Stonebwoy: “Everything that lives is by God”
It’s just past 8pm on a Friday night and the narrow, winding road that leads to the Fairway Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort has been plunged into darkness by an electricity outage. When I eventually arrive and enter the five-star hotel on Johannesburg’s prestigious Randburg golf course I cross paths with a hotel staffer holding a bucket full of alcoholic beverages. He, too, is headed for the suite where Ghanaian reggae-dancehall superstar Stonebwoy is holding court for a week.
As artists, our job is seen like fun, but you’re still working.
Ten or so people, an even mix of men and women from the musician’s entourage, are crammed into a smallish room. A few more are camped by the balcony area overlooking the hotel’s pristine lawns. Bottles of Hennessey are scattered across the room and there’s a thick blunt on rotation. Stonebwoy isn’t here. I’m offered a drink by one of this posse who is entertaining the others by playing music off his iPhone. He explains that Stonebwoy is wrapping up a meeting nearby and will be joining us soon.
When Stonebwoy, with his distinctive thinly knotted dreadlocks running down the side of his shaven head, walks in about 30 minutes later the energy in the room amplifies. The smiles grow broader and the music gets louder. He reaches for the blunt and shares a joke with a few of the others before heading out again, his manager, Blakk Cedi, trailing close behind. On the arrival of his PR person we relocate to another room where Stonebwoy awaits. I ask him how he’s doing. He responds by reaching for my recorder and theatrically running through some Jamaican patois: “Uh huh. Ya maan. Respect. Bless up. Man up. Reeeespect.”
At the time of our interview he is revving up to make the pilgrimage – like many of his West African dancehall predecessors and contemporaries – to the land of dancehall itself, Jamaica. His expanding reach across the Caribbean has even seen him branch into collaborations with Trinidadian soca artists.
But for now he is in South Africa to shoot a couple scenes of MTV’s popular teen lifestyle television show, MTV Shuga. “We’ve been doing (big things) for quite a while now, and it’s only getting bigger,” he says. “I know that you can only be an A-lister to get on the MTV Shuga. As artists, our job is seen like fun, but you’re still working. So I never get to do anything extraordinary. But I enjoy seeing people, making contacts and just linking up with new people.”
His previous visit to South Africa was in October for the 2016 MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs), where he was nominated for Best Live Act and performed at the show. Stonebwoy has built a reputation as one of the continent’s most prolific performers, and he thrives on that: “I believe that’s the time where you have to break the song down or reinterpret the song for the people to understand,” he says. “So whilst they are sitting there. This is the time for you to strip it down and make it work for them. I put a lot into my performance. That’s your opportunity to interact with them.”
Even with the music, we have to praise Jah. In everything we do we have to praise Jah, we have to call on His name.
In 2015, Stonebwoy’s significant footing on the African music scene was recognised with a BET award for Best International Act (Africa). He won several other awards that year, including Best African Reggae, Ragga & Dancehall at the African Muzik Magazine Awards (Afrimma), and has since maintained an impressive showing at award shows.
Rap to riches
Before the prospect of silverware presented itself to him and before he imagined himself on the continent’s biggest stages, Stonebwoy was a venomous battle rapper tearing up the streets in his neighbourhood in the coastal city of Tema. He started gaining traction beyond his local community when he was a contestant on a popular radio rap show Kasahare Level. After the show, Stonebwoy teamed up with the already famous reggae-dancehall star Samini, who took him under his wing and helped him craft his unique sound.
Having laid down the groundwork and set in motion a clear strategic plan, Stonebwoy released several wildly popular singles in 2012 – including ‘Climax’ and ‘Ghetto Love’, off his debut album, Grade #1. Then came the anthemic ‘Pull Up’, a song which transcended the Ghanaian border. In 2015 Stonebwoy featured Patoranking, the Nigeria powerhouse he’s often pitted against by the media and at the continent’s biggest shows, on the ‘Pull Up’ Remix. “We met in Ghana around 2009 at a karaoke type programme,” he says of their relationship. “A couple years down the line, in 2013, when he started blowing up I was like, ‘That’s the brother from day.'”
By and large, Stonebwoy’s is a serious persona…
By and large, Stonebwoy’s is a serious persona, often devoid of the easy-going characteristics often associated with his more flamboyant peers. He’s decidedly reserved and maybe even spiritual, referencing Jah often in conversation. On the questions where I try to get to know more about him on a personal level he returns one-word answers or says plainly: “I don’t really know.”
“I have one philosophy, which is that I know that everything that lives is by God and His Imperial Majesty,” he says. “Even with the music, we have to praise Jah. In everything we do we have to praise Jah, we have to call on His name.” He refers to his fans as BHIM (Bless His Imperial Majesty) Natives. It’s his way of paying homage to God.
A week later, I arrive at the state-of-the-art Multichoice Studios to find Stonebwoy seated at a small café next to one of this massive television and film complex’s studios. It’s a few minutes before he goes live on one of South Africa’s premier music shows, Channel O’s Turn Up. He heads for the dressing room before emerging with a showy black outfit, complete with a diamond-encrusted Hublot wristwatch, a pair of silver and black-stoned bracelets and two gold necklaces.
A few days prior, on Valentines Day, he’d released a surprise video for his new single, a love song called ‘One Thing’. After his appearance on the show, I ask him how that came about. “That’s a new song we recorded towards the end of last year,” he says. “I was just looking for the right time to release it and we felt like Valentines was the right time to do so because it’s a love song that people can relate to.” The video sees Stonebwoy partaking in the dab, a popular dance move you wouldn’t have ordinarily associated with him. “Music and dance go together,” he explains, his eyes fixed on his cellphone. “At every point in time there’s a craze that everybody gets to kind of feel off. It’s just about that.”
Barely two months later, on his return from Jamaica, Stonebwoy bags yet more silverware, this time at the Ghana Music Awards, when he wins Reggae/Dancehall Song of the Year for ‘People Dey’ and Reggae/Dancehall Artiste of the Year for the third time in a row.
Stonebwoy’s always believed that he was cut from a different cloth. Despite a relatively timid demeanour, his is a lofty sense of belief that’s only been heightened by his success. “If I am being awarded on the biggest stages for serving people with music which gets them fulfilled one way or the other, then I am a happy person,” he says. “It’s just amazing that I’m getting the recognition and the awards for the job that I’m doing.”
From the June 2017 print edition