Changing Representations of Women in Ghanaian Popular Music

7 January 2010

Akofa A. Anyidoho

Popular music is a powerful medium for reinforcing and dictating what is in vogue or considered the norm for society. Researchers from the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Programme Consortium (RPC) have been researching and inspiring changing representations of women in Ghanaian popular culture. 

Women's portrayal in Ghanaian popular music

Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Awo Mana Asiedu, researchers from the West Africa Hub of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment RPC, have been studying how women are portrayed in popular music.

In June last year Adomako Ampofo and Aseidu identified 250 Ghanaian popular songs from the 1930s to 2008 to analyse lyrics and explore the themes around women. As part of the process they held a textual analysis workshop to strengthen skills in analysing lyrics and to highlight issues in translating lyrics from local Ghanaian languages into English. (Many of the popular songs were written in the Akan language and needed to be translated into English to facilitate easier analysis.)

The research was conducted with John Collins, a scholar in West African Popular Music at the Music Department of the School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana and Research Associate, Nana Dansowaa Kena-Amoah.

In July 2008, the Pathways team held a workshop with popular musicians, DJs and radio presenters to reflect on their song analysis. It was clear that many of the songs presented women in negative ways, for example, as mere sex objects, witches or as greedy and exploitative. Where women were presented in a positive way, it was mainly in the stereotypical manner as mothers and wives. Participants explored the possibilities of alternative song texts which would be empowering for women.

In search of music that redefines and empowers women

Following on from their research and dialogue with experts in the music industry, in April 2009 the Pathways team launched a song competition. Musicians were invited to submit entries on the theme of women's empowerment. The team hoped to find and inspire music that presents a different view from the gendered stereotypical messages about women that are presented in the mainstream media, and to set an example to music producers and composers.

Of the 26 entries which were received, two were from female musicians, reflecting the reality that music composition and production is a field dominated by men. A panel of nine judges, made up of musicians, music producers, gender researchers, music scholars and young music consumers, independently reviewed the entries based on a mutually agreed set of criteria: relevance of lyrics to women's empowerment, quality of the music (i.e. melody and arrangement), and innovation.

First prize was awarded to Amponsah Collins aka Kwabena Quaku, a 23 year old Computer Science student. His song highlights achievements of influential female figures over history and encourages today's women to strive to achieve similar heights. Below is the chorus to his song, As long as you are woman:

‘As long as you are woman you control the universe
As long as you are a girl you rule the world
For the strength of the world lies in a woman
Women have the power to change the world

Our mothers, sisters and wives
We're so proud of you because you gave us life
Nine months in your womb, but you still survived
Women have no limit; your limit is the sky

If I were a woman, I will control the universe
And if I were a girl I will rule the world
For the strength of the world lies in me
I have the power to change the world'

Osei Koranye's song, Emmaa Mmo which in Akan means, ‘Well done, Women', recognises women's contribution to society and was judged first runner up. Nana Asamoah aka Born Africans was second runner up with his song Equal Rights.

The winning entries were professionally recorded and a music video of Kwabena Quaku's song was produced.

On 21 November 2009 the three songs were launched at Alisa Hotel, Accra. The winning trio performed their songs, accompanied by a live band, to an audience of over 250 invited guests from varied backgrounds including the University of Ghana, members of the diplomatic corps, popular musicians, students and the media.

Empowering and socially conscious music is possible

The Pathways team is optimistic that by continued collaboration with the Musicians Union of Ghana (MUSIGA) and with a new generation of up and coming musicians they can help inspire the composition of socially conscious music that will influence the music and entertainment industry in the future. It is possible to compose music and produce music videos that empower and speak positively about women and yet be entertaining at the same time.

Akofa A. Anyidoho is the Programme Administrator and Communication Officer of the West Africa Hub of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment RPC.

Photo: Geoffrey Buta.