A couple of weeks back I interviewed Fuse ODG and, for one reason and another, the interview never made it to press. It seems crazy to leave it in the vaults, ‘specially as Fuse has just won a well-deserved MOBO.
I’m assuming you already know who Fuse is – his breakthrough single Antenna spliced Ghanaian flex with big room RnB, and the end result was pure, genius pop… After Antenna’s chart success, music biz strategy demanded that Fuse kept the pressure up. To that end his current label, 3 Beat/Universal, decided to reissue Azonto, a track he’d put out to underground acclaim earlier in the year. I caught Fuse in his studio on the week of the Azonto reissue to talk about the future of Afrobeats, his attempts to frame new narratives of Africa, UK anti-immigrant sentiment, and why English people are pretending to speak pidgin…
McQuaid: How are you feeling about Azonto coming out again?
Fuse: I’m really excited- I felt like Azonto was more underground, but it deserves that decent platform, deserves a fair chance to shine in the mainstream. It did well in the afrobeats scene, but its crossing over, and I’m really excited about that transition to the mainstream. It’s still early stages in terms of afrobeats.. Everything’s blowing up and becoming more popular, it’s not easy for any culture to cross over to another culture, so it’s an ongoing journey. I see more people coming through though, as long as we keep the tunes coming.
I first heard you on I Need Jollof, and the thing that sticks out from that track is the humour and the intricate word play – have you had to tone down both to reach a wider audience? And do you think your new fan base is aware of you as a lyricist as well as a pop star?
In terms of my singles, yeah, I’ve learnt to tone it down. Sometimes I don’t even write lyrics down, what comes into my head I try not to think about too tough, I just let it naturally come. Cos when I think about it too much, I’m quite a deep person, but I want to make music that just connects with people. A song like I Need Jollof is just crazy, mad word play and it’s too much for some people - well, for most people cos they still don’t get it!
In my album I’m able to do stuff like that and have a balance. It’s got the bangers and the deeper stuff. I think people who know me for Antenna and Azonto will be really, really surprised. I’ve been looking forward to showing that side of me as an artist – it’s a journey and I’m gonna be here for a long, long time now.
So what have you been writing about on the album?
I’ve been writing about my experience and other people’s experience, centred around the idea of new Africa. Sometimes I’m talking about Africa as though it was a girl – the album is called TINA, which stands for This Is new Africa, and certain songs it sounds like I’m talking about a girl but I’m actually talking about the continent.
Africa’s a pretty big place to condense into one thing – when you say Africa do you mean West Africa?
I’m not even talking about the physical continent. When I say TINA, to me it’s the ‘new Africa’. You don’t have to be in Africa to be part of the new Africa. That’s what I keep telling people, it’s about us as people acting right and being successful ourselves, and that’s us showing Africa in a new light, in our actions, in the intangible stuff. Like for example, you might be based in America and you do community projects. It’s important that people know – especially if your African – it’s important that the world sees what you’re doing to inspire other African s that they can do the same thing. If you’re a citizen of Africa you’re just someone - for example, me as an artist I’m doing my thing, I’m just being myself doing music, I just happen to be African, and I want the world to know that’s that where I’m from, cos I feel like when I was young growing up the media would show Africa in such a negative way that I don’t wanna just be screaming that Africa is a great place to be, I want to be that great place – I want to be that great person, someone to look at and say ‘oh he’s from Africa,’ and, yeah, Africa’s not just about the negative stuff; my actions will let you know that rah, Africa’s brilliant! It’s an attitude, it’s a lifestyle.
I think when a lot of English people think of Africa, they’ve had their view shaped by things like Band Aid, which showed this deliberately one dimensional fantasy of a starving continent. Bearing that in mind would you let yourself be involved if someone like Bob Geldof wanted to do some more fund raisers for Africa?
Would I be in a new Band Aid? Well, Yeah cos I’d get to learn and network, and poverty is real in Africa – I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, it definitely exists, but the media just blows up that one part – I’ve got a charity that helps orphans in Ghana cos the struggle is real, but I’m also saying there’s another side to Africa; why always highlight the negative stuff?
How strong are your links to Ghana? Have you spent long there?
I went to primary school in Ghana then came back to secondary school here – I’ve got experience in both worlds and that’s what’s made me what I am. This country has got so many opportunities that I feel that some people sleep on, I’ve seen that although there is a future in Ghana, it doesn’t necessarily have all those opportunities. I’m so happy to be from London as well, from the music to having access to certain resources, I really appreciated that. Coming from Ghana I knew I had to be successful, I couldn’t waste time whether I was in school, or anything I did. London gave me the mentality that I’ve got, it made me the wicked person I am, taught me to think smart.
So as an immigrant who’s showing love to both Ghana and England, what did you make of the hardcore anti-immigrant stance the UK government is pushing, with things like the immigrants-go-home vans driving round London?
It’s crazy cos a lot of people from the UK go to other countries, so does that mean people from the UK shouldn’t be able to go anywhere else? It’s mad for the government to be so anti-immigrant, but they like to highlight one part. Yes people are coming into the country but people are going out of the country as well. When you stop people coming in you could be stopping a brain surgeon who’s going to save the life of whoever made that legislation’s grandson. Politicians need to think deeply about the decisions they make because they’ve got repercussions. It’s deep. They should be easy, let the world be free. People are people, we’re all flesh looking for a better life and happiness, don’t waste time on negative stuff. We need to focus on what we do have in this country, and how we can make it better, how we can be a better nation. There’s so much negativity in the world, there’s no point dwelling on it. It’s about moving forward every time and the government need to recognise that. We’re all spirits in the world yo!
OK, so let’s get positive- what London artists have been important to you?
So Solid, Sway and Kano all influenced me in terms of style, and rapping in your own accent. All of them were keeping it real – a lot of people used to rap in an American accent but they were spitting like themselves, and I was inspired by that, using my own voice, my African twang.
And with the Afrobeats scene exploding, it seems like there’s never been better to have that African twang…
The Afrobeat scene is part of people feeling proud to be African. Back in the day it wasn’t this cool to be African. People would pretend to be Jamaican – people who were a mix between Trinidad and Jamaica and African would say they were Caribbean and its kinda changed now, and the Afrobeats scene has played a part in that. It’s still a long journey, whether you’re from the Caribbean or not, we’re all African.
I guess you’ll really know it’s cool to be African when people start putting on a dodgy pidgin accent in the way you used to get people speaking fake patois…
It’s happening now yo! I’ve seen even certain white people trying to speak in fake pigeon in certain circles.. it’s become cool to have a little broken English ..!
Haha I don’t know what you’re talking about-o …. So on another topic, how do you think the scene can move forward? Does it matter that loads of releases are in really poor quality formats?
The African artists need to learn to use iTunes, to me that’s where you get the best quality songs – I’ve been collaborating with people and helping them establish themselves outside their country. Their learning, everyone’s learning ! Hopefully we’ll progress. The scene is a family. Grime was more of a battle scene. This isn’t a battle we’re about community. We’re all supporting each other. To me, Africans are loving individuals, we like to support each other. The music isn’t anything that’s aggressive and that helps, cos artists like Mista Silva, Kwamz, that’s man dem, but the music they’re making is so fun. They’re moving like grime man dem, but with love. That’s the difference, it’s all love. That can go a long way to keep a whole scene moving instead of all of us battling each other.
And are you getting the right support from record labels?
The major labels are still catching up – to be fair to my label 3 Beat, they’re ahead of everyone, they’re taking music for what it is and not trying to corner it. They’re the first label I’ve encountered who understand music and don’t try and corner it. All the other labels need to catch up.
And are you doing more with Wyclef after the Antenna team up? That was a big profile raiser…
I’ve stayed in touch with Wyclef cos we know that what we do is more than music. We’re linking up soon, and what we’re gonna do is gonna be a crazy movement. I don’t want to go to the States and do one or two shows – I want to go on tour, and that’s taking time cos we need the right promoters in every city, so we’re taking our time. But I did recently go to Stamford University over there to perform and give a talk about TINA. It was more than music, I wanted to go and learn from them as well. We were talking about what we can do to develop the new Africa, how we can better the continent. I was so inspired, it made me realise there’s so many people that are doing something for the continent, but other Africans don’t know. Stamford did a lot for my mental power and my energy…
And is something concrete coming out of that?
I’m trying to provide a platform where people share what new Africa should be, I want to push the movement to become the hub for people across the world. Stay tuned, cos the TINA website is coming. We’re gonna raise the levels and make this platform. It’s much bigger than music for me. That’s why my songs are powerful, they’re not just a song, they’re a message. Azonto and Antenna just reached Jamaica and that’s so important to me, its spreading the message that Africa’s cool- this is where you’re from, and we need to be working together.
To me the music is just a vehicle to be able to speak to the people. So once you put me on that stage I make sure the message comes. So I’m in the club and I’ll give advice to people on how to better their life. If they’re out there taking shots, I’m like ‘Yo, be proud of who you are’. I’m blessed to be able to get into so many different venues to try to connect with people, to try and get through to people and potentially change lives. I don’t have to put something deep or explicit on a track, I can go light, but when you put me in there, it’s over. Like getting on the Wireless stage was amazing cos I could get the message across to so many people. For me it’s just a vehicle to get through to the world. It’s crazy, everything we do is just astonishing to me…