Senegalese-American artist, record producer, and business owner Akon recently caused a bonfire on social media when he dropped some divisive comments comparing African artists versus thereby reigniting the cross-cultural dispute of African descendants, widely known as the diaspora wars. Many viewed the “Sorry, Blame It On Me” comments as further deepening the wound and the difficulty of uniting African people from various ethnicities.
However, blessed are the peacemakers like Vic Mensa, born Victor Kwesi Mensah, and Chance the Rapper, real name Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, who are taking an uncommon route by building bridges instead of walls. Together, the hip-hop artists co-organized the Black Star Line Festival for January 6, 2023, in Accra, Ghana. Top-tier performers scheduled to perform are Mensa himself, Chance the Rapper, Erykah Badu, T-Pain, Sarkodie, Tobie Nwigwe, Asakaa Boys, and M.anifest who seek to band together with other performers throughout the diaspora.
“I’m half Ghanaian, and I’ve been visiting my family in Ghana since I was 11 years old. But it wasn’t until very recently, by 2020, that I started to go to Ghana alone and cultivate relationships in the spaces of music, fashion, and art,” says Mensa. “In those moments, I’ve started to recognize the immense privilege that I have to be in direct communication and conversation with my ancestry, as obviously something that’s been stolen by most of the people closest to me in life.”
Between 2020 and 2022, he traveled to Ghana and South Africa, where he noticed the tremendous divide between Black artists and their fanbase that exist on the continent. Mensa recalls meeting people who sported Savemoney tattoos, the name of his hip-hop collective.
“Hip-hop heads in South Africa, on podcasts and TV shows [who] know ten years of my music that I’ve never had the opportunity to interface with or build physically or even digitally. I was struck by the fact that we, as Black artists, perform Europe ten times over before we ever touched the continent of our origin,” he shares. Mensa believes the issue stems from a lack of infrastructure, and the suppression of traditional collaboration, not because the fans of his art do not exist.
He continues to elaborate on why Black artists skip touring the continent, which extends beyond their management team or record labels and primarily boils down to the erroneous, negative opinions many still retain against Africa regarding travel.
“Also, the lack of some of the touring infrastructure in the venues has created a situation where it’s just very rare that artists go and perform in Africa; if they do, it’s in South Africa, and though it’s becoming more frequent now [with] Kanye, Beyonce, Chris Brown, me, but the same is not true for the rest of the world,” he says. “As I said, I don’t think it’s the fault of just artists, managers, or record labels. Holistically, we’ve been led by propaganda to think of Africa as too far, too dangerous, and too scarce because by painting Africa in a demeaning light, [is] one of the primary tools of racist capitalist exploitation from its inception.”
“In many ways, the divide between us has been manufactured, and so when I was in South Africa in 2021, I had the concept to do a festival to create a vessel [to] bring Black artists to perform on a continent. Then, when I returned to Ghana in December 2021, I started to imagine it as a festival. One of the first people that came to mind to perform and be involved was Chance,” he discloses.
Mensa invited his friends to visit him in Ghana, and unexpectedly Chance was the only one to reach out to him to take up his offer. Together the musical comrades re-discovered Mensa’s home country and the relationships that the “Metaphysical” emcee had fostered. Throughout his trip, he continued to marinate on the concept of a possible festival that he wanted to serve as a conduit between Black Americans and their African counterparts, and Chance immediately came on board.
“He has experience producing a large-scale festival in Chicago, around his “Coloring Book” album, so it all made sense,” Mensa adds. The Black Star Line Festival borrows its namesake from the shipping company founded by Marcus Garvey, Jamaican-born Black nationalist, and pioneer of the Pan-Africanism movement, who wanted to unite all Black people. The concert will take place in Accra, Ghana, and Mensa explains that it was the ideal place because the capital city serves as “a gateway to the continent.”
“Ghana has been, from its birth, a place of collaboration and invitation to the Black American,” he says. “Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King were at Kwame Nkrumah’s independence speech when he led the nation to be the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve independence from the colonial powers. Maya Angelou wrote a book in Ghana, and Malcolm X spoke in Ghana in that timeframe.”
In 2019, Ghana kickstarted a travel campaign called the “Year of Return” to encourage members of the Black diaspora to explore the country as tourists in hopes they would make it their home. The African nation also is offering citizenship to Black Americans and those from the Caribbean as part of its “Beyond The Return” initiative.
“Ghana’s history, in conjunction with myself being Ghanaian, just made so much sense as the birth of the festival. One of the primary misunderstandings between Black Americans and Africans of the continent is Black Americans feeling like Africans do not accept or consider us to be of them,” Mensa says, bringing to light the discord that has plagued the diaspora for years. “Ghana from its birth has positioned itself and shown it prioritizes the collaboration and invitation of Black Americans and Kwame Nkrumah said, ‘You’re not African because you were born in Africa, you are African because Africa is born in you.'”
Mensa holds to the idea that mending the divide between Black Americans and Africans has to start with conversations, collaborations, experiential learning, and deconstructing the racist views ingrained in the minds of either tribe. In addition, both groups must unite and build businesses together and acknowledge each other inalienable similarities as well as our unique differences.
“At the end of the day, all of this divide between us is a tool of our oppressors, it’s manufactured, divide and conquer; you can’t put Black Americans in line with Africans and say we are not of one origin. Human history is so much longer than the last 500 years, and to be detached from the source for 500 years does not negate the hundreds of thousands of years that every Black Americans’ ancestors spent in Africa. There are many misunderstandings on both sides and to counteract those acts of propaganda is one of the main missions of this festival,” he demonstrates.
Black people throughout the diaspora reconnecting with Africans can be mutually beneficial for everyone economically by establishing relationships for trade and entrepreneurial ventures. American entertainment and music are one of the nation’s major exports and have resulted in connecting ties with Black people globally. Mensa recalled five years ago; it would be unheard of for his neighborhood friends to vibe to African music. However, Afro beats have taken over the airwaves, and barriers are coming down with artists like Tems, Burna Boy, and WizKid. He even notes that many of his cohorts from Chicago who are involved in fashion and branding are spending time in Ghana and building businesses. Mensa acknowledges the late Virgil Abloh, who connected with young designers and cultural movers, helping them grow their brands.
With Revolt as a partner, concert attendees will participate in events, lectures, and panels centered around education, enrichment, and cultural diffusion the week leading up to the festival.
“Ghana has some of the world’s premier Black painters right now. There are some art events, discussions with painters, and art exhibits. They’re going to be comedians, soccer match activations, civic engagement, [and we may] give out a home to a festival goer, and so I’m sure we’ll make an event out of that,” he lists, building on his altruistic endeavors by also constructing clean water facilities.
“We’re building 3 Boreholes in different communities in Ghana to provide clean drinking water; the first being the Asokore Zongo in Koforidua where my family lives, which is already built. The other locations are a nearby community called Efiduase and then our ancestral village in the Volta Region Amedzope,” Mensa said in an official statement. “Most people in communities like this in Ghana experience constant water borne diseases.”
His chief intention is to rewrite the extraction that has been the history of outside intervention into Africa enacted by European and American colonization and Black American powers. He identifies that when people would come to Africa, and presently, they take what they want and leave, “I wanted to make sure that within this festival, we’re also bringing things to the table that will be there beyond the end of this event, and that we’re providing and not only taking.”
While the Black Star Line Festival is only one day, Mensa has visions to host it as an annual concert that travels throughout the continent and the Caribbean. He also wants the festival to catalyze the decolonization of the traveling movements of Black people. Another one of the festival’s partners, United Airlines, is offering a 5-10% discount on airfares to Ghana up to January 17, 2023, using a discount code.
“At the same time, there are people that saw our United Airlines partnership or discount and where like, ‘man, we ain’t going to Africa’ or internet guys that saw it and be like, ‘look, these [N-words] ran all the way to Africa, they gonna be performing for three goats, a baby in a loincloth and a chicken,'” he laughs at the pitiful ignorance. “It’s a lot of work to be done because you don’t erase centuries of manufactured confusion overnight.”
Beyond the festival, Mensa will release his sophomore studio album on Roc Nation in early 2023, featuring production from Grammy award-winning Nigerian producer Bongo ByTheWay and will star in the drama African/American set for principal photography in South Africa produced by Academy Award winner, costume designer Ruth E. Carter of Black Panther, Coming 2 America. The film follows the rise of South Africa’s hip-hop scene during the post-apartheid renaissance period.
“I met a brother named Sid Money when I was in South Africa through a close friend of mine, who used to live in South Africa for a time, and I was informed about the project and the story of Pro Kid, who was the greatest South African rapper that ever lived in many people’s opinion. The creation of his seminal album “Heads or Tails” was, in many ways, a collaboration with his manager, this American guy named Sid Money. So it was this collaboration of an American and an African that helped one of Africa’s greatest emcees realize his potential,” he says. “I thought the project aligned with my mission and that it was spotlighting the exceptional accomplishments of the African continent, it was hip hop, and it also showed the collaboration between us as Black people globally can lead to beautiful things.”
For more information please visit www.blackstarlinefest.com