I recently had the thrill of interviewing Wiyaala. Prior to the interview, I had only seen a recent photo of her (as above), which I dismissed as a picture of a model like Alek Wek who was doing a piece on Grace Jones (oops!). But when I did my research on Wiyaala, I realised that this was in fact a new artist on the scene, a true performer who has set out to do her thing. I checked out her videos on Youtube; her latest ones such as “Make me dance” and “Rock my body”, the ones from her time with Black N Peach and that one from way back in the days as Noella. I am sure if you took the time to view her videos, your mind would race with the same questions that sped through mine.
Yes! There has been a massive step change from the girl who was, especially in her video, Dannu, to the fierce and highly sexualised, androgynous, pint-sized image of the African Lioness she is today. There is something seemingly naughty about her, or should we say her performances. But her smile, revealing that gorgeous gap in her teeth, is unmistakeable; playfully genuine. She uses what she’s got and capitalises on her androgynous features. Even my four year old was captivated by her.
“Who is that, mummy?”
“It’s Wiyaala sweetie.”
“Is she a boy or a girl?”
“She is a girl. Look at her hair. Do you like it?”
“Yes I do, I think she is very cute.”
On her music? Her voice is bold and powerful, the timbre distinguished, the notes seem to just roll out of her throat in rich resonance. By far I would have to say that my favourite is her latest release, “Make me dance”; it is beautiful, the song gives me goose bumps. However you perceive her, there was no mistaking her world view and answers to those questions running through your mind. My interview with Wiyaala shows her candid perspective: this is the music business.
1. For those who do not know you, who is Wiyaala?
Wiyaala in my own tribal language means I am “the doer”. I’m a Sissala from the Upper West of Ghana, West Africa and I grew up in a small village called Funsi. I’m also known as “the young lioness of Africa” and that name was given to me by my manager. Why? Well, I think it’s because I roam around roaring a lot!
2. No doubt you have heard this before but your strong natural features, image and persona are reminiscent of Grace Jones. At the same time your energy, spirit and demeanour through your dancing and personal style portrays your commitment to your authentic “African-ness”, much like artist Angélique Kidjo. Would you agree and would you say either of them have been an inspiration in any way?
Yes, it’s true. People are always saying that I remind them of Grace Jones. And to be perfectly honest, I love it! What African girl would not want to be compared to that icon of style and personality? I saw her slap an interviewer on Youtube because he turned his back on her! She is definitely an influence, but I am also my own person and have my own unique “African” style and look. Grace Jones grew up in Jamaica and the USA and I grew up in Africa. That alone means we are very different. Angelique Kidjo has certainly inspired me because not only is she a wonderful and charismatic singer, but she supports education and personal development for girls and women in Africa through the Batonga Foundation which she started many years ago.
3. You seem to come out as anyone you want to be. I note the stark contrast between the image you portray in your videos “Dannu” and your latest work in “Rock my body” and “Make Me Dance.” The former being a soft and traditional feminine girl as expected by most African societies and today, going against the grain to be overtly hot, sassy and sexual; and unapologetic about it. Who is the real Wiyaala and why did you take steps to change your image?
Yes, I think I can be anyone I want to be in a song. It goes back to when I was a small girl in the village. There were not many TVs in those days and we used to creep round and peek through the windows to watch a neighbours TV. I was always fascinated when I saw clips of Madonna or Michael Jackson. Then we would go back home and imitate them. I was the best! I always felt I could be like anyone of those stars. To be honest, I’ve always been a star. I don’t mean to boast, but when I entertained friends, family or the public with my singing and dancing they have always loved to watch me. It’s been the same thing all the way up to now. And I never get nervous before a performance. I might pretend to be a bit shy, but don’t be fooled. I do it to test the crowd in front of me. Honestly, you could put me in front of the Queen and I would just do what I have been doing all my life. So when you see me as being as soft and feminine, it was just what was expected by those around me at that time. As for the hot, sexy moves now, it’s showbiz – a performance – which I have always loved doing. The image is like a snake’s skin which you shed every now and then to reveal a shiny new skin! As for the real Wiyaala? I am still too young to know who I really am. I know where I came from and I never forget that. I hope I will mature into the kind of person who can help make the world a better place. God has given me real talents – the rest is up to me.
4. Who is your inspiration?
The inspiration in my life is my mother. We are four sisters by the same father. My father moved on and married more wives. So we managed. But it was my mother who was always there to tell us bedtime stories, pick the lice from our hair, make us go to school, find food for us and encourage us to be ourselves. She also taught us moral values and that has helped me in the music business as well as ordinary life. Now she is older, I am so happy that my small success has allowed me to start building a house for my mother. Last year we laid the foundations; this year we have built the walls; next year by God’s grace will put the roof on. That’s how we do it. Block by block.
5. Do you have any African artists and musicians as role models?
Well, I’ve already talked about Angelique Kidjo. But I would also mention Yvonne Chaka Chaka because she has never forgotten where she came from, Miriam Makeba because she stood up for what she believed in (I love singing her song Pata Pata) and Brenda Fassie because she didn’t care what people thought of her. I would also say that I admire the way P-Square have handled the business side of their career.
6. How would you describe your latest single, “Make Me Dance” in terms of genre and what the song means to you? Did you write the song?
As a small girl, songs were just songs. I didn’t even know what genre meant. Now, I’m an artist and I understand that the listeners want to know what’s behind the song. I take that as a great compliment. Make Me Dance is about the joy of a woman openly acknowledging her most passionate sexual desires within a loving relationship for the first time. It is of course a little about me, but I won’t say where, when or with whom! I wrote the song in my head as I was hanging out the washing on a fine sunny day. I went upstairs to my room and put some lyrics on paper. Later, I went to Genius Selection studio in Accra and sang the words and melody to Gideon and he came up with arrangement. Most of the lyrics are in English, but I sing part of it in my local language as well. I think the song reflects both my “African-ness” and my exposure to western music. We are seeing all the time a collision between Africa and world influences in all aspects of culture, business and our daily lives. We later sent the stems to Bill Delia in Los Angeles who refined the sound for international release through JTV Digital. It’s an Afro-Pop song, which I hope has a feel-good factor about it. You see…I was feeling good when I wrote it!
7. How are you coming to terms with your success?
I don’t think of myself as successful. If I was to do that, I would be walking around saying to myself: “Wow! I’m successful!” No, no, no, no….I can’t do that! Well, people do recognise me in the street and I stop and say hello! I take pictures with them and so on. Often I can see that people feel happy when this happens. So it’s a good feeling. Also when I’m off duty, I don’t really wear make-up or dress up. So when people see me, I’m just Noella. I know that when the time comes to climb the stage, I will become “Wiyaala, the young lioness of Africa”.
8. You “need a man to rock your body.” Is there any room for romance at this point in your life?
Ha-ha! “And if he’s ugly, I don’t mind”! Yes of course. We all need some romance in our lives. Luckily, the man in my life allows me to get on with my work. But for the moment, I have no plans to marry or start a family……yet.
9. On your work in standing up for women’s rights, what has this involved and what are your thoughts on what a woman’s basic rights should be?
In many countries, a lot of older traditional men think their word in the house is law. They think it’s ok to have more than one wife. They think it’s ok to have extramarital sex and the wife shouldn’t mind. They think it’s ok for the wife to go out to work with their baby on her back while, he, the father, is in a short-time hotel fucking a girlfriend. This is going to change. Women should and will have an equal say in the marital home.
10. What about feminism? Do you have any thoughts on feminism at all?
Yes, I think I am. But I haven’t yet made a big thing out of it. Here in Ghana, we want to embrace change and modernisation. And it is happening fast. But that can conflict with some of our traditional views. Even the mothers of girls still think it’s more important that her young daughter should get married rather than complete her education. So for me right now, feminism means encouraging young girls into completing their education so that they themselves can be the ones that make the choices in their lives. Too often, a young girl will be impregnated and from that point her life options are reduced to servitude in the marital home and back-breaking work on the farm. With my high profile, especially in the North of Ghana, I do sometimes get to speak out in the media to support the education of girls. I think this is a responsibility that goes with my career as an artist. I think as I get older, I may have more to say about this.
11. Favourite food
Fufu and garden egg soup with either grasscutter, antelope or dried fish.
12. Dream destination
I would love to go to Holland because when I was a child I loved the picture of the Dutch girl in traditional dress milking the fat cow next to the windmill. I used to think that windmill was a giant fan for keeping people cool! Holland seemed like it would be heaven on earth.
13. A message from you to young aspiring artists?
Music is a difficult career because it is a complicated business. It’s also very difficult to make any money out of it. While we may dream of being a Chris Brown or Beyonce, getting there is a one in a million chance. That’s the reality. However, no one should try to stop you providing you have taken time to get your education completed. I have been able to make some money out of live performance. But to get to that point, I have had to do countless free shows and learn hundreds of songs as well as write my own. Recording and producing your own songs is now much easier, but promoting those songs and yourself is a huge task. For that, you will probably need help. You must join a Performing Rights Society such as the BMI or SACEM to register your songs and protect the copyright in your work. If your manager will not arrange this or live performance work that pays you something, sack him and move on.
14. What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’ve got three things planned for release this year. An EP of “Club Remixes” in different genres for Make Me Dance. I hope it will be interesting because we have worked on four different styles, Nu-Disco, Breakbeat, Drum ‘n Bass and Trance. I’m also bringing out a 4 song EP of Afro-Pop songs and a DVD of videos and interviews of my journey as an artist so far. Next year I want to work on a full album which brings my tribal songs into collision with the western influences I have grown up with. Many of these songs contain messages from the Upper West of Ghana which reflect the Sissala outlook on life.
So who is the real Wiyaala? I don’t know, but there is something so endearing about her, something we, like many others in Africa, have in common. We both want to use the fruits of our labour to build that house for mama. And we get great ideas whilst hanging our washing on the drying line.
For anyone who might be interested in a preview, Wiyaala has kindly shared a link to some of her demo/work in progress on her Soundcloud page. It’s called Din Per Pener which translated from Sissala means Sun and Moon.
Please check out her latest video, “Make me dance” http://youtu.be/bHmguMTdeew
All photos have been sourced from http://wiyaala.com