“Accra is a city full of die-hard people. You see it in streets, buses, marketplaces, bars, and everywhere else; people here have dreams that they hold on to, and actively work to achieve. Everywhere people find themselves, they work hard to create magic.”
“Accra living no be easy.” This very popular phrase, also the opening line for the 2014 Efya hit song titled Get Away, speaks to the sentiment of majority of the denizens of the burgeoning cosmopolis. Recently thrust into the limelight due to the Ghanaian government championing the Year of Return campaign, the magical city is more than its famous December concerts and parties. This is home to countless people trying to make ends meet in the creative industry; a fact that has been no small feat during this pandemic.
When the pandemic hit the shores of Accra, panic ensued. We experienced the mass buying that always seems to come with initial announcements of COVID-19 cases being recorded in hospitals. However, nobody was prepared for the price hikes. The prices for PPEs that used to be sold for cheap over the counter shot up as people tried to profit off the panic. Then the government announced a lockdown. Everybody was surprised to see the busy city come to a grinding halt. Accra, so full of life, was left with empty streets during the lockdown that lasted for three weeks. And, despite the city slowly resuming to full swings, some restrictions are still in place. As of early August, the borders to Ghana are still shut, and all places of business have a firm “No Mask, No Entry” rule. Everybody in Accra and beyond is adapting to the new normal. But people still remain affected by it too.
Some are being forced to adapt more than most, and a particular example is the creative community of Accra. From restricted movements to cancelled gigs, the problems that members of Accra’s creative community are seemingly insurmountable. And yet, quite a few of them have neither lost focus or faith. There’s a bubbling optimism among members of the community, and people are rising to the challenge that the pandemic has put before them. Catching up with a few of them, I got a sense of what the pandemic has meant for the community, and how people are working around it.
“Since the borders closed, price and availability of raw materials has been a real hustle.” Frederick Odoye, popularly known by Accra socialites as Chef Keeks, a self-taught private chef says. “Before the pandemic, I knew exactly where to get my ingredients and at what price. Now I have to play calculated guessing games just to be able to budget. What’s more annoying is not being able to get ingredients because “COVID-19 so we couldn’t get stock.”
Frederick was especially hit by the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic hitting Accra, Frederick and his business partner, Salma Braimah, had been organising successful pop-up food events across Accra for almost a year, even pioneering their own style of food called Ghanaian Intercontinental Fusion. BlueCheese, the pop-up food company he co-owns with Salma, had to stop operating because of social distancing. All his planned pop-up events were cancelled. Despite the cost in opportunities, he took the survival route of adapting to the changing climate. “As a creative who’s work requires people being present, it was a very stressful time. We had to shut that down completely. That took us to the drawing board and eventually we came up with the current delivery experience.”
This is how BlueCheese Lorraine, the delivery part of BlueCheese was formed. BlueCheese Lorraine packages the whole BlueCheese experience into pre-made, build-it-yourself meals with custom designed packaging that allows the meals to remain fresh for longer. BlueCheese Lorraine, with its ever-changing weekly menus, is not the only new direction that Chef Keeks has taken because of this pandemic. “As much as it was an inconvenience, it has given birth to a few more services we weren’t offering pre-COVID. We also offer private home tutoring and catering services now. We basically design a course around your needs, and teach you as we go along.”
Joseph Nti is a recognisable voice in the budding podcast scene of Accra. But the host of the popular Sincerely Accra podcast wears many hats. The content creator, and documentary filmmaker has made a name for himself producing Accra’s favourite YouTube trivia show – Off The Top. With over 5,000 subscribers, Off The Top focuses on original content centered around trivia questions games. When the pandemic hit, Joseph was unsure as to how to proceed with recording new Off The Top episodes. This was because recording required multiple presences on set, and that option was not available due to social distancing. But then, he managed to work around a solution.
“One of my good friends had suggested it to me during the lockdown, when everybody was jumping on Instagram Live and I really didn’t think I would get much patronage but he nudged and I gave in. After I run through the cast members I was stuck. My friends had started to suggest celebrities and I thought it was a ridiculous idea but with most of my creative ventures I took a leap of faith and DMed a couple of people and they agreed and the rest just happened.”
After seeing the success of his Instagram Live sessions, the documentary filmmaker firmly believes that the pandemic is an obstacle that the creative community can overcome.
“Creative problem solving will definitely kick in and people will start figuring out how to do what they do in a safe and socially distanced way. Creatives are vital to many businesses and if businesses have found a way to work around it, creatives will too. I’ve already seen photographers and videographers working again on socially distanced sets and music artistes holding virtual shows and concerts. We’ll find a way, I think now more than ever, creatives will pull through.”
In the music industry, BRYAN THE MENSAH has been prolific. In 2020 alone, the contemporary artist and producer, has released two EP projects, “I Don’t Feel Like Going Outside” and “Not Going Outside”. And true to his word BRYAN THE MENSAH has not been going outside a lot during this pandemic.
“Being on lockdown has been quite refreshing but restrictive at the same time. Refreshing because it serves as a retreat for me to sit back and redesign myself in the sense of what direction I wanted my career to go. I’ve learnt a lot more about being an artist in the internet age and how best I can utilise it. But it’s been restrictive too because now I can’t go to the studio. That’s still okay because I have my equipment here with me at home so the job continues.” The multi-disciplinary artist says in his characteristic upbeat nature.
BRYAN THE MENSAH, who is currently working on his debut album Road to Hastafari, was undeterred by the effects of the pandemic on his career. Optimistically, he stated: “It actually opened up a lot more opportunities because I discovered platforms that I could use to collaborate with other people around the world which were also very high paying and satisfactory all from the comfort of my home.”
BRYAN THE MENSAH is not the only person comfortable with spending more time at home. Accra-based writer moshood shares a similar mindset. “In my case not so much has changed, really; it’s been pretty much the same-old operating from home and being an actual homebody.” But moshood is very aware of how the pandemic has affected other artists. “This situation was a good reminder of how privileged I am to have the means and resources (including the human) that ensured that I could survive under such restrictive conditions without needing to step out to earn a livelihood. I’ve been grateful all over again for that.”
moshood captures these sentiments perfectly in “Support vs Semantics”, an essay about the coronavirus pandemic and the idea of an artist community in Ghana. So eye-opening was the essay that political activist Barbara Ntumy was impelled to start a crowdfunding campaign for Ghana-based artists hit hardest by the pandemic; a campaign that moshood contributed in bringing to life.
Singer and actress Adomaa Adjeman, was ready to talk about the effects of the pandemic on her craft. “It’s been interesting,” she said. “The major source of income is the gigs, and those have been hit so we’ve been trying to find other ways to make money with our craft. It’s not been easy.”
Recently back in Ghana after a Nollywood stint, Adomaa spoke on support for artists as a way to minimise the effects on their art. “Support, and not just for me. We’re in this together. All the various kinds of support would be nice. Yes, all.”
Adomaa released a project earlier this year titled Barely Adomaa, but that’s not the last time we’re going to be hearing from the elusive artist anytime soon. “I’ve been working on a very interesting project. If everything goes according to plan, it’ll be a mind-blowing experience when it comes out. Looking forward to it,” she responded. “I also got to work in Nollywood as the lead in a new TV series. Can’t wait till it finally hits Ghanaian screens!” She said excitedly. The television series, Deceptive Measures, is already showing in Kenya. It features actors from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
Just as our current climate has forced us to abandon certain traditions (think about the last time you shook someone’s hands), embrace new ways of living, new fashion ideas (face masks are now matching dresses), and new ways of conducting our day to day activities, it is also serving as an agent of change for how creatives conduct business. An obvious example is Poetyk Prynx, a Ghanaian spoken-word performer, graphic designer and mental health activist.
“It would have been physical exhibition if corona wasn’t present but it was really an awesome and fulfilling experience experimenting with the idea of a virtual exhibition.” Poetyk Prynx answered, when I asked about The Matrix Exhibition, a virtual exhibition he organised via Instagram Live. The Matrix Exhibition, which run for three days in late July, was peculiar in how it was run, and how it was inspired. Both aspects being heavily influenced by the pandemic.
“I started something called the Quarantine Roster during the lockdown period. It came with a new task for each day. One of the tasks was to dress up for different photoshoots being featured on different major magazines. I had fun shooting for the task. When I was sorting the pictures out, it hit me that I have unconsciously put three facets of who I am into three categories and each of them inspired me to write poems. Then came the question of how to share this new discovery with others. I thought the best way to do it was an exhibition because it allowed me to share the poems while curating it in the direction that I want.”
Starting things during the lockdown seems to be a trend in Accra creatives, and is demonstrative of how creativity has not been dulled by the times we find ourselves in. For some, it meant taking up educational courses that would later inspire something big. When Darkor Ofosu-Dorte, a young fashion designer and entrepreneur, released her swimwear line she was overwhelmed by how much of an immediate success it was.
“It actually was an experiment to test out some branding and marketing strategies I had learnt from some courses I took during the lockdown,” the owner of Swims by Didi and Darkor’s, two popular brands among Gen Z Ghanaians, recounted. Running a simple business model of create-and-deliver, Darkor’s businesses still thrive despite restrictions. However, the businesses were still affected in more ways than one. “It was quite annoying because I had to wait a while for the ease of restrictions to get a lot of things done, and properly execute my ideas for stuff like photoshoots. I kept feeling like it could have all been done earlier but God’s time really is best, everything worked out in the end.”
After Ghana recorded its first few cases of corona, things slowed down for everybody. It wasn’t any different for Kobby Adu, a creative entrepreneur of renown.
“I lost some jobs that I had pre-planned months ahead for but it didn’t stop me from getting work. Because everyone was observing the same restrictions however, it was difficult for me to be creative, as easily as I might have before COVID-19, from our new shared life experience,” the Creative Consultant for Iktschy (pronounced as ‘itchy’) Studios said. Kobby, whose styling, directing and designing works span the fashion, entertainment, and interior design industries, was however undeterred.
“Working as a creative during the pandemic actually has not been as bad as I thought it would be. There is something about the escapism artistic work provides for the consumer that makes creative professionals so necessary even in the direst of situations. Things definitely slowed down, but when they did, I was able to breathe rather than feel overwhelmed by how demanding life can get as a creative entrepreneur in Accra.”
But despite the optimism, he acknowledged some challenges the pandemic had posed to his creative process. “In all honesty, it is still challenging to dream up the way I used to. I’m not fully qualified on why that is though, but I’m most certainly investigating it every day and challenging myself by still pressing on to achieve my goals.”
Accra is a city full of die-hard people. You see it in streets, buses, marketplaces, bars, and everywhere else; people here have dreams that they hold on to, and actively work to achieve. Everywhere people find themselves, they work hard to create magic. And the artist and creative community are a beautiful example of this known fact. Despite price hikes, cancelled gigs, lost clients and a lack of a thriving environment for inspiration, people still remain positive about the future. Content is being created, creative processes and outputs are being redefined, and work is still going. Accra hasn’t been stopped by this virus, and it’s unlikely that it ever will be.
There remains an air of hope and perseverance hanging lightly on the streets of Accra. An aura that shall remain, as long as we acknowledge the hard work and effort that the community puts into staying alive and thriving. In the hopeful words of Adomaa, “We’re creative. We will adjust. We ARE adjusting. There will be new ways of creating and sharing all we create, and I’m here for it.”