Views From The Studio: Meet Producer & Songwriter Nana Kwabena
Just a few days before his earth strong in March, I join producer Nana Kwabena with a few of his friends at Negril, a Caribbean eatery in New York’s West Village. After wrapping up our interview a few hours earlier, we find ourselves discussing the origins of Afrobeats — the sound that has taken over music in recent years, thanks to artists like Drake, Wizkid and close friend and collaborator, Jidenna. As we chat, he explains how Afrobeats has a connection to Hiplife, a Ghanaian style that blends hip-hop and Ghanaian culture. But this is not the first lesson I would learn from the intriguing thinker.
Like a true leader, Nana leads most of the conversation we have as a group, a trait that pulsates through his veins with pride, thanks to his late grandfather, Chief Nana Atta Agyeman IV, who was killed during his reign in Sefwi Bekwai, Ghana. But like all origin stories, it’s best to start with the present.
Born Nana Kwabena Tuffour, the 31-year-old has racked up a number of producer credits for his work with John Legend and Janelle Monae, but his most known tunes derive from fellow Wondaland labelmate, Jidenna. The Brooklyn transplant co-produced the dynamic 2015 jam “Classic Man,” which elevated the artist into the mainstream and earned them their first Grammy nomination. He also helped create “Long Live The Chief,” which found further acclaim when it was featured on the Netflix-Marvel series, Luke Cage.
In February, Jidenna released his debut album, The Chief, filled with references to his Nigerian roots paired with political and social themes that might’ve been lost in translation by critics. The album jumps to different genres and themes like owning the party on “The Let Out” featuring Nana, falling deeper in love with “Bambi” and dismissing the opposition with “Long Live The Chief.”
During our chat, Nana explains he’s not bothered by the mixed reviews The Chief received because the project resonated with those who propelled Jidenna into the mainstream. Opening the same week as Future’s “surprise” album, The Chief debuted at the later chain of the Billboard Top 40, with over 14,000 equivalent album units sold. Despite the numbers, fan commentary ringed louder than actual album sales.
“The amazing thing about hearing the general public’s opinion is that while you can tell that the reviewer was just trying to connect it to the thing that they’re most familiar with, the comments section [say otherwise],” he explains. “That, to me, is telling. Even your own readership disagrees with you. What does that say? Now, having said that, I do think that even in today’s day and age, we live in such a popcorn culture where everything is immediate. Back in the day, when they would have great albums like Black On Both Sides or Illmatic, reviewers got to live with [them] for weeks before [a review] ever came out. And today, people drop albums out the blue, out the sky, without you knowing. Beyonce will do that. Future will do that. One day someone’s going to figure out how you can drink water and you just got Future’s new album and you didn’t know it. But the beauty is that it did resonate with the people that we want to talk to, and it’s great. In a lot of ways, it’s like morse code. There’s these situations where that’s the little wink to all these guys across the room and then there’s the others that aren’t supposed to see it. Then you guys are like,‘we got each other.’”
The family vibe Nana describes is also one he shares with the rest of his Wondaland family. To understand his view from the studio, you have to respect the vision around it. Founded by Janelle Monae, the label serves as a hub for artists Roman GianArthur, Alex Belle and Isis Valentino of St. Beauty, Jidenna, Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning of Deep Cotton and Monae herself. In an interview with Billboard in 2015, Monae explained her vision for the “revamped” label. “The label-as-family vibe is no accident,” she said. “We looked at what Puff and Jay Z have done, Jack White and Prince as well. But I’m also really inspired by strong women in business, like Mellody Hobson and Queen Latifah.”
While sitting at VIBE’s NY headquarters in an all-black get up paired with a black Fila cap, Nana describes his first creative process with Wondaland as a musical and spiritual retreat. “The focus wasn’t on music,” he shared. “The first two-three weeks we were down there, we weren’t really working on records, it was all about really just taking the time to find the synergy between all of these spirits. So, from Roman to St. Beauty to Janelle, herself to Jidenna, to Deep Cotton to Nate and Chuck. When you can actually find that venn diagram between all those people, when you go to make music, it just allows for you to create something that doesn’t sound like you’re trying. It literally just feels homegrown and organic, essentially.”
With his mind, talent and spirit leading the way, Nana opens up on finding inspiration through his Ghanaian culture, working with Jidenna on The Chief and plans to transcend his creative ear.
VIBE: How does your personal story fit into the synergy you and Jidenna have?
Nana Kwabena: Where do I even begin? You want to go into the origin story right now?
I’ll start with my grandfather. He was the person that I was named after. My grandfather was a chief in Ghana, in the western region. His story was that before he became the chief of the village, he was actually a pharmacist, so people would come to him and get herbs and medicine from him–kind of the medicine man, if you will. But over time, he became the chief of his village. A chief being no different than a mayor over a district, essentially. It’s like an Italian godfather kind of thing. He was a very, very principled man. He was someone that had a vision for his tribe that expanded very, very far. There’s this thing called the “Great Law of Peace” in order to become an Iroquois chief. You have to possess the ability to see seven generations—seven.
There was a certain faction of his elders that were against him because they’re realized they couldn’t control them for their own agenda. They would make all of these allegations to have him removed. We have thrones in Ghana, we call them stools. So they would have all these allegations to try to have him go to court and have him removed from the stool. The first one they made up was allegations of him going to people’s houses and taking soup off the stove to throw it on the ground, which is totally what people do, right? It went to court, was delayed for awhile, but temporarily for as long as it was in court, it had him off the stool essentially.
After the allegations were dropped, he goes back to the stool. Second time, they do another thing—make up some false allegations—same thing. He goes through this process again. The third time, he refuses to remove himself from the stool. He’s like, ‘I’ve let you guys do this enough. Naw, I’m staying by this stool. This is false. You guys are not going to be able to control me.’ So he was very, very resilient and stuck with his mission’s focus and the legend is that my father said there was a moment where he threw something to the ground. I don’t know if it was a staff, I don’t know if it was powder, I don’t know what it was. But apparently, there was some moment where he threw something to the ground and a herd of bulls stampeded the meeting place. This is what legend has, this is what he [my father] was told when he was young. So, I remember hearing that story and being like, ‘Wow, that was incredible.’ But then fast forward, what wound up happening is that faction of elders organized a militia to assassinate my grandfather. They killed him in his palace.
I remember coming back from New York for the first time actually and having that story. We were catching up and reconnecting because we had known one another for some time. This is at a time where he had just lost his father. He was also a chief in Nigeria and he was named after his father. Then here I am with my story about my grandfather being a chief and me being named after him, and I remember connecting with him on that level.
When I found out about that bull story, I came back and told him. Then he shared with me the story that wound up becoming the intro to the album.
He’s a tremendous person, a great spirit, and a great visionary. We come from families where you couldn’t be an artist. You had to be a doctor or lawyer. You had to be someone that it’d look like, at least on paper, that you were the American dream. So if you wanted to be a musician, it’s like, ‘Why don’t you just stay back in Africa and just play drums?’
Jidenna has aligned himself with social issues like police brutality and black pride. How does this affect the music you guys make?
We come from a line of studying people like Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and even MJ. These people were masters of their craft, masters of their sound, masters of their genre. But I think, in particular, they knew the way in which you could actually penetrate someone’s mind and introduce them to new ideas, but you have to get them to move first.
Lately, I’ve been calling it yoga. Music is just yoga to me right now. If I can just get your body to just stretch and move and open itself up, then your spirit becomes open, too. So for us, we love the era, particularly in dancehall music or reggae music or roots music. Often times it’ll be music you can dance to, but if you actually read the lyrics, and actually listened to what the f**k they’re talking about, they’re talking some revolutionary sh**.
Why do we divorce the two? Why is it such that you have to go to one place to get this or that, why can’t it be that we can get both at the same exact time? So, for us, our mentality is in all this trap dancing stuff, that’s cool. With afrobeats kind of coming into the mainstream, I feel like its people are slowly like, ‘Oooh, this is a little different.’ My goal is to get to the hips. Fela knew how to get it to the hips. For me, as a producer, I’m like, ‘Cool, we gotta just shift this whole thing because if I can get people’s bodies to move like that, we can say whatever we want.’ Even thinking of the song “Some Kind Of Way,” if you strip through all of the lyrics and just have the melody, what remains is the beat.
It sounds just like a pop-medium record, but on that same record we’re talking about, “No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter what religion you are, no matter what God you pray to, someone’s going to feel some kind of way about you.” Why live through that lens of trying to get people to actually take you and accept you instead of just being who you are? It’s just that kind of juxtaposition that makes the music magical. We just like to call it party and ponder music.
I loved the tribal aspect of the project. When I listen to the album, it feels so communal.
Yes, definitely! A lot of the records are created that way. It was similar to Eephus, so when Janelle had us come down to Atlanta, we were staying at Wondaland. And Wondaland is a wonderful place—grass carpets on the floor, grass walls, and vineyard kind of things, and they’ll have wine glasses on the wall. We were sleeping in teepees on the grass. It was amazing. We did yoga everyday, we were cooking for each other. The focus wasn’t on music. The first two-three weeks we were down there, we weren’t really working on records, it was all about really just taking the time to find the synergy between all of these spirits.
It’s crazy because, in today’s day and age, it’s so common for people to be distant from each other, or create music where someone makes a beat and the producer sends it to the artist. To me, sometimes you’ll hit some stuff. Most times, it’s uninspired. You can tell when something has… you can tell when you listen to a Michael Jackson record, right? You would hear him, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. In their relationship, all the different dynamics of what they were dealing with, you could feel a spirit and an energy in the music that was unlike no other. For us, we just kind of operate the same way.
What else is the Wondaland family working on right now?
There’s always secret projects. This is going to be the year of Wondaland. There’s a lot of amazing music coming out of Wonderland right now, it’s going to shift some things. So, I’m really, really excited about Rome, to John Arthur to St-Beauty to Janelle, herself.
Outside of that, I’m also working on my own project. Kind of a DJ-producer album. Just working with people that I’ve met along the way that I’ve really enjoyed their music. Outside of that, we’re working on a short film. Going back to narration and story telling and what not. I’ve always been someone who loved the idea of using music to tell stories that haven’t been heard before. There’s this story that I co-wrote with some friends of mine, actually, here in NY and it’s been around for about three years. We literally did our last shoot day on Sunday, so it’s going into edit. I’m going to be doing the score for it. It’s just another way for me to be able to tell different stories.
Is there anything else you want the readers to know about you?
Umm, man. Where am I at in life right now? Let me zoom out. 2017.
2017. It is the year for creative expression.
Definitely. You can’t even be the same kind of creative in a Trump world. I think that in a lot of ways, it’s been great. Now the goal to me is a long term strategy. When I talk about resistance, when I talk about marching, it’s just that one. I think that what I really love to do and work on is what we call the 100-year plan. How do we, beyond just telling these stories, really create something that shifts? Here’s the beauty of it, art is always the spearhead though. It always has to be the first thing that galvanizes people. You look at revolutions throughout time, it’s the thinkers, the writers, those people that world different than the world that they’re seeing. They spark the minds that come. To me, art plays such an integral role and it’s real.
I think for us, and what we’re trying to build, when we talk about that bridge back to Africa, it starts in the music first. But it sure as hell doesn’t end there. Over time, in this story, you’ll get to see the next couple of chapters. But that’s where my mind is thinking about in 2017. I’m thinking about 2027. I’m thinking about the next ten years after that.