In the afternoon, when sand wanders in the breeze and a dazzling sun falls through its pink haze, the mountains of Akosombo, Ghana, resemble Eden. It’s here, where dense bush paints the foothills deep green and mountain rock climbs out of wide river valleys, that Fuse ODG’s New Africa Nation began.
A steady fixture in the UK charts, the 30-year-old singer uses the spotlight like others rarely do, to forward a rousing pan-African vision, one with people “all fuelled by developing a love for Africa”. It is for those born in Accra and Marrakech, Lagos or Cape Town, or those like me, born overseas to parents who found homes in new lands, voluntarily or otherwise. “It’s like Marcus Garvey said,” Fuse tells me. “‘A people without a knowledge of its history is a like a tree without its roots.’ If we can learn our history through visiting where we’re from we’ll understand that we actually come from royalty, that our history is full of leaders.”
Leader is a fitting title. He’s a flag bearer for Afrobeats, one of the leading genres in west Africa: a meld of old African highlife rhythms, new western rap and R&B melodies. It’s the music of the continent’s youth, and has germinated in far-flung regions like Britain, where the sons and daughters of African immigrants have warped the music with the sounds of their surroundings; his own tracks have reached the UK Top 10 four times, and earned a fan in Ed Sheeran, who co-wrote Fuse’s single Boa Me.
Born in Ghana, he grew up on an estate in south London, a tough place where he saw friends killed and discriminated against, where “even though I’m a happy person,” he says, “I was most likely to have a down time in the UK. You step into someone’s institution or building, and you get treated a certain way, it’s not nice. It makes you feel less of a human being.”
Ghana was calling, and when he returned in 2011, he had an awakening. “I saw a whole new Africa that I had never seen on TV,” he tells me. “You’re just a human here, you don’t feel like a minority. It feels like home. That’s the energy I got from coming back: peace of mind.”
He partnered up with local producers and began putting Ghana on display, taking the local Azonto dance global: a rhythmic thrusting and jerking of arms, ankles and hips that he packaged into a hit single, resulting in the kind of viral fame you can’t construct in record label boardrooms. Subsequent singles Million Pound Girl and Dangerous Love both reached the UK Top Five, taken from his album TINA, which stands for This is New Africa. Africa animates everything he does, his admiration for the continent never wavers. “I love myself more now,” he says. “Africa has done that for me, and if you love yourself you’ll be able to love other people; you value them how you value yourself.”
This sentiment is perhaps why he turned down the Band Aid 30 single with Bob Geldof in 2014. He found himself unable to recognise the Africa painted in lyrics like “no peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa”, and wrote in the Guardian at the time: “I, like many others, am sick of the whole concept of Africa – a resource-rich continent with unbridled potential – always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken.” New Africa Nation is designed to change that image.
Its first physical outpost is a primary school, carved into a clearing on a mountain in Akosombo, and raised by Fuse ODG’s team for the students scattered across the valleys. It’s early January, the sky is bleached blue, the birds screech in the trees, and Fuse has returned to the school with some friends. They are gathered for a day of “nation building”: to paint the classrooms, raise awareness and funds for the secondary school under construction, and to contribute to the community before enjoying the night life at Fuse’s inaugural music festival days later, also entitled TINA.
“We need to have conversations about how we can build the continent,” he says, standing on the mountain, speaking to the students and his convoy of friends, “and have successful businesses – from schools, to festivals, to everything else that we’re building together as a community, as black people. With that we’ll be self-sustainable.”
This is the motivation for his new album, a 13-track rallying call. The album opens with Bra Fie (“come home” in the Ghanaian dialect of twi), an animated duet with Jamaica’s Damian Marley, where Fuse wails: “Don’t forget where you are from … We are one.” It’s a show of strength and solidarity – Africans and Caribbeans arm in arm, separated by water but bonded by blood and history.
“Your family members, you need to reunite with them,” Fuse says. “It’s so important for them to come back home because, spiritually, this is where they’re from. Their soul is here, their ancestors are from here. If we move together then we’re stronger as black people.”
This is the mood carried through the album. Stirring, rhythmic melodies are ministered over jazzy Afrobeats production, with lyrics that call out to his fellow Africans to link arms and build a new nation from within – featuring a twi-speaking Sheeran on Boa Me, a song they recorded together after a similar trip to the school in the green mountain valleys.
Days later at the TINA festival in the capital city of Accra, people flock to an arena by the beach, to a stadium shaped like a disc, its far outer rim lapped gently by the tides of the Atlantic. The atmosphere inside is everything Fuse had wanted: Africans of all kinds celebrating the sounds of the diaspora.
We let the hours wash over us, dancing to UK Afro-swing and Ghanaian Afrobeats, watching British-born artists like Kojo Funds and Skepta alongside African giants like Joey B and D’Banj. Fuse comes out in traditional Kente cloth, serenading the crowd, his vision for Africa slowly falling into place. His music sounds like sunshine: the kind in Akosombo, that settles deep in your bones. When Fuse’s songs play, smiles spark across straight lips and feet break into dance; it is the sound of joy bottled into three or five minute packages.
I stop by his house the day after, a sprawling mansion in Accra. Fuse sits in his home studio to reflect on the success of the shows and the schools. “This would have never happened years ago,” he said, a long white robe covering his frame, “because we never valued Africa, we were not really proud to be Africans. We wanted to disassociate ourselves, due to how they perceive us in the media: that Africa is a jungle, people are dying.”
He feels the narrative of the continent had been shaped outside its borders, in Western newspapers and TV ads, that judge Africa on a scale where money is equated with happiness, and perceive that the continent has neither. “It’s easier to take from someone if the person doesn’t value what they have,” he continues. “But we come from a place of peace, a place of love, and that in itself is a powerful weapon to be able to face the world with. Knowing where you’re from can build who you are.”
These were more than feathery fantasies yelled behind closed doors. The nation was underway, the schools they envisioned were occupied or under construction, offering up education to kids who had gone without. Across the country, the supermarkets were lined with some of his products like the ‘Nana Dolls,’ black play dolls intended to foster an early appreciation of dark skin tones for young black boys and girls.
There were conferences too, with Fuse on the chair, economists and politicians on the panel, where Africans from all over – Birmingham, America, Jamaica – who had recently relocated to Ghana could speak on their experience of returning home, could voice their frustrations, their joy, their obstacles. Work was also underway, with Fuse and his contemporaries, for a Black Star flight, the first direct flight connecting Africa and the Caribbean, which would at some stage, soar between Ghana and Jamaica, the first step in “logistically putting a system in place where we can travel freely to see each other.”
It was the macro and the micro, schools in remote valleys and flights across the oceans, dolls in supermarkets and festivals by the sea.
“One step at a time,” he says, “We’ve come a long way. But you’ve got to be patient. Sometimes you’ve got a vision but it takes a while for reality to catch up.”
For now, he will push on with the mission, will continue relaying the reality of Africa to the world, while still building the continent from within, the music a vessel for a mission much larger than himself. “Music doesn’t need a passport to travel,” he says. “We’ll use it to gather our people together. Come to the school. Let’s build, let’s build.”