Paapa hMensa ’15 recorded most of his second album, Songs for Kukua, in his Sullivan dorm room.

Paapa hMensa ’15 recorded most of his second album, Songs for Kukua, in his Sullivan dorm room.

Songs for Kukua 

Ghanaian musician finds his voice at Reed.

By Casey Jarman | December 1, 2013

Growing up in Ghana, econ major Paapa hMensa ’15 was a quiet kid. Not shy, mind you—he didn’t lack friends or feel socially awkward—but when he opened his mouth to speak, the words stuck. Lots of children have trouble learning to enunciate, he explains from a picnic table on the north edge of campus, but he had something more serious—a severe stammer. 

So he kept quiet. “I didn’t want them to laugh,” he says. “I didn’t even want to use energy speaking.”

Sundays, though, brought some relief. When he sang with the church choir—comforted by the familiar hymns and the sea of voices swelling around him—his stammer loosened its grip. When he discovered hip-hop at age 10, he found that rapping—and later singing solo—gave him the same super power over his affliction.

“Music was what gave me some peace, some serenity,” says Paapa, who speaks quickly and confidently but still occasionally stammers. “It’s how I knew I wasn’t stupid.”

By the time he arrived at Reed on an academic scholarship in 2011, he had already begun to make a name for himself in the Ghanaian music scene. His debut album, Solar, was released online just as he was digging into Hum 110, Reed’s notoriously rigorous freshman humanities course. 

At first, he thought he would hide his music away from his Reed classmates, just as he had hidden his voice years before. “My thing was, I’m just going to be a student when I’m here—I’m just going to be no one,” he explains with a sly smile. “Then I’d go home and be whatever. Like a Superman and Clark Kent type of thing.”

But it didn’t take long for word to spread around campus about the student from Ghana who led a secret life as a songwriter, rapper, and producer.

Influenced by Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, Solar demonstrates Paapa’s talent for producing everything from graceful synth orchestration to beat-heavy club anthems, but it doesn’t sound particularly “African” to Western ears, save for standout track “Pure Water,” which samples the sounds of street vendors and traffic in the bustling Ghanaian capital of Accra. 

The discussion of what it means to make Ghanaian music is highly charged. U.S. hip-hop made a splash in Ghana two decades ago, and was quickly twisted into a funky blend of rap and Afro-pop dubbed “hip life.” These days it’s hard to know where hip-hop ends and hip life begins. “Even [Ghanaians] talk about what makes for Ghanaian music,” Paapa asks. “Is it me singing in [the African language of] Twi? Is it going very traditional? And what does that even mean, because for a long time the slave trade influenced how we sounded.”

Paul Nuamah Donkor, who runs the Skillions label Paapa records for and who raps under the name Jayso, says that Ghanaian rappers are finding their voice. “Most Ghanaian hip-hop artists have become very comfortable with themselves and their environment, and the lyrics communicate a lifestyle that is Ghanaian,” he says. “Back in the days, most rappers felt it wasn’t cool to talk about Ghana. Most wanted to be like the Western acts—but now that has changed.”

The biggest challenge facing Paapa in coming to Reed was not cultural or musical, but spiritual. Ghana is among the most faithful places on Earth—a full 96% of the country’s citizens consider themselves religious, according to a 2012 WIN-Gallup poll. Christianity is the runaway favorite, but a healthy Muslim population and scores of smaller regional faiths live in relative harmony throughout the country. In that respect, Solar—explicitly Christian and relentlessly positive—is a true product of its environment and a sharp contrast to a college whose ironic, unofficial motto, “Communism, Atheism, Free Love” would be enough to make most Ghanaians drop to their knees and pray. Even Paapa, who describes his upbringing as middle-class and comfortable, harbored preconceived notions about godless Western college students. “There weren’t any atheists to bump into in Ghana,” he says. “I had never met one before I came to Reed. So you have this perception of ‘the other’ and you have all these stereotypes.”

At first, conversations with classmates and lectures that tackled religion from a secular perspective were enough to shake his faith. “I have never been atheist,” he says. “But I was definitely agnostic for a while.” 

Instead of turning him away from faith, though, Paapa credits his Reed education—especially taking Hum 110 with Prof. Peter Steinberger [political science]—for crystallizing his convictions. “The religion I grew up with had a lot of ‘extra’ with it,” he says, explaining that most Ghanaian Christians consider speaking in tongues to be a necessity of the faith. “Coming here and having to go through these interpersonal and intrapersonal dialogues about faith, I’ve learned to let go of the extra. It makes me focus on the core. It has really influenced how I relate to my faith and my life.”

This deeper exploration of faith and self is evident throughout his sophomore album, Songs for Kukua, a record dedicated to the Ghanaian people that’s almost entirely devoid of rapping. Instead, Paapa offers up gorgeous, soulful vocals that tackle themes of faith, materialism, and African self-determination. Some songs, like the vocoder-and-synth-driven “Your Way,” remain explicitly devotional, but they are strewn with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Remarkably, Paapa recorded most of Songs for Kukua in his Sullivan dorm room on equipment he bought with money earned by working campus jobs such as house adviser, peer health advocate, and stage manager.

Paapa has a difficult time predicting his path after Reed. He returns to Ghana each summer, where he records at Skillions and serves as the creative director of an organization called Nima Muhinmanchi Art, which pairs older artists with young ones in the slums of Accra; the resulting murals are redefining the reputation of some of the city’s roughest areas. His work with the organization has the potential to evolve into a career, but with deep interests in everything from music to theology to education, he’s not ready to commit to any one field.

“My education used to be all about finding the answers, but now it’s about asking the right questions,” he says. “I am a big believer in questioning. Even the Bible says seek and you shall find.”

He owes that curiosity, in part, to Reed. “I came here looking for a challenge in every aspect: physically, spiritually, socially, and of course, intellectually,” he says, a wide grin stretching across his face. “I did get that challenge.”

Casey Jarman is an Oregon native living in exile in San Francisco, where he serves as managing editor of The Believer magazine.

Tags: Books, Film, Music, Performing Arts, Students