Interview with the Godfather of Contemporary Spoken Word Poetry in Ghana— DK Osei-Yaw

“It’s funny how when I look back people used to want to make me believe that it was impossible to do what I was gifted with and still make a living from it like a doctor, lawyer or banker would live conveniently off their professions.” -DK Osei-Yaw

 

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Girdblog: Good to see you DK Osei Yaw. I cannot believe how long it has been. It’s been over a decade and to think that a decade ago Spoken-Word was practically unknown in Ghana and yet you were so passionate about it and were organizing one gig after the other and opening spaces up for poets you met, and through those initiatives we have so many amazing platforms and organizations today like Ehalakasa, etc. Things are happening and we have Spoken-Word artists that we can be proud of because it took somebody like you to start this whole thing and to be so passionate about it. So I think that the true story of Spoken-Word in Ghana -how it all began- has to be told. You have created an amazing legacy and I feel that you are not being celebrated enough. So, today we are correcting the facts, for those who do not know, DK Osei Yaw is the godfather of Spoken-Word poetry in Ghana. So tell us, what drove you back then to carry on with Spoken-Word events in places like Hypnotic (now Bella Roma), Smoothy’s and New Morning, even when it wasn’t as cool as it is now?

DK: Thank you so much. I’m so humbled. Thank you for the recognition. God bless you. We give God all the glory for what He has made of us. When you talk about drive you realize, that it was something that was given you, it’s something that God puts inside you and it’s up to you to discover it. Once you discover it you don’t even need to struggle, you just keep going until you’re given a different assignment. At that phase of my life, that’s the kind of assignment I was given; to come and create platforms and connect people; just to start it.The dream was to help people discover what they loved doing and also make an impact doing it.It was a great opportunity because most people love poetry; people love poetry. So, that’s the drive and it was the time for that, so God used me.

 

Girdblog: I know that you’re still creating. I know that you’re still imparting your knowledge by teaching but somehow we don’t hear so much about you, anymore. What have you been up to?

DK: I’m in church. I’m serving in the church being trained in spiritual leadership and that takes a lot of time, of course, that is my life. But artistic-wise I am running Gaari For Tor Ventures, a culture, music & art consultancy. It was time to make a practical impact with the gift, and so the right structures had to be put in place in order to brand and institutionalize some of my original cultural, musical and artistic concepts for the experience and blessing of my generation and even generations beyond. You agree with me Nana that the vision for a gift is beyond just the individual.

 
Girdblog: Indeed. Do you find there is a connection between your current calling, if I may call it so, and your calling as a poet, as a Spoken-Word artist, as a creative person? Is there any connection or you feel they are two different passions?
DK: Like I said, discovery is what really drives me. Discovery of what has been put inside of me. It does not have to be two different passions when you discover the one gift that has been put inside of you. It’s with the same energy and love that I’m being raised in spiritual leadership. You rightly mentioned earlier that through those initiatives spearheaded by me, we now have so many amazing platforms and organizations today like Ehalakasa, and you will agree with me that Ehalakasa and of course Poetry in Motion, Smoothy’s Expressions, Akoo-strophe and many more of those platforms, which time will not permit me to mention, were not only for poets, but also helped groom the talents of actors, singers, guitarists, dancers, authors etc. many of whom are in the mainstream now, yet it was the same drive derived from Spoken-Word that led to the creation of these platforms.

Girdblog: Has the church taken you away from the creative field? Have you said goodbye to us or would you say you have several gifts you’re using at the same time?

DK: Not at all, I haven’t said goodbye to you. As a matter of fact, I get the chance to minister – that is to perform – a lot in church. Even today, I was scheduled to perform at church but, service had to be closed early so we rescheduled the performance.There’s a huge platform for Spoken-Word in the church or if you will ministry that I am a member of, and being known to be a Word oriented Ministry i.e. The Word of God, it was almost sporadic how they caught on to Spoken-Word – like glue! I mean I minister at almost every major program in the zone unless I think I am not spiritually prepared. And as a matter of fact, I performed to my first live audience of 24,000 in this ministry, at the LCA Arena in Lagos. My leaders and Pastors are truly pleased with my gift with words and many members of the congregation especially the youth are increasingly growing popular with the art form. It is a global ministry with branches worldwide and very well resourced therefore I am very blessed to share my career with my wonderful brothers and sisters in the Lord. As a matter of fact, I don’t even go to perform at Ehalakasa and all the other programs like I used to anymore; I think that was a phase of my life and now I need to use the gift where I am led. I can’t put a price on the gift, but I have to choose where I go so I can enhance it and impact more people. So I choose my environment. Even shows where you see me outside of church are carefully and prayerfully chosen but I haven’t left. And like I explained earlier, I’m also institutionalizing, like Gird Center I believe in institutions so that’s part of what I’ve been spending time working on, putting in place the structures to build that institution. Sometimes your vision can be quite sketchy but you know where you’re going because every day you’re seeing new things and being given fresh ideas that cause your brain to make more neuro-connections.

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Girdblog: That’s good to know. Are you aware of what is happening in the Spoken-Word arena? What are your thoughts on the state of Spoken-Word in Ghana and our many stars?

DK: That’s such a lovely and important question to me because it shows how Spoken-Word is more pervasive in Ghana than many even think. For me, the frequency has not changed.The industry has really grown I must say, into what I call, ‘the several identifications of how young people passionately feel is the best form or way of expressing themselves through words and even beyond.’ This has improved branding which has also improved professionalism and is already leading to the preservation of the classics that were created through us. It’s amazing sometimes the people who knew you as a Spoken-Word artist before you entered the church. Now, as members of the same church and by the grace of God, people come to you every day, asking for their children to be trained because they are drawn to the gift of God on your life and want their children to be like you. Even today some parents brought their children to me and wanted me to train their daughters in the art of Spoken-Word. They really like it.

Girdblog: This is amazing because typically poets and writers are seen as the rascals. And for you to be taking this art form to the church, which can be quite conventional and closed to new ideas, is an incredible thing. So, I have this question for those who might be interested. Those of us who’ve known you for a while, we could shoot an entire series of the different phases of DK. And maybe some people are waiting for this phase to pass. Is this a phase? Embracing so fearlessly, so openly, so confidently the idea of God and divinity and saying that this is what I want to use my life for? Because I’ve seen DK with flowers in his hair; I’ve seen DK in a skirt? [Now DK is laughing uncontrollably and playfully gestures to Nana and mouths, “off the record” as he waves his hand across his throat].Your other phases didn’t last this long and somehow you have sustained this new phase. So what changed, at what point and what threw you onto this path?

DK: [Still laughing and laughter gradually fades way] I always want to share the story because I love storytelling, and I like to listen to stories, and more importantly because I’m at the Gird Center which is a story brewing place. As we share the story we’re learning. So the whole thing happened from 2011 when I traveled to the Alliance Francais in Burkina Faso with Dela Botri and Ralph Karikari, both legendary highlife musicians. They were doing a project there and they asked me to come along and film. It was a very enjoyable trip, but I also saw some really crazy things. In OuagadougouI met two Liberians who were stranded and couldn’t go back to their home country. I bought them food. When we returned to Ghana I was closing myself off from the rest of society, staying indoors to recuperate because I got terribly sick from the Burkina trip and Mamasha, Poet Crystal Tettey’s mum’s soup was the first to begin to help me recover. Then I started reclining and studying more. It was like a time to study; I would spend time in my library at home where I dwelled then in a mountainous part of Accra. I spent more time studying, trying things out, writing new pieces, researching. I started to read the Bible again because I felt there was something amiss and then my faith was stirred up and so I read more about faith, somehow. And at the same time, I was studying the book “An Actor Prepares” by Constatine Stanislasky a gift given to me by UK trained actor friend Kwaku Boateng. That’s when I did that monologue, the extract from William Wordsworth poem “Michael”. That’s when it started. And as I was learning about faith, Stanislasky’s book spoke about knowing your character and how to prepare for your role by having faith and drawing from deep within you the right faith and correct emotion to depict every role. Somehow, I got to the Bible to find out more about faith and as I was studying, something happened, something supernatural happened. You know, my life has been supernatural and always will be. Maybe that explains the different phases; it’s just different levels of being supernatural. It’s like who I am really is inside and not who people saw on the outside, even though what was outside could be appreciated because it did really trigger something. It’s just been that particular experience that has always stayed with me when I began to discover, and I noticed that everything was coming from within than from the mind. Because I was just drawn to the truth; I wanted to know the next level for me, I told myself I was not just going to stay on this level, I wanted to know more about faith. I wasn’t just going to stay on this level. My faith tells me how my calling is really something beyond art. It’s a way, it’s a path, once you find it you keep moving, you never stop.

Girdblog: Talking about believing in something, and the possibility created once something is spoken, for somebody who does Spoken-Word, what do you think that the real power or role of Spoken-Word is?

DK: Awesome question. Yeah, it’s like I discovered, actually, for me it was an upgrade in the spirit. I must say that I feel more fulfilled as a Spoken-Word artist in the church due to how perhaps it does most justice to the art form that thrives on a message, and the spiritual art of it being words spoken to bring forth results in the lives of people. And I don’t think anybody is got it like the Gospel! No doubt the Gospel has the best message and the best voice to go with it aided by what is known as, ‘Rhema’ and the beloved Holy Spirit. I always emphasize at my workshop sessions that Spoken-Word is more an art form of sounds than of lyricism hence my statement that ‘poetry is the advancement of rap and Spoken-Word is the advanced form of poetry’. So in the church, we have the written word and the spoken word. The written word is called, ‘Logos’ and the spoken word is called, ‘Rhema’, that I’ve mentioned earlier both of Greek origin. Logos is the totality of the revelation of God through the letter of God’s Word, the written word of God, whereas, ‘Rhema’ is the Word of God for the now, the voice of God that shatters every doubt when it speaks upon inspiration by the Logos, the final Word of God for your situation. My first response was, ‘Wow, is this what is Spoken-Word here in church?’You mean I don’t just speak words to rhyme, or just speak words to entertain people, but as the people are listening to me my faith is backing each word so that as the words go out they search through and take away anything that’s harmful to their lives and actually build them and guide them to the way that I have found? And to even go to the church and discover that this is all so very real, I then knew how God wanted me to envision the gift of Spoken-Word that he gave me. There were many times that I didn’t even know where I was going, I was just doing it. I was enjoying it. I didn’t particularly want to become famous or popular. I was just doing it. I mean I’ve played with many people who are in the mainstream right now. But I didn’t particularly see it that way.

Girdblog: You are one of the few artists that I know are quite brave or willing to explore other art forms. I know you’ve done some installations, you’ve done performance events. You like to combine indigenous instruments; you do what someone may describe as crazy things but also creative things. So where does your courage to explore many things with as much passion come from?

DK: I am glad you asked this question and I think it will go far to respond to what many already believe and talk about, that my impact as an artist reaches far beyond just Spoken-Word and extends well into helping build a contemporary Ghanaian art scene and culture whereas also affecting creative thinking and expressions of this generation. It’s funny how when I look back people used to want to make me believe that it was impossible to do what I was gifted with and still make a living from it like a doctor, lawyer or banker would live conveniently off their professions. But now I am doing more than just making a living with this gift. I wouldn’t say that I proved them wrong, no! Because that mindset is negative plus you cannot blame anyone in particular for that. What I will say though is that as time went on I discovered that I was actually fulfilling a calling, which is to inspire people to do what they were gifted or blessed with or loved and still make a living from it – And it’s exactly the function my career plays even yet now. I know it is a rare thing to come out of University and make poetry your occupation, which is not to say I didn’t try getting a regular job. As a matter of fact, I was blessed to have had one of the highest paid jobs as a fresh graduate right in the year that I finished university but I went from being the best employee to the worst for lack of interest or boredom and I had to be fired. I should confess that till today I have never come across anyone who’s been fired from their job so beautifully- Haha! At one other job that I tried, I was told politely by my boss at some point that I did not look like an employee and she didn’t know what to do so I should decide between whether to stay or to go.Of course, you can guess which option I went for. Now I have no resentment against these people, I actually am very grateful to them for firing me because it helped me believe in my calling very early in my life. If you follow my presentation on TEDxLabone which you can find on YouTube, I explained how my career evolved from formulating words and presenting them on stage into a multidisciplinary career that includes art installations, short stories, performance art, consultancy, training, coaching music etc. I mean I have come from struggling to having a steady cash flow, to being fully booked the whole year from January to December consistently in the last 6 years, and even growing stronger. The steadiness of my career has even developed into a cycle which shows a very comfortable level of stability, Praise God!Ok let’s take a look at this for instance, my January to April is filled with processing my application for BaasaKro funding, BaasaKro is a yearlong project and that alone could take my whole year, but I also make time to make applications to tons of Art Festivals from around the world including Infecting The City in Capetown and most recent addition The Loveworld Music and Art Festival. At the same time, I am booked for art training workshop sessions, consultancy before Spoken-Word performances which is also a year long and even beyond. From August to May whilst studio production begins for BaasaKro, I am also heavily occupied in a yearly summer school training sessions with some partners in the creative industry. And from September to December I am finishing up short story collections and anthologies for prizes and at the same time my schedule opens in some institutions where my Djembe curriculum is adopted for training in equipping in the foundations of composition, whilst the end of the year is climaxed with exclusive crusade-focused live performances from me – this is even a summary, it doesn’t even include the engagements and cultural consultancy assignments that I get to do from clients all over the world. And even this year my consultancy has diverged to include some researched based music intervention in healthcare goals (music therapy) for which I spent time being trained in at the newInstitute of Music Therapy (IMT) in Ghana affiliated with the Maryville University in St Louis Missouri in the USA. I mean I don’t get to go to the studio to work on my albums as often as I used to, so a recording studio is actually near construction inside where I live. I consider this supernatural and by Grace, the way I have advanced in the very work of my calling i.e. my dream and vision and my purpose, instead of trying to feed myself and pay rent with the gift that God gave me – I consider myself very blessed and privileged to be enlightened in this special way and afforded the Grace to live like this, I thank God, I thank my mentor and teacher Dr. Chris Oyakhilome for the teaching of the life of dominion in Christ if one stands perfectly in the will of God for their lives. I thank my family and some very good friends and loved ones through whom God has channeled blessings to me all these years. You know that the more you go forward you realize that it’s all part of a divine plan. And if only you had known, but there’s time for everything so that’s where everything comes from. That’s where the beauty comes from, the longevity, that’s where it all comes from. It feels like I am growing backward every day, I feel forever young, as a matter of fact, I am forever young and so does the courage to explore. Abenkwan in the Speed of Light is an idea the Holy Spirit gave me many years before I actually carried it out, and it confirms that God’s Spirit is always with us; The provision for Abenkwan in the Speed of Light was remarkable, in many ways the project pioneered many things including the use of the drone in an outdoor performance art project. Thanks to Ace Photographer Steve Ababio whom God brought by for a timely intervention. God is always with you wherever you are; whether you believe it or not. I would like to say that no matter how significant my gift has been on the lives of people I am still a believer of making a more direct impact on them, even in my normal routine of things, because my future is far brighter than my present, past or anything I have ever done or achieved in my life. The future is full of visions of impacting more and more people, meeting the diverse needs of a globalized world and more especially advancing with technological trends.

Girdblog: So what were some of the things you used to do to perfect your craft in the early years, especially when you had to walk long distances from one gig to the next to make things work?

DK: I mean, during some of those walking moments I freestyled a lot and it helped me shape my lines and train my voice and my physique, and always got me looking fresh and young and fit. I mean, it was just a time that was meant to be, everything was perfect about it. I was just living in this peace. I was just rolling, just doing more. Let me just chip that in, when PY had G-String – that was in 2005 or 2006 at a place called Chelsea Place near Labone junction – we had this regular thing going on because we were still on campus and so I’d come along with these international students and go to the place and jam and perform so much then return to campus in a bus. One evening I was heading to Chelsea Place and when I’d just gotten around 37 military hospital, it started raining and I remembered I had no money in my pocket, absolutely nothing on me. I couldn’t even afford a taxi then but I didn’t feel like I was limited or anything, like my mentor Dr. Chris Oyakhilome says, ‘riches are not in things, riches and wealth are in you, and when you have this understanding nothing will intimidate you anymore.’Somehow I had so much on my mind to be drawn to that situation, the negative side of it. I just saw the positive and was like wow, this is good, let me just rehearse more what I’m going to do this evening. And then I walked through the rain from 37 military hospital to Labone junction, and when I got there the people were already waiting for me to perform and I just got to the mic and squeezed the water out of my clothes. I even have pictures. I remember one night there was this Burkinabe music band from which I started drawing my inspiration for the Djembe which was as far back as 2005 and 2006. So by 2009 I had played and toured with many different music bands that included Ghanaian talents such as Opoku Mensah and Frank Kissi. I have all the videos from that time. I need to bring them to the Gird Center. I’ve been looking for a place to deliver them.

Girdblog: Have you considered putting some of these experiences in book form?

DK: Wow, this is so prophetic. I’ve written down a lot of information in details and I have other materials. I get to add more to it when I have the time to do that. And the story writes itself. Once I sit down the story will just keep flowing until I can’t write anymore. But what will inspire me to finish such a work is if we do a project around that. We just need to find the time and discipline and someone like you Nana to direct the project or chair it then you can also motivate me to do a nice work by co-writing or co-working with you.

Girdblog: Thank you. So if you have a word for those who are actively pursuing Spoken-Word now what would it be?

DK: I have words but if I have a word I would say to everybody out there, all the young guys, like you said, who are gifted, who are doing things, taking it seriously. Actually, I should congratulate them because their conviction is building the industry so fast and as I said earlier, Spoken-Word is very pervasive in Ghana. I should like to mention a sister that I met in church who actually was the one through whom God opened the platform for me at church. She’s called Kuna Nyan, an awesome Ghanaian-Gambian sister who’s in the same church with me. Since Kuna and her siblings moved back to Ghana to be with their mum who is a medical doctor, she has been working for the church. In the Gambia, they used to organize all these poetry events. She is a poet. I’d like to say to everyone to discover the truth in you, discover the God in you. Give the words of the Bible a chance and you’ll be amazed. You know that it was given for a reason to liberate us from a lot of things in the system. Actually, mental strongholds about our successes, and about why we’re here and all that, you know. It liberates you from all that. And you just become and you enjoy life more. So yeah, I’d like to tell them to give the Word of God a chance.

Girdblog: You have this gift of picking up raw talent and it’s amazing. And you know, we probably would never have come to Ehalakasa without. So are there any memories of people that you shared the stage with or invited to any of your events that are still involved in the creative industry?

DK: The other time Billie Richardson put up a post of a photo she took from “Poetry in Motion” that we used to organize at Keith Osey’s Pictorialist at Osu in 2009 with Ama Owusu-Agyemang and Amy Ama. So Billie took a photo of Trigmatic and Stonebwoy, and a photo of me and RasBomba from that night and then she says, “Identify these people in the picture.” It was unbelievable. All these people I knew and still know. Crystal Tettey, Eugene Lee, Martin Egblewogbe, Mr. Black, E.L, Manifest, Efya, Sena Dagadu, Guru etc. It has been over a decade now and my story has just so many different sides; the whole Bless the Mic era; Akostrophe, PoetriGh Tone at Toni Manieson’s Jazz Tone, Bibie Brew’s New Morning, so many guys. I am still working with raw talents from infants to teenagers to young adults in multidisciplinary areas of art. Keep your ears on the ground for some remarkable projects. These guys are extremely gifted and so pure they will enchant you.

Girdblog: Yes, it’s so incredible. I can’t wait to see the next stage, how you’ll use your amazing talent to help other people and to create the world that you want to live in. I can’t say it enough, it’s a powerful legacy. I also think that Spoken-Word is successful now because of the spirit from which it was birthed; there was a lot of love and kindness from the movement that you started. You know all these people, Crystal, Black, Nii Lante, Martin Egblewogbe. There was genuine love. We’d hug each other, we’ll laugh, and we’ll drink together.

DK: Haha…Nana you guys are the superstars. I remember you, Crystal Tettey, who I really love. Crystal is amazing; she and her family. You know, the bond we had was deeper. That reminds me of the answer I gave at the Starr FM interview when they asked why poets don’t go commercial and I said, that imagine if you were giving birth to something from deep within you and you want to share it with the world, you’ll be careful, it will really touch you, the kind of words people will say about it and you’ll be careful what message you share. So in the commercial business, of course, a record label can ask you to write lyrics and get professionals to alter your lyrics in a way that they think will express their message. So a Spoken-Word artist creates from within and they cannot easily gamble with their inner selves. That’s why I never get tired. I don’t retire. I know I’m so rich even at my age; I’m so wealthy, more importantly, because I have discovered and believed what God put inside me through Christ. So anything else is a bonus. The most important thing in life has been found, so the rest just gravitates towards you. If it doesn’t happen now it’s only a matter of time. And I’m not in a rush because I am living in my prosperity and enjoying the moment. One of the fruits of the Spirit is patience; to have patience for God. He’s fine-tuning you. He’s training you. He’s teaching you to master hearing His voice. And you’ll just notice that He is what He is. “I am that I am.” And like my mentor says, ‘ what God wants to give you is not money, car, jobs, a wife or house or even healing, what God wants to give you is the Word of God in your spirit.’ When God asked Solomon what he wanted he didn’t say riches or the lives of his enemies, but he asked for Wisdom – and Solomon reveals that his father David taught him that Wisdom is the principal thing to seek. Wisdom has riches, wealth, long life, joy, happiness etc. and the Bible says that we have the Holy Spirit in us who ministers the wisdom of God.

Girdblog: This is wonderful. Thank you so much.
DK: You’re welcome. I should be thankful to God and to you, to be thankful to God for your life. I mean, to see such a role that you’re playing. I didn’t even know that we will come this far. But I’ve always had faith. I mean the reason why I called is that I’ve always known you’ll be there and you’ll be doing well, because I always send prayers your way. I mean, for you to be this channel, is simply just amazing.
Girdblog: Thank you, DK.

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