Religion runs through Ghana’s veins. Almost two thirds of one of West Africa’s most prosperous country’s population goes to church every Sunday. And another twenty percent prays towards Mecca. You can take the Ghanaian out of his country, but you cannot take the religion out of the Ghanaian. Ohene, whose roots are firmly set in both Africa and America, combines the ardent godly devotion of his birth country with his love for hip-hop. The church should have more preachers like him.
God and me are not on the same page. I have been raised an atheist. I have seen, or read about, too many conflicts sprung from one’s true faith, which turned out to be the other’s poison. The rituals and rhetoric look fascinating, though alien to me. And most importantly: I do not appreciate referees telling me which rules to play by when they are not sure themselves how to interpret them.
That also means that I, as a reviewer, am not immediately the best person to assess one of these referees. Ohene, who grew up in both dusty Ghana alleys and the rough streets of Philadelphia, is not only an able MC. He also stands for Christian values like celibacy before marriage and disciplined church visits. But this is about hip-hop music, not about religious differences. And because Ohene mostly tells about his devotion instead of imposing it upon me, he gives me a chance to listen with an open visor.
A piano or organ is as indispensable on church grounds as a font or altar. Ohene`s bio discloses he started playing the piano in his early teens. It is great he learned to play Bach and Mozart, but more importantly: he has been able to implement his own key strokes into his musical compositions. On virtually any track of “Inner City Soul” the piano is alternately an underlying or dominant element of the beats, which adds to the consistency of the album. Ohene reveres this musical instrument so much he even composed a serenade for it. Oddly enough, I didn’t think the chopped key ensemble was really that good, especially if you consider the track is called “My Piano.” But this resident of the City of Brotherly Love makes up for that wholeheartedly:
“Ebony, ivory: you gotta feel what’s inside of me
Every time we separate, I’m at a lesser fate
I’m in a lesser place than where I was
When I was with you, now it’s official
The reason that I feel the way I feel when I miss you
Missing you so much whenever we don’t touch
You know I’m about go out of my mind: It’s so tough
The pain is so much: I’m going to need a word from Oprah
My life is over when I can’t stroke ya
If I can’t poke ya, then no one can poke ya
To poke ya is love, and it’s love I’m going to show ya
I’m your soldier, and you’re my army
And you’re my navy, baby: it’s crazy
The waves we create is amazing creation
With us there’s no way separating
It just don’t stop”
From a cynical, atheist point of view, I would say there is a lot of sexual frustration building up inside this principally celibate cat. I, however, cannot help appreciating his heartfelt words and original approach. Because of his church upbringing, the gospel influences in his music are hard to miss. The percussive strokes on “Say a Little Prayer” would suit the magnus opus of a church hymn well. Songs like “Move” and “Stupid Minded” sounded similar to soulful spirituals from the cotton fields of the old south. The second version of “Hello Stranger” even features the warm voices of female gospel singers to make it abundantly clear.
Besides providing him with inspiration, the church must have been a welcome shelter to Ohene. On more than one occasion, he speaks about personal poverty, the temptations of street life, and the loss of his crack addicted mother. (“I was raised by a dope fiend, and a grandmother that would smoke weed”). He addresses those heavy topics in a matter-of-fact way, but sometimes he cannot avoid sounding bitter about others deliberately making the mistakes he avoided himself, like on “Those Who Have Not”:
“Y’all brothers rapping about crack need to know the truth
My mother was the one you probably sold it to
I owe it to you the nights she was missing from tricking
Slitting her wrists in the kitchen and wishing she was deceased
Denise was her name
But Denise was your sister, so you should be ashamed
Denise is your auntie, so you should be to blame
Since Denise is your people, with needles in her veins
And now I am your brother, I am ‘Nise’s son
I know what it is to be broke, believe me son
I know what it is to think coke and feed me, son
I got truth: I don’t need these ones or need these guns
To feel safe when I walk these streets
I got peace; why do I need a piece?”
I’m not saying he has no right to be accusing, but it immediately turns him into a missionary instead of a musician. The word ‘should’ makes the hairs on the back of my atheist arms stand up. Added to that, his plea is probably to deaf ears. He should rather focus his attention on more positive things, but I think my ´should´ will make the hairs on the back of his Christian arms stand up.
“Inner City Soul” stays compelling due to Ohene’s voice control. For what I have been told, an apt clergyman knows how to explain the rules, but also brings his audience to ecstasy by straining and flexing his vocal chords. When I heard the forceful “They Killed Jesus” I could appreciate those qualities, even though I was listening to an MC instead of a preacher. Many an MC finds a rhyme pattern he feels comfortable with, and uses it up past the warranty date. The Philadelphian rhymer knows how to vary his syllables to keep them fresh throughout the album. His self-conscious voice with a minor sandpaper edge prevents him from sounding like the hip-hop version of the esteemed reverend Al Green.
As I never witnessed a sermon in person, this review is based upon hear-say. I do believe, however, a preacher playing the piano, who has the ability to snakecharm the crowd with his voice, is a welcome addition to the burgeoning Philly hip-hop scene. Go look him up in one of the local churches or concert halls if you get a chance to. I won’t take the words of this referee as the gospel truth, but I am happy to listen to him.