab drivers with “You Go Kill,” me as their ring tone. It was crazy, I was in a cab riding from Newark to New York when the driver’s phone rang and it was my song! He didn’t even recognize me or know it was my song. I asked him where he heard it from and he said he’d heard it in a few clubs and really liked it. The same thing happened in London. Right before me, a car was blasting the song – the car had five white guys who once again didn’t know me. They were at a red light blasting it, and were bumping their heads to the song. It just blew me away. You are absolutely right, when I released “You Go Kill Me,” it took me to another level and attracted people to my other songs. My show audience not only increased incredibly, but so did the type of audience I had – people from all over the world were suddenly knew who Sarkodie was and were listening to my songs.
D233: I have heard that you have a great deal of respect and admiration for one of Ghana’s Hip-Life pioneers, Obrafour. Which other local and international artists inspire you and why?
Sark: Obrafour from the beginning to today inspires me greatly. We all loved Reggie Rockstone and what he was doing with Hip-Life, but Obrafour used the Ashanti accent really well in his rhymes. He was a calm, God-fearing guy, and never used profanity in his songs. He has the delivery and the right beats and actually inspired me to be a serious rapper. Back then, I was focusing on skill, hooks and flow. I concentrated a lot on Busta Rhymes and Eminem. I listened very attentively to their flow and performed their tracks when I was in school. I was competing with Busta in my bedroom but in Twi. When I grew up, I was not looking for fame, but I quickly learned that fame comes with responsibility. I used to tell my school mates back in the day that if I ever became famous, I would never buy a car, but would rather continue to walk everywhere. I also thought I would eat all of the same local food and so on, but it’s not possible to remain that way when you become famous. Fame comes with a persona, and people think you always have people around you, but in actuality when you go back home after all the adoration from the shows; you are literally left all by yourself. I look up to Jay-Z right now and study all the business and music moves he is making. As an artist in the industry, he is everything I want to be. I understand him and some of the frustrations that he may be facing in regard to staying relevant and motivated and keeping the music fresh and new. Every step I take right now is fashioned after him.
D233: You have a natural and very deep affinity with the Twi dialect and your lyrics are extremely witty. Do you actually think in Twi before you conceive your rhymes?
Sark: I think that’s a very deep question Lily. When I am thinking, I actually do think in Twi because it affects my delivery and everything that I say. So Twi is indeed the language that remains on my mind most of the time.
D233: You have a fine mix of English and Twi in your songs – I have spoken to fans of yours from around the world and they all relate the same thought: “I have no idea what he saying, but it sounds dope as hell.” That’s a strong indication that music is universal, it’s not about what you are saying, it’s more about how you express it. Will you ever evolve into a complete English MC or will you hold on to Twi?
Sark: It’s going to be hard for me creatively to answer that. I never actually plan what I am going to do creatively, it just happens. For example, because of movie subtitles, I learned to fully understand American slang and terminology and their usage of certain words. I was focusing more on their rhymes and not the creativity of their words. Though Twi is limited as a language worldwide and is not a main dialect, I was born with it. A change of environment can greatly affect your creativity. When I was in states last year, I was in the studio and met some representatives from Universal (record label.) They advised me to try and rap in English, but I had to think about my core audience. Take J. Cole for example, in the states, he will always sound better than me because of his natural accent and the culture he raps about. Twi allows me to affect people locally in Ghana and that is what I would prefer to do – affect rather than impress. Impressing is the afterthought. A gimmick will not allow me to be my authentic self. I really differentiate myself from artists that just want to impress and from those that actually want to relay a message. If you aren’t too deep in music , you tend to go with a gimmick and shock values like just twisting to impress people. I’d rather leave my audience with a message. Currently my raps are a fusion of both languages, I don’t want to abandon my Twi people just yet, but in the future, it may be necessary to do so.
D233: At the early stages of your career, you won many rap battles and wowed your audience with your very impressive twisting skills. Are you still the fastest rapper in Ghana?
Sark: I never actually gave myself that title; it was bestowed upon me by the fans and the streets. I am a fast talker by nature, and I stammer when I become very very angry. I never trained to become a fast rapper, it’s just a natural ability. I prefer not to live off shock value as being the fastest rapper; I want to focus more on the message in my music instead.
D233: You appear very confident – some have even labeled you as being arrogant in your rhymes. It’s ironic that most US rappers such as Jay-Z for example, exude that same confidence yet the African audience doesn’t appear to have an issue with them. Bragging rights are actually part and parcel of the game so why do you think you are isolated as being arrogant?
Sark: That’s a great question and one that I keep asking myself. I think that it’s our nature as Africans not to use profanity and remain lyrically humble in all our music. In Ghana, if you want to become a rap star, then you have to limit your language because of our culture. We are not able to communicate openly or express ourselves directly and this way of life is taught to us from our childhood years. Children and adults in the states for example, are very direct and speak their minds. People want to limit you in Africa to the point where it feels like they are trying to stifle your growth. For example, I have had people take issue with the fact that I am no longer easily accessible and that they have to go through my management in order to reach me. I don’t owe anyone an explanation, but I have to do what is needed to advance as an international artist in order to be relevant and also feed my family. Few people understand this reality and I am not able to explain myself to the world so I just focus on what needs to be done to keep growing as an artist.
D233: Your videos have such great diversity. Two of my favorites are “Illuminati” which was shot in a desert in Dubai as well as “Hallelujah.” How do you decide on your concepts and the right directors?
Sark: First and foremost, I prefer to trust the director first. I don’t like to interfere unless it appears as if they don’t seem to know what they are doing. I like to hear fresh ideas that will allow the video to reach a completely diverse audience. I focus on directors that are well seasoned and very experienced. I could never entrust my career to an amateur director at this stage; it’s way too risky. I rely a lot on Gyo (Phamous Philms) who has shot and supported a lot of my videos since the very early stages of my career. He shot the “Illuminati” video in Dubai and is very skilled and talented and I always go to him for advice on a concept even if I am shooting with another director – that is how much I trust and value him.
D233: Just one look at your endorsements and business ventures and it’s safe to say that you have evolved into a very shrewd and wise business man. Has that always been the plan or did that come about unexpectedly?
Sark: I never intended to get into the rap game for money – I did it for the love. But it does come with a lot of responsibility. The higher the level of success you attain, the greater the level of expectation from the fans. I try different things to make my brand stronger and more lucrative. I don’t believe in taking a break and coming back with nothing to sustain you, so when I am not doing music, I have different ventures to keep my brand thriving. It is so critical to invest in yourself – unless of course, you don’t believe in yourself and what you are doing. I am now in position to sit back and allow the brand to grow. Last year, I invested in my videos for example, rather than material things and it has made all the difference. You have to believe in yourself, so you can evolve as an artist and a brand. I have a lot of different achievements, and it always affects the music and keeps me relevant.
D233: You’ve done an incredible job with branding. The name Sarkodie immediately attracts great respect and admiration – INTERNATIONALLY. The album launches forRapperholic & Sarkology were incredibly impressive. Did you set out to attain this achievement as a brand, or did things just kind of work out that way for you?
Sark: Things really just kind of worked out that way, I am a very protective person by nature. I love my respect and peace, and I love the fact that people cannot just disrespect me. This is how I have been ever since I was very young. Being disrespected is worse than just straight killing me. I believe you have to earn respect, so everything for me has to be on point. I carefully plan every single thing that I do. I am always thoughtful about what is next for me and the brand. Always calculating my next move and striving to be the best.
D233: I noticed that the Sarkology album had a lot of heavy weight collaborations on it. What was the strategy behind that decision?
Sark: I did a lot more Nigerian collaborations because I have a great fan base there so I wanted to cater to them. I think it would be safe to say that I am the most popular Ghanaian artist in Nigeria. I love Nigeria because they are very patriotic and they really love and support themselves. There were certain songs that I could hear the voices of particular artists on the hook, so I reached out to them. A lot of the collaborations also came in as requests and were not actually planned. I also made sure to involve some of my Ghanaian peers like Efya, Lil Shaker and some others, but overall I would say I definitely benefited from the collaborations.
D233: So by now, just about everyone knows that you launched Sark★ Collections by YAS; a very successful clothing line and shop in Ghana last year. To me, you’ve always had swag and two distinct looks – a stylish urban look and the corporate suited look. Have you always had a thing for fashion or was this more of a business incentive?
Sark: I am not too much into fashion myself, but I like to always be on point and look clean. I studied art in school, so I have an eye for color and putting different shades together. I’ve never followed fashion trends or formally studied fashion, I just wore what I thought looked good. I actually have an addiction to tags and pulling them off clothes. It’s a serious addiction -the process of pulling off a brand or price tag from a new item of clothing. I just love that feeling.
D233: You have the one up on a lot of the boutiques in Ghana because I am told the Sark Store is BIG on customer service and that you are often on hand to personally thank customers. I actually love the quality of your merchandise and even your gift bags. What plans do you have to expand and grow the line in order to keep your consumer engaged?
Sark: Thank you so much Lily, that means a lot. The Sark collection has a great team behind it that works on brilliant ideas because I focus more on the music. The designer Yas, is excellent with planning and the team is also amazing. They have great marketing plans and strategies. We have sold out in Ghana alone which is incredible and we receive offers to host stores in different locations. We have plans to expand and have different franchises in the near future.
D233: I have always been curious to know if you actually designed any of the clothing yourself or even came up with any ideas for it that went over well?
Sark: Most of the things that I design or come up with sell out quicker. Yas is actually a very dope and formally trained designer who designs abstract fashion for the runway – she is excellent at what she does, but I beat her every time LOL! I design things for myself personally, but those basic designs wind up outselling hers. I design the caps, basic v-neck t-shirts with Sark on it, and the jeans with the leather on it. I am from the streets and I am a hip-hop artist so I know my fans and what they would like. I am selling more and no disrespect Yas – I am sorry but I am winning!
D233: Soooo, a lot of people don’t know that you have a tremendous love for kids and you give back quite frequently. Talk to me about your charitable and philanthropic efforts.
Sark: I have always had a soft spot for kids, and even my family knows that is the easiest way to get to me. I am moved most by babies and children up to the ages of 6 or 7. I would watch TV sometimes, and when I saw a child or children that were in need somewhere, I would initially try to make a discreet donation through my management. As time went on, I was advised that I could reach even more kids if I made it bigger and more official, so I launched the Sarkodie Foundation on my birthday (July 10th,) last year. I was in Dubai shooting the video at the time and I had wanted to give some money to an orphanage, but my manager Sammy Forson, felt that we could do even more if we joined forces with some of the brands I am associated with – Tigo, Indomie, Pepsi, Samsung, Fan Yogo and Shoprite. They all came on board and the response was so amazing. When the kids saw me, they were very excited, but when they saw the items, coming out of the vehicles, the joy on their faces made me so happy. After seeing how successful that was, I brought my sister on board to run the foundation and she is doing an awesome job. We have some really great things coming up soon so stay tuned.
D233: Define the 4 BIGGEST highlights of your career and why they are of significance to you.
Sark: The first would probably be when I performed on a national show at the Joy FM Night With The Stars. It was my biggest audience ever and I was an opening act with no major songs. I did justice to the show, and I had a different instrument from beginning to end. I miss the days of being creative on stage to make people laugh. I don’t get to do that much anymore.
Next would be when I won my first ever award at the Ghana Music Awards. It was out of nowhere, so unexpected – it was like going from the ghetto to being on this large platform. Being on the very stage that I used to watch through the years on TV while growing up to actually appearing on it to take a win, was an incredible experience for me. My whole family was there, it was just dope.
The third would be winning the BET Award. The whole process was a highlight for me – from receiving the call about the nomination to the actual win. My whole family and all of Ghana was so excited and happy for me. It was truly a huge moment in my life and my career.
The BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher would be the last one. That is a dream for every rapper, and from the time it was shot until it aired, I didn’t believe it would actually happen. I just kept doubting it. It was just too amazing. When I got to the venue in New York and saw EVE, I realized it was real. They first asked me to shoot an Interstitial and I realized that it was actually happening. When I saw Talib Kwelei and Ab Soul, I was blown away, then after watching it on TV, it hit me, I was the first Ghanaian to appear on the domestic BET cypher.
D233: Tell me just one thing that you have always wanted to do, but haven’t been able to make happen yet.
Sark: Growing up, I really wanted to be a doctor – I wanted to be in the hospital so I could help people. I am not sure what kind of doctor I would have become because I have always wanted to help people by saving lives. I don’t think I would be able to do that now, but it was something I always wanted to do.
D233: What’s next for you? Is the sky the limit or are you shooting for the moon?
Sark: I am most definitely aiming for the moon! I don’t plan to be limited – I want to go above the sky all the way up to God. I just want to achieve a lot and do some crazy things to drive the fans wild. I am never content, so I am not sure if I will ever get there but I will keep trying.
D233: What are the five most played songs on your favorite playlist?
Sark: Believe it or not, I actually listen to a lot of my own music. I try to motivate myself by listening to my own tracks and strive to improve and think beyond what I am currently doing. Other than my own stuff, I listen to Drake, Jay-Z, and a lot more of J. Cole.
D233: What would you like your footprint on this earth to be – long after you are gone?
Sark: I have never really thought about that, but I guess as a rapper who never accepted defeat. I am allergic to defeat. I am always moving. I try to create positions for myself so that defeat will never be an option. That’s what I do personally and I believe this way of thinking and strategy could help a lot of others. Surround yourself with a lot of positive energy, and you will discover that defeat will never be an option.
(Lilian)You are a great inspiration to many, many people including me. Thank you for being so very candid and honest. The Design 233 team and I thank you for this opportunity and will continue to always wish you the very best!
(Sark) Thank you very very much Lilian! God bless you always.
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