Over the last 10 years, music from West Africa has enjoyed a surge in popularity, but it’s mostly been viewed by global audiences through a narrow lens. Various African genres have developed in recent years, but with the notable exception of the Lagos alté scene, these sonic developments haven’t piqued global interest as much as afrobeat – which is helmed by crossover stars like Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage.
But that is changing.
When Yaw Tog’s Sore went viral in September 2020, it brought much-deserved attention to the thriving drill community in Ghana’s south – and further confirmed drill’s journey from a niche subgenre to a global musical language.
Having emerged in Chicago as a scuzzy offshoot of trap in the early 2010s, drill later took off in the UK, where the sound gained heavy, grime-like basslines. With American rappers such as the late Pop Smoke, Sheff G and 22Gz tapping up London producers like 808Melo, AXL Beats and Ghosty, the UK sound then heavily influenced Brooklyn’s drill wave. And since late 2019, young people from Kumasi, the capital of Ghana’s Ashanti region, have put their own spin on drill, which is known locally as asakaa.
These rappers are detailing the survivalist themes of life in their ’hoods, taking ownership of broader cultural narratives around their existence and expressing themselves freely over ominous beats in a mixture of English, Akan and one of its dialects, Twi. In Kumasi, young people are seeking to forge a new cultural identity with their own interpretations of North American slang, fashion and gang-like communities, to the point that the city has been nicknamed “Kumerica” and some of its neighbourhoods have been unofficially renamed after American areas (the Bantama suburb of Kumasi, for example, is known as “Florida”).
While elements of asakaa are gradually being co-opted into Ghana’s mainstream (where dancehall and highlife genres dominate), thanks to songs by heavy hitters like the Accra-based artists Joey B and Medikal, the trajectory of the scene is still shaped by Kumasi acts like Yaw Tog, Reggie, O’Kenneth and City Boy. Their music is more loyal to the darkness of the drill sound and documents the thrills of life in the Santasi neighbourhood where many asakaa rappers reside.
Here are some of the key acts to get familiar with.
One of Ghanaian drill’s biggest stars, Yaw Tog’s music belies his 19 years. Very few songs capture the essence of asakaa like his breakaway hit, Sore, which got to number one on Audiomack and Apple Music charts in Ghana in September 2020. “Santa boys, we don’t fear, we just do,” he raps in a guttural tone, serving a reminder of the potent willpower of Kumasi’s street rappers. While Sore has paved a path for him, Yaw Tog – also known as the Young Bull – has shown no sign of slowing down, following up Sore with a triad of releases that show his expansive range. Daben is a mellow aspirational cut while Africa and Y33gye retain the edgy flow that makes Ghanaian drill so addictive. With Stormzy (who is of Ghanian heritage) hopping on a remix of Sore, Yaw Tog could be on the verge of an international breakthrough.
Jay Bahd, 21, has appeared on pretty much every pivotal Ghanaian drill record to date, making his mark with a gravelly voice and deadpan delivery. When Virgil Abloh spotlighted his single Suzzy, released in April 2020, it was a sure sign that Bahd was a star in his own right. On Condemn, released as part of a spurt of year-end material from the Kumasi asakaa scene when almost every key artist was dropping music, Bahd’s street-savvy lyrics and melodic abilities were out in full force.
Collaboration is at the heart of asakaa, and Kawabanga’s Akatafoc benefits from its stellar cast of guests, who propelled the song to the top of Ghana’s Apple Music charts. After taking a break from releasing music earlier in his career, Kawabanga returned in 2020 with this classic Kumerica anthem. Built around an underlying eerie vocal sample and a flow which might bring to mind Pop Smoke, Akatafoc is a celebration of the urban youth lifestyle in Kumasi.
Sean has carefully cultivated asakaa, playing a significant role in its vitality. His Santasi-based label, Life Living Records is a launch pad for many of today’s eminent Kumerican drill artists. On his 2018 album, The Life of a Lifer, he explored an introspective and stripped-back hip-hop vibe, before drill’s global rise and Pop Smoke’s ascent encouraged him to try rapping over drill beats. One of his earliest attempts, White Money, a primer on fraud culture in Kumasi, caught a lot of attention. Since then, Life Living has come to thrive, in part thanks to Lifer’s ear for music, dedication and curatorial skills.
A self-confessed trapper, O’Kenneth’s melodic range is unmatched by most asakaa musicians. His singing ability has often been tapped to craft drill records with euphonic bridges. Features on Sore, Akatafoc and On My Mind have showcased his uncanny ability to bring mucky details about life in Kumasi to life without going off-cue sonically. Straight Outta Kumerica, his collaborative project with asakaa rapper Reggie, is arguably one of the most well-rounded projects to come out of the scene in 2020.
City Boy has worked extensively in the Kumasi underground for more than five years, experimenting with trap for much of his earlier career. After linking with Life Living Records in late 2018, he soaked up the drill influences on the group’s music, benefiting from production by Sean Lifer that’s taken his career up a notch. Calling himself the Prince of Kumasi, City Boy’s sonic inspirations pivot from song to song, complementing his painterly raps about life in Kumasi with songs dedicated to lovers and female admirers.