Episode 5 of the OneBeat Podcast takes us to Accra, Ghana where we meet spoken word poet, vocalist and organizer Poetra Asantewa. Poetra shares with us her inspiring vision for a better future in Ghana and around the world, and the work she is undertaking to inspire and empower women creatives in her community.
This month we visit Accra, Ghana for a conversation with the multifaceted artist Poetra Asantewa. Poetra is so many things: A spoken word artist. A vocalist. An organizer. A feminist. A builder of community. Poetra has a vision -- a vision for creating a better future, through literature, art and community; for archiving and reshaping our past through storytelling, creative expression and conversation; for telling and retelling our stories so that we can see and hear a fuller picture and realize the potential in ourselves.
There is so much we could discuss with Poetra -- she is a published poet, an accomplished spoken word performer, a composer, a vocalist, a writer, an organizer. She founded her own publication, Tampered Press, to provide a platform for other artists and writers in West Africa and beyond. She launched a non-profit and annual residency program for women creatives in Ghana called Black Girls Glow, to foster collaborations among women artists and explore ways that art can build community. Through all of this work, she is actively building infrastructures in her community to help artists thrive, and is inspiring artists all around her to grow and build as well. And she has a vision for something even greater.
Produced and Edited by Nyokabi Kariũki and Elena Moon Park
Additional Story Editing by Charlotte Gartenberg
Mixed by Zubin Hensler
Executive Producers: Jeremy Thal, Elena Moon Park, and Kyla-Rose Smith
Featuring: Poetra Asantewa & Ria Boss
A full playlist of music featured on this episode can be found here
OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, & produced by Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation.
Poetra Asantewa: One of the things that Ghana has a problem with is so much of our history doesn't include women. But it doesn't mean women didn't exist. And literature is one of the ways in which we can correct the past. And it’s also being used to imagine the future.
Musical Interlude: Hungry by Poetra Asantewa
Elena: Hello, and welcome back to the OneBeat Podcast. My name is Elena Moon Park.
Kyla: And I’m Kyla-Rose Smith. You’re listening to a show that begs the question: What role does creative expression, music and sound, play in transforming our societies and our world? In the OneBeat Podcast, we talk to artists from around the globe to ponder that question together.
Elena: So today we take a journey to Ghana in West Africa to talk with the spoken word artist Poetra Asantewa. (Thanks for having me!)
Kyla: Poetra Asantewa is many things. A spoken word artist. A vocalist. An organizer. A feminist and leader. A builder of community.
Elena: Poetra has a clear and strong vision. She has a vision for creating a better future in her country and in the world. She has a vision for archiving and reframing the past. For the telling and retelling of our stories so that we can see and hear a fuller picture, and realize the potential in ourselves.
Kyla: Poetra is working hard to build infrastructures in Ghana that will allow people to explore how artistic and creative expression can bring a better world into existence.
Elena: There is so much to talk with Poetra about, as you’ll hear over two interviews, held in the winter and spring -- she is a published poet and an accomplished spoken word performer, who started her own publication, called Tampered Press, and has also built an artist residency program for women in Ghana called Black Girls Glow. And she has no plans of stopping there.
Musical Interlude: Hungry by Poetra Asantewa
Elena: So here’s Poetra Asantewa, painting me a picture of her childhood & upbringing in Ghana.
Poetra Asantewa: I grew up in Accra, in a small suburb called Old Fadama. And I remember my childhood as being very fun and just dancing around.
My mother was a seamstress. She used to sew when I was really young, um, that has evolved into, so she's now a teacher, and my father was also into sound.
So, both my parents, I regard them as artists, even though they don't regard themselves as artists. And I'm heavily influenced by how they raised me. But I think one of the ways that I have been influenced by them is by just observing them, by just seeing them live their lives.
My mother had a vision of her children being musical. She loved singing, especially, um, church hymns.
She used to do this thing when she hears a song on the radio, she would harmonize along with it.
This manifests in my music-making, i love harmonies, and i think that’s where i got it from.
I feel like my parents were raised in a time of scarcity where they had to make use of very little. And so it influenced how they raised us, on how we were supposed to use things. We were supposed to be very careful. We were supposed to be wise about everything. Um, but I'm a millennial and I like having excess, even if I'm not going to use all of it. And so sometimes there's that conflict between how I've been raised in my home and how I interact with other millennials. But it has been, in most cases, a healthy conflict, because it's like I'm learning from two worlds. And because they were raised up in an era where there was a famine in Ghana, and I have never experienced a famine in my time, I have their experience and my experience to learn from.
Elena: So, Poetra, can you tell me about how you started writing, and if and how your childhood home influenced that process?
Poetra: I always say that one of the reasons why i’m even remotely a writer is because i was nurtured as a good reader. My father was, is, a Pan-African and he had all sorts of books on African leaders, both fiction and nonfiction. There was a library in my house when I was growing up. We had reading times. I used to treasure receiving books as gifts, I still do.
Musical Interlude: P.O.A. by Poetra Asantewa
Poetra: One of the things I loved about reading was how you would be transported, or you'd be moved. Like, you're sitting in one person's bedroom, the next minute you're in a war zone, the next minute you can visualize what somebody's voice sounds like. Just layers and layers of worlds. And I, I like that shift -- to be yourself, but to also see into another’s, is something that I loved when I was reading for as long as I could remember. And so I moved that into how I practice as a poet.
Elena: So who are some of the poets or writers who really influenced you in your early days of writing?
Poetra: One person who stands out for me is Ama Ata Aidoo.
Ama Ata Aidoo (interview excerpt): Well, being a writer, really, it is crazy. It is really a self-consuming kind of activity.
Poetra: Ama Ata Aidoo is a Ghanaian writer, who, if you asked a teenager and you asked a 70 year old, they would both know who she is. That's how relevant she is, both in her time and the younger generation’s time. And it wasn't only in her writing, but it was in her assertiveness in holding writing as a very powerful tool, such that she'd be identified as only a writer.
Ama Aidoo: You know, writing a book, it's tense. When you finish writing the book, you are tense, because you wonder, how will the publishers and editors react to a book, to a story? Uh, even when it's published, you wonder, why are they saying that my books are selling in Ghana, in Nigeria, in Sierra Leone, Botswana, Lesotho, even South Africa, uh, Kenya. And I'm still so poor.
Poetra: I think the difference between my parents' generation and my generation is, you couldn't just be a writer back then. I mean that problem is prevalent now, but we are pushing to change that narrative. But Ama Ata Aidoo was one of those people who decided this is who she is and that's what she's going to follow. And the common thread through her stories is, um, she centers women. And she writes about their lives in different ways that weren’t typically seen during that time.
Ama Aidoo: The history and the literature of human people is about the actions and the falling of men. I mean, and that literature is really about what makes men, and what men do. Not about women. So if you write about women, suddenly everybody’s asking you, why are all your main characters women? I am a woman. When I stand in front of a mirror in the morning, I don't see a man.
Poetra: Back then, very few people were talking about feminism, and she wrote in such a way that she made women the owners of their own life.
Ama Aidoo: You know, a feminist is just somebody, not necessarily a woman, who believes in the potential of women to get to the highest possible level of development, you know. Given the facilities a society makes available.
Elena: So Poetra, do you identify as a feminist?
Poetra: Yes I do.
Elena: And what is your relationship to feminism?
Poetra: Um, my relationship to feminism is simply equality. I know that in the past, I've answered this with a righteous anger, like, “Feminism exists because there's, there's historical evidence that women haven't had the same platform, same foundation, same opportunities, et cetera. Why am I being asked this question over and over again?”
Um, but I think that being a feminist has also given me the space. I have had to find the space for softness. And having the space for softness means that I am willing to have conversations, and I'm also open to knowing when not to have these conversations. But yeah, feminism for me is, really, I'm rooting for women. I'm rooting for women to be able to have the freedom to assess things so that they can decide if they want to partake in it.
Musical Interlude: Naked Listeners by Poetra Asantewa
Elena: So, I’m recognizing your connection to Ama Ata Aidoo as a fully developed writer with a strong self-validated voice representing women, which is also how I see you and your writing, as a self-possessed writer who empowers others with her voice. But you’re also such a powerful performer of poetry. Can you tell me more about how and when you discovered your voice as a performing artist?
Poetra: I started writing pretty early. But it wasn't until I went to a poetry slam, a poetry meeting, there were other poets who were reciting their poems. And I said, okay, I'm going to also memorize my poem and come back in two weeks. And I did that. And I sucked, to be honest, it took me a long time to get comfortable with stage. But I think, even though I wasn't aware, that was the beginning of me defining who I am as an artist…
I remember that after that the first time I performed, afterwards, um, a couple of days later, I went online looking for, you know, performance poetry. And I had seen a video of Maya Angelou reciting her very famous poem.
“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou: You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Poetra: And I think the first thing that captured my attention was her voice. It was as if the moment she spoke, the words came into existence. And it wasn't just the writing itself. It was the way that she vocalized the writing. There was this allure to it that made me see myself in her.
Angelou: Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Just cause i walk as if i have oil wells pumping in my living room
Poetra: I didn't even think of it as a poem then. I didn't think of it as, you know, what we term spoken word. I just was captivated. And it took a while to be able to say that's what I want people to feel when they hear me. To forget that this is a poem and to be in the moment, whatever this is saying.
And it’s an art, it takes a skill to be able to do that, and that’s what i was committed to do. And it took a couple of tries, it took a couple of years, actually, to be able to be affirmed that i had found my voice.
Angelou: Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past rooted in pain
A black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling and bearing in the tide.
Poetra: And one of the things I later on learned and love about Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison as well, was that they were invested in supporting other writers. Other women in their circles. Their work was committed to not just improving their individual practice, but improving their community, wherever they found themselves in. They wanted to be part of the growth of the people. And that is something that I have learned that I take on in my own practice.
Musical interlude: Me So Mu Gyi by Poetra Asantewa
Elena: So, Poetra, let’s talk more about your very deep practice of improving your community, of being part of the growth of the people, as you say. I’d like to ask you first about some of the communities you’ve sought out, and then about communities you’ve built yourself. First, what drew you to applying for OneBeat, a global music-based diplomacy program?
Poetra: How I found out about OneBeat was that a friend actually sent it to me. And I was of the mind that I didn't really feel like an artist. I didn't really feel like I could do this. For me, it was something that you have to, it has to exist as a hobby. And I remember thinking, there's no way I'm going to get into this. So for me, I was really surprised that I got in. It really just blew my mind to be there.
And I think that's one of the reasons why I strongly believe that residencies, workshops, fellowships are so important for African artists, because it really affirms your art. It really affirms yourself in your art. It really affirms for you that your work matters. That your effort matters. I didn't know this about OneBeat before, but it really was something that really affirmed for me, my capability as an artist.
Elena: Let’s listen to a clip of Ellen Pakkies, a collaborative composition featuring Poetra Asantewa from OneBeat 2016. The piece tackles a dark subject -- addiction and the loss of a child -- but in making it, Poetra showcases her deep belief about art, literature and music and its ability to heal us, draw us out, confront our trauma -- especially when we create it together.
Musical Interlude: Ellen Pakkies by OneBeat 2016 Fellows
Elena: So when you returned home from OneBeat, you started an amazing program called Black Girls Glow -- an artist residency program for women artists in Ghana. It’s focused on collaboration, recording, producing and performing original pieces. All with a goal of building supportive community. Can you tell me a bit about how that program started?
Poetra: So, Black Girls Glow was inspired by OneBeat. I remember that when we were at OneBeat, we had this short gathering, and we were told that, we advise alums to create something in their community. And i remember thinking every Ghanian artist has to experience this, especially the women. I just know that it would be so beneficial for them. So I went back home really thinking that this has to happen.
And I spoke to a friend, um, a fellow poet. You know, let's just have a small, thing, even if it's just a weekend, three days, let's just come together, talk together and let's see how that works.
So I reached out to four other women artists, and we scheduled a date. And we ate, we talked, we created together. And it was very inspirational. So we got back to Accra and I knew it couldn't end there.
Musical Interlude: Bloom by Black Girls Glow artists
Poetra: It was challenging. I felt like not everybody who was on board understood what I was doing. But they were inspirational women, so we came together and created an album. And we had a listening session and it was the first time, the very first time that I saw the community come together to come and raise funds.
I was blown away by it. I wasn't expecting people to actually buy the art in support of Black Girls Glow. But that happened. And that was amazing. And that just gave me confidence that this has to continue. This absolutely has to continue.
Musical Interlude: Bloom by Black Girls Glow artists
Poetra: It's great that we can bring artists together, so that we can create. But I don't want it to just be creating for creating sake. Every woman comes there with her own self, with her own backgrounds, with her own joys, with her own trauma. And the hope is that we can get together and create in a way that allows each one of us to see into each other's world.
Ria Boss: My experience with Black Girls Glow was transformative.
Elena: This is Ria Boss, a vocalist based in Accra, and a first-year Black Girls Glow participant.
Ria: I had recently moved back to Ghana after living in the States for almost 10 years. And when I came back, Poetra reached out to me about something that she was starting -- an initiative -- that was fostering collaboration between women creatives. Being in this kind of space, especially here in Ghana was extremely empowering.
The story I would like to share from the program for me is the concert. That for me was one of the most beautiful evenings of my life. On the stage, we had set up these like little couches that we were sitting on. And so at every point in time, no matter what song was being performed, all six of us were on the stage together.
And I found that to be extremely empowering because no matter what your support is right there. And I think that even made the concert even better because when you know that you've got your sister right behind you, it gives you immense confidence. Um, and that's something that I truly love. It’s something that I’ll never forget. And I think I always say this when people ask me about what the program meant to me. Um, and it's sisterhood.
Music interlude -- Harmony by Black Girls Glow artists
Elena: So, Poetra, what do you hope for Black Girls Glow to look like, say, on the 10 year anniversary of the program?
Poetra: Yeah, for now I feel like it's really limited to Accra. And so I would love to open it up to the entire Ghana and then to West Africa.
But yeah, my dream is bigger, and those institutions are just baby steps. They're just the beginning. And the dream is to have something that connects a larger group of people, that impacts a larger group of people, and not just initiated by me. One of the things in starting Black Girls Glow that has made me discover, is that if we are strategic in who we pick for the residencies, they become leaders in themselves who also start other small but institutional programs as well.
And that's the goal. To be able to start something that ricochets, and everybody is coming together in the community. Because I can't do it on my own. Another person can't do it on their own. So the motivation is to be able to build connections and networks in such a way that other people will also take the initiative to create.
Musical Interlude: Futuraccra by Poetra Asantewa
Elena: So Poetra, I can clearly see your commitment to community in your work, but also how it’s so rooted to a sense of place. So I’d love to talk about your relationship to Accra, your home city, and to Ghana.
Poetra: My relationship to Accra. Yeah, I have a complicated relationship with my country in general. A lot of people are trying to get by with what they have, or are trying to create things from scratch. I think that's what Accra is, is known for, like, Accra is the hustler city. And maybe it isn't too far-fetched to say that in every major city, everybody's trying to, you know, make something of themselves in that city. But Accra really is the place where you will become a resource, whether you like it or not, you become a resource to yourself for yourself.
And that's what Accra reminds me of. Like Accra reminds me that I have to make this happen by hook or crook. For me, Ghana is that person who you know has the potential to be better. You know they even have the resources to be better. But they just aren't moving at the speed that they should be.
And i think that’s what i mean by, we are lacking these structures. So it feels like every artist is starting from scratch, is building community from scratch. Like, it's, it's so much work to have to think of creating institutions as an artist. Ideally, it should be something that incorporates artists together. Um, but I think if each artist is trying to build community, as well as build on their art, it's a lot of work.
Elena: But building this community, this infrastructure, this is what I see you striving for in all of the hard work you are doing, yes? (Yes.) How do you continue to be motivated to do this very challenging work?
Poetra: Yeah, I, I it's challenging. And there are definitely some days that I don't feel like doing it, um, I will be honest. But again, I think the motivation really is, I always use my parents as examples. My mother is an artist in every way, because my mother and she's multi-faceted, my mother can paint, she can sew, she can draw, she is a good orator. I imagine what she would have, the heights, which other boxes she would have excelled in, if these structures existed visibly in her community for her to join.
Same with my father, my father is an excellent writer. And he still writes without any motivation. He's not going to publish. He's not going to... he writes and shows it to the kids, and that's it. And I just, I just wonder what their lives would have been like if these structures existed. And if we have more institutions, it means we have more talent, more people, at least searching within themselves, if they are capable of being artists. And I think everybody deserves that option to question if they are an artist or if they can do this. And that environment has to exist for them to question.
Elena: Ok, so paint me a picture of a Ghana that reaches that full potential, that nurtures those kinds of institutions. Like, what does a Ghana with a fully developed arts infrastructure look like to you?
Poetra: A fully developed arts infrastructure will look like a Ghana, a progressive Ghana. It will look like a Ghana that -- doing, and not just talking. If we had a great infrastructure, it would mean more people would be able to be part of the conversation.
It would mean that we will have the tools to create more prototypes. Not to say that there won't be mistakes or everything will be perfect, but it means that we will be doing things. And then we can have an actual analysis and say, this works, this doesn't work. So a Ghana with an art infrastructure will mean a larger accessibility, and more output.
Elena: So how do you think you get there, to this future of supportive community that you are envisioning for Accra and for Ghana? Can you see that future?
Poetra: Yeah. I, I have to see that future. I see that future not only in, in the work that I am doing, there are also other artists in Ghana who are also doing that work in their different fields. And I, I think, it gives me hope. And like I mentioned, one of the things that really, really affirms that the work I'm doing is important is, when you have like a year, for instance, in Black Girls Glow, I think for every year, there has been at least one girl who is also invested in community. Even in the smallest ways.
And for me that affirms that the training that they get, even if it’s for a few days or a few weeks, or the community that they find when they become part of these things, it triggers something. And I think that’s the meaning of community. And what it takes is consistency, and good work.
Elena: And how do you see the role of literature, or tools within the literary world, to help you envision this future you see for the arts infrastructure in Ghana?
Poetra: Literature is a powerful tool that has been used before us and will be used after us, and is still being used. And in Ghana, I think one of the things that literature has been used for is as a way to get heard. And it's seen in all forms, whether it's on Twitter, whether it's a news outlet -- writers, journalists, artists are using literature to communicate.
They're using literature in order to archive. To archive everything that's happening. So much, one of the things that Ghana has a problem with is, so much of our history doesn't include women. But it doesn't mean women didn't exist. And literature is one of the ways in which we can correct the past. And so archiving both in the present and in the past is also happening in creative ways.
Literature has been used to work through our trauma, not just to archive and write, but to work through our trauma, both in the present and in the past. And it's also been used to imagine the future. What would you like the future to look like? What would you want a better Ghana to look like?
Musical Interlude: Bodies by OneBeat 2016 Fellows / Rosie Tucker & Poetra Asantewa, featuring Benjamin Jephta
Elena: Thanks so much for listening. This episode was produced + edited by Nyokabi Kariũki and myself, Elena Moon Park, with essential help from Charlotte Gartenberg and Kyla Rose Smith. It was mixed by Zubin Hensler. Thank you also to Ria Boss for her contribution. We heard clips of interviews with Ama Ata Aidoo & poetry from Maya Angelou. Most of the music you heard was composed and performed by Poetra Asantewa, along with tracks from the Black Girls Glow residency program, and the OneBeat 2016 global music exchange, plus original tracks by Nyokabi Kariũki and Angelica Negrón. Visit our website for a full playlist at www.1beat.org.
If you enjoy the OneBeat Podcast, please check out the first season of Voices of Exchange. -- a podcast featuring the stories of 10 State Department exchange alumni who are seeking to make a difference in their communities – from a scientist turned Disinformation Warrior, to an award-winning documentary filmmaker, to a medal-winning para-triathlete. New episodes are released every other Wednesday. You can find them on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, and other major platforms, or at alumni.state.gov.
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The views and opinions expressed by our guests on this podcast are their own, and not necessarily those of the ECA, Bang on a Can, Found Sound Nation, or any of its employees. OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with Bang On A Can’s Found Sound Nation.